Wednesday, 16 May 2018

A History of RAF Skaw (AMES 56) - Part 2 - Advance CH - From Jan 41 to May 42

This part of a history of RAF Skaw will cover the period  from the Advance Chain Home (ACH) unit becoming operational in January 1941 until 17 May 1942, the day the full Chain Home (CH) radar was commissioned.  Whilst the staff of the ACH were concentrating on their operational role  they would have been very aware of the massive construction project taking place around them.  A 240'  receiver tower was being erected just 60 yards south of their transmitter hut and the large CH Receiver Bunker was being prepared just beyond the tower.

It is normal for radars to be calibrated at start-up and at intervals thereafter.  Aircraft of a known size would fly at specific height on known tracks in the area of the radar, whilst those on the ground would monitor the radar receiver to see if, and when, the aircraft was detected by the radar. The initial calibration of the Skaw ACH was done using a Blenheim aircraft. (Left click on pictures to enlarge):

Freddie Flowers was the only Wireless Operator on the Unit during the first Calibration and he recalled the occasion thus:  " I controlled the Blenheim during the calibration flights. As these fights went out East for some distance towards Norway, a close watch had to be maintained for any attacking enemy aircraft. Fortunately, there were none".
As soon as the equipment was ready in Jan '41, the ACH began operating 24 hours a day, with the technical and operations personnel working a 3 watch system. This next picture was taken by Frank Wells in Feb '41 and I suspect that the people portrayed were glad of their issue  sheepskin coats!
During Mar 41 German aircraft attacked the station twice. At about 17.00 on 26 Mar an unidentified intruder approached from the east at about 200'. It was snowing at the time and the visibility was poor. Four bombs were dropped into the sea close to the ACH  Transmitter Hut near the point of  Lamba Ness. The aircrafts wing clipped a top corner section of a 240' Receiver Tower, which was not yet operational. It is possible that the bombs had been jettisoned when the pilot saw the tower suddenly looming into view through the falling snow. Luckily, the Riley and Neat workmen who had erected the tower, were still at Skaw and were able to repair the damage. The following morning at about 08.15 there was another attack and this time the enemy aircraft was identified - it was a JU88.
Two 250Kg bombs were dropped from around 400'. They hit the ground about 100 yards from the CH Transmitter block, which was still under construction, and about 600 yards west of the ACH Ops/Tech site. The craters can be seen in the following Flash Earth Image:
The next picture puts the distances into perspective:
One of the results of the German attacks on the base was unease amongst the civilian workforce. Arrangements were made to take over part of a building at the north side of Baltasound for use as accommodation. It was owned by the Sandisons, who also owned the pier and the shop in Baltasound called Skibhoul. The premises did not prove popular with everyone (a number of servicemen were already billeted there), so some sought alternative lodgings with the local Unst population. There were many elements of the services based on the island in the war years and the following photo shows some RAF personnel who crewed one of the Thorneycroft High Speed Launches, which were deployed to Baltasound for air sea rescue duties - they would have been accommodated in one of Sandisons north side buildings as well:
During Apr 41 RAF Skaw, RAF Noss Hill and two Shetland Chain Home Low radar stations were transferred to the control of 71 Wing, based at Bucksburn on the western side of Aberdeen. 71 Wing also assumed Technical responsibility for four Naval Coastal Defence U Boat units based in Shetland. With these 8 extra units to look after 71 Wing decided to open a small Technical detachment, with a central equipment store, in Shetland once they could find a suitable location.
Like many RAF Stations before and since, some individuals started up a Station Magazine. It was named appropriately "The Out-Post" and the first edition came out in April 1941. Initially no duplicator was available so every copy produced had to be typed or was a carbon copy.   By Aug 41 an airman called Harold Fisk managed to procure a Roneo duplicator and, thereafter, the Out- Post had a much wider circulation. Harold's interesting story will be told at a later date, but here is time for one of his more famous anecdotes: "There was a very comical interlude when a message came through to send a lorry down to pick up the Countess of Ayr, so 2 or 3 boys polished up their buttons and got ready to meet the Countess. When they got to Baltasound all they could see was a little man in a bowler hat and he said "Well what do you want?" and they said they were looking for the Countess of Ayr. He said "I don't know anything about the Countess of Ayr but I am the County Surveyor," which went down very well!" I have  some editions of the magazine and hope to write at greater length on the subject in the future.
