I have not been able to locate a complete set of official records of the operations at AES4 during WWII in the National Archives but the following paragraphs include much of the available data:
The CDU became operational on 24 Sep 40 and the first Commanding Officer was Lt J Addison Lewis, who was to be the longest serving CO at AES4.
During the month of Apr '41 plots on 393 aircraft were recorded, of which 43 were identified as hostiles. Ranges of up to 80 miles were frequently observed. It was also noted that 4 boats carrying Norwegian refugees landed on Unst. Some senior Army Officers and an MP visited to discuss the guard force for the Unit. Flight Lieutenant Clarke and Flying Officer Slater from the RAF Advance Chain Home station at Skaw, paid a call on the Unit and, no doubt, discussed items of mutual interest with their Navy counterparts.
In May 41 the radar performance was considered satisfactory and the total number of tracks plotted was similar to the previous month; however, more of them were identified as hostile (84). The month also saw 4 Norwegian boatloads of refugees landing on the island.
In Jun 41 the radar performance was considered "very satisfactory", with one aircaft being followed as far as 110 miles from the station and with distances of 30 to 35 miles being recorded on targets flying at 100'. At the beginning of June a series of calibration runs for the radar were flown, probably by an RAF Blenheim. When flying at 50' the plane was tracked out to 36 miles and, when at 1,000', it was plotted out to 70 miles. No Norwegian boat landings on Unst were noted in the Unit records during the month.
Thirty-two hostile tracks were plotted during Jul 41, including a Ju88 which was tracked on a south-easterly heading to the north of Shetland. Two Blenheims pursued it to within 10 miles of the Norwegian coast and, although it was not shot down, it was probably damaged. On the 5th, 6th and 7th of the month a number of naval vessels, including a cruiser and destroyers, were reported to the north and west of the Unit. Two Norwgian boats with refugees arrived at Unst.
On 18 Aug 41 the Unit assisted in the rescue of six crew members of an RAF Coastal Command Whitley V of 612 Sqn (T4282), who were eventually picked up by a High Speed Launch. A Sunderland flying boat to the north of Unst, engaged in the search for the Whitley, was fired upon by a Ju88. It was frustrating for the staff at the radar unit as, had AES4 been in VHF radio contact at the time, the Sunderland could have been notified of the position of the downed Whitley and of the approach of the Ju88.
In Sep 41 some significant shipping plots were recorded, including 2 large vessels on the 3rd of the month, believed to be Battleships, which were tracked out to 39NM but their destination was not known. Five Norwegian boats reached Unst and 21 Hostile aircraft were seen.
Twenty-six hostile tracks were plotted during Oct 41, including a JU88 which circled Saxa Vord before heading to RAF Skaw, where it dropped a stick of bombs. Some telephone lines were interrupted but no serious injury or damage was caused.
The Germans flew meteorological reconnaisance flights out over the Atlantic at frequent intervals and these aircraft were dubbed "Weather Willies". On the 19 Oct one such flight was intercepted and damaged before it escaped in cloud cover. The weather during the month was bad, gales being recorded on 13 days. A Coastal Command Blenheim was plotted for 2 hours 45 minutes. RAF Sumburgh was unable to estalish radio contact with it and it was evenually lost without trace, to the south of the island of Whalsay. Shipping activity was slight with just friendly trawlers and a few Norwegian boats with refugees. The radar performance was satisfactory but some problems with the aerial turntables, which were becoming worn, were reported. Liason between the services was taking place with a number of RAF personnel from Skaw visiting and with 3 naval staff spending a week in the Filter Room, which was at RAF Sumburgh at the time. In the log it was mentioned that the Unit was continuing to have difficulies with the supply of radar spares.Twenty-six out of 270 aircraft tracks plotted were identified as hostile.
On over half the days in Nov 41 gales were recorded and a number of mines were washed into dangerous places along the shore, but none of them exploded. There were some telephone problems with the "tied" line to Sumburgh, which went via Skaw. The radar performance was greatly enhanced when new valves (VT98 - VT= vacuum tube) replaced the older VT58’s. The new valves were substantial, 36cm long and weighing more than 2kg each:
With permission from: www.tubecollector.org
he latest valves were installed in the transmitter during the period 24 to 26 Nov. It was too early to do a full assessment but one aircraft, height unknown, had been tracked to a range of 150 miles. Fewer tracks than usual were reported - 159, of which 15 were classified as hostile.
