Wednesday, 24 February 2010

The Saxa Vord Resort

When RAF Saxa Vord closed in March 2006 things looked bleak for the economy of Unst. Local folk had found employment with the RAF as early as 1954, when many helped with the construction of both the Domestic and Top Sites. For over 50 years the MOD had employed civilian staff to help run and maintain the base and now a significant proportion of the adult population of the island became unemployed.

The MOD and Local Agencies were keen to find a way forward which would help ease the major blow to the islands economy. In March 2007 the Domestic Site and the road to the Ops Site were sold to a company, started by Frank & Debbie Strang (both ex RAF) which now operates and trades under the name Saxa Vord Ltd. They had previously bought the Domestic Site at RAF Buchan in Oct 2005 and renamed it Buchan Braes. Numerous developments have taken place there including the opening of the Buchan Braes Hotel in the old Officers Mess (after considerable refurbishment) – Link: -

The Saxa Domestic Site was been renamed the “Saxa Vord Resort” - the aim has been to turn the area into tourist resort and natural and cultural heritage centre.

The Quarters at Nordabrake have been refurbished and are now offered as self-catering holiday houses and part of the Sergeants Mess has been converted into Hostel accommodation with single and twin/double bedded rooms. Full dining and bar facilities are available. The resort website can be found at:-

Businesses have been encouraged to takeover some of the camp Buildings. Foords Chocolates operate a chocolate factory and cafĂ© in the ex Medical Centre by the camp gates -  and the Valhalla Brewery, up until now based at Baltasound, is currently moving into the ex MT Buildings -

The following pictures of the Domestic Site and Nordabrake were all taken this month on a wet and windy day but will serve as a reminder to those of you who have been to Saxa. There have been number of changes; for example, the old NAAFI Shop has gone as has the perimeter fence and camp gates. I hope to return later, when the tourist season is in full-swing, to take interior photos. (Left click on photos to enlarge).

Friday, 19 February 2010

Faeroese Invasion - 1972

There are many similarities between the Shetland and Faeroe Island groups, particularly with heritage, reliance on a maritime environment and self-sufficiency. However, there are and have been major differences. The Faeroes have double the population, have far more independence from central government and a far higher proportion of its citizens profess to be religious (mainly Lutheran). Another of the main differences has been the Faeroese attitude to alcohol.

Until 1992 the Faeroe Islands were officially dry (not to say alcohol wasn’t available). There were a few minor legal exceptions. I visited the High Powered Reporting Post (a radar station manned by Danish personnel) in 1983. I was fully briefed on the protocols regarding alcohol before leaving UK. One was allowed to drink with meals in the Hotels – however you had to bring your own alcohol, pay for a separate room and pay for separate service – not really economically viable. One bottle of spirits was the duty free allowance. Alternatively, if you were on base you were advised to bring a high quality malt whisky with you, place it behind the bar in the mess when you arrived and you would then be able to drink beer throughout your visit. The Danish military personnel had to import their own alcohol - each month they had to order the next months supply from Denmark, if they missed the order date they went thirsty!

Since 1992 alcohol has been available in clubs, bars and restaurants but the suppliers are centrally controlled and price is dependent on the percentage of alcohol in the drink.

The story below took place in 1972 and involves some thirsty Faeroese fishermen who managed to get unfettered access to alcohol on Unst. In hindsight it’s an amusing tale but I’m sure it was terrifying for some of those involved. The episode is described in the newspaper cuttings below(Left click on pictures to enlarge):-

Saturday, 13 February 2010

AOC's Inspection 1964

At the time of the AOC's Inspection in 1964 the Station Commander was Sqn Ldr Ken Whiley.  I believe he was a popular CO and I have been told that he was probably the last Engineer to be posted to Unst as the CO.  Judging by the number of medals he is wearing in the photographs he must have had a fairly distinguished past.


Sunday, 7 February 2010

Closure of RAF Saxa Vord 2006

After nearly 50 years of operational life RAF Saxa Vord closed on 1st March 2006. The base had been a key influence on the islands economy and way of life for over half a century. Although the station did not open until September 1957 there had been servicemen and civilians working on its construction as early as 1954. The closure had a major effect on the local community - employment, schooling, property prices etc were all hit badly. Even for the resilient Shetlander it has had a significant impact. In a future section I hope to cover this impact in more detail and look at attempts to improve the situation on Unst.

