Saturday, 30 May 2015

RAF Watsness 1942 to 1945 - Air Ministry Experimental Station No 55a

In the middle of 1941 it was decided that the radar cover in the Shetlands should be increased, particularly at low level.  Four Admiralty Coastal Defence U-boat Radars (CDUs) were providing good cover to the north and to the south of the island group but the cover to the east and west was deemed to be inadequate. In June 1941 the decision was taken to construct 2 RAF Chain Home Low (CHL)  radar sites.  One was to be on the Wart (Ward) of Clett , on the island of Whalsay to the east of the Shetland Mainland. This unit was intended  to provide good early warning of low level raiders approaching from the east.  The other site  was to be built on the most suitable point on the extreme west side of the Shetland Mainland at a place called Virdag, in an area generally known as Watsness - this was to provide enhanced cover to the west. The official designation for this site was "Air Ministry Experimental Station (AMES) 55a". The CHL site on Whalsay will be the subject of a future piece. In this section I plan to outline the history of RAF Watsness as AMES 55a was more commonly known.
As with every Shetland radar site, all material (bricks, cement, wood and electrical components) had to be shipped up from the Scottish mainland. By the end of September it was reported that progress at Watsness was good and that "the apparatus" was at Lerwick awaiting shipment. Watness is about 35 miles by road from Lerwick but in those days the "road" was little more than a stone/gravel track for most of the way. Although there were a small number of inhabited buildings close to the camp, the nearest community of any size was at Walls (pronounced Waas locally), 4 miles away. (Left click on images to enlarge).

Fairly typically the Unit was divided into 2 separate sites, a Domestic Site with the main off-duty accommodation, catering and recreation areas, and an Op/Tech site where the radar equipment and on-duty personnel were located. There was a "camp within a camp" on the Ops/Tech site which housed the guard force.  The 2 sites were just over half a mile apart and I will explain the layout of each site later on. 

CHL radar had been in use for some time before the installation on this site and significant improvements had been made. When they became operational earlier sites had  manually turned, separate Transmitter and Receiver aerials, most of these were being updated with more modern equipment. From the start Watsness was to use a single combined Transmit/Receive 4-bay aerial, mounted on a 20ft gantry and rotated by a motor. Earlier Metropolitan Vickers VT58 valves had been replaced by later VT98 valves permitting greater power output; thereby ensuring a marked improvement in performance.
One has to have sympathy for most of the servicemen when they were posted to Shetland in the War. It was a long journey with a frequently unpleasant sea-crossing from mainland Scotland. A few had heard an old nickname for Shetland - the Auld Rock (Old Rock) -  and thought they were being posted to a small rocky island in the middle of the ocean. In fact, many were pleasantly surprised when they finally arrived at their destination. Watsness was in one of the better agricultural areas of Shetland with some spectacular views, particularly of Foula just 15 miles or so to the south west. Like many who went to  Shetland in the war they were to be located in a friendly farming community. Being long used to strict mainland rationing, the opportunity to purchase fresh eggs, mutton/lamb and even obtain fresh fish would have been welcomed. Some, lucky enough to get leave, would return home with meat, eggs and in, some cases, Shetland knitwear and sheep fleeces.

Ops/Tech Site.  The Ops/ Tech Site was at about 325ft above sea level and its main features were a combined Transmitter & Receiver Building, a Power House, a Standby Set House (secondary power generation) and a Mark III Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) installation. A number of CHL sites had Ops Buildings housing the Transmitter, Receiver and Ops Room like this one illustrated in the SD 0458:
However, the building at Watsness was rather different.  Solid  blast walls were constructed with a concrete foundation measuring approximately 50 x 18 feet laid inside.  A wooden  hut was then erected on the foundation. A modern photo of the blast walls and concrete foundation is shown below:
The hut within the blast walls would have be similar to the one in the following picture from Bob Jenner:
Inside there would have been 2 large rooms - a Transmitter Room & a Receiver/Ops Room - plus a couple of smaller areas for storage and rest. Very close to the hut would have been the 20ft Gantry with the radar aerial. The gantry would have been similar to this one illustrated in the SD 0458:
A Power House was essential - there was no mains power in this part of Shetland until the 1950's. At the beginning the generators used were Nunn & Lister but after June 1942 they were put on standby after a Crossley Generator was installed.  Although the equipment was removed at the end of the war the power house was left standing and has been made use of by the local crofters and sheep ever since.