When the servicemen arrived on Unst there was no mechanism for them to return home on leave. Indeed in the early months the CO, Flight Lieutenant Swinney, said that he did not have the authority to approve leave and had to refuse permission for one airman to return home to Liverpool for his brothers funeral. Fortunately,  the situation was largely resolved soon afterwards when it was decreed that the tour length would be set at 6 months for the early arrivals. Later on in the life of the Unit I believe that leave was permitted.
The "standard" East Coast CH Transmitting Tower, which was used at the early sites was very different from the later towers used at what were known as the West Coast sites The East Coast Tower was designed to be just under 360' high, with 3 cantilevers (the bits sticking out) at 50', 200' and 350'). In May 41, a letter was sent to Skaw from No 2. Installation Unit at RAF Kidbrooke (London area), instructing the removal of the cantilevers at 50 and 200' in order to be able to hang a different transmitting aerial array. The picture below show a standard Transmitter Tower on the left and the actual Skaw Towers on the right, extracted from a photo taken by Derek Lucas, who was there  in 1944. The alterations were  to provide a change to the area of radar cover.
At the beginning of June 41 the Air Ministry Research Establishment, based at Worth Matravers near Swanage in Dorset, decided that a remote reserve site for RAF Skaw should be built "particularly since the station had shown itself liable to attack". The purpose of the Reserve site would have been to take over if the main site became non-operational due to bomb damage, etc. It was arranged that a siting party should set out to review the options on 9 Jun 41. The RAF Skaw Remote Reserve will be the subject of a future section in this history so I will return to this story later. Enemy activity was not confined to military camps on Unst.  On the morning of 13 Jun a hostile aircraft machine gunned some crofters and their cottages about 2 miles away from the Station.
Whilst the RAF would have had its own medical orderlies, the civilian population of Unst had a local Nurse, Jemima Sutherland (known as Mima), who had been born at the Westing in the SW of the island and Dr Saxby, from Uyeasound,  who lived at Baltasound. Incidentally, Dr Saxby's son Stephen was in the RAF and was based at RAF Sullom Voe (Sunderlands, Catalinas & Walrus) during the war. Stephen became well known to many servicemen of a later generation as he spent many years working in MT at RAF Saxa Vord. As mentioned in  Part 1 of this story, James Palmer was the Air Ministry Clerk of Works for the Skaw Project and, when sent to Unst, he was accompanied by his wife Pauline. Long after the war Pauline Palmer sent the photo below to my late mother-in-law, Lexie McMeechan. It shows a group of the first airmen who were posted to RAF Skaw, in the area just inside the camp gates at the western end of the site. Looking at the surroundings and the clothes being worn I would think the photo was taken in the Spring of 1941.
 Pauline had been advised that Skaw was not a place for families but she chose to remain with her husband, even after she became pregnant. As midsummer approached she was being helped by Mrs Clark, the widow of a Muckle Flugga Lighthouse keeper. On 21 Jun the Dr & Nurse were summoned, only to be refused entry to the camp as there was an active  air raid warning at the time. James Palmer was also away from the house at his emergency post. Eventually the Dr and Nurse were permitted entry and the child was safely delivered at 03.45  on the 22 Jun 41. He was christened James Spellisey Palmer and his mother was persuaded to take him to a safer place soon after. As far as it is known the child was the only one to be born on the station during the 5 year operational life of RAF Skaw. The picture of mother and child below was taken soon after they left Skaw:
Another type of arrival caused some upheaval to the lives of servicemen on Unst and on a number of other Shetland Islands. Following the German invasion of Norway in Apr 40 and the countries capitulation in June, significant numbers of Norwegian citizens attempted to leave their occupied country and sail across the North Sea in small boats. Although these refugees have been written about elsewhere, I have added a short note at the end of this section. (See Note 1.)
Initially there was no suitable source of clean drinking water available near the station so it was brought up the Floggie (the hill from Norwick) on trucks. A pipe was laid from a small burn at Velzie (Valie,  Velyie - various spellings), to near the foot of the hill, where the water was put  into a water bowser or into containers and loaded on to the back of wagons. The water problem was solved later when a small dam was built high up on the Burn of Skaw, seen in this Mike Pennington photo, with the outlet pipe to the bottom left of the small water fall.
