Wednesday 28 February 2018

Saxa Vord - The Second Commanding Officer -1959

I have been  delaying the release of this article in the elusive hope that a contemporary photo of the main character would be forthcoming.  Perhaps someone reading this will be able to help and a picture of John Tocher can be added later.

Squadron Leader John Tocher arrived on Unst in January 1959 and signed a certificate taking command of RAF Saxa Vord from Squadron Leader Gordon Millar on 8 Jan 59. This, in itself, is a revelation as many believed that the Unit was known as 91 Signals Unit until much later.

John Tocher, sometimes known as "Jock", had a distinguished RAF career, followed by  notable civilian achievements after leaving the service. He was born in the Scottish town of Crieff in 1918 and had 2 bothers and one sister. He joined the RAF as an apprentice and trained at the Electrical & Wireless School at Cranwell,  I believe starting as early as 1935. The first official mention I can find of him is as a Warrant Officer in the Technical Branch in Feb 43, with a service number of 50549. The next record I have seen was on his promotion to Flying Officer (probationary) in Jul 43. His technical training earmarked him for aircrew, especially with the advance in wireless and navigational aids resulting in the need for people with highly specialised skills. Tocher flew with a heavy bomber squadron and was the only crew member to survive when the aircraft he was flying in crashed. In the Kings Birthday Honours list in 1944 Tocher was "Mentioned in Despatches" though, as yet, I have been unable to locate the citation.
He continued to serve in the RAF after the war, being promoted to the rank of Flight Lieutenant in Jul 46. One of his tours of duty was at the Radar Research Establishment at Malvern and in 1949 he became an Member of the Institute of Electronic & Radio Engineers, (now amalgamated with the Institute of Electrical & Electronics Engineers -IEEE). He married Jane (Known as Shena, a Gaelic form of the same name) and, in the early 50's, must have been posted to Norway. A daughter, Fiona, was born in Oslo during May '53 and Tocher was promoted to the rank of Squadron Leader on 1 Jan 54. I'm not sure where Tocher served after Norway but, at one stage in his career, he was posted to RAF West Beckham - a Chain Home station just SE of Holt in Norfolk. He must have completed the West Beckham tour before arriving in Unst as Beckham closed in 1958 and he was quite possibly there even before his tour in Norway, as Chain Home stations often had a Flight Lieutenant Technical Officer in charge.

By the beginning of 1959 Saxa Vord had been operational for only 16 months using the Marconi Type 80 Search Radar - the most modern in the RAF inventory and highly classified.

The Admiralty had been testing anti-submarine equipment from Unst and had been carrying out highly classified trials from the island. With the perceived Cold War threat Saxa Vord was considered to be a "front-line" unit.
The new CO arrived on Unst in typical Shetland winter weather, it was cold, it was windy and there were flurries of snow. The men had little idea what the new boss would be like and, although Tocher was from Perthshire, the environment and conditions were probably something of a surprise to him. In Jan 59 there were 185 men on the Unit (13 0fficers and 172 other ranks). A large element of the strength was made up by men on national service. There were no official married quarters available for anyone except for the CO and a few for civilian employees of the Air Ministry Works Department (AMWD). The RAF leased a building known as the Admiralty Bungalow from the Royal Navy and Tochers predecessor had lived in it:

The late Ray Dawson, an MT Driver, was sent to Uyeasound to meet the boat the new CO arrived on (probably a "flit boat" from the MV Earl of Zetland).

 Ray parked the Land Rover he had been driving and waited to meet his new boss. Evidently first impressions were not too auspicious. A very smartly dressed gentleman disembarked and Ray saluted. Ray was asked if all the men wore similar clothing - to which he replied "In this sort of weather, Yes Sir" - Tocher was obviously unused to the issue Wellies, long white socks and Parka:

Ray was then asked where he'd parked the staff car, to which Ray replied that there were no staff cars on Unst, Land Rovers were the most suitable vehicles available. The following photo, taken by Ray, shows the bulk of service transport on Unst, including a water bowser:

A few servicemen wishing to bring wives and family found private hiring's, sometimes as far afield as Uyeasound. However, Tocher was unaccompanied and stayed in the Officers' Mess. Unsurprising in more modern times but his wife, with a 4 year old child, chose to remain south - a Commanding Officer opting to leave his family elsewhere was unusual in the 50's.  This marital situation seems to have led to a conflict of interest during his tour at Saxa.
A monthly summary of significant events was produced on each RAF Unit and forwarded to higher authority, in the case of Saxa Vord to HQ 13 Group. These summaries formed "The Operations Record Book", more commonly known as the Unit Form 540. Because of their historical significance these summaries were usually signed by the Station Commander. When researching the 12 months Tocher was on the strength of the Unit I was puzzled by the number of times that the summaries were signed by other officers, including twice by Bert Thornley, who was the Adjutant early in 1959:

Having made contact with some of the personnel who were on Unst during1959, the reasons for the lack of "autographs" became apparent.
With a wife and young daughter living in Norfolk, Tocher was taking his full leave entitlement and attending as many conferences/meetings in the south of England as  he could.  Indeed, it was to become a bit of a joke amongst the RAF personnel on Unst. An officer recounts the following story: " I sometimes draw cartoons and I did several at Saxa Vord. The one that I remember in the current context showed a road with two sheep side by side, a signpost saying ‘south’ and John Tocher running like mad in that direction. The caption was one sheep saying to the other, “You’re right, his feet don’t touch the ground.” That says it all, I think!"