In case of unserviceability or damage by enemy action, all of the war time radar sites had a back-up power supply located in what was known as a Standby Set House. An up to date picture of the one at Watsness, with some old agricultural machinery in the doorway, is appended below:
One other significant Ops/Tech building on the site was constructed to house the Mark III IFF system. This would have replaced an earlier, less efficient system, which would have had a much smaller antenna (probably mounted on the operations hut). I haven't been able to find out when the work took place - the Mark III IFF equipment was in short supply and allocated to units on a priority basis. It is quite possible that the building was put up some time before the electronic components arrived. There is local evidence to suggest that the small building was used as an ammunition store for part of its life. The building is shown in this modern photo - the concrete foundation to the right of the structure would have been the base of the aerial gantry.
An indication of what the complete installation would have looked like can be seen in the picture of another site, which was sent to me by Bob Jenner:
The Mark III IFF system at Watsness became operational in October 1943.
Other remains still visible on the site include the foundations of the army/RAF Regiment guard force billets and associated buildings,  2 air raid shelters and 2 Light Anti Aircraft Gun emplacements (possibly .300 initially and .303 later):
To put the layout of the Ops/Tech Site into perspective I have labelled the remains on this Google Earth Image:
A few more pictures of the Ops/Tech Site are at Note 2
Domestic Site. The  Domestic Site was down hill to the south east of the Ops/Tech Site at a height of about 170ft above sea level and occupied both sides of a track leading to a croft at Thordale (marked as Turdale on early Ordinance Survey maps). Other than the guard force it was the "home"  for all the off-duty  personnel with accommodation, NAAFI, Medical Centre, Fire  Equipment, MT, Cookhouse, Recreational Facilities ,etc. The foundations of most of these buildings can still be seen and some examples are shown below:
The NAAFI employed 4 girls who lived in a separate billet - I believe 3 of them came from Glasgow and the other was a Shetland lass. Two Air Raid Shelters are intact but contain a fair amount of post war rubbish.
An image from Google Earth with the location of Domestic Site buildings is below.
A few more pictures of the Domestic Site are at Note 3.
Water Supply. The water supply for the station was obtained from the Loch of Sung, just south of the Domestic Site. The remains of the pump house can still be seen but when the unit was operational  there used to be a windmill alongside the building.
The windmill pumped water to the first of two tanks just above the Domestic Site. The first tank was partially filled with sand to filter some of the impurities out, the water was then chlorinated and held in the second tank. Water was then piped to the Domestic Site buildings.
Fresh Water was also needed at the Ops/Tech Site and so a second windmill was located by these tanks and a pipe laid to another reservoir on Simli Field, just north east of that site. Although Shetland has a reputation for being a windy place there were times when the wind didn't blow. If the air was still for any significant period manual pumping had to replace the 2 windmills.
A view of the Ops/Tech site from behind this reservoir follows:

Personnel. The number of servicemen on the strength of the Unit varied during its three & a half year lifetime. For the first couple of years of its existence the establishment would have been in the region of 65 to 70 personnel. In this period Radar was known as RDF - Radio Direction Finding (RDF) and the allocation of servicemen to Watsness would have been about: 2 Officers - (Commanding Officer- Flying Officer & an Adjutant - Pilot Officer)
20 RDF Operators  - (2 SNCOs, 4 JNCOS and 14 airmen)
5 RDF Mechanics (1 WO/SNCO, 1 JNCO and 3 airmen)
20 Administration (Clerks, Medics, Cooks, Motor Transport etc)
20 Gunners/Guards (either Army or RAF Regiment)

