Sunday, 30 October 2011

The Admiralty Building and Underwater Cables Part 4

This section will raise more questions than it will provide answers. However, by telling what I know (or think I know), I hope to trigger some memories which, in turn, may provide answers to outstanding queries.

As far as I can tell, all US/NATO activity in the Admiralty Buildings at Saxa had come to an end by 1964. Bertie Henderson had been left as a caretaker for the buildings but I can find no record of new “outsiders” on site again until May 67. In that month 4 visitors from MOD(Navy) arrived and spent up to 11 days on site. Two of the visitors came from the Admiralty Research Laboratory at Teddington, the organisation which had run the earlier trials in the 50’s. The other two visitors, a Mr Williamson & Mr Packman are noted as belonging to MOD(Navy) Submarine Cables.
My best guess is that the visit in May 67 was to determine the condition of the Admiralty equipment and cables left behind from the 50’s trials – hence the inclusion of 2 cable experts. In the following 10 years I have been able to discover 25 further visits by MOD(Navy) staff, mainly from Teddington but there were a couple from Mr Marchant from the Department of Naval Security. Sometimes the visits were just by one person, most of the time they were by 2 people and occasionally by up to 4 at a time. The visits were not normal MOD jollies – they took place in mid-winter as well as the as the mid-summer months. There could well have been more frequent visits but I have names & dates for those mentioned. (Note 1. Is a list of dates, names of visitors and purpose of visit, if recorded, between 1959 & 1977. The data has been gleaned from Visitors’ Books etc and is unlikely to be complete – I publish the list in the hope that one of those listed reads it or an acquaintance reads it – I really would like more information!).
Unless new equipment had been installed – for which I have so far found no evidence – part of the old system must have been reactivated. They could not have been working on the US/NATO System as no appropriate 60Hz/120volt power supply was available. Of the subsequent visits I find it particularly annoying to know that 8 of them happened when I was serving at Saxa. Indeed people could have been working in the Admiralty buildings whilst I was on duty in the R10, clueless as to what was going on!
The last 2 visits that I know about were at the end of March and at the beginning of May 1977. Coincidently, Bertie Henderson, who had been associated with the Admiralty Buildings for over 20 years, died in Jan 77. After May 77 I have found no mention of MOD(Navy) activity on the site.
A number of people have mentioned that Bertie Henderson visited the site once a week and had an office on the top floor of the Admiralty Building with a great view of Muckle Flugga. They have also told me that once a week Bertie would deliver a “tape” to the local post office for onward transmission – where it went & what it contained has yet to be discovered.
After 1977, MOD(Navy) appears to have lost interest in the site. By 1980 the 2 storey Navy Annex had been transferred to the RAF. In subsequent years the use changed but initially the bottom floor became a radar workshop and the second floor was occupied by the R10 Registry, OC Eng and OC Radar Servicing Flight Offices. The 3 storey Admiralty Building may have been transferred at the same time but was not put to use by the RAF until much later (1987+). This is probably because the building did not meet Health & Safety Standards. Fire escape from the upper floors was a situation where you wouldn’t want to be last in the queue. According to John Stott a fireman who was at Saxa in the seventies :- “Hapless firemen had to test the old escape system. These were Davy Escapes, single harness and a steel cable fed from a slow release drum. They went back up for the next evacuee to use. They really were horrible and were outdated in the seventies when I was there”.
The drum was securely attached to the wall and it was one person at a time out of the window. In 1987 HQ Strike Command approved the building of an emergency stairwell and at the same time approved metal cladding and a peaked roof for the building.
The appearance of the building changed from this (left click on pictures to enlarge):-

To this:-
Once the alterations had been made to the building the RAF began to make use of it. According to Frank Joseph, who spent many years at Saxa both in the RAF and as a civvy: “On the ground floor first right there was a large kitchen area where food was prepared on night shifts and exercises. Two or three offices were also in this corridor which led to the canteen/TV room at the bottom left and opposite this was an office used by the radiotech guys. From the canteen there was a door which led into a porch area with a choice of using the emergency exit door to outside or a stairwell which led up to the next two floors, the first of which was used to store lockers which housed site personnel personal gear, with good views out to Muckle Flugga. I always remember that I used to go up there for my lunch break as it was also handy to look for any birds on the fence wires. I cannot recall what was on the top floor but sure that I did visit it”.

