Friday, 31 August 2018

A History of RAF Skaw-(AMES 56 ) Part 6 - Defence & Protection

Defence & Protection. Apart from the RAF personnel posted in to run the Chain Home Station, there were a number of groups assigned to protect the site. They included  the Home Guard, Army Infantry, the Royal Artillery who manned the 40mm Bofors Guns and, from 1942, an element of the RAF Regiment.  In addition to these "defenders" all RAF servicemen posted to Skaw were required to participate in ground defence training.

Local Defence Force  (LDV - later known as the Home Guard). Members of the Local Defence Force were usually too old,  too young for the regular forces, or worked in reserved occupations. It's easy to regard them as a bit of a joke following the successful TV series, Dad's Army, but that would be unfair. Many of the older ones had experience of warfare in the First Word War just over 20 years earlier and they would be defending "home" territory. With their UK numbers reaching one & half million, it was a force to be reckoned with. In Shetland they were formed into the 1st Zetland Battalion,  Home Guard, which had more than 1,000 members during the war. One of their tasks on Unst was to man lookout posts and to report any landing of paratroops .
Coastguard. Three Coastguard posts were also manned on Unst throughout the war, at Muness, Hermaness and on the Keen of Hamar. They worked watches, often in appalling weather and it's interesting to note they were armed. Six men were assigned to each post and the main armament was rifles, though a Thompson Sub Machine Gun was assigned to each of the posts at Hermaness and Muness

The Regular and/or the Territorial Army. Over the course of the war a number of companies from different Regiments were tasked with the defence of Skaw and the Admiralty radar on Saxa Vord. I know that elements of the Gordon Highlanders , Cameron Highlanders, Black Watch and the Highland Light Infantry were involved at  different times.
The Royal Artillery presence at Skaw varied throughout the operational life of the Station. In 1941, four Bofors Gun sites were surveyed but whether all were ever used at the same time is another matter. The first 2 guns appear to have arrived in Jan 42 and I believe that they were deployed near the main Power House and just NW of the Transmitter Block. Another gun probably arrived in Mar 42 and was positioned near the Receiver Block. The Royal Artillery had a reputation for being "self-contained",  organising their own food, laundry etc.

 After then the situation is confused - a fourth gun may, or may not have arrived. Four Lewis Guns supplemented the 3 or 4 Bofors Guns on site.  Lewis Guns, of much earlier US design, were mass produced by the Birmingham Small Arms Factory  Britain (also famous for BSA Motor Bikes). They were much smaller calibre (.303 inch) than the 40mm Bofors and much shorter range. In the middle of 1943 the plans stated that Skaw should have One Troop  Light Anti-Aircraft Regt Royal Artillery, with 50 men, 4 Bofors Guns (which could be used in anti-aircraft or ground defence roles), 4 Lewis Guns and 45 Rifles. It is quite likely that the Royal Artillery were withdrawn in 1944 as the air threat to the radar reduced and the need for artillery for the forthcoming invasion of France Increased. From June 1944 a large increase in artillery around the south coast of England took place to help defend the Home Counties against the threat from the V1 flying bombs. A short film clip of a Bofors 40mm gun in 1940, from British Path√©, is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-Fca00UwCy0     

The photo below, from the Imperial War Museum, shows a 40mm Bofors Gun and, below it, a photo of a Lewis Gun, also from the Imperial War Museum:

Army Billets and Buildings. There seems to have been at least 6 billets  and a number of other buildings assigned for Army use. Three Army Billets lay just north of the road, which runs through the camp and were on the main Domestic Site. These would probably have been allocated to the Guard Force. Certainly for a significant part of the War Shetland was considered to be at threat of invasion and radar sites were also thought to be vulnerable to sneak "commando style " raids.
The other three billets (with associated ablutions) are split between three of the sites surveyed for the Royal Artillery for their Bofors  Guns  -  I presume that these were occupied by the gunners. Each of these 3 gun positions appears to have been a "self-contained unit".  However, Ron Simkins , an RAF radar mechanic at Skaw later on in the war,  remembers the most easterly of these billets being occupied by the Highland Light Infantry  - perhaps the Royal Artillery had left and the accommodation had been reassigned - there were many significant deployments around D Day.
The constructions by each of the gun sites were all similar and I have marked the positions  of the billets as A1, A2 & A3 on the following image:

Because they are so alike I will describe the area around A2 as that site seems reasonably well preserved. This is a short distance to the south-west of the Main Power House,  as can be seen on the Flash Earth image below.

