Monday, 27 February 2012

Memories of a Fireman – Nick Broom

I’m grateful to Nick Broom for allowing me to reproduce this article, which he originally wrote for the RAF Fire Service Association.

RAF Saxa Vord – never forgotten halcyon days...

The overnight sleeper pulled into a very cold Aberdeen Station in early April 1976, and a somewhat weary 19-year-old SAC Nick Broom made his way on an even colder bus to Dyce Airport. The flight to Sumburgh was uneventful in the aging Viscount, and the Logan Air Islander was ready and waiting for me. So here I was in Shetland – it seemed a million miles away from the comfort of RAF Benson, my first tour of duty after passing out from Catterick.
I was the only passenger on the Logan Air flight to Unst (the most northerly inhabited island in the UK), so I had the front seat beside the pilot (they only had one pilot and no room for a stewardess!). On reaching Unst we had to ‘buzz’ the very short rough airstrip to chase off the sheep; a tight turn then saw us safely on the ground. The Fire Section were of course expecting me and the HCB Angus Firefly with crew of two (yes 2) was there to collect me and take me to the camp. And so begun that wonderful two year tour at Saxa Vord.
When people ask me what it was about Saxa that made it such a special tour I find it hard to give any kind of meaningful answer. The local people up there were as friendly and generous as you could ever wish to meet; the scenery is stunning and the weather is very atmospheric. The Fire Section and other RAF personnel (even the Scopies!) were just a great mix, with all the right characters. The bottom line is that to really understand the ‘magic’ of a tour at Saxa you need to have been there! If you have, you will hopefully know what I mean...
The highest recorded wind speeds in the UK have been recorded on Unst (I think), and the winters could be long, dark and cold. It was on such a winter’s morning that I had cause to take the DP 1 from the Fire Section, which was up on Saxa Vord hill beside the radar complex, down to the domestic site. This route involved in places a steep descent on a narrow road that was only designed for Land Rovers and alike – not a fully laden DP 1. Well that’s my excuse anyway... I was only a few yards down the hill and was in low ratio 1st gear, but the ice was severe and the DP started to slew. Unst is covered in a thick layer of peat and as soon as the wheels left the metalled surface she started to sink – rapidly.
We now had a completely stuck fire vehicle, no fire cover and some very unhappy Execs! OC Eng was there, along with half the camp it seemed, (the photos are courtesy of him), and after much digging, swearing, and embarrassment on my part (and with the help of a crane) we eventually got her out! But being a persistent chap I managed to do the same thing again the following winter, this time with a DP2, in almost exactly the same spot! Once was unlucky, but as I was reminded many times after this, twice was just plain careless! O well, at least I didn’t manage a third.
The Fire Section provided fire cover for the whole island in support of the Highlands & Islands Fire Brigade, so we did get a few shouts; but mainly I remember taking the trailer pump and Firefly down to a small river at Burrafirth, doing a quick pump test then spending an hour or so fishing! The summers were long and sometimes quite warm, so there were plenty of opportunities to defeat the trout. When not sweeping chimneys in the Married Quarters at SHE (Setters Hill Estate), or taking Santa and delivering sweets at Christmas, the other main pastime (during on-shift time I hasten to add) was our little sheep skin enterprise. The Firefly got moved out of the single vehicle bay and the bay was quickly transformed into a hide-processing factory! We took fresh sheep skins (blood and all), scraped off the fat and treated them in chemicals to cure them. They were then left in the small hose store to dry off. You would not believe the smell! The Sgt i/c (not Maurice Reaney shown in group photo) was the main instigator and ‘actively encouraged’ us with this little money making venture..! Would such things happen today? Unsafe, not very professional, but at the time great fun and very memorable...
My first tour at Saxa went quickly and I was soon off again to Troodos.  But Unst had captured a bit of my soul and I have been back a few times since.  My last tour of duty back at Saxa Vord was in 96-97, albeit only for just over a year, and I went back there again for the very sad closing down ceremony (and associated drinking!) in 2006.
RAF Saxa Vord may now be gone but those halcyon days will never be forgotten, at least not by me, and I suspect not by many others too. 
I now run my own Safety Consultancy business and live just north of Aberdeen, so the ferry is always on hand for those future visits back to Shetland – and I do go back. O happy days…

Nick Broom
(original article written for the RAF Fire Service Association in 2010).