The use of the building changed as time went on. Someone has mentioned that the “war rations” were kept there at one stage. A major reduction in establishment took place prior to the change in status to Remote Radar Head (RRH) Saxa Vord (effective Apr 2001). It became no longer viable to have a small number of service and civilian personnel spread over such a wide area. In Aug 2000 the SHQ and Main Guardroom staff were moved up to the Mid (Ops) site and this led to a reallocation of space, especially in the Admiralty Building. Less than 3 years later, with the announcement of the closure of RAF Buchan and the reinstatement of separate Unit Status to Saxa, the SHQ and main Guardroom staff returned to the Domestic Site. I believe that the Mid (Ops) site became almost derelict after this and that all operations were carried out from the Type 93 at the Radar Site. By this date the number of service personnel at Saxa had reduced to about 65 – for most of the life of the Unit the strength had been around 190. I have been unable to find evidence of the Admiralty Buildings being used after Feb 2003.
RAF Involvement in Admiralty Trials?
There are a number of scraps of evidence to suggest that the RAF had some direct involvement in the trials:
The 1953 outline of plans for the Admiralty Building, included in the section
required the provision of a radar similar to the Type 277 (about the same vintage as the Type 13 & 14). Another plan from 1954, also provided by Bob Jenner, required that a Type 64 console be installed:
(AXA was the Rotor Code for Saxa and Building 7 was the Admiralty Building)
Whilst the trials were “Top Secret” two mentions of RAF Controllers from Saxa being involved appeared in the Official Station History – which was just” Secret” at the time – I suspect the entries should not have been made and that there were other occasions when a control service was provided but not recorded – who knows?
Another indication of some participation by the RAF was in Aug ‘61 when Fg Off ND Gaskie from a Shackleton MR2 Squadron, based at RAF Ballykelly, visited the Unit. The purpose of the visit was given as “AES” (Admiralty Experimental Site) - I’m sure it wasn’t just a casual liaison visit to a Top Secret location.
The last small pointer I’ve found also comes from the Official Station History. In June 1970 Eng staff recovered the Type 64 console from the Admiralty Building for RAF use:
This indicates, firstly; that RAF Engineers knew it was there and, secondly; that the RAF knew it was no longer required by the Admiralty.

The Admiralty Experimental Site and RAF Saxa Vord co-existed for 20 yrs (’57-’77). There were common access routes, water supplies and power supplies. Formal agreements at MOD level must have existed between the RAF and the RN. The fact that none of the these arrangements were openly shared at a working level by RAF personnel , suggests to me that during the period there was no “operational” use of the Admiralty Buildings, only intermittent occupation for trials and/or data gathering! I would welcome more information should anyone be in a position to supply data:
Note 1. List of Known Visitors to the Admiralty Buildings -1959 to 1977

14 Aug         Mr Wallon Bell Telephone Co USA

2 Aug Mr RI Black ARL Teddington Liaison
29 Nov Cmdr CH Blair (USN) Off of Naval Research, London AES

30 May Cmdr CH Blair (USN) Off of Naval Research, London AES
1 Aug Mr JR Boettler Off of Naval Research, London Liaison
9 Aug Fg Off ND Caskie 20? Sqn, Ballykelly (Shackletons) AES

6 to 11 May Mr Stamp MOD(Navy) AES Teddington Duty
6 to 17 May Mr Williamson MOD(Navy) Submarine Cables Duty
6 to 17 May Mr Packman MOD(Navy) Submarine Cables Duty
10 to 19 May Mr Field MOD(Navy) AES Teddington Duty
4 to 6 Oct Mr NH Field ARL Teddington Duty AESU
4 to 6 Oct Mr JC Marchant MOD(Navy)(DNSY) Duty AESU

12 to 14 Feb Mr DJ Parkes ARL Teddington AESU Visit
12 to 15 Feb Mr R DE B Max ARL Teddington AESU Visit
12 to 15 Feb Mr NH Field ARL Teddington AESU Visit
25 to 26 Mar Mr Webber ARL Teddington AESU – Routine Visit
25 to 26 Mar Mr Marell ARL Teddington AESU – Routine Visit
6 Jun Mr DG Parkes ARL Teddington AESU Visit
6 Jun Mr KR Williamson ARL Teddington AESU Visit
6 Jun Mr T Packman ARL Teddington AESU Visit
16 to 19 Jul Mr Parkes ARL Teddington Routine Visit
16 to 19 Jul Mr Cumber ARL Teddington Routine Visit
12 to 16 Aug Dr Webber AEL AESU Routine Visit
12 to 16 Aug Mr Pye AEL AESU Routine Visit
12 to 16 Aug Mr Williamson AEL AESU Routine Visit
16 to 18 Sep Mr Pye ARL Teddington AESU Routine Visit
16 to 18 Sep Mr Somner ARL Teddington AESU Routine Visit
29 Oct Mr Marchant Dep of Naval Security ARL Ext Routine Vis

30 Jan to 6 Feb Mr NH Field ARL Teddington Duty at ARL Ext
30 Jan to 4 Feb Mr NRD Godsell ARL Teddington Duty at ARL Ext
15 to 18 Apr Mr Parker ARL Teddington Duty at ARLEU
15 to 18 Apr Mr Cumber ARL Teddington Duty at ARLEU
15 to 21 May Nr NH Field ARL Teddington Duty at ARLEU
15 to 21 May Mr GH Pull ARL Teddington Duty at ARLEU
24 to 30 Jul Mr NH Field ARL Teddington Duty at ARLE
24 to 30 Jul Mr NRD Godsell ARL Teddington Duty at ARLE
5 to 17 Sep Mr NH Field ARL Teddington Duty at ARLEU
5 to 17 Sep Mr NRD Godsell ARL Teddington Duty at ARLEU

