Saturday 31 March 2018

RAF Saxa Vord - The Construction Years

Life in the UK in the early 50's was not as easy for most people as it is now. WWII had ended in 1945 but rationing and National Service were still a fact of life. The RAF alone had employed up to 1,000,000 personnel at one period during the War and, following discharge, many had still not found permanent civilian employment.

The International situation was, as always, tense. The Russians had tested their first A Bomb in 1949 and the Cold War was in full progress. The Korean War took place from 1950 until 1953 - over 100,000 British troops were involved and over 1,000 were killed. The UK's Air Defence System, which had just coped during WWII, was in dire need of updating to meet the perceived Soviet threat from modern aircraft such as the Tu-95 Bear Bomber, which first flew in 1952. The technology behind the old Chain Home (CH, CHL and CHEL), needed modernizing. The British Government instigated a massive air defence programme called ROTOR and, as part of this, Decca Ltd were tasked with producing a more sophisticated search radar. Decca took a radar project codenamed GREEN GARLIC, which was being researched at the Telecommunications Research Establishment at Malvern, and continued its development. The equipment became more commonly known as the Type 80. Details of the ROTOR programme have been covered by others and I intend to discuss it only when it is pertinent to Saxa Vord. Part of the ROTOR programme called for the building of 3 Centimetric Early Warning (CEW) sites in the north of Scotland - at Aird Uig in the Hebrides, at Faraid Head near Cape Wrath and at Saxa Vord in Shetland. The site for the CEW radar at Saxa Vord was chosen in 1952 and, from then on, complex plans had to be made about communication links, power, water, workforce, equipment etc.
After WWII the Soviet Navy developed a fleet of fast, ocean-going submarines based on German wartime technology. The Admiralty realised that there would need to be major efforts in an attempt to counter this threat. Along with some NATO allies, particularly the USA, much UK research into detecting and tracking submarines was carried out. The Admiralty Research Laboratory (ARL) Project CORSAIR was designed to investigate the use of a form of passive sonar to achieve useful detection ranges against Soviet submarines. The project involved 3 remote ARL sites: Admiralty Experimental Station Perranporth in Cornwall, Admiralty Marine Physical Station at Portballintrae in Northern Ireland and Admiralty Experimental Station Unst (AESU). Planning and construction of AESU was carried out at a similar period to the planning and construction of RAF Saxa Vord. In fact, the Navy began trials from the site about a year and a half before the RAF Station became operational. For a period it was expected that the RN & RAF would have had co-located, but separate, units. In Feb '56 it was thought that, by 1958, the establishment of the RN unit would be about 74 personnel, including 7 Officers and 10 Chief Petty Officers. Whereas, for comparison, by mid '58 the actual RAF establishment was in the region of 180, (including 11 Officers and 3 Warrant Officers).

Until 1973 the Shetland Islands Council did not exist. It was formed by legislation which led to the amalgamation of the Lerwick Town Council and the Zetland County Council. The Air Ministry had many dealings with the Zetland County Council in the preparations for the new radar station, particularly in regard to roads and water supplies. Until the 1950's there had been no mains water scheme on Unst but the Zetland County Council had embarked on a series of schemes in other parts of Shetland. A major scheme had been undertaken on Whalsay and, following a commitment from the Air Ministry to make a significant contribution, a scheme for Unst was given the go ahead in 1952.
Unst Water Scheme. As far as I can tell about 60 men at a time were employed on the Unst Water scheme between 1952 and 1954. Some of the workforce found local lodgings but a small camp was built near the Baltasound Pier to house up to 24 workers, mainly from Whalsay. The Whalsay workers would have been a great asset as most of them were likely  to have gained experience on the earlier scheme at Symbister. The sketch map below was drawn in about 1954 and shows the area to the east of the Baltasound Pier before the RAF bulk fuel tanks were built (the coloured labels are mine). The area at the top of the sketch, shows the water scheme camp, with a garage (at B),  offices (at C) and an accommodation hut ( at E) - the small unlabelled hut in the middle was the ablutions. The fuel tanks were erected in 1955.

