Saturday 30 January 2016

Mike McEwan - Saxa Vord 1959 - 1961

Michael McEwan joined the RAF in 1958 as a butcher and spent 12 years in the service. After spending short periods at RAF Wilmslow and RAF Halton he was posted to RAF Leuchars in Fife. On 1st October 1959 he was posted further north to begin  an eighteen month tour at Saxa Vord as the station butcher. Like most people when posted into Saxa he travelled north on the St Clair and then wondered what he'd let himself in for when using the "Overland" for the first time. His place of work was to be a small building near the NAAFI which housed the Catering Office, Ration Stores, the Butchers shop and fridges. (Left click on pictures to enlarge):

91SU, as Saxa was known at the beginning, had been under construction since 1954 and was declared operational late in 1957. However, when Mike arrived parts of the Domestic Site were still to be completed - the Education Section, NAAFI Shop, Ice Cap and Gym needed to be made habitable and, at the mid-site, the Ace High Building and tower were erected in the period 1960/2.  I'm sure the significant number of construction workers ,who needed accommodation and feeding, led to extra work for some (and decent profits for the NAAFI!)
When it came to RAF Trades,  personnel from each Section were usually billeted together. Mike was housed with the Catering Staff at one end of a low billet near the Airmen's Mess. The RAF Police occupied the other end of the building and the ablutions were between them. Luckily Mike took quite a few photos during his tour. The sequence of pictures which follow show a number of people in the Catering Section. If anyone can help name the unidentified people in the photos , I would be pleased to hear from them ( - change the AT to the normal symbol):

This next shot, taken in the billet, has a Record Player at the top end of Mikes bed, also on display is a book of stamps:


The Catering Section had enough personnel to be able to field its own soccer team and the next 2 pictures show some of the players. The first was taken on camp near the Billet:
The second was taken on the football pitch by Harold's Shop, close to St John's Kirk at Baltasound. The man in uniform on the left of the photo is Warrant Officer Teddy Tasker, who was in charge of the Catering Section.

It wasn't all play - the Caterers were required to work and some of their efforts are shown in 2 photos taken in the NAAFI:

Entertainment, usually provided by the personnel themselves, kept a lot of men busy. The first Pantomime for many years on Unst was performed at Christmas 1960. A few people from the Catering Section helped with the very well received production of Cinderella:
In this era, before the Beatles and Rolling Stones, there were plenty of aspiring musicians in the services. Two of them at Saxa were Rab Dalzell (who owned a guitar) and Ginge White. Rab even got his name in the credits for supplying music at the Cinderella Panto and perhaps "Ginge " White was "Tony " White on the same page:


Rab can be seen in the next picture:

Rab had marquetry as another hobby and an example of his work can be seen in Mikes photo below:
Ginge can be seen, posing with a guitar, in the next 3 shots:

In August 1960, sometime after Mike arrived on Unst, the Queen paid a memorable visit to the island. On the RAF side there were intense preparations involving much "bull" and drill rehearsal prior to the welcoming  Guard of Honour at Baltasound.  Mike was involved in these ceremonial duties and can be seen in the following photo; he is in the fifth rank of the first column (fifth from the left of those carrying a rifle nearest the camera!)
After meeting local and RAF dignitaries the Queen met a few  local folk. The Royal party then went up Saxa Vord to visit the Operations and Technical sites. According to the Programme the Queen then arrived at the Domestic Site at 11.15, prior to visiting the Officers' Mess where  she had coffee. A number of Officers and their wives were presented to her. This next photo of Mikes shows the Queen progressing through the Domestic Site:
After the short visit to the RAF camp the Royal party headed south to Uyeasound and back onto the Britannia, which had sailed south from Baltasound. The visit had created a lasting impression amongst all who had been involved. More about the visit can be seen here:
Mike took a few  "souvenir" photos of some of the lads in their Dress Uniform:
As I said earlier, parts of the station were still a construction site though work had to cease temporarily around the time of the Queens' visit. This next photo, taken in front of SHQ, shows the unfinished Education Section - notice the "Press" vehicle, behind the Officers:
Mike took a number of pictures whilst the work was in progress on the Domestic Site:

As mentioned earlier, there were contractors on site for a number of years and the workers came both from outwith Unst and from Unst itself. Unfortunately the names of those who are shown in Mikes photos have been lost with the mists of time. The following pictures have been added in the hope that someone local, ex contractor or ex serviceman, can supply names:
Mike became friends with some of the workmen; together they went on fishing trips and explored Unst on their days off or during the long summer evenings. The next sequence of photos  shows some of these activities. The fishing trips were normally at Norwick using a boat borrowed from one of the local residents:

These same friends appear to have been interested in amatuer rock-climbing. The next sequence of pictures were all taken near Buddabrake, on the eastern side of Burrafirth. I find it intriguging as the landward ends of the Admiralty underwater trials cables are at Buddabrake and there are plenty of more accessible places to practice climbing!