19 Jul 72 YP Sale ARL Teddington
19 Jul 72 RJ Morris ARL Teddington
14 Aug 72 ASO YF Sale ARL Teddington Trial
14 Aug 72 SO Morris ARL Teddington Trial
26 Sep 72 AT Parsons ARL Teddington
13 Dec 72 Mr NH Field ARL Teddington -
13 Dec 72 Mr RB May ARL Teddingon -
13 Dec 72 Mr NH Field ARL Teddington
13 Dec 72 Mr RB May ARL Teddingon

14 Feb 74 Mr Morris ARL Teddington
14 Feb 74 Miss Sale ARL Teddington

24 Jun 75 Mr Morris ARL Teddington
24 Jun 75 Mr Matson ARL Teddington
4 Sep 75 Miss Sale ARL Teddington
3 Nov 75 RJ Morris ARL Teddington
3 Nov 75 Y Sale ARL Teddington

19 Jul 76 RJ Morris ARL Teddington
19 Jul 76 Y Sale ARL Teddington

31 Mar 77 NH Field ARL Teddington
31 Mar 77 AJ Kirby ARL Teddington
3 May 77 RJ Morris ARL Teddington
3 May 77 Y Sale ARL Teddington

As I said in the main part of this section, I suspect there were more visits than those listed. Anecdotal evidence I have suggests Cdr Blair (USN) visited Unst on more 2 occasions and that Mr N H Field from ARL was a fairly frequent visitor, with friends among the local population of Unst. I’m sure that more information is available – it’s just a matter of locating it!

Other sections:
Admiralty Building & Underwater Cables Part 1 (18/9/2011)
Admiralty Building & Underwater r Cables Part 2 (2/10/2011)
Admiralty Building & Underwater Cables Part 3 (16/10/2011)

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Sailing at Saxa (amended 23 Aug 12 & 19 Feb 16)

Sailing has been one to the favourite Shetland sports for many years and it was logical that the RAF became involved in this activity soon after their arrival at Saxa. “Mandy” was an Albacore, with the registration of A453 in those days , crewed by RAF personnel she was successful at the first attempt. The following clipping is part of a large article which appeared on the front page of the Shetland News in Sep ’59:
(left click on pictures to enlarge)
 Very early on some Albacore 15ft dinghies were delivered for RAF use. I presume they arrived after a trip north courtesy of the St Clair and Earl of Zetland. I also don’t know who paid for them, possibly the Nuffield Trust who provided a mini-bus & sets of golf clubs later in the life of the Unit. The Albacore was fairly new design (1954) and the RAF probably received the first Shetland models. I believe they must have presented the officials with a problem at early regattas as they would have been faster that the local Shetland boats (perhaps less stable in rougher water), making handicapping a difficult call to begin with. Knowing little about sailing means I’m making lots of assumptions! I think 4 Albacores were delivered early in the 60’s and were named Mandy, Huney, Balti & Fair Enough The RAF “fleet” included a smaller dinghy called” Whiskers”, this was an Enterprise  assembled in the winter of 1960/6i She was  not too popular with later sailors - the hull was slightly misshapen and the sailing characteristics were said to be poor!

The first section of photos come from John Courtis, who was an Admin Officer on the Unit 1961/2. A short clipping from the Shetland Times in 1963 givnng details of what was one of the earlier Lerwick Inter-Club Regattas in which the RAF competed, follows. Should anyone ask me to sail from Baltasound to Lerwick in something the size of an Albacore they should be prepared for a short answer. There were also regattas each year on Unst, at Uyeasound and at Baltasound. RAF crews took part in most of them except when they clashed with exercises & TACEVALs etc.
Flt Lt Bob Sawyer, who appears in 2 of the pictures above was the Station Education Office and was the person responsible for the start of the excavations of the archaeological site a Underhoull near the Westing on Unst.
The following clip is a report on the 1965 Uyeasound Regatta from the Shetland Times.
The next 3 photos were taken by my wife in 1967 and they are followed by a report on the Inter Club Regatta of that year from the Shetland Times – RAF crews achieving success!
In 1969 a sailing event was part of the midsummer celebrations; however, unusually for Shetland the lack of wind was a bit of a problem.

I’m not certain as to the date of the 2 photos of the Uyeasound Regatta which follow. I think that the person nearest the camera in the first is Graham Massie who was an Admin Off – if so this event was probably in 1969.
The final picture is a copy of a large article from a 1991 issue of the Shetland Times. The event was to celebrate 100 years of sailing regattas at Baltasound. Once again there was significant participation from RAF crews.