If anyone can help with identities please contact:
If anyone remembers Nick Broom and wishes to contact him:

Links to a few more pieces in the blog about the Saxa Fire Section here:


Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Some Helicopter Operations (updated Apr 18)

The significance of Helicopter operations in Shetland cannot be under estimated, particularly in the last 30 or 40 years. The economic significance of flights in support of North Sea oil companies has brought major benefits, particularly at Baltasound, Sumburgh and, more lately , in the Scatsta area. Search and rescue operations by helicopters based at Sumburgh have saved many lives and brought assistance to the public in numerous ways. Since the air ambulance contract with Loganair was not renewed, helicopters have also carried out that role within the Islands. However, whilst I intend writing about helicopters in Shetland I will be concentrating on the early days and on Unst in particular.

The first helicopter flight in Shetland was neither military nor a commercial passenger flight. It was a short visit by a Westland S51 Mk1A (Dragonfly) with the unfortunate registration of G-ANAL. The registration was subsequently changed – for obvious reasons. If you wanted to buy your own Westland Dragonfly at this time you would have needed around £28,000. The visit took place in 1954 and was sponsored by the Scottish Sunday Express – they were anxious to show the capabilities of helicopters in the Scottish Highlands & Islands. It was a short visit, restricted by the weather. Landings took place on Fair Isle and at Sumburgh – a planned visit to Lerwick was cancelled due to a poor forecast and a tight schedule preventing delays. The clipping copies below comes from the Shetland Times Edition dated 3 Sep 54.

I recently received this comment "I thought you might like to know that the first helicopter landing in Shetland was on 23rd August 1954. I know because my Uncle, Greville "Bim"! Jacques was the pilot on that day. As you mentioned he flew G-ANAL all over Scotland during that summer. On that day alone he flew from Mey to Wick, Wick to Grimsetter, Grimsetter to Fair Isle, Fair Isle to Sumburgh, and then back to Grimsetter. He marked it down in his flight log that he was the first helicopter to land in Fair Isle and Shetland. He went onto Pilot flights in the Antarctic too, for FIDASE."

The next significant “helicopter event” in Shetland that I have information about took place in 1960. The Unit records show that a number of VIPs arrived on Unst in 1960 to discuss the forthcoming visit of the Queen. An extract of the Unit F540 is reproduced below:
A photo of it near the Baltasound pier was taken by Rita McMeechan – the Heogs can be seen in the background, with Keldabrun to the right.
The aircraft involved was probably a Westland Whirlwind HCC 8, two of which were built for the Queen’s Flight and operated by the Flight 1959-64. On the same day the Whirlwind also landed in Lerwick; a copy of a clipping from the Shetland News of the 16 Jun 60 follows:
The Lerwick Branch of RAFA has always “punched above its weight”, frequently collecting record amounts of money (per capita) on Wings Day Appeals compared to other branches. In the 50’s and 60’s there were large scale events planned and well supported by the RAF. On one occasion a Flight from 111 Sqn was booked for a flypast – the Sqn, then flying Hunters, was known as the Black Arrows and were predecessors of the Red Arrows. In 1958 at Farnborough they were the first (and still the only) aerobatic team to loop 22 aircraft in formation. In 1963 the Branch organised an early winching display in support of their wings appeal. The Whirlwind helicopter was escorted to Shetland by a Percival Pembroke. An article about the event from the Shetland Times dated 6 Sep 63 is reproduced below:
A clipping from the Shetland Time dated 20 Sep 63 reports on the occasion:
In 1965 the first Royal Navy Helicopter (that I have a record of) visited Shetland. The clipping below is from the Shetland Times dated 23 Jul 65. It shows what I think is a Westland Wasp at Fort Charlotte, in the centre of Lerwick:
Another clipping of a helicopter in Lerwick, this time a civilian aircraft - this comes from the Shetland Times edition of 5 Jun 70:
The next helicopter event was mentioned in an earlier section:
But when “new” photos become available it’s worth going over a bit of “old ground”. In 1972 an S259 was deployed from 1ACC at Wattisham to Shetland. The radar and associated equipment arrived at Sumburgh in a Hercules. From there it was transported to & from the Tech Site on Saxa by 2 Pumas from RAF Odiham. The airfield at Baltasound was used as a “staging post” and Rein Boomsma had the photo below of himself, with one of the Pumas, taken there. Rein was then working as an ADO/ASOp at Saxa:

Rein also took the next 2 photos during the S259 deployment:

The next picture has also been seen before as a photo but on this occasion the picture is contained in a clipping from the edition of the Shetland Times published on 27 Oct 72:
In Feb 1982 an RN Sea King, from Lossiemouth, was used to take a sick crewman off a submarine north of Shetland. The submarine, HMS Onslaught (Oberon Class), was built in 1959 and decommissioned in 1990. I presume the normal SAR Sea King, based at Sumburgh, was either involved in other duties or else there may have been a little more to the operation than the press releases admit. I’m not immediately convinced that the position of a non-nuclear submarine, in peace time needs much protection. This incident was reported in the Shetland Times of 26 Feb 82.
The following month the Light keeper on Muckle Flugga became ill and, after 3 days of high seas, the local GP, “Doc Robbie” decided help was needed. The following 3 pictures, the first from the Shetland Times, Mar 1982, and the other 2 from MOD sources, tell the story and I note it is also an RN Sea King involved:
In 1983 Flt Lt Eugene O’Brien, who I believe was OC Shetland Radar at the time, was on duty when the unusual incident described in this extract from the Aberdeen Press and Journal issued on 6 Mar 83 occurred:
In the 1980’s the TACAN site was changed from Saxa Vord to Vallafield. Sometime later it was decided to add a standby generator. The next clipping, from the Shetland Times dated 23 Feb 90, shows the generator being lifted into position by a Chinook.
There were many other instances of significant helicopter operations during this period. However, I am restricted to mentioning those I have data and pictures of. If anyone has details of any other interesting incidents connected with Saxa or Shetland I would be pleased to hear from them; (replace the AT)


Monday, 13 February 2012

Eddie Ziemski – Photos 1962/63

Eddie Ziemski (an Air Defence Operator) was at Saxa from Mar 1962 to Oct 1963. The photos in this section are all his and he is hoping to get names for the unidentified people featured. A few names have been suggested and it is interesting to note that some members of the group “The Hustlers” appear in some of the pictures; there was a section published on the Hustlers here:

It is probably the Hustlers first gig (in the Springfield). Dave Joseph, who is in some of the pictures, he is playing a Burns Trisonic with some pedigree"It is a Burns Trisonic, I actually bought it second hand from a national a serviceman by the name of Tony Oakman, he was one of the guitarists with Joe Brown's Bruvvers, unfortunately he has passed as well. So it had a little history behind it, you can see it in some of their old photos".
Later, in the more famous days of the Hustlers, he had converted to a Red Stratocaster which would have cost considerably more.  (Left click on photos to enlarge).

(Thanks to Dave Joseph for some names, data about the venue and information regarding his guitar).
The final picture was taken out of doors. If anyone can help with the names of anyone else in any of the photos I will forward them on to Eddie; - (replace the AT with the usual symbol)

Thanks also to Pete Brindley, Lez Fishman, Harry Cairns & Nigel Godsell for some of the other data.


Friday, 3 February 2012

SS/MV St Clair in the time of RAF Saxa Vord

As mentioned in an early section: there were 4 separate ships called the St Clair which operated the route between Lerwick & Aberdeen during the life time of 91SU/RAF Saxa Vord. They were:

 St Clair (2) from 1937 to 1960 (after which she was renamed the St Magnus)
St Clair (3) from 1960 to 1977
St Clair (4) from 1977 to 1992
St Clair (5) from 1992 to 2002

After 2002 the route was taken over by company called Northlink and the name St Clair was not adopted by the new company. For the last few years of RAF Saxa Vord the route was operated by the MVs Hjaltland & Hrossey
Since I wrote the first section on travel between Scotland & Shetland by sea I have acquired a few more photos of the 4 St Clairs. In a subsequent section I will add some photos of the views which could be seen on a trip south from Lerwick to Aberdeen. In the meantime I have added the previously unpublished pictures below:
St Clair (2) to 1960

St Clair (3) 1960 to 1977

St Clair (4) 1977 to 1992 (the first RoRo Ferry on the route)

St Clair (5) 192 to 2002

In a subsequent section I plan to publish some pictures which were taken between Lerwick and Aberdeen, of the views seen from the deck of the St Clair