There were some gales at the beginning of Dec 41 but there was calmer, frosty weather towards the end of the month. Various small boats were tracked and on the 7th an escaped barrage balloon dragged its cable along the telephone lines from Saxa Vord. The damage was repaired by the following day. Due to radar turning gear problems the Unit was off the air from 15th to 22nd and for the rest of the month was only serviceable intermittantly. The Unit log records that an enemy meteorological aircraft was shot down by a Blenheim from Sumburgh on the 18th. However, other records show that a Ju88 crashed off Shetland on that day "due to engine failure". After long delays en route (paticularly at Leith), a new turntable arrived for the transmitter aerial. No sooner had this had been fitted when severe problems with the receiver turntable occured, (which was replaced by 9 Jan 42). When the radar was operating good ranges (with the VT98 valves) were achieved. Dependent upon their size, ships were tracked out to 40 miles and good responses from aircraft were received at ranges between 140 and 150 miles.
Jan 42. On 17 Jan the central Filter Room was transferred from Sumburgh to Lerwick. A number of problems with the telephone system on Unst were experiencd but work was in hand to improve the situation. There was a shortage of radar spares in Shetland and plans to open a Wing detachment in Lerwick were welcomed as this could result in an improvement to the situation. January saw fewer aircraft tracks plotted than usual, with a total of 161, 22 of which were classified as hostile. The first CO of the Unit, Lt J Addison Lewis RNVR, was finally posted on 17 Jan, he was replaced by Lt Angus Orr, RNVR. Orr is the officer in the centre of the next photo, which was taken at Thurso - just a few miles from AES6.
Feb 42.There were 19 hostiles out of a total of 281 aircraft tracks reported and plots at more than 140 miles were becoming common place. Sixty-six shipping positions were recorded. There were a number of radar turntable problems.
Mar 42. The conversion to the common transmit/receive system was completed. The new single aerial system was more sensitive and, once detected, tracks held more easily. The new aerial was above the Receiver Block. The wireless/telegraphy equipment was temporarily moved into the transmitter block, which was now surplus, whilst work on a new W/T hut was begun. 339 aircraft tracks were plotted (21 hostiles) and 32 ships were reported, including one Norwegian boat which reached Unst.
Apr 42. The unit staff were greatly impressed by the new radar gear, which gave good ranges and fewer "erratic" tracks were being plotted. Some ships had been tracked to 100 miles range. A number of unsuccessful attempts at intercepting hostile aircraft were made. In the opinion of the CO, this was due to the inability of the CDU to pass messages directly to the fighters and to provide more accurate target information. Time delays seemed inevitable with the control coming from the Filter Room. It was the busiest month yet regarding the quantity of tracks seen. At 707 there were more than double the number of aircraft seen in the previous month (50 hostiles were identified). Two Norwegian boats with refugees made landfall.
May 42. The introduction of a new Plan Position Indicator greatly improved plotting performance. A new record for the number of aircraft plots passed was achieved - 890, of which 64 were classified as hostile. The tracks of 20 ships were also forwarded. The Units radar detected a Motor Vessel, belonging to the Norwegian Navy, which was being attacked. The vessel subsequently arrived at Unst with a dying man aboard - the unit staff organised medical assistance.
Jun 42. The month saw a notable success for the Unit when plots from the radar led to the destruction of a hostile. Although the fighter was not under the control of Saxa, the information from the station led to a Beaufighter achieving a "kill" 83 miles NE of the radar. The enemy aircrafts identification is not given but is was possibly a Blohm & Voss Bv 138 sea plane. The following photo comes from the Australian War Memorial - ID Number: 129741.
Reports were passed on 21 shipping tracks and it was another busy month for the number of aircraft seen, with 891 reported (64 of them hostiles).
Jul 42. Construction of the new operations buildings was progressing well with the new W/T hut finished, although the radio equipment still had to be installed. I have marked what I believe to be the site of the W/T hut on the next picture:
The diesel engines were causing some problems, even after being overhauled. One boat load of refugees arrived on Unst during July.