Recent photos, showing what remains of these structures, follow:



The final element of the artillery site - the ablutions, were described in the Dept of Works plans as "latrines and drying room". Note how close to the cliff edge it was built:

The actual Bofors Gun hard standing for the site marked A3 on the Flash Earth image a little earlier, was just north-east of the Receiver Block but the actual accommodation site can be seen in this next picture, taken soon after the war and kindly sent to me by the late Norrie Moir:
 
The RAF Regiment. In Jan 42, King George VI signed a Royal Warrant which brought the RAF Regiment into being. The primary aim of the new force was the defence of RAF Installations against ground and air threats . It obviously took some time to train sufficient personnel and the Skaw records I have seen are short of details but, I know that some members of the Regiment were on the Station in 1943 & 44. I don't as yet know how many of them there were but my late father-in-law, 1554227 LAC Hughie McMeechan, was among their number at Skaw:

2740 Squadron, RAF Regiment was used in defence of Sumburgh and 2751 Squadron was at Sullom Voe.  I'm not sure which Regiment provided the personnel on Unst, but it was possibly 2737 Sqn. This Sqn was deployed to Norway later (so was my  father-in-law). Although the RAFRegiment used a variety of anti-aircraft weapons during WWII, including 40mm Bofors Guns and 20mm Oerlikon Cannon, I think it more likely that they used .303 Lewis, Vickers, Bren or Browning Machine Guns at Skaw, all types being recorded on the Station. In Aug 42, the operational records note that work started "on the 4 gun pits for the motley stalk mountings". In fact, the firm of Motley made a number of different mountings for machine guns, including the Bren gun & the Vickers .303. In this case I believe the text refers to the Motley Stork Mounting, which itself comes in a number of varieties. I have identified three suitable "gun pits" within the Station boundaries and marked them with orange crosses on the Flash Earth Image below, I suspect that they were manned by Regiment Gunners or the Royal Artillery.  There may well have been a fourth position but bricks are a rarity on Unst and someone may well have found a different use for them in the 70+ intervening years!

The next 2 pictures show the exterior and interior of the site gun emplacement closest to the Receiver Block, the other  2 sites are similar:

 
There is another type of "gun pit"  on the station, also probably for .303 use. These are flush with the ground and offered a certain degree of protection should the site come under attack:
Building used by Guards/Sentries. Some buildings were constructed for the use of sentries and/or the guard force. The main CH buildings would have had controlled entry in an attempt to prevent intruders or inquisitive civilian workmen gaining access. However, there were 5 stand-alone buildings that I know of, intended for use by guards. For simplicity ! will describe them starting from the western end of the Station.
Just to the south of the main entrance to the camp was a wooden Guard Hut. Nothing remains of the hut but its approximate position is marked below:

To the SE of the Power House lies another " Guard Hut", but this time it was a more like a "Guard Post," though small and substantial. It is largely as it was over 70 years ago:
 

The next "guard hut" is close to the turn-off to the Transmitter Block. I believe that this  building may also have served as an armoury:
Alongside the structure are the foundations of what possibly was a set of ablutions:
 

The interior of the building shows that it has been used as a shelter by sheep for many years. The rear part of the building, without windows, was possibly used as an Armoury:


The last two "Guard Huts" look alike but are slightly different sizes. Just to the east of the Standby Power House lies the ruin of the next one. In plan it measure about 16'3" x 18'3" and it had a high pitched roof:


At some stage during the war a German Bomb landed close by:
 
The last of the Guard Huts is about 100 yards NNE of the CH Receiver Block:


It was slightly larger than the one by the Standby Power House, measuring 20'4" x 18'5". It also has a high pitched roof and a raised concrete floor:

 WWII ruin NNW of the Transmitter Block. There are the remains of a number of structures in the area to the north of the Transmitter Block. The largest one, circled in yellow on the Flash Earth Image below, was built during the lifetime of RAF Skaw (same makes of bricks employed - ETNA & EDINBURGH)