The first photograph shows the Type 93 Radar being removed from the top site some time before the base officially closed. (Left click on photos to enlarge)

The next picture was taken more than 6 months before the closure but it was the last time that station personnel gathered for a formal photograph.
The next sequence of pictures shows the closing ceremony itself. An RAF Nimrod maritime Patrol Aircraft flew past as the RAF Ensign and Station Commanders Pennant were lowered for the last time. The Ensign and Pennant were then carried to the Station Commander Sqn Ldr Phil Carpenter by MOD Guard Ian MacKay. Sqn Ldr Carpenter then presented them to Pam Mouat and Brian Gregson for safekeeping.

Pam Mouat, an Unst resident, was the last Civilian Personnel Officer on the Base and lived close to the camp. Brian Gregson represented Unst as a councillor on the Shetland Islands Council and it was particularly appropriate that Brian should have been there. He served 2 tours at Saxa, the first in 1978/ 79 and the second as Station Commander (Jul 89 to Sep 91). His name also appears on the Red Star Board which features earlier on this blog. 

The text below is from an MOD article which was written at the time – the article has been considered important enough to be saved in the National Archive:-

Snowy ceremony marks end of RAF Cold War radar station

3 Mar 06

The RAF's most northerly station closed this week – under the watchful eye of a Nimrod Maritime Patrol Aircraft from RAF Kinloss.

Flypast by a Nimrod Maritime Patrol Aircraft from RAF Kinloss. 

RAF Saxa Vord on Unst in the Shetlands – the northernmost inhabited island in the UK with a population of about 700 - was a pivotal link providing early warning of air threats to the UK for more than 30 years and as such was a frontline Cold War station.
Its mission was to assist RAF fighters intercept long-range Soviet bombers entering UK airspace, shadowing them as they tested the reactions of our air defences until jets such Lightnings, Phantom F4s and more recently Tornado F3s escorted them "off the premises."
It was a game that might have had more serious consequences had the RAF not responded within minutes each and every time UK airspace was penetrated without authorisation. Had the Soviets not been intercepted before the bombers' theoretical launch point their political masters at the Kremlin might have believed they could launch a successful attack on UK cities. The intercepts of bombers and reconnaissance aircraft, with RAF Saxa Vord helping co-ordinate the air response, happened on an almost weekly basis from the 1960s until the Berlin Wall came down in 1989.

Mrs Pam Mouat, the Station's Civilian Personnel Officer, is presented with the RAF Ensign and the Station's Commander's Pennant. 

The station continued to provide air defence radar coverage for the next fifteen years but modern radar systems gradually reduced dependency on fixed installations and last year it was announced that the long-range radar cover provided by RAF Saxa Vord would no longer be required.
At a ceremony the RAF Ensign was lowered for the last time and it and the Station's Commander's Pennant, were presented to Mrs Pam Mouat, the Station’s Civilian Personnel Officer, who accepted it on behalf of Unst islanders.
Station memorabilia has been preserved on Unst in the hope that an exhibition can be set up in the future to mark Saxa Vord’s contribution at the frontline during the Cold War
Said Stn Cdr Sqn Ldr Philip Carpenter:
"It's the end of an era. Today was a solemn but quiet end to the radar cover from Saxa Vord and closure of the station. We shall miss the warmth and generosity of the islanders. The RAF's presence here has been an integral part of the community for more than 65 years. Luckily the weather was kind to us during the ceremony with just a few inches of snow – we normally expect to get up to 5ft of drifting snow at this time of year."

The last photo of this section shows Mrs Pam Mouat, the last Civilian Personnel Officer, symbolically locking the camp gates after the the RAF departure.


Friday, 5 February 2010

Presentations to Civilians Part 2

This is a follow-up to the piece I published on 8 December 2009.  If further material becomes available there may well be a Part 3.

The article below, marking the retirement of Willie Laurenson, is reprinted from the Station Magazine “The Saxa Voice”.  I’m not sure how the author calculated the period from 2 Oct 61 to 30 Dec 98 as 27 years but I’m sure that there are plenty of mistakes in this blog as well! (Left click on pictures to enlarge)

The next picture shows the presentation of an AOC’s commendation to Mrs Isabella Irvine (Mouat) in 1969. Also in the picture are Sqn Ldr J Le Cheminant, the Station Commander, and Air Cdr EW Wootten, who made the presentation. Beneath the photo is a short extract from an article which appeared in the Shetland Times.

I believe that the following copy of a newspaper clipping also comes from the Shetland Times. It features neither a presentation nor a civilian; however, it merits inclusion in a history of Saxa Vord because of the subject matter.
Most RAF Stations had wives clubs (a mystery to most single airmen). Apart from their own pursuits the members of these clubs often raised money for charity and for local causes. Saxa Vord was no exception – over the years the club raised and distributed significant sums to organisations both large and small.

All 3 pictures below are reproduced from the Shetland Times, The first 2 are from about 1983 and the third is from 1986. 

I make no apology for including 4 pictures of the last presentation.  They were all taken on the occasion of the retirement of my late father-in-law Hughie McMeechan in 1985. His scrapbooks and mementoes were the main motivation for the start of this blog. Featured with Hughie in the photos are his wife Lexie, the Station Commander Sqn Ldr Dave Todd and the AOCinC Strike Command Sir Peter Harding. Unfortunately Hughie died soon after, without having had a chance to enjoy a well-earned retirement.


Tuesday, 2 February 2010

AOC's Inspection 1968 (amended 21 Oct 2010)

Every year RAF stations were subjected to an Inspection by the Air Officer Commanding (in Saxa’s case that would be AOC 11 Group or one of his senior staff officers). I suppose that the idea behind it was to ensure that stations were running efficiently and the inspection could have a significant impact on the Station Commanders promotion prospects. It certainly led to weeks of preparation, painting and parade rehearsals etc. I have material on a number of these inspections at Saxa but I thought I’d start with 1968 because it was the only one I took part in.

Drill was never my strong point. During my training the Drill Instructor announced to those assembled on the parade square that he’d never want to dance with me as I had two left feet – I got into a certain amount of trouble for my response – a response was not the correct action on the parade ground. I still believe I was right in saying that I’d never ask him for a dance. The DI was court-martialled sometime later for embezzling funds from the Sergeants Mess.

For some reason, which I’ve never understood, service wives undertook the status of the husbands rank. Some senior officers wives I’ve met were not deserving of respect whilst the wives of more junior ranks have often turned out to be pleasant, interesting people. Anyway the AOC usually brought his wife along for the trip. Some poor junior Officer was then expected to chaperon the wife around the place – the wife’s club, the best views, any local activities etc. I don’t know if anyone costed the idea – free seats on RAF Devons/Pembrokes, free accommodation, free food and a waste of people’s time. For some reason the MOD thought it was value for money!  I'm not being critical of the AOC's wife on this occasion, I didn't meet her, I just had problems with the "system". Still I suppose the Prime Minister often takes his wife with him on overseas trips.

In the early years at Saxa the troops marched past the AOC in front of the SHQ and the parade was held on the tarmac in front of MT. This meant that a number of the MT vehicles had to be parked elsewhere (in one of the photos below you can see the Fire Tender parked by the NAAFI shop). I am happy to say that my 2 left feet caused no embarrassment and that the CO was promoted within a year (doubt if there was any connection).

The first photo below shows the actual AOC’s  Parade – it was held on the hardstanding in front of MT. The AOC was AVM RI Jones CB AFC.

I have enlarged a section of the photo above and added a few names. My apologies to the other personnel whose names I should have remembered but, whilst I recognise some other faces, my memory for names has never been good.
Flt Lt Ollie Brookes (left.centre) was a Fighter Controller who was the nominated Unit Fire Officer. As such he was entitled to his own station bike! This bike, painted red of course, was misappropriated by a couple of airmen and only disovered much later hidden behind a dyke. At one stage in his career I believe he had boxed for the RAF - though his talents were not required on this occasion.
Near to the left end of the front row is Flt Lt Tommy Tucker, also a Fighter Controller, though an ex WWII Pilot. I remember that he used to fly the P47 Thunderbolt during the latter years of the war.
The next 3 photos show the March past by Station Headquarters.

Usually when a senior officer visits a unit there are other tasks to perform, new facilities to be opened, medals and awards to be presented etc. On this visit Warrant Officer Cornes was presented with an AOCinCs Commendation.
Commanding Officer. The Commanding Officer in 1968 was Sqn Ldr Jerrold Le Cheminant DFC. I’m not sure about the derivation of the name but I believe it may have originated in the Channel Islands. I was lucky enough to serve on 3 units with “Chem”.  He was at RAF Bawdsey where I did my Fighter Controller training, He was my boss at Saxa and he was my boss again at RAF Bukit Gombak in Singapore. Despite the fact I was on the wrong end of a couple of  interviews I can honestly say he was the best CO I had in 22 years of the RAF.
He was a Sergeant Pilot in the Battle of Britain, flying Spitfires. During the war he flew with 72, 92, 616 and possibly 232 Squadrons. He was attributed with having shot down 6  German aircraft (incl ME109’s). In the 40’s, 50’s & 60’s NCOs becoming commissioned as officers served it what was known as the ”Supplementary List” and it was unusual for them to be promoted beyond the rank of Flight Lieutenant. Chem was promoted to Wing Commander before leaving Saxa and subsequently retired from the RAF in the early 70’s.
Unfortunately Chem died some time ago but is happily remembered by many.