Major overhauls and upgrades to equipment would have been implemented by visiting working parties from outside Shetland. These parties would sometimes arrive in Shetland and visit each CHL/CDU site to carry out the same modification/s on each Unit in turn. Though not highlighted in the Watsness records it is probable that a few Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) personnel were employed on the site. Certainly one of the COs (Flying Officer Lowman) was from the RCAF and it notable that the RCAF gave valuable help to the RDF organisation during WWII. I have notes about RCAF employment at all 4 Royal Navy CDUs (AES 1 to 4) in Shetland, at RAF Clett in Whalsay and RAF Grutness near Sumburgh.

It is apparent that the strength of the unit decreased over the last year of its existence, perhaps with the removal of the guard force as the ground threat lessened or perhaps because of the necessity of sending skilled RDF personnel to the continent as the allied forces advanced closer to Berlin. For the last six months before closure there were no commissioned officers on the strength, the CO was a Warrant Officer or SNCO from February until August 1945. The last quoted strength on the Unit records (as at 31 Jul 1945) was; Officers Nil, SNCOs 3, Other Ranks 46 (the Other Ranks figure includes 8 attached from No 5703 M&E Flight). Official records tend to give the names of the senior personnel on a Unit and I have extracted the few names I have found of servicemen who served at Watsness. Those names have been listed in Note 1. at the end of this piece.

1942.  RAF Watsness became operational in February 1942 and the following month it was reported as having a good performance and filling a "very bad gap" which had existed in the radar cover to the west of Shetland. By June the Unit was recorded as having plotted an aircraft at 20,000 feet at a range of 182 miles and as having tracked a merchant ship at range of forty-two & a half miles. Four Royal Navy personnel were on the strength to help monitor the surface plots. On a number of occasions in June the radar aerial had to be lashed down because of  high winds. By this stage of the war a Filter Room had been established in Lerwick and a number of operators paid a visit to see what happened to the plots passed by the Shetland Radar units. The Northern Lights, known in Shetland as the Mirrie Dancers, were seen to cause interference on the radar display in both June & July. Fortunately the bearing (between 360 and 020 degrees) was not a normal sector for aircraft plots and had little result on the Units performance.
On 11th July a Hostile aircraft was detected by Watsness and a number of other stations. Interceptions were attempted from both Sumburgh & Kirkwall but were unsuccessful. However, the Filter Officer in Lerwick commended the operations crew at Watsness on their performance. Surface plots continued to be passed to the naval plotting room. Early in July one track was identified as being "special operations" and later the RMS St Magnus (1530 gross tons) - RMS = Royal Mail Ship - was seen at 41 miles to the south-south-east, the detection probably helped by the fact that the ship was flying a balloon as anti-aircraft protection. The RMS St Magnus (third ship of that name) belonged to The North of Scotland, Orkney & Shetland Shipping Company and sailed between mainland Scotland and the Northern Isles on a regular basis. The picture of the St Magnus III below was taken in Lerwick in the late 30's and is held in the Shetland Museum and Archives Photo Library:

The performance of the radar continued to be good into August with the Unit to be the first in Shetland to detect Hostile 271 though there is no as to the fate of the Hostile. High winds once again meant that the radar aerial had to be lashed down for a while. In September there were a number of senior visitors, including the Air Officer Commanding HQ 60 Group. The best pick-up range of the month was on a friendly fighter, 192 miles south of the site - as the aircraft was at 15,000 feet that would be a creditable performance even with today's radar. On the 16th of the month the crew were also able to plot Hostile 256  which attacked Fair Isle, flying at just 50 feet for part of the time. The following day the operators were complimented on their accuracy in plotting a Coastal Command aircraft which was lost - the assistance enabled the aircraft to be recovered to Sumburgh safely. Again in September the Northern Lights were observed on the radar display and on a number of days the aerial had to be lashed down because of high winds.
October was a busy month with quite a few Hostile aircraft detected. Intercepts were attempted against 3 of them, one of which was detected by Watsness at 186 miles and tracked for over 100 miles. A fighter pilot identified the aircraft as a JU88 and managed to fire a few bursts into it - the outcome is unknown. Not many surface plots were passed to the naval plotting room and the best shipping ranges achieved were between 38 & 52 miles. The Northern lights were observed again and the radar was lashed down on a few days due to gales. When the radar was tied down in this way the radar beam could still detect aircraft but only within a very limited sector. Some of the off-duty operations crew visited the Filter Room in Lerwick, the main town in Shetland. In the war years the local population of the town would probably have been 4 to 5,000 but this would have been supplemented by thousands of servicemen (over 20,000 in Shetland at the time) - a change from the Watsness area!
In November few surface plots were seen but the radar continued to provide good results against aircraft with some hostiles being detected at long ranges and being tracked for long periods. On the evening of the 8th the Unit received a report of a red glow about 10 miles south-south-east of the site. Three rockets, one red and two white were also seen. The information was immediately passed to the Filter Officer & Coastguard. Later the Unit was informed that an Armstrong Whitworth Whitley, that had previously been tracked on radar, had come down in the sea. Four of the crew had been saved but 2 were missing. The Unit did launch a search on land for the missing men but were unsuccessful. A picture of a Mk V Whitley in 1941 is below (photo in the Public Domain).
Winds again disrupted the aerial rotation quite frequently and, towards the end of the month the radar was off the air for a pre-planned quarterly overhaul. During the period significant modifications were made. The original 4 bay aerial was converted to a 5 bay system and an extra P.P.I. rack was installed (P.P.I.  stands for Plan Position Indicator,  a radar display). Modifications were also made to the Receiver which helped to make the display easier to interpret.
In December few hostile aircraft were seen but the radar performance was very good. The Unit detected one aircraft at 194 miles - a record for the station - and also observed a tethered balloon 102 miles away in Orkney. On Christmas Eve it was reported that a Naval Aircraft was in difficulties and might have to ditch in the sea. The aircraft was plotted for 3 hours and was eventually escorted by friendly fighters to Sumburgh, where it landed safely. The Northern Lights were seen on the displays again and gales and snowstorms caused some disruption to operations.
1943.  January was a fairly quiet month with no hostile aircraft seen by the Watsness radar. Surface plots were also few & far between with the best range (39 miles) being obtained against the RMS St Magnus, once again flying a balloon. The Station assisted in the salvage of a derelict tanker which had been seen offshore. Visual sightings and radar plots helped guide other vessels to the site of the drifting ship. Gales and snow storms at the beginning of the month disrupted operations but the weather eventually cleared. The performance of the radar was good and a quarterly overhaul was carried out from 28th to 30th January. Several hostiles were plotted in February, including one over the island of Bressay, just east of Lerwick. An attempt was made at intercepting this aircraft but it was unsuccessful. One enemy aircraft approached within 22 miles of the station but its purpose was not established. It was also recorded that estimation of an aircrafts height by the operators was proving to be reasonably accurate. Watsness did not have a specific height finding radar and the crew were limited to an assessment based on the shape of the radar beam and the range at which a track was plotted. Severe gale force winds were experienced during the month and the operations were frequently affected.
Air Activity over Shetland in March was greater than usual. Watsness was involved in plotting most of the hostile tracks, including Hostile 246, which was successfully intercepted on 24th March (a JU88, shot down near Sumburgh by a Spitfire of 234 Squadron). Although surface plots continued to be rare the Unit achieved its longest airborne range so far - on a friendly fighter 208 miles south of the station. There was an improvement in the weather and despite some gales they were less severe than those of February. There was a lapse in air activity in April but some notable ranges (in the order of 190 to 200 miles) were recorded. Visits to the Lerwick Filter Room continued but by now they had become exchange visits with, on average, 2 airmen staying on each site for up to four days. I'm sure the opportunity to see "the big city" was welcomed by some of the Watsness personnel, though life out west was not all boredom with occasional film shows in the Recreation Hall and an active NAAFI close by.