The following picture was taken from the pier just after the  fuel tanks were constructed and some of the water scheme encampment can be seen:

The picture below, from a magazine "The New Shetlander", shows 3 of the Whalsay men on Unst together with a WWII vintage Dodge truck. The man in the black beret is Tammy Reid, an ex RAF radar operator who had served on the WWII Chain Home Low radar unit at Clett on Whalsay.
In the 1800's two small dams were built by a burn to the SW of the Hill of Colvadale.  Above these dams the burn was known as the Burn of Coutts Dams and below them it joined the Burn of Watlee. I am uncertain of the purpose of these dams, possibly to control water flow at old mills. Following the Burn of Coutts Dams upstream there was another small dam, then there was a small sheet of water. Beyond that there was a loch called Hellier's Water. It was at this third dam that a new, larger dam was built for the scheme, causing the smaller area of water to combine with Hellier's Water to form the larger reservoir now in existence.
Heavy equipment, including diggers, had to be shipped to Unst to build the dam and to excavate the trenches for pipe-laying. Some of the mains pipes laid had a diameter of 7" but this decreased the further from the water source the scheme went. There may have been more, but I know of two intermediate storage tanks to the north of the reservoir, one was on the Heogs and the other was on the Saxa Domestic Site . It should be noted that there was no plan to pipe mains water up to the proposed Saxa Ops and Tech Sites at this early stage - more about this later.
Roads and Hardcore. In the early 50's the Zetland County Council would have employed a Road Works Team. Their usual remit would mainly have been the maintenance of the existing tracks and the few roads on Unst. The decision to create the radar station  with its various sites at Valsgarth, Saxa Vord, Sodersfield and Ward of Norwick would have entailed expansion and reinforcing of the thoroughfares. There would also have been a requirement for many tons of hardcore. Apart from the workmen, the main beneficiaries from this would have been Sandisons Quarry at Setters Hill and the two local haulage contractors, Duncan Mouat of Sunnyside and John Sutherland of Spragatup. I believe both of these contractors may have had extra vehicles shipped up to Unst via the Earl of Zetland and engaged extra drivers. This next photo, showing an early stage of the building of the Domestic Site, features a wagon from each Contractor:
Work was also generated on the island with the manufacture of hollow breeze blocks, which were used extensively in the building programme:
During WWI a track. known as Whites Road, had been laid up Saxa Vord and it had been reinforced to serve the Admiralty radar site which was operational on the hill from 1940 to 46. Before more modern, heavier vehicles could use the route it would need to be strengthened again and new "spur" roads laid up to the Tech Site, to allow the more modern radars to be installed, and to the sites chosen for the Receivers and Transmitters. 
Power. At the start of the 50's there was no mains electricity on Unst. Most of the population relied on solid stoves for heating and cooking but needed Tilly Lamps for the hours of darkness. A few had lights which ran on small butane gas cylinders. Some had access to small windmills and accumulators but the electricity generated was barely enough to power a radio set. The Springfield Hotel had fitted a 48 volt DC generator which charged a bank of 4 x 12volt batteries and it's probable that the local halls had their own generators for functions. With two or three hundred contractors and servicemen to be accommodated, plus the need to provide power for the new radars (the Type 80 alone needed 2.5 MW for its output), a Power House was essential. At least two Mirrlees Blackstone generators were delivered to Baltasound on board the Landing Craft ADC 1204 in April 1955 and other generators followed later.

The equipment was installed in a newly finished Power House near the Main Guardroom on the Domestic site:

The installation was carried out by Air Ministry Fitters from RAF Burtonwood in Lancashire. Eric Fairhurst, his friend Ernie Jolley (known as the "terrible twins"),  Reggie Dixon, Danny Cowley and Eddie Burns were responsible for much of the electrical work. Because parts of the Domestic Site were still being built the Fitters were accommodated in the huts provided for the labourers, rather than in the Sergeants Mess - which would have been their normal expectation.
The 'gaffer', Mr. Montague Talbot, would normally have bunked in the Officers' Mess but, whilst on Unst, had to stay at the Springfield hotel.