A pipe was then laid about a mile to the western side of the camp where tanks had been made to purify and contain the water, whilst still providing enough height to allow a sufficient gradient for the  water to flow around the station as required. The distance from the water tank to the CH Receiver Block was roughly a mile and a half.
60 Group had been formed in March 1940 to control Radar Stations and other Radio units in Fighter Command. It had a number of subsidiary Wings, which in turn controlled designated Units. RAF Skaw came under 70 or 71 Wing at different stages of the war. In the Spring of 1941 HQ 60 Group started publishing a monthly magazine titled "RDF" and in the first issue the Skaw ACH was complimented for managing to plot an aircraft at 106 miles range. This is the first indication I have seen to show that the unit was achieving a creditable performance.
The ACH was fully functional but the CH Site was growing all around the operators & technicians as they performed their duties. By the first week in April 1941 the two 360' Transmitter Towers and one of the 240' Receiver Towers were in position, ready for fitting parties to arrive to assemble and start to fit the electrical components.
The progress in completing both Shetland CH sites (at Skaw and at Noss Hill), was much slower than at similar sized units on mainland UK. Sir Robert Renwick, who was Chairman of the RDF Committee in the Air Ministry, sent a representative, Robert Sayers, to Shetland in July '41. He was to make exhaustive enquiries to see if anything could be done to speed up the delivery of materials and electrical components. The long supply chain, frequent adverse weather and sailing conditions were obviously causing delays. On the 13th August the camp was visited by the Moderator of the Church of Scotland, the Right Reverend J Hutchison Cockburn.  One of the airmen remembers his visit with perhaps, a little envy:  "I do remember the Moderator of the Church of Scotland paid a visit. a very large bloke, very pleasant. He brought a little team with him and they stayed the night. They had a good feed all laid out special, but we didn't get any extra at all!" Another visit to Skaw took place on 25 Aug when Air Marshall William Mitchell (like Mr Sawyer in July, also from the RDF Committee) and a party of experts,  arrived to check on progress. I don't know, but I strongly suspect, that these high-powered visitors did not have to endure the sea voyage from Lerwick but instead were delivered to Baltasound by Fleet Air Arm Walrus amphibian aircraft, (see Note 2.)
An unusual event, considered interesting enough to be recorded in the official records, occurred in Sep 41 when an airman, fishing at Norwick, killed "a blue-nosed shark weighing about 3 cwts" (236lb/153kg). I don't think there is such a species of shark - maybe it was just cold or there was no expert available! 
Work on the CH site, which would also affect the ACH during this period, included the building of the Power House and Standby Power House. I will be describing these buildings in more detail in a later section but the records show that the Power House generators were running as early as Oct 41 though, at that stage, not for 24 hours a day. At various places around the camp there are structures like the one near the ACH area in the photo which follows. It was a position for light anti-aircraft weapons (Browning machine guns).  It is possible that they were put-up when the Argyle and Sutherland Highlanders arrived after the first air attacks,  or,  constructed individually during the life of the camp.
By the autumn of 1941 it was decided that better anti-aircraft defences were required and, during September, there were two visits to examine possible sites for placing Bofors Guns. On the 5th September Colonel Fenton from the Royal Artillery, accompanied by some of his men, arrived to examine possible locations and a week later a party led by Colonel MacIntosh, also from the Royal Artillery, continued the task. These weapons were far more effective in the anti aircraft role than the small calibre Browning Machine guns. The guns, Swedish in design though British made, would have been effective LAA weapons, capable  of firing 120  x 40mm rounds a minute (each high explosive round weighing about 2lb). They were able to engage targets as high as 23,000ft. The picture of a 40mm Bofors gun below was not taken in Unst!;
Four sites were selected and prepared before the first 2 guns, with crews, arrived in Jan '42. The 4 gun positions are marked on the Flash Earth image which follows:
Due to post war demolition it is difficult to locate all the elements which formed these sites, but there were 5 elements at, or near, each gun - hard standing for the gun, a crew shelter alongside, a shelter for stores  or ammunition close by, a billet for the troops and ablutions. This is best illustrated with Flash Earth images of the gun site numbered 3 in the previous picture.