May was a quiet month with surface plots restricted to the RMS St Magnus, trawlers and a few troopships. The excellent low level cover was demonstrated by a number of plots on aircraft flying at 1,000 feet at ranges from four & a half miles out to 59 miles. Some good ranges were obtained against friendly bombers, with one flying at 12,000 feet seen at a distance of 189 miles. The quarterly maintenance period occurred between the 13th & 15th May. So far I have been unable to find any records for the month of June.
Troops in the local area staged a mock attack on the Unit on 6th July. After 2 hours the station was overrun but there had been "heavy casualties" on both sides. The Commander of the "attacking" force voiced the opinion that the defence system was sound. More long range detections were made and the station was the first to plot Hostile 510 - thanks were later received from the Filter Officer for the accuracy  of the plots on the Hostile and on the two fighters which were sent to intercept it. On the 14th July one officer and 23 other ranks from the Pioneer Corps were billeted on the station and they were housed in two billets on the Ops/Tech site which had recently been vacated by the RAF Regiment. The pioneers were engaged on "special work" in the vicinity and were expected to remain for about a month - so far I have been unable to discover what they were doing, but it is possible they were installing a searchlight (see below). The record of this event contains the first mention I have seen of the RAF Regiment in association with Watsness. The Regiment was only formed in 1942 and I believe that the main guard force at the start of the Unit were Home Guard and/or regular army (possibly Gordon Highlanders). Some RAF Regiment personnel were posted to RAF Skaw on Unst around this period with responsibility for Light Anti-Aircraft Defence but why some of their personnel should be leaving Watsness by the middle of 1943 is something of a mystery, unless they were just relocating to the Domestic Site. On 1st August the station was again commended by the Filter Officer after plotting a trans-Atlantic flight which was inbound to UK but lost and in distress. During the month searchlights were installed at seven northern radar stations, including Watsness. On instructions from the Filter Room these searchlights were to be activated by the radar operators and used to help guide lost aircraft towards suitable airfields. On 13th August the station was visited by Air Vice Marshal RS Aitkin who was the Air Officer Commanding 60 Group.
Very little appears in the records I have found for September but there were a couple of notable events in October. IFF Mark III (BL3 System) was installed on the west side of the Ops/Tech Site and the new searchlight was used operationally for the first time.  The light was used to illuminate a Catalina Flying Boat which had come down in the sea and it helped to guide a High Speed Rescue Launch to the area.
The Original Caledon turning gear for the radar aerial was replaced in November by a more modern CD100 system - the station was off the air for a week whilst the work was carried out. I have been unable to locate any more records before the end of 1943.
1944.  During 1944 there appears to have been less hostile air activity in the Shetland area than in the previous 2 years. Most of the records for Watsness appear to  be of  an admin or technical nature. D Day took place in June and a number of allied bombing raids against targets in Norway would have been observed by the Shetland radars; for example, the Lancaster force sinking the Tirpitz in November.
Some of the main events in 1944 are listed below:
In January a second radar transmitter (T3079) was installed as a duplicate and the new turning gear was giving problems due to warping of the aerial gantry.
In March a transmitter and amplifier were sent to the Unit to provide a back-up R/T facility with the Lerwick Filter room.
On July 28th a Hostile aircraft was plotted for some distance but there is no record of any defensive fighter action taken.
On 2nd August the OC 70 Wing, Group Captain EC Richmond, paid a visit in the morning and in the afternoon an exercise to test the speed of manning defences was held. A new CD 100 turning gear, with 300lb copper wire, was installed by a fitting party from Caledon and the R/T facilities were also activated. There must have been little going on as another defence manning exercise was held on the evening of 20th August.
Some excitement occurred on 29th October when a group of 50+ friendly bombers was plotted heading NE towards Norway
1945. The number of operational records continued to decrease, not surprising really as the focus of the war effort moved further away. Victory in Europe Day (VE Day)  was celebrated on 8th May but the station stayed open for a few more months after that. A few of the notable events:
In February bad weather (snow) blocked the roads causing the station to be cut off from the rest of the island. After 10 days of isolation personnel reached the stage whereby they were just about to break open the 2 day emergency rations which were held in reserve. The CO of RAF Sumburgh came to the rescue and organised a resupply mission for the Unit. Two Avro Ansons made a very successful air drop on 4th February. The following recognition picture of a Anson was crown copyright and reprinted in the 1952 Observers Book of Aircraft:

Sometime later a Norwegian trawler landed ordinary supplies at the Walls pier from where they were manhandled the 4 miles to the station by Unit personnel.
Early in the morning of 11th March the searchlight was twice exposed to help guide an aircraft, identified only as G.A.349, safely  to Sumburgh.
The records I have seen give no indication of the way in which VE Day on 8th May was celebrated but there was bound to have been some kind of party organised. With effect from 23rd June the fact that we were no longer at war in Europe was recognised when the Unit was put onto a peacetime watch system.
The next major occurrence was the instruction from higher command for all RAF radar stations in Shetland (including Watsness) to stop reporting tracks from 4th August and for the same stations to be put on Care & Maintenance from 22nd August 1945.
I would be pleased to hear from anyone who can add to, or correct any mistakes in, the above: (replace the "AT").
Acknowledgements & Sources
Willie Mail (of Gravens) - Shetland
Iris Sandison (of Walls) - Shetland
Unst Heritage Centre - Shetland
Whalsay Heritage Centre  - Shetland
Shetland Museum & Archives Photo Library
Bob Jenner
Mike Dean
SD 0458 Photographic Record of Radar Stations (Ground), August 1943
Air 26 - 092 HQ 70 Wg ORB
Air 26 - 094 HQ 70 Wg ORB Appendices
Air 26 - 095 HQ 70 Wg ORB
Air 26 - 100 HQ 71 Wg ORB
 Note 1. Names of some Watsness Staff
Dec 41 to Mar 42 Cpl Wilf Tetley (Cook with the advance party - posted to RAF Clett in Whalsay)
2 Sep 43 - CO F/O Lowman RCAF (tech) -P/O Desmond (tech) - Sgt Thompson  (R/tech)
27 Jul 44 - Fg Off Heath posted out
Aug 44 - F/O RC Weir CO
22 Sep 44 - F/O Weir posted , F/O RC O'Neal assumes command
19 Oct 44 - F/O O'Neal Posted, Sgt FW Andrews assumes command
25 Oct 44 F/O HJ Lowden assumes command
29 Nov 44 F/O CE Fulton assumes command vice F/O Lowden (temporary duty)
3 Dec 44 F/O Lowden returned from temporary duty
30 Dec 44 Sgt WA Ward assumes command vice F/O Lowden (Course)
7 Jan  45 F/O Lowden returns
11 Jan 45 Sgt WA Ward assumes command vice F/O Lowden (Course)
13 Feb 45 F/O EW Anderson assumed command  vice Sgt Ward
24 Feb 45 WO GW Hall assumed command  Vice F/O Anderson (Course)
4 Mar 45 Sgt Ward assumed command vice WO Hall
6 Jun 45 Sgt J Blakeley assumed vice Sgt Ward - who returned on 28 Jun
Note 2. Some More Photos of the Ops/Tech Site.

Note 3. Some More Photos of the Domestic Site.