Sunday, 25 September 2011

The Earl of Zetland Again (amended 26 Aug 2012)

The Earl of Zetland known by personnel from RAF Saxa Vord, was the second ship of that name. She was built by Hall Russell, Aberdeen in 1939 and purchased by the North of Scotland, Orkney and Shetland Shipping Company. Her length was 166ft and her weight 548 tons. She operated for a short while in Shetland waters before being transferred south soon after the outbreak of WWII to operate in the Pentland Firth area. After the end of the war she was transferred back to Shetland.

During the lifetime of the camp there were three Skippers. Captain Jimmy Johnson held the position for 15 years until late 1965 when he moved on in the Company to take command of the MV St Clair. The mate, Willie Sinclair, took Command of the Earl until 1972 when he retired. He, in turn, was followed by the man who had replaced him as mate. Captain Michael Gray who was in command from the summer of 1972 until the sailings ceased. Her last trip from Shetland was in March 1975 when she left for Aberdeen. (Left Click on photos to enlarge).

Her normal schedule called for 3 trips a week to Whalsay, Yell and Unst and once a week to Out Skerries and Fetlar (dependent upon weather of course). At some of the ports of call her draught and tide state could be such that she had to anchor off and small craft, known as Flit Boats - manned by local folk, were used to transfer passengers and cargo ashore. Whilst that was her normal schedule it was frequently altered for events like cattle & lamb sales. Sometimes extra trips were laid on to take visitors to places like Fair Isle & Muckle Flugga. In Lerwick the Earl was normally berthed at the Victoria Pier. This was quite handy at times as frequently passengers & cargo from the Earl were transferring to the St Clair and vice versa. It was a familiar sight to see the Earl at one side of the pier and the MV St Clair at the other. The next photo, from the mid 60’s, was taken by a passenger on the St Clair as she was leaving for Aberdeen and shows the Earl berthed at the pier.

The next two pictures were taken from the Earl as it left Lerwick by the North Mouth early in the 60’s. For someone living in Lerwick today I find it interesting to note how much the north end of Lerwick has changed in 50 years:
Having left the shelter of Lerwick you might be lucky enough to have a calm voyage and have a memorable trip with wonderful scenery. If, on the other hand, the weather was terrible you could still have a memorable trip (is that what is meant by a win, win situation!).
The first port of call was usually Whalsay. The next  picture of Symbister was taken from the Earl in August 1966.
The  photos below were somewhat earlier and were taken by Whalsay in 1960 or 61:
Once a week the next port of call was likely to be Out Skerries. Routes were usually decided by weather, cargo & passengers. I’m afraid I don’t have a photo associated with the Earl & Out Skerries so I have attached a snap taken recently from the Fivla, the inter-island ferry currently serving the Out Skerries.
Once a week, after visiting Out Skerries, the Earl would call at Houbie in Fetlar. The next picture was taken from the Earl in 1958 by the first CO of Saxa, Sqn Ldr Gordon Mackie Millar.Fetlar was another place where Flit Boats were needed as there was no deep water berth suitable for the Earl.

Mid Yell, with its sheltered anchorage and the largest population centre on the island, was hardly ever by-passed. The photos below show the Earl berthed at the pier and Flit Boats in action at Mid Yell.


From Mid Yell the Earl would head north-east to Uyeasound at the south end of Unst:
From Uyeasound it would then be up the east coast of Unst to the most northerly destination on the route -Baltasound.  Sometimes, when running late or due to winds or tides, Baltasound would be omitted from the schedule with everything possible for Unst being offloaded at Uyeasound. Unfortunately, whilst Baltasound had a pier that the Earl could use, Flit Boats were the order of the day at Uyeasound. Heavy cargo like vehicles could not be unloaded. Shipments occasionally ended up back in Lerwick. The next sequence of photos were all taken at Baltasound. The St Rognvald appears in three of the pictures and I have added a short note about her at the end of this section.
Continuing the sequence at Baltasound, the next four pictures give a fair representation of why the service was operated. I know that beef is supposed to be hung before sale and consumption but the next 3 shots seem to be taking things to the extreme:
And finally, the human cargo disembarking at Baltasound:
The working lives of the Earl and St Rognvald in the Shetlands came to an end with the advent of the RoRo Ferries in the 70’s. The Earl of Zetland is now a floating pub/restaurant on the River Tyne at North Shields.

Note 1. The St Rognvald III
The St Rognvald III was built by Hall Russell in Aberdeen in 1955 and, like the Earl, it was owned by the North of Scotland, Orkney and Shetland Shipping Company. It was significantly larger than the Earl being 1024 tons and 244ft in length. Its main purpose was to carry cargo but did have accommodation for 12 first class passengers. Because of her size she was very limited in finding places in the Northern Isles where she could berth. In the summer months she also offered cruises to the Northern Isles from Leith (Edinburgh).
Note 2. Earlier Section on the Earl of Zetland
A much shorter section on the Earl was published in 2009 here:


Sunday, 18 September 2011

The Admiralty Building and Underwater Cables Part 1

The Admiralty Building was constructed as a 2 storey building as early as 1954/5 and a year or so later a third storey was added. At the same time that this storey was added the Navy Annex was constructed. The following notes from The Public Records Office, referring to a 1953 document, show an outline of the original plan for the Admiralty Building – the notes were kindly provided by Bob Jenner.
 Notes from PRO (NA) File AIR2/12064-Saxa 18-05-1953
Design and construction of a Laboratory site 70 feet North of R10 and connected to it by a corridor. It is a two storied building with a flat roof capable of carrying an additional storey later of 60’ x 30’ x 9’.
The Building to contain: Dark Room, Battery Room and Store and a Workshop to contain: 4.5” Lathe,.25”Drilling Machine, Bench Grinder, Hand Folding Machine, Small Guillotine, 120’ of benching, 100’ of steel racking, Component Storage Cupboard, Office Furniture and Stools.
Cable ducts for cables to hydrophone arrays at sea to come ashore at Burra Firth. A Naval Radar Type T277 or similar will be required. (See Note 1.)Staff will be accommodated at Haroldswick. A new RAF pattern ‘Canberra’ bungalow will be provided for Admiralty use .
Officially RAF Saxa Personnel were barred from both buildings and they were therefore associated with an air of mystery. (Left click on pictures to enlarge).
Many personnel posted to Saxa and serving on the Ops & Radar Sites for much of the life of the Unit were intrigued by the apparent Top Secret goings on associated with these buildings and rumours of underwater submarine cables were commonplace. Certainly in the early years many a serviceman left Unst with photos of Russian Trawlers in Burrafirth which were reputedly spying on these submarine operations. Stories of soviet divers going over the side to see what was going on were rife.

In fact, there were top secret “goings-on”. The copy of an obituary from an Oct 2007 Daily Telegraph (sent to me by Bob Jenner), gives an idea about how concerned the government was about the security of the project in the 50’s.
With the passage of time much of the operational work has been declassified. It came as a surprise to me that there were 2 separate projects and at least 3 phases to the operations. The first project was controlled by the Admiralty and involved scientists from Teddington and Portland – this took place in the mid to late 50’s. The second was NATO controlled and involved the use of American equipment and personnel – this happened in the early 60’s. Recently I discovered that there was a third phase to this enigma – after the US equipment and personnel moved out around the end of 1963, the UK Admiralty became active again. I have been fortunate enough to get hold of some of the data and even luckier to be given anecdotes by some of those who were involved with the projects.
Whilst this facet of Saxa Vords life did not officially involve the RAF Unit greatly there were some implications for the camp. For a period, some of the people who worked in the Admiralty Building lived on the domestic site, for part of the time the RAF Power House was needed etc. If construction work was required a number of local people were employed by firms such as Cubitts or Pearson and Tawse. Later on one of the buildings, which had been erected for the trials, was dismantled and re-erected on the Domestic Site as one of the incarnations of the Penguin Club/Skittle Alley. However, I have recently discovered a small amount of evidence of some direct RAF association with the work being carried out in the Admiralty Buildings.
When I first started looking at this subject I thought I would add a section to the blog. However, there is so much interesting material now available that there will be at least three more sections over the coming weeks.Whilst these sections will not answer all of the queries about this intriguing part of Saxas history they will provide some indications of the work undertaken. The first of these sections, to be issued in a couple of weeks, features the memories of John Marchment, who was a Scientific Officer working for the Under Water Detection Establishment at Portland. He visited Unst on a number of occasions in 1956 & 57 and has been kind enough to allow me to publish his memories of the period.

Note 1. Radar Type 277
The Type 277 Radar was a Naval radar, first produced in 1943 and was normally used for height-finding. It had a wavelength of 10cm (S Band)

Other sections about the Admiralty Building & Underwater Cables appear here:


Friday, 9 September 2011

Type 93

In May 2010 I published a section on the departure of the Type 93 radar in 2005 using a sequence of photos taken by the lat CO Sqn Ldr Phil Carpenter:-

Since then I have gathered a number of other pictures of the Type 93, the equipment within the Type 93 radome and other equipment in the vicinity. Not having had recent experience in the air defence/radar world I am unable to identify some of the equipment and would be very happy if anyone could help out:

The Type 93 spent 12 years at Saxa Vord, arriving in the autumn of 1993 and departing in autumn of 2005. The Type 93 was designed to be a transportable radar but early use in this mode led to unserviceabilities and breakdowns. From the outset the Saxa equipment was intended to operate from a permanent site inside a very large radome. The reason the dome was far bigger than needed was the decision to build it on the same site as the old Type 80 radome base (with a 75x25ft reflector it required lots of space). As explained earlier in the blog, the construction of the radome was no simple matter – the first 3 attempts were destroyed by gales (twice in 1989 and again at New Year 1991/2). I suspect that the arrival of the Type 93 was a bit later than originally planned.
For most of its life on the Hill the Type 93 was the only active radar. Because it was a 3D radar, capable of providing both plan and height data on targets, the HF200 height finder which had been in service for 14 years, was decommissioned in 1993. The Marconi S649 search radar was also shut down in April l 1995. It had been left without a radome after the gales of New Year 91/92, salt corrosion and weather had taken their toll. As far as I’m aware that left the Type 93 from 1995 to 2005 without any on site back-up. I would like to say that that it operated without fault for 10 years; however, life’s not like that. There were a number of significant outages, one of which is mentioned later in this section.
The arrival of the Type 93 in Lerwick en route to Unst was covered in the Shetland Times in an article which is reproduced below.
The following sequence comes from an MOD collection and is self explanatory:
The Type 93 scissor lift from a different angle and the radome with the SSSB Building:
The Type 649 was decommissioned in early 1995 and therefore the 2 photos of the radome below must have been taken before that date.
Now come the photos I would have to guess at. Most of them taken within the Type 93 Radome but some of them are outside. I suspect at least one of them belongs to the Link 11/16. I’ll leave titling them until an expert enlightens me!
The radar was originally designed to be “mobile”, though the Saxa model stayed static for around 12 years. However, when the final decision to close Saxa was taken the ability to “fold-up” the equipment and take it away came in very handy!
So what’s left of the Type 93? As far as I know just the empty dome. At 110ft diameter you could fit a couple of badminton courts (44ft in length) or even a tennis court (78ft in length) inside – unfortunately they are not in much demand on the site anymore!