Ammunition, in steel or wooden cases containing 24 rounds each (often in 6 clips of 4), would have been stored close by and each gun crew would have consisted of 7 to 10 men. The next photo shows where the gun closest to the ACH was located, Saxa in the distance:
Mail was important to the servicemen and its non-arrival could have an effect on morale. The "mail steamer", almost certainly the first Earl of Zetland, had a few problems in this period, from 30 Aug to 6 Sep 41 and again from  26 to 29 Sep the ship was out of service needing repairs. Then on 4 Oct, when arriving at Uyeasound,  at the south end of Unst, the ship was bombed and machine-gunned  by a hostile aircraft -  fortunately there was no damage or casualties. On the following day, 5 Oct, RAF Skaw was subjected to an attack by a JU88. The aircraft appeared suddenly out of the mist, gave a short burst of machine-gun fire and dropped 4 bombs.  Three of these bombs exploded causing no casualties but they did cause a temporary disruption to communications on camp. A bomb disposal team was unable to find the fourth bomb, only managing to locate its tail fin - the rest may have ended up in the sea.
A spell of very bad weather occurred from the 25th to 29th Oct 41 with sleet and high winds causing damage to some of the unfinished buildings. The poor weather continued into December with gales and low temperatures. On the 15th at about 13.20 there was a hit and run attack on the main Domestic site by a JU88. The aircraft dropped a single 500Kg bomb to the NW of the site, it bounced over the accommodation buildings, bounced for a second time  and then exploded harmlessly in a field. Bursts of machine gun fire caused hits on some of the huts but no one was injured.
I don't know how long Flt Lt Swinney served as the C0, it was possibly 12 months as the issue of "The Out-Post" for Nov 41 welcomes Flt Lt FJ Heath as the new CO. In fact, the editorial greeting for the new man is somewhat effusive and will be published later.
Some of the work on completing the CH site was complex and involved a number of "fitting parties" from the UK mainland travelling to Unst to install equipment,  particularly the aerial arrays which had to be fitted to the high towers. Maurice Blair, who was based at Kidbrooke, SE London. was one of a party sent to work on the 240' Skaw Receiver Towers in the winter of 1941/2. The party was transported by train to Inverness, where they boarded a Handley Page Harrow  aircraft. Although originally intended as a bomber when it first flew in 1936, its lack of performance meant that by the end of 1939 most of the 100 built were in use in a transport role.  
After landing at Sumburgh they travelled to Unst by road and sea.  When working at Skaw they had a long tent in which to assemble some of the equipment and in, Maurice's words:  "The actual aerials were brass tubes mounted on insulators and the feeder tubes were copper. We had to assemble 22' foot lengths of tubing, with a copper wire inside, into 225 foot lengths, then pull them up the towers and, of course, fix them, Each tower had 8 of these 225 foot lengths. It was a bit like a plumbing job as the wires and tubes had to be brazed and soldered." Maurice spent the rest of the war in the RAF, ending up in Germany working on a Gee Navigational System.
Over the Christmas period, the second at RAF Skaw, it was cold with light snow. The festivities got off to a good start when the facilities were improved by the arrival of a billiards table. A party for local children was held in the Haroldswick Hall on the 24th and a dance was organised for the evening.  On the 25th a dinner for all available personnel, including members of the Army Defence Force,  was arranged. That night there was a concert with participants being volunteers from the station. A copy of the Christmas Programme from the Out-Post:
 Another  hit and run attack by a JU88 happened on the 4th January 1942 during a severe snow storm. Two bombs fell in the sea and a burst of machine gun fire was ineffectual , with no casualties or damage caused. The poor weather theme continued through most of January, with the period between the 18th and 27th being the worst with strong gales and heavy snow. In this 10 day period Unst was isolated, with no deliveries of rations or mail.
Operationally February was a reasonably quiet month but there were recurrent heavy falls of snow. This made  the Unst roads outside the camp boundaries impassable to service transport, so rations and mail had to be manhandled from the pier at Baltasound back to the camp. The round trip of 10 miles in snow, including ascending The Floggie, the hill from Norwick on the return, must have resulted in a few tired airmen!
March began with better weather but by the middle of the month strong winds returned . As an indication of slightly warmer conditions, this time as the wind was accompanied by heavy rain. The month was generally quiet operationally but an exception occurred on the night of the 31st when large numbers of friendly aircraft were detected heading NE, destined for a raid against the Tirpitz, which had left Wilhelmshaven for Norway in the middle of Jan 41. Other sources indicate that 33 Halifax bomber were launched against the Tirpitz on the night of  30/31 Mar, most failed to find the ship due to bad weather in the area, 5 aircraft were shot down but no damage was done to the ship.