Sunday, 16 October 2011

The Admiralty Building and Underwater Cables Part 3

The next stage of Saxa Vord & the submarine cables is a little more complicated to recount. Data is difficult to come by but I can at least shed some light on what went on. The US equipment, mentioned by John Marchment in an earlier section:
was finally ready in the late 50’s. The second trial was under the auspices of NATO but the equipment and personnel involved were mainly American. A US cable laying ship, accompanied by a support ship with a small Landing Craft, laid the cables & hydrophones on the sea bed. The land route used was different from that chosen by the Admiralty a few years earlier. Whilst the route was similar from the Admiralty Building, it then deviated and descended into Burrafirth about a mile north of where the Admiralty cables lay. The cables went down at a point called Hagmirs Geo (this name cannot be seen on modern 1:25,000 scale maps but is shown on earlier 6” to the mile maps, or it may be visible on Admiralty charts). I have marked its location on the map (kindly provided by John McMeechan for the Cables Part 2 section) below. (Left click on pictures to ennlarge)

The next 2 pictures were taken from Hermaness in Sep 2011 and show Hagmirs Geo. They were taken from about 1km away. I will try to confirm the exact location of the cables next summer but I may have to take up rock climbing, abseiling or sailing to do so. The possible route is based solely on what looks like concrete on the beach – it could just as easily be a slab of rock!
The equipment used was designed by Bell Telephone Labs Co (US) and one of their employees paid an early visit to Saxa on 14 Aug 59. When the trials took place there were watch-keeping US civilians, employed by the Bell Telephone Co and attached to the US Navy, working on the Mid (Ops) Site. There were only a small number of them (maybe 4 or 5) and they were accommodated in the Officers’ Mess on the Domestic site. For the living-in Officers this was a useful addition to their numbers. As civilians they paid higher extra messing fees and, as Americans, they had access to items which were not normally available to the RAF. They were able to use US Commissaries – including the one at RAF Edzell and this, combined with the extra money, furnished the Mess which all sorts of unknown luxuries such as blueberry pancakes and maple syrup.
The fact that there were classified anti-submarine trials going on in the area seems to have been a poorly kept secret (apart from the RAF personnel on site). The following picture is a copy of a clipping from the 27 Feb 62 issue of the Shetland News and, in itself, is a copy of an article which appeared in the Observer Newspaper. (Some enlargement may be necessary).
As this trial took place on UK soil and in Admiralty facilities there had to be a UK Officer in overall charge. Lt Cdr Frank Spragge was at Saxa from 1961 until 1963 and fulfilled this role. It certainly eased dealings with local authorities and people.
As in the earlier Admiralty trials, much of these operations were dependent upon local workers for construction work. Bertie Henderson, mentioned by John Marchment when describing the earlier Admiralty Trials, was retained as the Caretaker of the Admiralty Buildings right up to his death in Jan 1977.
Of course American designed equipment had a major drawback at Saxa – no American power supply. The problem was easily solved (NATO money) – put up new building, install generators producing 120v/60Hz and get on with it. A pre-fabricated structure, called a Cosley Building, was ordered from a Midlands supplier and shipped north. Who supplied the generators - I don’t know but it’s fairly certain a landing craft would have been needed.
The Cosley Building was connected to the 2 storey Navy Annex by a specially built passage – the outline of which can be seen in this recent photo:
How did the trials go? To be honest again, I don’t know! By this time the US had an extensive system of submarine cables in existence as part of the SOSUS System (Sound Surveillance System). The system had its’ origins in 1949 and was intended to provide a method of detecting/tracking submarines. Parts of this system had been in operation for some time in both the Atlantic & Pacific Oceans before the “Top Secret” Projects began at Saxa. So – what were they trying to do at Saxa. Once again I can only guess. When the UK Admiralty started its’ trials they had been expecting the Americans to be ready with their equipment so it must have been new. Possibly something intended to be a “next generation “ SOSUS. Whatever it was by the end of 1963 this NATO funded trial ended, the Bell Telephone Co personnel left and much of their equipment was dismantled. The generators in the Cosley Building were removed and the building itself donated to the RAF (saved the money of shipping south). This trial was over – what was learned - I don’t know, but no great NATO or US operational system came into being. As far as I have been able to determine, nothing very much happened in the Admiralty Buildings for the next 4 years.

The building which had housed the generators for the US power was left in place until 1974/5 – when it was dismantled and re-erected on the Domestic site. It became the new Skittle Alley and Penguin Club – much of the work being carried out in off-duty time by a serving “scopie” - Harry Bowyer. In the later 70’s an emergency water supply tank was built on part of the foundations of the building.
So we have seen 2 projects, one UK Admiralty and one US/NATO. By the end of 1963 both projects appear to have been wound-up, equipment dismantled and personnel gone. On the surface it looks like the end of the story but I have some unanswered questions about the 2 projects and it is apparent that the Admiralty became re- interested in the site a few years later. Another section will be issued

Sunday, 9 October 2011

Recollections of Saxa Vord – Harry Cairns

The main part of this section is reproduced from an article which appeared in The Shetland Times issue of 14 Apr 2006. The pictures have been changed and there are a few small additions at the end.

When I was posted to Unst in November 1962 I did know a little of what lay in store for me.