Eric, who had been in the Royal Navy during WWII, made 2 trips to Unst taking 3 days to reach Haroldswick - train from Warrington to Aberdeen, night stop; DC3 to Sumburgh, night stop in Lerwick and the Earl of Zetland to Unst. A picture of Eric standing in the snow, in the area where the Gym and Ice Cap were built a few years later, follows. An AMWD Quarter and the new Power House can be seen in the background, the building in the foreground was demolished a long time ago
Another two rare photos from Eric shows the interior of the Power House in the early days follow. It is just possible to detect the name "Brush" on the further engine in the first picture - the equipment was designed by Brush Electrical Engineering Co, whose horizontally opposed diesel engines were sold exclusively by Blackstone& amp; Co.  

Being able to produce power is one thing but distributing it is another. Providing energy to the Domestic Site would be comparatively simple, laying cables to the Ops and Tech Sites 3 miles away would be more complicated. The late JD Thomson worked for the firm of J Scott and Co, probably the biggest firm of Electrical Engineers in Scotland. In 1954 he was sent to Unst to work for a client - the firm of Holland, Hannen & Cubitt. The task was to lay an 11kv cable from the Power House to the top of Saxa Vord. The cable was to follow an indirect route and would be about 4 miles long. A trench had to be dug from the Domestic Site to the top of the Ward of Norwick, where the transmitter masts were to be erected. From there a spur was dug to the proposed Receiver Site on Soddersfield, whilst the main trench continued to the Ops & Tech Sites on Saxa Vord. The work, involving the movement of tons of peat and rock, was arduous and the jointing of cable lengths complex, especially in periods of bad weather.
The JD Thomson picture below has been reproduced from an issue of the Shetland Life Magazine (Oct 2000) and shows the cable trench from the Ops Site to the Tech Site. The building in the top left is the Ops Block and the fact that it is an early picture is indicated by the lack of an Admiralty Building and Admiralty Annex on the right-hand  side of the photo.
The laying of the main cables was finished by Mar 56.
Because there was a surplus of electricity available for normal Navy and RAF operations it was agreed to sell power to the North of Scotland Hydro-electric Board who, in turn, would provide power to civilian customers on Unst (see:
Fuel for the Power House. As mentioned earlier, the RAF Oil Tanks by the Baltasound Pier were constructed in 1955.
The land (0.6 of an acre), was purchased from Alexander Sandison & Sons. A pipe was laid from the pier to enable fuel to be landed for the RAF and a 4 inch pipe was laid from the tanks to the new Power House at Valsgarth, a distance of about 3 miles. An arrangement was made so that Sandisons could draw on the bulk fuel supply, through a metered system, to supply their own tanks for resale.
Water Supplies to the Ops and Tech Sites. It was originally envisaged that water supplies to the top of the hill would be provided from a tank  at the Tech Site, frequently topped up by a 200 gallon bowser delivering supplies from the Domestic Site. This would normally entail 3 round trips a day just to maintain the supply. It was realised that this would be expensive and risky - the road up the hill was not always useable in the winter months. In Sep 56 Sqn Ldr Bulpitt, who was at Saxa, wrote to RAF Bishopbriggs (parenting Saxa Vord at the time), to suggest that the same water source that the Admiralty had used in WWII be made use of. A natural spring, less than a quarter of a mile from the Ops Site, had been tapped and had provided up to 600 gallons a day (supposedly without fail), for the duration of the war. Whoever had the original idea of using this spring for the Saxa Ops & Tech Sites, it was this idea which was adopted together with a plan for a back up water bowser, should it be needed

A water intake, storage & pump house were built just below the Ops Site and mains pipes were laid to the area where a 20,000 gallon static water tank was to be erected to the south of the T80 plinth where, I presume, there was a chlorinating plant. The location of the intake and pump house can be seen in this modern photo:
Looking at these structures from the opposite direction in the next photograph, some older foundations can be seen in the left foreground. I believe these belonged to an old WWII  hut which housed a pump or generator for the Admiralty:
The water tank at the Tech Site was about 190' above the pump house and was close to the access gate. It is marked in this later photo:
Sometime afterwards an emergency water supply tank was erected close to the Admiralty Building.
Communications. The need for fast and reliable communications is essential for air defence sites and, historically, the role of the GPO has been vital in setting up radar stations in the UK. From the beginning the GPO were deeply involved in the planning and provision of modern radio and telephone systems at Saxa Vord. Trenches had to be dug, complex cables had to be laid, numerous joints had to be made and the terminations had to be installed where they were needed within the buildings. A few junction boxes, like this one at the foot of the spur road to Receivers and Transmitters, can still be seen:

The main communications with aircraft were to be via the VHF Transmitter and Receiver towers but these had to be connected to the R10 Operations Block by GPO landlines. Less well known is that the main point-to-point telephone routes went via VHF towers at the Transmitter site, which were also connected to the Ops site by landline. The next photo was taken by David Goodall about 1960. It shows the Transmitter Site with the ground to air communications handled by the larger tower in the middle of the picture. The smaller towers surrounding it belonged to the GPO and carried the normal telephone links, initially to a site on the mainland of Shetland:
The GPO had a separate building at Transmitters which, after extension, was to become Radio Norwick later in its life. This photo by Tony Sparkes shows this building on the right in its earlier GPO role:
Another communications system, separate from the GPO, was put in place slightly later - the NATO Ace High link: 
It is also interesting to note that very early on in the ROTOR programme extensive discussions about providing Saxa Vord with a direct "radar link" to RAF Buchan took place. The main points considered included economics, possible establishment reductions and the technology available. An Air Ministry letter in 1957 stated that no method for providing this link had been chosen and, besides, suitable equipment would not be available for 3 or 4 years. A while later it was noted that the technology would probably not be developed until the early 70's!

Construction Workers. The main contract for the non-technical building work on the RAF Saxa Vord sites was awarded to the firm of Holland, Hannen & Cubitts, a long established company which had undertaken many WWII projects. Other firms were subsequently sub-contracted to carry out some of the tasks. Under the ROTOR programme there was a drive for speed, efficiency and economy. Dependent upon the roles of the units being built there were standard sets of plans; for example, GCI units were provided with R3 (ROTOR 3) underground Ops Bunkers. The Centimetric Early Warning sites, like Saxa, usually had R10 Ops Blocks, above ground. Although patterns could be varied from site to site, standardised plans simplified the supply of materials and hastened work.
Not enough labour could be found locally and a high proportion of the workforce had to be brought in from other parts of Shetland and further afield. Accommodation had to be provided and so an encampment was built on ground outside the Station boundary, near the Main Guardroom. Some of this accommodation can be seen in this 1958 photo from Terry Luxford - the two long wooden huts in the distance:

The saying that Rome wasn't built in a day certainly applied to Saxa Vord. Contractors started arriving in 1954 and parts of the work continued until 1962. Priority was given to the operational requirements (the Admiralty Building was in use by 1956) and essential accommodation; whereas, less vital areas, like the Education Section, the Gym and the Ice Cap, were finished later. Work in progress can be seen in the next two photos. In the first, the person second from the left is possibly a worker known as "Coney" (Konrad) Gjerde, an ex-Norwegian fisherman, who settled on Unst:
In the next photo the unfinished Gym and Ice Cap can be seen behind the snow-plough:
The technical equipment required the presence of different contractors - Decca which had refined the design of the T80, Marconi which had designed the T13, T14 and were involved with the T80 project and John Curran Ltd, a Welsh firm, which had designed the T80 turning gear. The companies carrying out the work on the Tech and Ops sites had wooden, hutted offices in the area which was later used for the top site fire section. In the Admiralty Buildings much of the electrical work had to be carried out by scientific officers but access to an RAF radar and radar console (Type 64) had to be provided. One task a scientific officer had to complete was the selection of a route for a cable trench to be dug to Buddabrake, on the east side of Burrafirth, as part of Admiralty trials:
Throughout the building of Saxa Vord (and afterwards), there was a strong presence from the Air Ministry Works Department (AMWD).    The appropriate files contain frequent references to the AMWD Works Superintendent and there is a mass of correspondence about the provision of married quarters for AMWD personnel, particularly trained staff able to run the Power House. In the 50's, other than for the CO, there was very little correspondence regarding the provision of married quarters for servicemen. The three houses near the Power House, shown in the following photo and similar to the Admiralty Bungalow used by the CO, were built for AMWD staff:

The RN Advance Party.
By Feb 56 a naval advance party of 19 personnel, including 3 officers, were expected to be on site. How many arrived and how long they stayed is a bit of a mystery. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence to indicate that some arrived but, what their function was and how long they stayed, is not apparent. It is likely that they provided support to the Admiralty Scientific Officers who participated in the anti-submarine exercises and trials carried out from the Admiralty Building (Exercises Thermostat, Nightshade etc). By 1958, thoughts of a permanently manned RN unit seemed to have disappeared and the Admiralty just used the site for occasional trials - perhaps their initial trials had not been as successful as had been hoped! The US carried out their own tests from Unst (using American equipment), between 1961 & 63. The only permanent member of staff at the Admiralty Experimental Station (Unst) from 1958 until 1977, was one civilian caretaker - Bertie Henderson.
The RAF Advance Party.

On the 27 Sep 57 a Board  of Officers assembled on Unst for the purpose of transferring the Technical and Domestic Sites at RAF Saxa Vord from HQ 90 (Signals) Group to HQ Fighter Command. Before that we know that the Unit had been parented by RAF Bishopbriggs, near Glasgow, and that construction had been taking place for more than 3 years. An advance party of RAF personnel had been on Unst throughout this period and, in this time of National Service, a number of people would have completed their tours before the Unit became operational. "The original establishment of the unit was charged with the task of caring for and maintaining the buildings and equipment during the period of construction and installation. In addition, due to the lack of hotel and civilian accommodation, the unit had to provide accommodation and messing for members of the civilian contractors parties," - the authority for this quote was contained in an Air Ministry letter dated 16 Sep 54
George Southwick, a Sgt caterer, was at Saxa from about Aug 56 until Mar 58 and he recollects that in his day the "Advance Party" consisted of about 27 servicemen and he remembers that these included:
Flt Lt Davidson (the CO)
Warrant Officer Donaldson (i/c the Radar Site)
5 Sgts (Admin, Stores, Fire, Accounts & Catering)
3 Cpls (Police, MT & Catering)
6 Firemen
6 Cooks
4 MT Drivers
1 LAC Steward

From other sources a few names have been uncovered. The first CO of the operational station was Gordon Millar (from Sep 57), but it is apparent that there were at least 2 other officers in command at Saxa before him.  The Operations Readiness Book shows Flt Lt CA Davidson as handing over command to Millar when HQ 11 Group took over the station. As early as Sep 1956 Sqn Ldr NTR Bulpitt sent a letter to RAF Bishopbriggs from Haroldswick and the signature block read "Officer Commanding, Royal Air Force Saxa Vord". The Sgt Fireman was Frank Brand, who spent many years on Unst and we know that SAC Dave Childs, a policeman, arrived in Mar 57. Another policeman, who was there at about the same time as Dave Childs, was called Moss Bilson. For much of '56 & '57 Joseph Cross (Caterer) was an Acting Cpl on the Unit. Although the post is not mentioned on the Southwick list, there was also a Medic called Don Quinn. I would be very interested should anyone have more information about "the advance party".

Airstrip. It will come as a surprise to many that the RAF had early plans to build an airstrip on Unst  "suitable for an Anson type aircraft".

In 1956 plans were drawn up and costed for the construction of a 2,400' runway, longer than the airstrip eventually built at the south side, Baltasound (2099') by the Royal Engineers in the late 60's. As surprising as the fact that the plans existed was the proposed location, which can be seen in the extract from a Fighter Command plan, dated 17 Oct 56, reproduced below:

The estimated cost of the project was in the region of £85,000. I do not know why these plans were not implemented, perhaps because Britain was in the midst of an economic crisis in Oct 56 due to the British involvement in Suez and the subsequent ignominious withdrawal in November.
Further Construction at Saxa. Large projects at RAF Saxa Vord were a fact of life during much of the existence of the Station. The rebuilding of the T80 in 1961 and installation of a  radome in '63, the Married Quarters at SHE opening in '67, the re-engineering of the Top and Mid Sites in '77 to '79, the rebuild of most of the Domestic Site in the 80's and the early '90's - all provided work on Unst. In 2017/18 work has been carried out erecting a new "Remote Radar Head" - what next?

AIR 2 12066
Shetland Museum & Archives
Shetland Life, Oct 2000
Eric Fairhurst
The late Joe Cross


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