Although most of April was relatively quiet things got busier towards the end of the month, with radar calibration flights taking place on the 21st, presumably for the CH radar which was close to being operational. The 21st also saw the showing of the first movie at Skaw, "The Boys From Syracuse",  a Rogers & Hart musical. It was shown in the NAAFI and proved to be popular with the airmen. It was hoped that it would be the precursor of weekly shows accessible to all servicemen on Unst. The following month the advert below appeared in the Station Magazine "The Out-Post", so the film was probably the first of many:
On the night of the 27 Apr a large force of 4-engined bombers passed over Unst  heading north and NE. It was later reported by the BBC that a raid had been carried out against Trondheim (although not stated on the news, that was where the Tirpitz  was sheltering). On the following night another force of heavy bombers passed over heading towards the same target. From other sources it is apparent that,  on the first night a mixed force of 43 Halifax's and Lancaster's took part in the raid and on the second night another mixed force of 33 aircraft took part.  No hits on the Tirpitz resulted but, over the two nights, 7 bombers were shot down. The RAF Skaw records show that on the 29th there was "a fair amount of searching being carried out by Wellington and Catalina, apparently for missing aircraft from the raids on Trondheim".
The most significant event in May 1941 happened on the 17th, when the final CH radar was commissioned  and took over operations from the ACH. This history of RAF Skaw will continue in Part 3, which will cover the final CH structures and equipment

Note 1. Norwegian Refugees & Unst . Rather than stay in their homeland under Nazi occupation, many Norwegians  chose to cross the North Sea in a variety of small boats/fishing vessels, dodging German surveillance. Whilst most of the escapees were men, women and children also made the journey. I don't have precise numbers of those who sailed for Shetland, but in the period mid '41 to mid ' 42 about 20 boats and somewhere in the region of 300 passengers  arrived in Unst alone. It is inevitable that a number of boats, due to weather or inaccurate navigation, never made landfall. Most of those who came ashore on the island immediately became  the responsibility of the Royal Navy and their personnel from the Admiralty Experimental Station No 4 (Saxa Vord), who were billeted at Hamarsgarth in Haroldswick.  The Naval CO was actually appointed an Honorary Norwegian Consul, which gave him more authority when dealing with the refugees and with local businesses in providing provisions, etc  for the new arrivals. Whilst it was in a less active capacity,  the RAF personnel at Skaw were still involved in this story, as the following extract from the official Skaw record for Apr 42 shows:
Another involvement with small boats, which was then a mystery, involved the very occasional sighting of small boats heading either towards Norway or inbound towards Shetland. At the time it proved impossible to discover any information about these sailings. Since the war the story of the "Shetland Bus" has become well known - clandestine operations landing agents and equipment/arms in Norway and the retrieval of agents on the return trips. The operations were initially based at Lunna House on the Shetland Mainland and the personnel were Norwegian. For those who wish to know more about this part of the war effort there is an excellent book by David Howarth called "The Shetland Bus" , published by The Shetland Times and a website here:
Note 2. Walrus Aircraft .  700 Royal Naval Air Squadron was formed at Hatston in Orkney (HMS Sparrowhawk) in Jan 40. The Squadron detached a few Walrus aircraft to RAF Sullom Voe in Shetland. The Walrus (which began life as the Supermarine Seagull V), was a single engined (Bristol Pegasus) amphibian, which first flew in 1933. It proved to be a reliable aircraft, with around 750 built. Walrus aircraft were used in many roles from reconnaissance to air sea rescue and the type was credited with sinking at least 5 enemy submarines during WWII.
In 1940 a detachment of Royal Marines was based at Baltasound where they built a slip, just to the west of the pier. Although this slip was frequently used after the War by Landing Craft delivering items for Saxa Vord and by the local Boating Club, it's original purpose was to permit Walrus amphibians to taxi ashore. In the case of RAF Skaw the aircraft were usually used to deliver urgently need spares and visiting VIPs.


Unst Heritage Centre
Sqn Ldr Mike Dean MBE
Lexie McMeechan

Bob Jenner
AIR 26 - 100 - 71 Wing Bucksburn 1940 - 1943
Rita Carle

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