 A couple of photos of this follow:



This site does not appear on an Air Ministry Works Department plan, dated 1945, nor is it labelled on a map produced by Ron Simkin after the war. After a long time puzzling I remembered two rectangular buildings of similar proportions at RAF Noss Hill, Shetlands other Chain Home station. A Noss Hill plan names them as "Q Buildings", ie decoy buildings and, therefore, I presume this one at RAF Skaw  to have been built to fulfil the same function.
Camouflage and Barriers. As mentioned elsewhere, extensive use was made of camouflage netting, particularly around the Transmitter Block, Receiver Block and Stand/by Power House. An example from the SD0458 can be seen below (from a more wooded part of the UK):
 
A photo from just after the war, showing the location of the Stand By Power House, reveals the where the camouflage surrounding the  block used to be :

Camouflage  was not just limited to buildings. Prominent, irregular patterns were often painted on to the ground - anything which might help confuse attacking aircrew.
Barriers were also constructed at possible enemy landing points; for example, a substantial barrier was established across the beach at the Sands of Inner Skaw with the possible  laying of mines on the seaward side. Barriers were also put up across the peninsula of Lambaness from the north to south, allowing defence in depth - they permitted defences to retreat into prepared positions. The picture below is part of 2 photos, given to my late mother-in-law by Leslie Smith. The dark zig-zag line from the bottom left to the top right is one such barrier and what looks like a dotted line across the bottom probably consists of anti tank obstacles. The 2 dark circular areas are bomb craters to the SW of the Transmitter Block, caused when a JU88 attacked Skaw in Mar 41
 
Decontamination. Many forget that during WWII  servicemen and civilians alike were issued with gas masks and haversacks in which to carry them - they were expected to have them close to hand at all times. Some of the lessons of the 1914 - 18 "Great War" had been studied, including the effects of chlorine & mustard gas,  nearly all military units of any size in WWII had  decontamination chambers. RAF Skaw was no exception. A sleeping shelter which stands near where the camp gates were at the western end of the Station was converted into a Decontamination Chamber. It seems that it has since been used by local sheep for many years:

Air Raid Shelters (ARS). A variety or shelters were erected. Personnel who worked in protected environments like the Transmitter and Receiver Blocks were reasonably safe; whereas, those in wooden or nissen huts at the time of an attack were particularly vulnerable. Three types of ARS are shown below;  the first picture is of the type provided for the civilian Palmer and Cruickshank families - the material for the roof has obviously been "salvaged":
  The next shelter illustrated is from near the area of the smaller domestic site, about 200 yards SE of the Main Power House - some of the roof remains in the vicinity:
The final ARS photo shows the largest of the three and it is relatively intact. There is another, similar one, with both of them being on the westerly Domestic Site. Like many buildings on the Station it has long been used by sheep - good waterproof boots are recommended!
At the beginning, when the construction of RAF Skaw began, the threat of attack by German forces was considered to be great. Barriers, anti-tank traps and the use of mines helped deter sea-borne landings and continual surveillance from the Coastguard, Naval vessels and Coastal Command aircraft would, hopefully, provide early warning. In 1940 the use of  Fallschirmj√§ger (Paratroops) was extremely effective in the German invasions of France, the Netherlands and Norway. The use of glider-borne infantry was also successfully demonstrated in the German capture of the Belgian fort of Eben Emael in May 1940. It's no wonder that troops like the Home Guard throughout the UK were trained to meet such threats. Many fields in Unst, which were relatively flat, had rows of stakes erected to hinder landings and special Home Guard Observation Posts were manned. Two of the Unst fields where stakes were placed can be seen in the 2 images below - there must have been many more! er
 
Part 5 of RAF Skaw - Some of the Other Buildings at RAF Skaw
 
Acknowledgements:
Papers of Major Denis Rollo - Held by The Shetland Museum and Archive
Mr Leslie Smith
Rita Carle
The Late Norrie Moir
The late Lexie McMeechan
The Late Ron Simkin
Unst Heritage Centre
Mike Dean
Bob Jenner
SD 0458  - Photographic Record of Radars stations  (Ground) - Air Ministry Aug 43Imperial War Museum
CONTENS LIST