I had been serving at RAF Trimingham, another radar station, in Norfolk and anybody posted from there to Saxa Vord was invariably asked “What have you done wrong?” If only the sceptics had known how welcoming the Unst folk were and how relaxed the way of life was!
I took over as Accountant Officer at Saxa Vord from Flying Officer John Courtis, who was a keen photographer. During a visit to my training unit he gave me some idea of the scenery and wild life to be found in Shetland.
In fact, the visit and slide show were for the benefit of another young officer who was due to replace John but I was sent instead as the Air Ministry seemed to think that I was more temperamentally suited to service in the Islands than he was!!! (Friends and acquaintances in Shetland may or may not agree.) He went instead to the Isle of Man and the flesh pots of Douglas!
Like many others, such as Ken Shaw, Len Bowyer, Mike MacDonald, Tony Fry, Eddie Barclay and Dennis Bright, I made use of Jimmy Leask’s Special “Overlands” at weekends to accompany the football team to Lerwick. (Duty trips to the RAF Units at Mossy Hill and Collafirth Hill helped to nurture love’s young dream!!)
The main aim for me was not to watch the football but to do my courting, as I had met my first, and present, wife early on in my tour. Lesley’s grandmother and mother owned the Grand Hotel, which was very convenient, and after numerous trips to Lerwick we had a memorable wedding in September 1963. Johnny Leask commented about the “overland” taking our RAF guests across Yell the following day that he “had driven noisier hearses”!
After our wedding we set up home with Viv and June Owers in Hamarsgarth until Lorna Saxby’s Wulvershoull became available. We eventually moved from there to Keldabrunn, a “butt and ben” near what was then called the Springfield Hotel, We were very happy, if somewhat cramped there, holding jigsaw puzzle and scrabble parties in the absence of TV. It is sad to see that the enlarged house is no longer in use and has looked rather weary for the past few years.

The house was also convenient for food parcels from Lesley’s mother to be placed on the gate post by Graham Hunter as his bus passed the road end. RAF pay wasn’t all that great pre 1970!
One of my fondest memories is of playing badminton, and drinking tea, for hours in the 3 village halls and the Camp gym. Clare Hunter from Haroldswick was my mixed partner and I remember playing against Cathy and Agnes Priest, Brian Hunter, Harold and Roderick Jamieson and Patty and John Sutherland. My apologies to others still with us but whose names escape me. It is good to see Brian’s son Peter and his son are involved in the sport and that Brian himself still has a keen interest.
Other memories are of buying both meat and fish from Bertie Jamieson at bargain prices. All cuts of meat cost 4/6 during this first tour. Needless to say, scrag end of neck wasn’t on my menu.
I also got my lobster very cheaply from John Henry Robertson, who charged the Officers’ Mess twice what I paid. When challenged about this by the Catering Officer John Henry explained that “Mr Cairns is a local” – an accolade indeed.
Local dances were always interesting, especially if you had a drop of Louis “the brew’s” home bru inside you.
As Accountant Officer, I used to get my supplies of bank notes by registered post from the Commercial Bank in Lerwick. On Mondays I’d phone Cammie Gordon or Neil Graham who would put my “order” in the post on Tuesday to come up by Earl of Zetland on Wednesday. My cheque and the cash would cross in the post. On occasions when the Earl was delayed I would borrow cash for the airmen’s pay from Bertie Jamieson free of interest. Bless him – he would even deliver it to me and his wife Charlotte would give me a fairly large dram when I repaid it – regardless of the time of day!
I would get any coin I needed from Sandison’s Haroldswick shop, also now closed, and it wasn’t uncommon for me to wait 20 minutes whilst Albert Gray and Arthur Spence served the one customer who was ahead of me. I didn’t mind as I was included in the chat!
One interesting feature about my job was that the Losses Register I maintained included details of the cost of replacing the Type 80 radar that was blown of its plinth in, I think, 1958. I can’t remember the final figure but it was considerably less than £500K.
Another story that might be of interest relates to the time that a Russian trawler went aground at Skaw. The indications were that it was an Elint(Electronic intelligence gathering) vessel as the crew hid what they were doing from an RAF Shackleton that flew overhead as part of the Search and Rescue mission.
Whether there was any spying equipment on board is debatable. In any event, the Unst folk did well in “liberating” fishing nets and sundry bits and pieces including the steering wheel, which was subsequently returned to the Russians. (Editors note: The ships wheel found its way to the Methodist Kirk near to the DomesticSite – it can still be seen there – obviously a “miracle”. The photo below was taken in September 2011).

However, 2 RAF lads - a steward and a cook – found signals, maps and other papers in the skipper’s cabin, some of this hidden under his mattress. They brought these back to me and our Station Intelligence Officer had a look at them. By chance he was a Russian linguist and was able to provide a summary of what was in the documents before they were forwarded to the RAF Intelligence Staff at the Ministry of Defence.
One of the documents proved extremely valuable to the Navy but what amazed them was that the translated summary had been done by an RAF Flying Officer on Unst. On being asked about this by his Naval counterpart, the RAF Air Commodore intelligence supremo was reported to have said “Didn’t you know old chap, every man we send to Saxa Vord can speak fluent Russian.” I’m not sure which cheek his tongue was in at the time.
I finished my first tour in November 1964 but, after a year at RAF Turnhouse and a year of unaccompanied service in Aden, I was lucky enough to get back to Unst in December 1966, staying until September 1968.
During my Aden tour I managed to get some leave in June 1966 to come back to Lerwick to see my wife and bairns – the younger for the first time as he had been born 3 weeks after I left Lesley in the Grand Hotel. The shipping strike was on but Jerry Pottinger, the senior barman in the Grand, arranged for me to get a lift on the Morning Star from Fraserburgh. I didn’t smell too sweet when I eventually met my family but the kippers and baps on the boat were great – for tea and supper!
By the time we got back to Unst we had 2 wee boys, both born in Lerwick, and after living for a couple of months at Viewforth in Uyeasound we moved to No 2 Gue in Baltasound.
Sheep and ponies walking on the path round the house at nights kept the boys amused and Lesley and I awake. Our landlord was Bertie Jamieson and he allowed us to get whatever we needed for the house from Hay and Co in Lerwick.
I can recall all 4 of us being driven, with pram, across the fields to Skibhoull on the hay rack of Hunter NIsbet’s tractor when snow blocked the roads.
During that same period a sudden snow storm blocked a lot of the roads between the camp and Setters Hill Estate and I joined Ken Shaw, in waterproof rubber suits, guiding the snow plough and RAF bus and keeping them out of the ditches.

