Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Clyde Walker & Saxa Vord

Clyde Walker was never posted to Saxa Vord and he was never in the RAF. However, he did visit the Station on a number of occasions. In the late 70's Clyde, and his then girlfriend Ali, worked for several years with an ex RAF serviceman called Bill Borthwick in Hertfordshire. Bill had completed a tour on Unst in the early 60's and Clyde remembers Bill mentioning a remote posting he once had and that he'd played in a band - the details didn't sink in at the time!:

Early in 1983 Clyde and Ali got married. They moved to Somerset a few months later when Clyde got a job with Thorn EMI. At about the same time Bill decided to return to Edinburgh, his home city. Clyde had joined Thorn EMI as a Quality Assurance (QA) Engineer but, when a planned project was delayed, he was assigned to another project known as ASR894 (ASR= Air Staff Requirement). For sensible reasons the scheme was known as ADLBS (short for Air Defence Ground Environment Data Link Buffer System). In July 85 Clyde was to gain experience of Unst for the first time when he was sent to perform a QA assessment on the recently installed ADLBS System at Saxa Vord.
He was scheduled to fly from Heathrow to Edinburgh and then transfer to a Loganair Flight to Shetland (a Shorts 330 to Tingwall and then an Islander on to Baltasound) As many of you will know airline schedules are not always dependable. The flight was late leaving Heathrow, Clyde missed his Loganair connection and had an unexpected night-stop in Edinburgh. He managed to get in touch with Bill by phone and it was only in conversation during that night out that Clyde discovered that Saxa was the place that Bill had referred to years earlier.  On completion of this trip to Unst Clyde returned to Thorn EMI and soon was reallocated to a new post:

" In 1986 I left the QA department and became the manager of the contract that had, by then, come into force for the support of the ADLBS (still at Thorn EMI).  I was therefore in charge of the task to replace the Link antenna / tower that had collapsed during the infamous storm of 1992 – although I wasn't part of the on-site team.  We had to get a new tower manufactured and used a spare Link 11 antenna for the replacement activity; meanwhile the antenna that had collapsed was returned to Somerset for refurbishment by the original manufacturer.  The Link 11 antennas don't look that big when they are up on the towers but they are over 9m long and weigh over 500 kg!"


It was a number of years before Clyde returned to Saxa:  "My next visit to Saxa Vord was in 2005, when I was part of the on-site team installing and commissioning an update to the processing equipment used in the ADLBS.  I still remember walking up the 278 steps between the top and middle sites on a daily basis!"  Fortunately, he had a camera with him and he took the following sequence of photos on that trip:


The final picture in this group shows the Type 93 Dome and was taken between 29 Mar and 8 Apr 2005. The significance of this is that the photo will be among the last taken of Saxa when there was actually an operational radar on site. The Type 93 was dismantled and left Unst in the autumn of 2005.

Clyde returned to Saxa Vord in 2011 and , in his own words, "Sadly, in 2011 I was part of the team to switch off the ADLBS at Saxa Vord for the last time, remove all the electronic equipment, racks and console and drive it all back to Somerset for repair / test, so that it could be used as spares for the remaining ADLBS sites (by then Buchan, Boulmer and Neatishead)".  Luckily, Clyde had a camera with him on this visit too. 

In June 2012 the Operations Site (Mid Site) at Saxa was auctioned, with the RAF retaining the Radar (or Heads) Site. However, preparations for the auction were made well in advance and, by the time of Clyde's visit in 2011, a new chain-link fence had been constructed to separate the Heads Site from the Ops Site. Amongst other things this necessitated the dismantling part of some of the covered walkway between the two sites. Evidence of this change can be seen in the following photos:

The next photo has what looks like the old Type 13 plinth in the foreground (if I'm wrong I would be very happy to be corrected!)

The building in the next picture is much more modern and I'm sure it was used in a ground defence role:

The empty Type 93 dome can be seen in the background of this next photo but my particular interest is with the low structure in the foreground, which looks as if it has been made from locally manufactured blocks. It looks old & it may well have been intended for a different purpose when it was originally put together - if anyone knows its history I would be very pleased to hear from them.

One object, which was in situ long before the first RAF servicemen were on site, was the trig point. It became a familiar sight to many, especially in the days when the mast alongside was the home for an anemometer.

All UK Ordnance Survey Trig Points are individually numbered and the one on top of Saxa Vord is no exception:
In 2014 Clyde was made redundant ."By then, Thorn EMI had gone through several incarnations as Racal then Thomson-Racal then finally Thales - but when I left I was still in charge of the ADLBS support contract, having been associated with the project continuously for the 31 years of my employment there. "
Clyde's wife, Ali, had often said she would like to visit Unst and the two of them finally travelled north in Sep 2016 and took this last, long range photo of the Saxa top site:
 Clyde and Bill Borthwick lost contact for about 30 years.  However, during their visit to Unst, Clyde & Ali were amazed to see a photo of Bill and of his band, The Hustlers, taken by Denis Coutts in 1964.  Knowing the name of Bill's band was then the key to them finding this blog and the information on Bill.  Clyde & Bill have now re-established contact.
My thanks to Clyde for allowing us to share some of his memories & pictures.


Monday, 31 October 2016

Saxa Voice - Summer 2000

The Summer 2000 issue of the Saxa Voice magazine was the last edition. The reason is not hard to find - early in 2001 Saxa ceased to be a station in its own right and had become a Remote Reporting Head (RRH), parented by RAF Buchan. By the middle of 2001 the number of service personnel had reduced to 67. For a short period Saxa was able to contribute 4 dedicated pages to the RAF Buchan Magazine - The Buchan Bronco. Even when full status as an independent station was restored in 2004, when Buchan itself became an RRH, the number of service personnel did not increase significantly and restarting The Saxa Voice was not considered to be feasible. 
From my point of view this is the best edition. The staff have managed to include  some very interesting pictures from Saxa's history and, as it is the last issue, there are very few adverts. (Left click on images to enlarge).




Friday, 30 September 2016

Iain MacLeod - Saxa 1960/61 (5074915 SAC MacLeod I L)

Iain MacLeod, from Rothesay on the Isle of Bute, was called up to the RAF for his National service. His "stint" lasted from 6 Jan 60 to 29 Jan 62. He was trained as an  Air Defence Operator (ADO) and spent most of his two years at Saxa Vord. To say that Iain had an active time whilst stationed on Unst would be something of an understatement! From soccer to sailing and from acting to photography, it's surprising he had time for his watch-keeping duties at the Ops Site. Coming from Bute, Unst and the rest of Shetland may not have been as much of a shock to his system as they would have been to most servicemen who arrived there!

When on duty most of his time was spent in the R10, on the Ops Site, as a member of B Watch. To begin with his Flight Commander was Flying Officer AR  Hilditch, a Fighter Controller.  Hilditch was subsequently promoted to the rank of Flight Lieutenant during Iain's tour. The two most significant events Iain can remember from his time on duty are described in the next few paragraphs, mainly in his own words.
"In about Sept 1960, Nikita Khrushchev was scheduled to meet Fidel Castro at the UN General Assembly in New York.  We had been well warned by the hierarchy at RAF Buchan that his plane would pass through the Saxa radar area and to make sure we picked it up. Once again I was on the tube, and sure enough we picked up this contact leaving the coast of Norway & speeding westwards. We dutifully plotted its progress until it disappeared into the "bog" around Saxa. We waited expectantly to plot it as it reappeared on the other side - but no contact emerged. Flt Lt (or was it F/O) Hilditch asked me to contact Sumburgh to ask if a Russian jet had landed there recently. DC3s had enough trouble stopping in time on the short Sumburgh runway and my query about a Tupolev or Ilyushin possibly  landing there had the duty officer there in hysterics.
When the daily papers arrived a couple of days later, however, we read that the two leaders had, in fact, met as scheduled. The failure to find the Russian Premier's plane had not, in fact, been down to our incompetence, but to some electronic glitch"
I believe the aircraft was a Tu95 Bear, which had been converted from a strategic bomber for civilian use.
The next major event occurred on the night of 27 Jan 61 when Iain was manning one of the radar consoles; " I was a National Service Air Defence Operator  on night watch on the 27th January ( to the best of my recollection) on the day in question. On duty on the North East radar I noticed that the trace was behaving in an unusual manner. Instead of its usual regular, monotonous rotation it was slowing down on one sector and then quickly accelerating. It seemed to me that the Type 80 was struggling to rotate into and then whipping through the point of the wind.  I reported this anomalous pattern to the Officer-of-the-Watch, Flt. Lieut Hilditch, but was instructed to keep my head down. The unusual pattern continued  for some time until the screen went blank. I reported that I thought the aerial had blown off. After being told not to be stupid, Flt. Lieut. Hilditch confirmed for himself that the screen was indeed blank.
The watch quickly donned outdoor gear and we struggled to the top of Saxa Hill, holding on for dear life in the face of the gale.  We found, not a high-tech radar site, but a breaker's yard. The Type 80, the first link in Britain's air defence system, was a heap of mangled scrap. Not blown over a cliff, as some rumours apparently say, but lying forlornly in situ.
Flight Lieut. Hilditch's first instruction was "If the Daily Express phones, don't say anything." This left me with a new appreciation of the tentacles of the Beaverbrook Empire, but they missed out on this scoop!
I believe the speed of 165 mph was then a UK record."
In fact the wind speed recorded became an unofficial  record at about 170 knots (195mph). A picture of the dislodged Type  80 aerial is below:

On stations servicemen tended to be allocated to billets in accordance with their trade and, where possible, watches were kept together. The next picture was taken in 1960 and shows Ops B Watch in their Billet with some of the names added:

Members of the Royal Family. including the Queen,  visited Shetland in Aug 60. The Queen and Prince Philip came ashore on Unst from the Royal Yacht Britannia. They were met by a Guard of Honour from RAF Saxa Vord before visiting the Station and various parts of the Island. Iain was one of the servicemen who were on the parade and many pictures of the occasion can be seen here:  A copy of one of the photos in that section has also been sent to me by Iain who has these amusing comments from the day: " I was indeed the Iain MacLeod on the Guard of Honour for the Queen's visit. I remember that when she offered a biscuit to the Shetland Pony presented to her, it attempted to bite the royal hand. On that day too the RAF Buchan Band was on a platform constructed with fish boxes on the slip at Baltasound. Unfortunately no one had given a thought to the incoming tide and the band's platform became increasingly unstable!" The photo of the event which Iain sent is reproduced below:

Watches often stuck together for leisure and for what would now be called "team - building exercises". The following photo is of a Watch Christmas meal in the Springfield Hotel in 1960:
Many servicemen at Saxa in the late 70's and 80's believed that they were participating in a new event when they took part in the RUT - the Round Unst Trek, In fact, Iain and his workmates had preceded them by a couple of decades or so! During their time off B Watch hiked rather than "trekked" around the island - I suppose the acronym RUH is not as attractive to some as RUT. B Watch had a rest stop at The Westing, on the west side of the island, where this photo was taken:

Of course not all events were confined to single watch's, there were larger scale occasions such as Station Dances when volunteers were required for onerous duties as barmen. Three barmen on duty for the Christmas Dance in 1960 were Mick Sharp, Iain MacLeod and Bill Green:
Iain was very much into  sport, both during his National Service days and as a civilian. Some comments about a few of his sporting activites and pastimes at Saxa are in the paragraphs which follow.
Sailing. Iain was a keen sailor and, with one of his friends at Saxa, Glyn Meredith, spent a lot of his time on the water in one of the RAF's Albacore dinghies.  Iain participated in the Uyeasond Regatta and at the Inter-Club in Lerwick. Iain was fortunate to receive tuition from Cpl John Herbert, who had competed successfully at National level before he joined up. Bill Billings, Ian Parsons and John Herbert can be seen crewing Albacore A453, Mandy, when winning the the Open Cup at Uyeasound.
Iain recalls a Sergeant with an impressive moustache, who took part in the Queens Guard of Honour, but can not remember his name:-
" It was decided that it would be therapeutic for us to while away the long days in the winter of 1960/61 by building an Enterprise Dinghy. The kit duly arrived and I remeber how our faces fell  when the box was opened and we saw the number and variety of component parts. Fortunately the Sergeant in question had been a "chippy" in the real world and he took the lead in putting the kit together, with our role reducd to handing him the the required part"

The dinghy was subequently named Whiskas - perhaps after the Sergeant's moustache!  A photo of her taken about 1968 by Keith Pope at a Cullivoe Regatta, is below:

After National Service Iain went on to sail Hornet dinghies and became the Chairman of both the Scottish and UK Schools Sailing Associations. He kept in touch with Glyn Meredith and they undertook a number of sailing trips together, including a trip up the west coast of Scotland to St Kilda,  on to Baltasound in Unst, then to Bergen in Norway, berore heading back to Dover.
Rugby. Rugby was played in Iain's time but the problems of getting 15 people off-duty at the same time for away matches must have been significant. Saxa did not have a proper pitch but the game was practised and some internal matches were played. In the next picture Iain (horizontal) can be seen practising with Nobby Clark (upright):

A game when the Airmen took on the Cpls and SNCOs is depicted  in the piture below - the venue appears to be near Harry's Shop at Baltasound, where soccer was normally played on Unst. Iain is in the white shirt on the left:

The RAF Saxa Vord Rugby XV did travel south to RAF Buchan in December 1961 to compete in the 11 Group Cup and were accompanied by the soccer team who were to play a friendly agaainst a Buchan side. A short piece appeared in the Shetland Times in Dec 61:

There is also a record of a trial match, when Iain successfully captained the "Blues" against the "Reds" in Jan '61, though what the trial was for is not clear:

Golf. Saxa did not have its own golf course in this early stage of its existence. This did not stop keen golfers from practising their sport. One of Iain.s contemporaries, Cpl John Herbert,  can seen keeping his hand in:

Iain was a keen golfer himself and must have been at home on Bute in Apr 61, when he took part in the local Spring Handicap event. The extract from the newspaper "Buteman" which follows, shows he was not an abslute beginner, with a handicap of 15:

Soccer. Soccer has always been a popular game at Saxa, with most inter-section matches and fixtures against Unst teams being  played on the pitch beside Harrys' Shop at Baltasound. The photo below is of an all RAF game - a "Scottish " team taking on an "English" team,  St John's Church of Scotland is on the left and Iain is just right of centre in grey sorts:

There were "away" matches in RAF competitions during his tour, and some information from Iain is featured below.

Iain also has a photo of the team for the Prestwick match, taken when they were away south, Iain is at the end of the back row, on the right:
In 1961 Saxa Vord started playing games against Shetland teams based out of Unst. The first of these games seems have taken place in Jun 61 and the team selection (including Iain as Centre Forward) was published in Station Routine Orders:
The match was reviewed in the Shetland News on 8 Jun 61.
The next game appears to have been played the following month and a trial was held to help select the RAF team and, as can be seen in the next cutting, Iain was the captain of the "Probables"


Sometime, shortly after this Saxa joined the Shetland soccer league, playing matches away to suit the opposition. Because of the climate, Shetland League matches were played in the summer months.
Photography. Iain was an enthusiastic photographer, as many of the pictures used in this piece show. In 1961 the Station held a photographic competition of note. Two of the judges were the Air Officer Commanding 11 Group, AVM HJ McGuire and his wife. The results are in the extract from Station Routine Orders below and show that Iain was awarded the second prize in the Landscape section for his picture "Foam Mosaic, Norwick", a copy of which also appears below:

Radio Saxa Vord. Another very active person during Iain's tour was the Adjutant, Flight Lieutenant Mike Daly. Mike had been the Commander of the Guard of Honour when the Royal Family visited Unst in Aug '60:
He was into amateur dramatics (more later) and he was very involved with Radio Saxa Vord (RSV). RSV was a hard-wired broadcasting radio system, at the time only available on the Station ( It was a popular project, attracting participation from many personnel. The three pictures below are from a newspaper which was then called "The Weekly Scotsman" and this issue was dated 23 Feb 61.

Amateur Dramatics. Iain performed in two of Saxa Vord's best known stage shows. The first, the pantomime "Cinderella", was staged on camp in Dec '60 before it was "taken on the road" and performances given in the local public halls at Baltasound and Uyeasound. The script was only loosely based on the traditional Cinderella story and had a number of new Shetland/Scottish characters, including Mr Bruide MacBile, played by Iain:

The pantomime was well received by enthusiastic audiences and a note was included in the official station history:
Iain has kindly sent me copies of 3 photo, taken during a performance of the show add they are below:

In fact, there had been a performance of Ali Baba at RAF Skaw during WWII,  but whether it was for servicemen only or open to the public is unknown.
Quickly following on the success of Cinderella the Station Adjutant, Mike Daly, arranged for the Saxa Theatre Club to enter a play the Shetland County Drama Festival, early in 1961. It looks as if Mike retained his beard from the Cinderella performances:

The play entered was "Murder Trial" by Sidney Box and it was judged in the beginners section as it was the first attempt in the competition by the Unit. Iain played a reporter, the whole performance was well reviewed and came first in its section. I believe that it caught the cast by surprise when they discovered that they were expected to return to Lerwick a few days later to give an extra performance with the other winning teams!  Copies of newspaper cuttings from the Shetland Times and the Press & Journal are below:

Luckily Iain kept 3 photos of the production, which are reproduced below:


Like a number of National Servicemen, Iain achieved a great deal during his time at Saxa Vord, which is all the more creditable considering he was short-toured. He was transferred to RAF Prestwick a few months early following the death of his father and served the final months of his National Service closer to his family home in Bute. My thanks to Iain for sharing his memories and photos.