Another anecdote about the CO, from one who served with him, also relates to time away from Unst: "When he was in the bar, he used often to wax lyrical about a restaurant near to where he lived which had good food and outstanding Stilton cheese – he was friends with the owner. He used to say that he would have some sent up. A few days after he had headed south on one of his trips, a packet arrived addressed to the Officers’ Mess, RAF Saxa Vord. When we opened it we found that it was a Stilton cheese.

So, we added it to our evening meals. In those days the Royal Army Service Corps refused to go as far north as Unst and so we were given cash. One of the officers was a chartered accountant doing his national service and he took over the duty of arranging food to be bought with this money. He was a real gourmet and dinners were very good and, at the end of the month, when it was a case of spend the money or lose it, a seven-course meal was not unknown. The Stilton cheese went very well at the end of these meals.

Then John got back from his trip south and on the first evening in the bar before dinner he told us that we had a treat in store. He had arranged for a Stilton to be sent up and, if we were very good, we might be allowed a little of it. Nobody had the courage to say anything and we went in to dinner. At the end of the meal the ‘waiter’ automatically brought in the cheese and placed it on the table. John looked aghast at the remains of his Stilton and we had a difficult evening thereafter"
A photo of the Saxa Vord domestic site, taken in 1957, is below. The Officers' Mess is in the bottom right with the Land Rover parked in front:
The Station Operations Record Book for Jan 60 contains an entry which says, "Squadron Leader J. Tocher, the Station Commander, was admitted to PMRAF (Princess Mary's RAF) Hospital on 2nd January, and was discharged on the 22nd January. At the time of writing he has been granted leave pending posting to a unit on the mainland." A similar story appeared in the Shetland Times dated 29 Jan 60:

At mid-day on Christmas Eve the phone on the bar rang and as I was the nearest person to it - I answered it. It was the AOC who said he wanted to speak to John. I explained that he had developed medical problems and had to go to the RAF hospital at Ely. The AOC rang off. That evening he rang and told us to assemble all of John’s possessions as soon and possible and to send them to the hospital. He wouldn’t be coming back!

We were later told that the AOC had telephoned the hospital and, finding that John wasn’t there, he rang his home number. You can guess who answered!".

Air Vice Marshal Harold John Maquire was the Air Officer Commanding 13 Group in Dec '59.

I am not able to comment on Tochers medical state but I do know that he had been in an aircraft crash earlier in his career. I also know that nowadays hospitals are keen to discharge patients to their homes over the festive period, if it is feasible (it helps holiday staffing in particular). However, I have been in contact with a number of people he was responsible for in 1959 and few of the other ranks can remember him and, amongst the officers I have been in touch with, his frequent absences have been a recurring theme. The chance to leave Unst and get home was as important to the other ranks as it was to the CO, as this slightly later photograph  suggests:

Aftermath.  Squadron Leader RW Lowden (service no. 54012, a Tech Signals officer) was detached to Saxa at short notice as a temporary CO. He was there until 11 Apr (just over 3 months), whilst a permanent replacement was appointed. Most of those people who served under Lowden remember him well, partly for buying the troops Champagne after they broke a world darts record!

There seems to have been little long-term disruption to the career of John Tocher. He was promoted to the rank of Wing Commander on 1 Jul 61 and from 1961 to 1964 he was in Cyprus, where he served as the Telecommunications Staff Officer at HQ Near East Air Force (NEAF). With the recent granting of independence to Cyprus (Oct 60) and continuing problems with EOKA, it is possible that he was without his family on this tour as well. His last tour, before retirement, was at HQ Coastal Command, Northwood. The date of his retirement from the RAF was 3 Nov 73.
He was a Chartered Engineer (C. Eng) and  became a Fellow of the Institute of Electronic Engineers (F.I.E.R.E)  in 1964 whilst still in the RAF. He wrote a number of technical papers far too complex for me to understand. After leaving the service he became a Technical Officer with the British Standards institution. Tocher died, aged 67, at Holt in Norfolk in Apr '86. Unfortunately, both his wife Sheena and his daughter Fiona have also died.

I would be pleased to hear from anyone who has pictures and stories of Saxa Vord from 1959, IN PARTICULAR, FOR MORE THAN 8 YEARS I HAVE BEEN TRYING TO FIND A USEABLE PHOTO OF TOCHER   FROM THIS PERIOD - (






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