The plough and bus stopped at the married quarters and Ken and I had then to make our own way, along the top of the dyke, first to his house next to Dr Bobby Robertson’s place and then, across the fields to the light burning at No 2 Gue. Without that light I suspect I would have been well and truly lost.

Sadly, the price of meat had gone up by the time we came back. Bertie seemed to have learned what the various cuts were and comments by the “green” RAF wives about how cheap meat was did not escape him! Mind you, none of the new wives wanted the offal or cheap cuts and Lesley and I got our sweetbreads and oxtail for next to nothing.
I think it was during this tour that Jimmy Willie lost his bus when driving it back, empty, from the Uyeasound Up Helly Aa. The reason the bus was empty is best left unsaid but the event was immortalised in song.
The Army built the runway in Ordale during 1967: they had intended to sleep under canvas but we managed to squeeze them in to wooden huts behind the gym and the Ice Cap. The NAAFI profits were almost as high as when the hard drinking Norwegians who built the first “dome” lived on the camp!! Sandison’s and the NAAFI shop also did well from the Norwegians who needed a high calorie intake of food as well as triple drams of all spirits.
Also during this tour I managed the Hustlers, a “Shadows” type band, who were very talented and played regularly at dances on the island and at the Planets. A photograph and an article about them appeared in the Unst Millennium Handbook - a copy of which we picked up in the Haroldswick shop in 2001 during one of our frequent day visits to Unst.
The whole pace of life on Unst in the 60s was a great attraction for me but there were also career benefits, as I trust Flight Lieutenant Antrobus will find out.

Although the station was small its remoteness required appropriate decision making by relatively inexperienced staff. There were 3 administrative officer posts available during my second tour and I did all of them in turn, ending up as OC Administrative Squadron.
The experience I gained stood me in very good stead 9 years later when I performed the same duties as OC Administrative Wing at RAF Leuchars. I had over 300 staff there – more than twice as many as the total serving at Saxa Vord when I left.
Whilst I was much saddened by the announcement last year of the closure, the decision was inevitable.
I trust that the various authorities and groups of islanders looking at the future development of Unst will be successful in their efforts. Hopefully, at least some of the buildings and married quarters will be put to good use.
Those that remain in the hands of the Defence Estates Department must not be allowed to become dilapidated as Unst does not need the sort of eyesore seen at the defunct Toft Camp on Mainland.
I will be watching developments with interest in the coming years and hope that the island and its inhabitants will flourish.
And finally:
Well worn or worn well, make your own decision?

Sunday, 2 October 2011

The Admiralty Building and Underwater Cables Part 2

I am grateful to John Marchment for allowing me to publish his memories of Unst.
Unst Memories – John Marchment
"In 1955 I was working at UDE (Underwater Detection Establishment) at Portland and was appointed to a top secret project charged with laying a hydrophone array north of the Shetland Isles to detect Russian submarines coming out of the White Sea. Apparently we had agreed a joint project with the Americans to lay a series of listening devices on the deep sea floor to detect said submarines. The UK system would use a brand new process called cross correlation, which had just been invented by our research establishment in Teddington ARL (Admiralty Research Laboratory). Initially we were interviewed by the authorities to see if we were good enough to be cleared to top secret (and it took so long that we were all off the project 2 years later before we were officially cleared!!).
I was then given the task of measuring the earth currents in the ground as there were fears that our hydrophone cable up from the beach which had very small signals in them would be interfered with by the high power cables going up to drive the radar system. This meant making a small portable amplifier and many a pleasant day was spent on the cliffs around Portland Bill making our measurements. I was then involved in finding a suitable site for the hydrophone array north of the islands.
I first went up to Unst in March 1956. The journey itself was quite an adventure, train from Weymouth to Waterloo, underground to Euston, night sleeper to Aberdeen, then sail to Lerwick on the St Ninian steamer. (Left click on pictures to enlarge).