Aug 42. Two Spitfires managed to intercept a JU88 and the pilots claimed it as badly damaged/possibly destroyed about 44 miles NE of Saxa, A W/T set was installed in the new hut and, when it was tested with the RAF in Lerwick, the performance was satisfactory. The road between Haroldswick and Saxa was undergoing repairs.
Sep 42. It was a bad month for gales with the radar aerial having to be lashed down for over 144 hours to prevent it from being damaged. Two controllers with a VHF radio set were deployed to the site in the hope of controlling interceptions against enemy aircraft. Unfortunately, their attempts were foiled by bad communications and their efforts were suspended until their radio could be re-sited. Work on the CHL 1941 building was nearing completion but the mains cable from Skaw still required jointing. A new IFF cubicle had been built about 120 yards NE of the new CHL 1941 building and work was in progress on the foundations for the 28' IFF mast. Work on the road to Haroldswick continued and Flt Lt Ellis, CO RAF Skaw, visited the Unit.
Oct 42. A number of comments about construction appear in the log. For example, it was stated that the arrangements for the Naval Type 273 radar should be ready by the time the equipment arrived. Cpl Batchelor, RAF Radar Mechanic, was sent on an NT 273 course. Camouflage paint had been applied to the site buildings but, "the green colour used is more reminiscent of those lush meadows of the Wye Valley than the peat bog which is the top of Saxa Vord". Engineers from the company Caledon had gone, leaving the new turntable prepared for the new CHL radar. The repairs to the road leading to the site were half finished and it would be in a better state for the coming winter than it had been for the last.
Nov 42. No new equipment became operational during the month but a working party from 71 Wing had arrived on site on the 25th - they hoped to have the CHL 1941 gear working by the end of the year. Previous delays in construction and electrical work meant that the new apparatus was having to be installed in poor weather conditions (ie, in the winter!). The NT 273 radar had arrived and it was believed that it could be ready by 1943, if the weather wasn't too bad and if the Air Ministry Works Department (AMWD) finished the construction work on time. In fact, the CO of AES4, Lt Angus Orr, informed his superiors that he considered AMWD were not up to the task and that the appropriate department of the Admiralty should take over the job!
Dec 42. This was a much quieter month with regard to air activity, with just 137 tracks plotted, 13 of them categorised as hostile. Neither the NT273 nor the CHL 1941 were ready for commissioning, though the equipment had been on site for some time. Construction hold-ups and the lack of an adequate power supply were cited as the main reasons. One Mark II Lister generator had been installed, but was not yet connected, and the new mains power line from RAF Skaw was not yet ready. The only power available came from a 15KVa diesel and its standby, which provided insufficient power for the new equipment. The CO seemed to be frustrated that his complaints were having little effect on the situation!
Two RN Leading Radio Mechanics arrived as part of the programme to eventually replace the RAF staff but Lt Orr didn't seem too hopeful. "Neither have any practical experience in the simplest of jobs". He went on to say that " It would not be possible to release the RAF personnel and to maintain the hitherto excellent standard of technical maintenance by relying upon the newcomers". He then went on to say 3 of the RAF men should stay until the end of Feb 43, reducing to 2 until June, but also added that the 2 senior RAF mechanics should be retained permanently! He added that this suggestion should be acted upon as "the practical abilities of the RAF men in question would be essential in maintaining the future good performance of the station".
Jan 43. The radar had to be lashed down for 235 hours in January because of gales. The quiet spell for traffic continued, with 217 aircraft tracks plotted, only 4 of them labelled hostile. In the same period 32 shipping tracks were passed to higher authority. The CHL radar gave excellent service, with one aircraft plotted to 181 miles but the commissioning of the set was being delayed until the provision of a reliable power supply. The mountings for the new Lister generator were in need of re-grouting and there were some problems with earthing the new power line from Skaw. Until the arrival of operators from the Signals School, the NT 273 radar was only being used when the CHL aerial was lashed down in gales or unserviceable. There had been no technical difficulties with the NT 273 but there was no outstanding performance to report so far.