During Mikes time Unst was still "dry",  with only the Springfield Hotel having a table licence to serve drinks to those eating on the premises. The role of the NAAFI in providing some relaxation for thirsty servicemen and civilian workers was significant. The next set of photos are of NAAFI staff and of a few customers. Once again I would like to hear from anyone who can identify unnamed people in the pictures. The first shot is of May Thomson who, during Mikes time,  worked in the NAAFI and took over from Manageress when she was away. May was an Unst resident.

For many years the NAAFI had employed staff and offered them posts far afield. In 1960 two such people were employed at Saxa. The person on the left in the next picture was Lillian Cumming from Aberdeen (information from Andrew Magnus Thomson)  but I haven't yet been able to identify the lady on the right:

The next photo shows the two ladies enjoying some time off in Haroldswick:

A number of people partaking of the NAAFIs wares can be seen in the next three shots:

In the next picture the chap with a white top looks like a cook and the two to the right of him are thought to be firemen:
Mike managed to get home to Perth on leave three times during his tour but on his posting to Saxa he had left Aberdeen on the St Clair III. She was new on the route, having just recently taken over from the St Clair II. 
On leave,however,  Mike did his travelling between Shetland and Aberdeen courtesy of British European Airways (BEA).  Approaching Sumburgh in a BEA DC3 (Dakota):
Safely on the ground in Shetland:
Mike was able to see a fair bit of Unst and, fortunately, he took his camera with him on his expeditions. The series of views which follow starts off at Burrafirth:

A  while before Mike arrived the Station had acquired  Albacore dinghies which, for many years, proved to be very popular amongst the servicemen. Then the Albacore was a recent design (1954), with over 8,000 being eventually built. I believe the Saxa dinghies were christened Huney, Mandy, Balti & Fair Enough, though I don't know which of them are featured in the photos. He took these two fine shots at Baltasound:

Some views on the way to, and at, Lamba Ness - the site of the WWII Chain Home Radar Station, RAF Skaw:

The next sequence of views were taken closer to the Domestic Site and are all in black & white:

Like many people Mike kept a few mementos from his tour, a couple of which are illustrated below. The first is a copy of a 1960 Christmas Card, signed by officers and SNCOs, which was given to all the other ranks.  I have attempted to decipher the signatures but cannot make out 2 of them, the top one "Hampson" belonged to the CO:

He also kept a copy of the 1960 Christmas Dinner Menu. I don't know the source of the ingredients but I do know some of the Unst folk raised Turkeys at this time. It was traditional for the RAF to  "roll the boat out" on occasions like this and, on most stations, the main Christmas meal was served by the officers and SNCOs:
Whilst on the subject of the festive season there has been a long tradition in the RAF of each section having a bar in its billet. The RAF Police effort for 1960/61 can be seen in the next picture - plenty of spirit available!
Mike frequently took pictures of groups and Mina Spence has managed to identify those in the picture below  " Left to right is Eelin Mathieson, Katrina Mathieson, Dorothy Thomson (Towress) and Irene Mathieson." :
The next picture shows a person walking past the Airmen's Mess, once again I'd be grateful if anyone can put a name to him.
Two of Mikes contractor friends seem to have taken a liking for some of the local animals:

The subject of the next photo is known, but I'm not sure who the photographer was. It features Mike taking some film with his movie camera:
Mike has great memories of his time at Saxa and can remember many of the local folk he met such as Magnus Clark, who worked in the Airmen's Mess and taught him silly poems.  He remembers odd things like the slatted seats in Jimmy Willies bus. Working in the Catering Section he recalls many visits to Skiphoul to arrange supplies for the camp from Viv Owers. When he was leaving the CO of the time (Sqn Ldr Harris I think), presented Mike with a cloth badge with the Station Crest. I have seen plenty of 91 SU and RAF Saxa Vord crests but never one designed for a blazer - perhaps this was a trial version. Mike wore it on his own blazer for about 20 years:
Mike was posted from Unst on 6th April 1961 to RAF Hereford, to retrain as a Clerk Catering and then on to RAF Kirton in Lindsey in Lincolnshire for his next tour. After a number of other postings he left the service after 12 years in 1970 as a Corporal. His last tour was at RAF Manby in Lincolnshire. Mike has this nice memento of his time in uniform, particularly of his period in Shetland:
I would like to thank Mike for sharing his Shetland photos and memories. If any reader can add more names to the pictures or recall any events from the period, I would be pleased to hear from them.




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