At Lerwick. John Leask was requested to fix an ‘overland’, which was taxi to Toft, ferry to Yell, taxi to Gutcher, ferry to Belmont and, finally a taxi to the Springfield Hotel in Baltasound. If all worked well, one could leave Weymouth about noon on day one and arrive in Unst in the afternoon of day three, but it could take much longer than that due to weather conditions etc. Some people opted to fly but that was no better as sometimes the planes didn’t fly for days due to fog or high winds!
I spent days on the cliffs delineating the route of the cable from the beach at Burrafirth to the lab on the second floor of the Navy building. The work was quite strenuous walking up and down the cliffs to the station but made even worse by the skuas which were nesting at the time and really did not want to be disturbed at all. I suffered repeated bombings and had to ask for assistance from the local team. (See Note 1. For the route of the Admiralty Cable to Burrafirth).

At that time there were, I think, 4 large diesel generators in a building at Valsgarth which we were told had been put there by the RAF to run their radar installation. We had the sole use of one generator. It is a well known fact that diesels do not like to run on light load and during 1956 most of the island had been wired with 230 volts from the generators (but it was intermittent as when the radar was at full power ‘they’ shut off the islands supply). This caused little or no problems to the bulk of the islanders as most of them just used the electric light to enable them to light their paraffin lamps more easily! The hotel, however, had quite a problem as they had fitted a 48 volt DC generator which charged a bank of 4 x 12volt batteries and all the bulbs were 48 volt. When the 230 A/C came all bulbs had to be changed but the 48 volt ones were kept handy as, when the A/C power went off, all bulbs had to be changed back and the hotel generator started. For entertainment we, the trials team from Portland, had installed a large tape recorder in the guests’ lounge to give some background music to the guests but I remember the recorder did not last long as someone tried to play it when the 48 volt DC was on and neither the batteries nor the recorder liked that at all.
We had a team of about 8 people staying up there and a hut was built alongside the hotel as a sort of overflow sleeping accommodation. When the ‘posh’ guests, who came up to fish, had the rooms in the hotel we were moved out to the hut. I think we integrated with the locals very well – we were invited to sheepdog trials, which seemed to involve drinking a lot of the local home brew – a sort of poteen made from potatoes I believe – and then going on to a supper, dance and singsong. This went on to the early hours – we didn’t really know the time as it was light all night.
I can remember the team being invited to a wedding ceremony of Bertie (Black or Johnstone - I cannot remember his surname?? ). Bertie had been assigned as my beater when I went up the cliffs as he came along to (a) help carry the gear and (b) he carried an axe handle to beat off the skuas that used to attack us as we wandered through their nesting sites. Not a safe occupation! Anyway Bertie (aged about 26-30) was courting a local widow who had 3 teen aged daughters and when they got married we were all invited to the ceremony which went on for best part of a week. The bride and groom left on the ferry for their honeymoon early in the proceedings and the crowd all went down to send them off. It was interesting to see Bertie give a peck to his new wife and then he went into quite a necking session with his 3 step daughters!! We always wondered how Bertie got on but we were leaving the island shortly afterwards as that was the virtual end of the project.
One other little ‘occupation’ that amused our team from the south was the fact that as Unst had the ferry on their side of Bluemull Sound when anyone wanted to come to Unst they had to call for the ferry. When the police did this (on their infrequent visits to the island) the few cars that were on Unst suddenly all went up on concrete blocks and of course they were never taxed!!
We went to sea in the ACS (Admiralty Cable Ship) Bullfinch (or sometimes ACS St Margarets), lowered a hydrophone to the bottom and had HMS Undaunted run towards us from beyond the Arctic Circle dropping 1lb. charges every 15 minutes so we could measure the received energy.
Picture courtesy of Bill Glover at:
Picture courtesy of Bill Glover at:
Photo courtesy of John Bryant at:

After several runs we chose the most favourable position, went back to base and loaded the 12 hydrophones and about 100 miles of cable.  On a personal note, those of you that know the area will know the wind blows quite hard most of the time and, effectively moored to the bottom (by the hydrophone and 15 miles of cable), we were exposed to the worst the weather could throw at us – it is lucky I am immune to seasickness!!  The hydrophones were laid in the chosen position and the cable was taken back to shore in Burrafirth. 
The rest of the team back in Portland had been developing the electronics and with the array down and the cable at the beach, the equipment was loaded onto a LCT, sailed up the North Sea and offloaded at the Baltasound pier.  The main local organizer of the transport and the station was a large gentleman called Bertie Henderson, who had been a whaler in his youth.