On 2 Jan the unit was informed of a Catalina leaving RAF Sullom Voe. The aircraft was tracked for some time until it suddenly faded. The operator informed the Filter Room of the track disappearing and voiced the opinion that the aircraft had come down in the sea. A short time later an anti-aircraft guard reported what he thought to be a red flare on the sea on a beating of 110 degrees at 10 to 14 miles. This was reported to the Filter Room but they seemed unconcerned, assuming the aircraft had dropped a flare to check the drift. Although the Unit raised queries about the aircraft over the next 6 hours, the staff in the Filter Room did not seem to be worried and no effort was made to locate the aircraft. Eventually, 14 hours after the first reports from AES 4, the plane was declared overdue at its base. The Filter Room staff requested that the Unit look out for the plane. The following day an unsuccessful search for the Catalina was carried out - no trace was found.
Feb 43. The CHL radar was off the air during gales for 313 hours but cover was provided to a large extent by the NT 273. There continued to be little activity with just 141 aircraft tracks (4 hostiles) and 31 ships reported. It was noted that all the shipping was reported from the NT 273 and it included 16 RN ships, (of which 12 were submarines). Though not in its final layout, satisfactory power was now being delivered from the RAF Skaw Power House. The long awaited extra personnel, many of whom were survivors from RN ships, arrived to bring the complement up to the required level.
Mar 43. On 28 Mar Lt KD McInnes arrived as the new CO, replacing Lt Angus Orr. Certainly for part, if not all of his time on Unst, McInnes was accompanied by his wife. I have found no other spouse mentioned as being present on Unst in the records of AES4 and it appears that this lady was allowed total access to the operational areas of the Unit. This "ability to roam" and the opportunity to view classified material resulted in comments being made to higher authority by at least one visiting staff officer.
Apr 43. The weather improved somewhat with the CHL lashed down because of the wind for just 49 hours. The number of tracks, both aircraft and shipping, increased considerably. Three hundred and ninety-five aircraft tracks (39 hostiles) were plotted and 79 ships were recorded. Very good results were obtained from the NT 273.
May 43. The radar gear worked "remarkably well". Some notable ranges were entered into the log, including: a submarine seen at 36.5 miles on the 6 May, a hostile at 28,000' on 17 May was tracked to 180 miles and a Catalina at 3,500'seen at 92 miles on 25 May. The "usual" number of hostiles were seen but they all gave Saxa a wide berth. Technically and mechanically the CHL radar worked very well and very good results were obtained from the NT 273.
Jun 43. Five hundred & sixty-four aircraft were plotted, including 24 hostiles and, over the same period, 106 ships were reported. The weather was generally good and the radar equipment worked well. The CHL equipment picked up 2 responses on a bearing of 084 degrees at 187 and 189 miles, possibly over Norway. The CHL even picked up Fair Isle, 93 mile to the south.
Jul 43. The total of aircraft plots was 726 (39 hostile), whilst there were 154 shipping movements. The best plots were, 183 miles on a bomber (height unknown) and a group of four ships were seen to a distance of 67 miles.
Aug 43. Another busy month with 794 aircraft plots (34 hostiles) and 99 shipping tracks. All of the gear had been working well, possibly helped by the warm, dry summer weather. The CHL radar had given some good ranges - 190, 202 and 210 miles. An event with the NT 273 is worth recording. An object, which appeared to be stationary, was seen at about 9 miles. It was decided to send a motor launch to investigate and the crew were given the last known position. The log records "Within a very short space of time the target had been located, a floating oil drum. Footnote, (the captain is now a firm believer in radar)". There were numerous visitors to the site, including Air Vice Marshal Aitkin, who was the Air Officer Commanding No 60 (Signals) Group.
Sep 43. There were a total of 594 aircraft plotted (35 hostile) and 101 ships. The CHL radar detected 2 Swedish ships at a range of 95 miles from the station.
Oct 43. Twenty-six hostiles were identified out of the 618 aircraft reported and 193 ships were tracked. The power line from Skaw failed (transformer problem) and the armoured power cable carrying power for the lighting and heating to the camp accommodation also failed (corrosion caused by the peat soil). Both faults were repaired quite quickly. A fault developed on a valve in the NT 273 radar. Some on site ingenuity led to the adaption of a different type of valve and a successful repair was completed. The new Mark III IFF equipment had been installed and was working satisfactorily, except that responses were being seen 180 degrees off the line of shoot (a problem reported by some other units). On the 27th the survivors an MTB plus the crew of the rescuing MTB had to be accommodated at Hamarsgarth - a total of 79 officers and men. Casualties were treated at the Springfield Hotel by a Royal Norwegian Surgeon and the local Admiralty agent. Although the log doesn't say so, I'm sure the Unst GP, Dr Saxby would have been involved!
On 9 Dec 43 AES4 detected an Atlantic Recce aircraft north-east of Shetland and continued to give accurate plots on it. It was identified as a Ju88 and shot down by a Mosquito, operating from Sumburgh. It was the third Atlantic Recce shot down north of Scotland in two weeks, all destroyed by Mosquitos, two operated by a Polish Sqn, the other from a Norwegian Sqn.
On 17 Jan 44 the Unit and a number of others, passed plots on a hostile which was eventually destroyed by a Fighter, operating under the control of Cocklaw, a CHL site near Peterhead.
Unfortunately, I have been unable to locate any further official operational reports from AES4 in The National Archive, though the Unit remained "on watch" until the end of the war.
AES 4 was the last of the 6 CDUs in the North of UK to close. At the time Lt Wilkinson was the CO and I believe that the radar equipment was dismantled early in 1946.
Post- War use of Buildings. After the Unit closed in July 1946 and the radar equipment removed, the site lay dormant for 8 years until 1954, when work on 91 Signals Unit/ RAF Saxa Vord commenced. The old buildings were put to use as explained in the following paragraphs.
The 1941 CHL Block was used as a Store and then as the Type 13 Height-finder Radar Workshop. After the Type 13 was replaced by the HF 200, the building was used to house Coastguard and Civil Aviation Authority equipment. The following pictures were taken of the 1941 CHL block in 1983/4, the first of the outside and the second of the interior.
At one stage the old CDU/CHL Transmitter Block was used by the Fire Section as a Smoke Building and a 40 gallon drum, converted to a rudimentary incinerator, can be seen in the centre of the following picture. I believe the antenna on the roof belonged to Union Oil:
The CDU/CHL Receiver Block, shown on the left, below, had a more mundane after life as a store.
The Admiralty put the MkIII IFF Kiosk to use again from the mid 50's to the '60's, when it was used in anti – submarine trials by the Admiralty Research Laboratories. The base for a theodolite was mounted on the roof and used for the setting-up of a temporary Decca Navigation system employed during the trials. The two photos which follow show where it was located. The first picture was taken in Feb 1961, just after the Type 80 reflector had been removed by gales - it shows a rectangular structure with a sloping top on the roof of the kiosk. It is possible that the structure was to protect the theodolite mounting in bad weather:
The second picture, which was taken in 1983 just before the building was demolished, shows the theodolite base quite clearly.
One other AES4 building was used by the RAF for many years with very few people knowing about it. During the construction phase in the mid 50’s, one of the lower site AES4 buildings was incorporated in the structure of the R10 Ops Block. The title R10 signifies a Rotor Building of pattern no 10. Practically all the Saxa Vord construction in the mid 50's used breeze blocks , whilst nearly all the WWII military buildings in Shetland were made of normal bricks, from Lothian brickfields - see last photo of the IFF Kiosk. Most of the R10 walls contain breeze blocks but the area of the restrooms is built of bricks.
As mentioned earlier, two of the men who served at AES4, Geoffrey Sleigh and RJ Hawkins, committed some of their memories to paper. I have added extracts from their records as Notes 1 & 2 below. The original material is held by the Unst Heritage Centre.
Note 1. Geoffrey Sleigh.
I was in the Royal Navy during the war, I joined up at the age of 17. My home was at Poynton, a village in Cheshire. I was given the job of radar watch on various ships before we were sunk in the English Channel. We were torpedoed by an E Boat on 3 Dec 42. After such an experience some kind person in the draft office must have decided to send us to a shore base.
So' in Feb 43 some of us were drafted to Unst. The draft note simply read, " HMS Fox, AES No 4, via Aberdeen and Lerwick. We tried to find out more but without success and so we set off into the unknown. We caught a train from our barracks in Portsmouth to Aberdeen. From there we caught the passenger boat to Shetland - this was called the "St Magnus". We were amazed to find that so many of the passengers were cows, hens and all kinds of livestock, which were housed quite close to our cabins! I cannot remember what the sea conditions were on that day, I was to travel this way many times after that. sometimes the weather was kind, sometimes not. However, I do remember passing Fair Isle and thinking, why should anyone choose to live in such a place? We were to see many more such remote places before we were to arrive at our destination.
We finally arrived at Lerwick after 16 hours. We thought this was the end of our journey, only to be told that we must board another boat. Fortunately , we had time to look around Lerwick and sleep at the naval barracks there. The "Earl of Zetland" took us to Unst, it was a slow journey because we stopped at so many places. Places such as Whalsay, Burravoe, Mid Yell and Fetlar, The boat delivered mail, food and provisions of all kinds. On this particular day The Earl turned back at Uyeasound and did not go on to Baltasound, as usual. We were met by a pick-up truck, driven by Fred Walsh a Royal Marine. He took us across Unst to Haroldswick.
I shall never forget those 6 miles looking out the back of that truck, what were we coming to? There were no trees or hedges, no towns or even villages. There was an occasional croft here and there but there wasn't anything which remotely resembled civilization as we knew it.
And so we arrived at Hamarsgarth, our new "home". One or two of the group made excuses to leave as soon as possible, but most of those who came stayed and began to adjust. We even began to enjoy the life and, more amazingly, we came to understand why the islanders chose to live there and put up with all that hard work and such bad weather.
Off Duty - Our life at Hamarsgarth. Hamarsgarth was quite a large house by Shetland standards, it had three or four bedrooms perhaps. I was never to go upstairs because that was where the CO and the Chief Petty Officer slept. There were two huts and two nissen huts outside. We used these as sleeping quarters, a canteen, etc. Hamarsgarth overlooked Haroldswick Bay, about 50yards from the sea. Nearby was Hakki Johnson's store. There was not a lot of stock of course due to the wartime restrictions on food, sweets etc. Nevertheless, we used to make good use of whatever there was. Barbara Sutherland was Mr Johnson's assistant. She seemed a shy girl and a little in awe of us I think, but she was a lovely person and a great help to us.
The Chief Petty Officer at that time was CPO King. He was a very big man, about 20 stone and in his 50's at a guess. He had been called back into the Navy, being on the Naval Reserve. It was said that he had been a butcher during his time in civvy street. I do not know if this was true but it was certainly because of him that we kept the pigs.
We kept 3 or 4 pigs at the rear of Hamarsgarth. The pigs were fattened up with swill collected from our Mess and from RAF Skaw, where "Chiefy" made arrangements for it to be collected. There was a full time "pig man", whose sole job was to look after the pigs and hens. "Tug" Wilson did the job in my time and very well too. The slaughtering of the pigs was done by "Chiefy" and the watch that happened to be off duty at the time. It was not something we looked forward to. Some of these pigs were so well fed that they became quite a size and were difficult to handle. But, with a few curses from "Chiefy" and the dutch courage we got from a double tot of rum, (he gave us this before we started), we managed to get the job done, sometimes wishing it could have been "Chiefy" instead of the pig! What happened to all the pig was known only to him. We certainly got some but there was also some quiet bartering going on, not that we were too concerned about that.
"Chiefy" was certainly a character and all at Hamarsgarth and Haroldswick would have agreed. He was a complex man, feared rather by those who knew him. Maybe it was his size and big red face. But he was a formidable figure and what he said had to be done.
The people at Haroldswick were all friends to us. We lived in their community and they accepted us as we were and us them. Strangers could easily have mistaken us as locals. Our naval uniforms were very informal, to say the least, simply a mixture of civilian shirts and naval trousers.
Since we did not keep cows at Hamarsgarth we collected milk every day from Mrs Sinclair at North Booth. We were always made most welcome with a cup of tea and a chat. We all enjoyed going to North Booth, probably because it was it was rather like being at home for a short spell. I remember Sam Burns and his wife who kept the Post Office. They were good friends and always helpful to us.
There was usually quite a lot of work to be done at Hamarsgarth. Apart from cleaning the place and general maintenance we got the chance to do our own laundry, etc. Also, on the days the "Earl" came to Baltasound, there was the unloading of all our provisions. Coal, diesel and new parts for Saxa Vord to be dealt with because everything had to be brought in by sea. Some of the off-duty crew at Hamarsgarth:
We relied on the RAF at Skaw for some of our entertainment. They had a cinema and sometimes even visiting ENSA shows. I think we were pretty much last in line for this sort of thing, but we looked forward to them for a really good night out. We enjoyed playing football. We organised matches with RAF Skaw and the anti-aircraft unit (Royal Artillery). The competition was very keen because there were not too many of us to chose from and often a relief player had to be found for people on watch when games were arranged. There was a great deal of excitement when a team of the Gordon Highlanders came up to Unst to play a match. They had been unbeaten on the mainland. A team was chosen with the best players from RAF Skaw, the RA and the Navy. The match took place at Norwick and quite a crowd came to watch. Unfortunately we lost 5 - 2, but it was an exciting game and we were all pleased with our performance against such a good side. The match certainly relieved the monotony of our normal day to day lives and gave everyone a lift
A newspaper cutting following the tour by the Gordon Highlanders:
We also enjoyed the local dances. Most of them were held in the Haroldswick Hall but sometimes elsewhere on the island. It was remarkable where everyone came from. Even in very bad weather the girls would be waiting to be picked up. RAF vehicles and our own truck picked up at Uyeasound, Baltasound and all the way along. The fiddling began and the reels sometimes lasted until two or three am. Everyone joined in and had a wonderful time. (Geoffrey produced a list of girls who attended these dances - it is attached at the foot of his anecdotes).
We eventually left Unst in June 1945, the war in Europe had ended in May and so our job had come to an end. We had to report back to RNB Portsmouth. I remember the day we left. We were all dressed in our full naval uniform. We went to say goodbye and thank you to the people of Haroldswick. Mr Johnson invited us to come back whenever we wanted to , as did other people. Farewells at Crookadale:
And so we set-off for the last time on the "Earl of Zetland". We were pleased that the war in Europe was over and that soon we would be able to go home for good, but we were sorry to leave Unst. Life was hard for everybody but the experience had left an imprint on all our lives. We would never forget the time we spent on Unst and we would always remember and be grateful to the people there for their kindness and friendship.
On duty at Saxavord radar station. The draft note mentioned AES no 4. This we found out later meant Admiralty Experimental Station No 4. A few buildings were located on the summit of Saxavord, one of these housed radar equipment. From such a height we were able to locate planes and ships at a distance.
We left Hamarsgarth just after midday to start our two days "on watch". At 2pm we relieved the previous watch who were then off duty for 48 hours. There were two watches on duty at one time and six people on each watch, one group sleeping or resting whilst the other actually worked. For the first watch of the two, the hours on duty would be:
2pm until 6pm
midnight until 8am
6pm until midnight
8am until 2pm - the second watch would work the hours in between.
Our sleeping quarters were part way down the hill about 250'. It was a plain concrete building split into two. At one side was the mess, where we cooked and ate our meals and the other side was where we slept in hammocks. There was also an army hut which the Gordon Highlanders, who guarded the site, used. There was a building for the diesel engine which ran continuously to provide the lighting and power we needed. Another hut was used by the telegraphists, one of whom would be on duty all the time. Radar mechanics also used these quarters, they serviced and repaired the equipment making sure that we could operate the radar at all times.
We had terrible weather at times on Saxavord. There was always wind, even on calm days. When the wind became too strong we were forced to secure the aerials into a set position. Unfortunately we were then unable to cover 360° until the wind abated. Sometimes we could hardly stand up outside. I remember climbing up the hill, the short distance to the top, on one very bad night. Six of us set off just before midnight and we all arrived separately, we had been blown around quite helplessly. One person had only been saved from being blown over the cliffs by some barbed wire entanglements. There was often mist on the hill. It often met us half way up the hill from Hamarsgarth and we only came out of it on the way down. These mists could last for weeks at certain times of the year.
On clear bright days the views were wonderful. We looked down upon Muckle Flugga Lighthouse. Apart from the lighthouse keeper we were the most northerly people in the British Isles. We enjoyed looking around and naming places and islands to the south. I can remember the marvellous showings of the Northern Lights from up on Saxavord. It is hard to describe the wonderful coloured skies and probably only those people who have been lucky enough to see them from such a perfect position would know what it's like.
On the operational side of the work at Saxavord, we located the movements of planes and also shipping in the area. We passed all the information to the RAF plotting room in Lerwick. They were in direct contact with the headquarters in Inverness, who could contact all the stations in the area, including our neighbours at RAF Skaw. We were the most northerly station and the most likely to contact anything unusual to the north - this was a great incentive to us. Quite often we would be asked to keep a special lookout in certain areas for Catalina Flying Boats, they were sometimes overdue having been damaged by gunfire etc, and were struggling to get back to their base at Sullom Voe. RAF air sea rescue boats were sent out to meet them if it was thought that the plane may come down in the sea.
The Norwegian Fishing Boats (that were written about in so well in the book "The Shetland Bus" by David Howarth), were something I have found more about since the war ended. I do remember being asked to keep a look out for these small boats and to report when and where they were picked up but, we were not to give reports of them on the open telephone. We were only to give their positions when asked for them.
I can remember when Lancaster bombers flew low over Saxavord. This was very unusual, the planes we located were normally much smaller - single Catalina's, weather planes or, occasionally, two or three aircraft escorting something. To see all these Lancaster's was quite exciting. We found out later that a very dangerous pocket battleship, "The Tirpitz", had been sunk in a Norwegian Fjord. This was quite a triumph at the time. If such a ship had managed to sail into the open sea it would probably have caused no end of damage and trouble to our shipping! Just before the air raid a midget submarine had made its way up the east coast of Unst on the way to attack "The Tirpitz".So this is the way we spent our time at Saxavord. There were long hours and endless days of watch-keeping with an occasional incident to make it interesting.
From Geoffrey Sleigh - The names of some of the girls who attended dances 1943/45, (original list is in the Unst Heritage Centre):
Greta & Lizzie Smith
Ann Jane Bruce
Joan Mary Priest
Ann Jane Sinclair
Note 2. RJ Hawkin, Telegraphist
On 6th January 1943 I was drafted from Portsmouth to HMS Fox (AES4 - Admiralty Experimental Station), wherever that was berthed. My only clue was a railway warrant to Aberdeen, only to find I had several more days of travel before I arrived at my destination. The old St Magnus - a wait in Lerwick - then a day trip on the Earl of Zetland, making numerous stops, finally arriving at Baltasound where I had been sent.
For the next two years I was a Telegraphist based at Hamarsgarth with around 30 RN personnel, mainly radar ratings operating at the station on Saxavord. Initially I wondered why I had been condemned to such isolation - however, it was not long before I realised it was not so.
The perimeter of Saxavord station was guarded by the "local" army, and the RAF had their base at Skaw. Off-duty navy and army personnel (and some of the island community) were usually invited to the RAF NAAFI whenever a film or ENSA Show arrived on Unst. Relations between the three services were better than I saw anywhere else (possibly because there was no escaping each other!!).
Supplies - coal, drums of diesel, barrels of beer had to be off-loaded at Baltasound each week and transported to Haroldswick or up to Saxavord. Mr Hakki Johnson and his two sisters at the shop next the Hamarsgarth were very kind to us - as were all the local crofters, with ever open doors and time for a chat. Although Hakki Johnson and his sisters ran the shop they actually lived with their brother, Tony, a couple of hundred yards away in a house called Crookadale .
The "bush telegraph" amazed me how news travelled so quickly, often hearing about the St Magnus sailing before we picked it up on radar. At first the dances were strange to us, fiddlers playing reels, quadrilles, lancers etc, but soon we were shown the steps and made part of the community.
In March 1945, after 2¼ years on Unst, I was drafted and, regretfully, had to leave with memories completely the reverse of those on arrival in January 1943 - thanks to the Jamiesons, Nicholsons, Priests, Petersons, Mouats, Johnsons, Taits and many more who made life easier for us away from home in wartime Britain. I have enclosed some snaps and, looking at them, some of the names of naval personnel come to mind, Trevor Lewis, Tug Wilson, Arnold Leyton, Jack Warner, Doug Spinks, Geoff Hurst and Fred ?
In 1987, after 42 years away, I returned to Shetland and spent 3 days on Unst and, despite the good progress made on housing, schools, roads, electricity, inter-island travel etc, there was still a wonderful feel to the island of Unst.
I must acknowledge the assistance I have had in writing this article. A number of people have allowed me to use their research and material. In particular, I would like to thank:
The Unst Heritage Centre
Richard Charles Feachem, for allowing me to use material from his father, the late Richard William Feachem
The late Geoffrey Sleigh
Richard Charles Feachem, for allowing me to use material from his father, the late Richard William Feachem
The late Geoffrey Sleigh