Bertie was a tower of strength throughout our stay in Unst. The equipment in the lab consisted of 12 amplifiers to bring the small signals from the cable up to a reasonable level and then the signals were fed to a large magnetic drum, 2 feet in diameter and 2.5 feet high, which rotated at high speed. The delayed signals were taken off and formed about 20 beams looking out northwards from the array. The beams were split in two and effectively multiplied together and when there was a source in each half beam it would show on the paper display, whereas the more normal noise would not be correlated and simply form a grey background.
While writing these ‘notes’ I think it worth mentioning the tragic story of HMSTiree.
This patrol vessel was one of the last coal fired vessels in the UK Navy, only did about 8 knots and was used as a target for a variety of trials by Admiralty Research Laboratory, our companion establishment in Teddington. It was fitted with a 1 Kilowatt transmitter which drove a large transducer which was towed over the stern; it could represent a submarine or a ship or virtually any signal one was prepared to feed into the transmitter. This gear was fitted into the store below the ratings mess deck and it was run by a man from ARL whose name, unfortunately escapes me at this range! Anyway during one trial the gear broke down and he removed the cage surrounding the gear in an attempt to mend it at sea. The Tiree was distinctly unstable and rolled a lot and one roll threw this poor fellow into the gear which was on (there was a safety lock when the cage was removed and the gear could not be turned on but this fellow may have over-ridden this so he could work on the gear!) and at 3000 volts he didn’t stand much of a chance.  The poor fellow was found a bit later still draped over the gear but dead as a dodo. Tiree returned to Lerwick and after the police and everybody had finished I was sent down from Unst as we still needed the source for our trials. The reason I was sent was that I am immune from seasickness so, naturally, I drew the short straw. Needless to say, I was ever so careful with the gear which I managed to mend whilst alongside. Then off we sailed to the north and did the trial successfully. We sailed on east-west courses at varying ranges from the hydrophone array so the team could set the gear up. At the end of the trial the weather deteriorated and we were tossed about so much that even the stokers were getting sick. In fact it got so bad there was a danger of losing steam pressure, which had to be avoided at all costs so the captain called for volunteers to man the boiler room. As I wasn’t sick, I felt it right that I should assist so I shovelled coal for several watches (as did the captain I should say) until we reached the safety and calmness of Lerwick a day or two later.

Photo courtesy of the Shetland Museum Photo Archive:
At other times during the trials we worked on board HMS Fetlar, which was of the same class as the Tiree (Isles Class - Trawlers & Minesweepers).

Having set the gear up in the lab at Saxavord, the final trial was to be with a submarine but one problem that the initial trials with Tiree had thrown up was that the navigation systems available in those far northern waters were inadequate to give the accurate positions that were really needed for the system to be proven properly.  Decca had not long been invented but, as the company had no plans to put one up in the Shetlands, we set one up ourselves.  The master station was at the top of Saxavord, with the 3 slave stations fitted in caravans and spread around as best we could.  One was on the cliffs above Skaw, I remember, and we tied the caravan down with wire ropes so that it wouldn’t blow away. Just before the trial started we went out and started the generators which would run for 24 hours - the length of the trial.  The submarine arrived and it was the time that we had a strong wind (which blew the 20 ton radar aerial into the sea – it was never found to my knowledge) and we got a message from the submarine that there were only 2 slave stations operating. 

We went to the one at Skaw and that, too, had disappeared into the sea. Winds certainly do blow in those latitudes!!
Everyone had stories to tell of the ghastly journeys to and from Unst - like waiting for 3 days in Lerwick for the ferry to arrive, and latterly, when some people used the flights from Aberdeen to Sumburgh, the delays were even greater - sometimes the planes didn't fly for a week. The accounts people at UDE were very sceptical at some of the subsistence claims that were submitted but the cream of the submissions was due to the head of the division, our boss. By September 1957 we had completed the station and were due to do a 2 day trial with a submarine to show the effectiveness of the system. The boss and a senior Admiral set off from Weymouth on a Sunday evening to arrive in Unst in time for the Thursday trial. We expected them to arrive on Tuesday evening but when they hadn't arrived on Wednesday we phoned John Leask who confirmed he had arranged an overland for them on the Tuesday. Now the overland had 2 boat trips, neither of which started in Yell.

Yell at this time had no boats and, more importantly, no hotels and what had happened was that the taxi, on arrival at the north end of Yell, had found the Unst boat would not run because of the weather (it was blowing up!). The boss ordered the taxi to return to the south end but by the time they arrived there the mainland boat said it was too rough to come over and pick them up. They were marooned on Yell, slept in a barn for 2 nights, missed witnessing the trial, which went well, and went home without reaching Unst at all. The final ignominy was that the boss and the Admiral arrived by ferry at Aberdeen too late to catch the night sleeper to London so the boss hired a train to take the Admiral back to London - that claim took several months to work through the system and from that time the boss never doubted another claim from anyone on the project!.
However, we completed the trial successfully and, although not witnessed by any Admiral, we told the US that our system was up and running and asked if we could do a joint trial with their equipment? Sadly, the US did not get their equipment into sea for another 4 years, by which time our equipment was in a poor state: it never really worked again and was mothballed in year 1960. I would have loved to have known what happened to it all and wonder where the cable is now – it contains miles of copper!!

Note 1. Route of the Admiralty Cables from Saxa Vord to Burrafirth.
I am grateful to John McMeechan for allowing me to reproduce the map below. He has walked to route that the cables took and used GPS to record  each marker post on the cable route.
Some of the route markers near the Admiralty Building can be seen in the three photos below:-
The current state of the cables below Buddabrake is evident in the next 3 pictures:-

Note 2. Report of the Fatal Accident Inquiry into the incident on HMS Tiree
The report below has been copied from the Shetland News dated  28 Aug 56. I believe that the Shetland News ceased publication in the 60's. Use of some zoom/magnification will be required.

From: The Shetland News 28 Aug 56
Other sections about the Admiralty Building & Underwater Cables are here: