Sunday 15 April 2018

A History of RAF Skaw (AMES No.56) - Part 1 - Inception to Jan 41

In this, the first part of a history of RAF Skaw, I will cover the period from the inception of the Unit up to the time the  first radar was operational  on the site. The second part will deal with the months when that first radar was the primary RAF source for detecting  airborne threats in the area. At the beginning of WWII the term radar was unheard of in UK - the equipment was usually known as RDF (Radio Direction Finding). The term radar was introduced by the US Navy and its use soon became widespread - radar was an acronym for Radar Detection and Ranging. For simplicity I will use the term radar throughout.

At the start of WWII the UK had made significant progress in building an air defence system against aircraft flying at medium & high altitude. This system became known as Chain Home (CH) and it used tall towers for the transmitter and receiver aerials.  Initially these towers were erected along the south and east coasts of UK - 21 sites were operational by September 1939. The northernmost site  was at Netherbutton,  just south of Kirkwall, in Orkney. In April 1940 the Germans invaded Denmark and Norway. This led the authorities to consider the construction of CH sites further north, in Shetland.  Various UK  sites had been surveyed for their suitability early in 1940, including some in Shetland. Lamba Ness had been surveyed in January 1940 by a team consisting of a Mr Budden (from the Air Ministry Research Establishment,  a Mr Spence (from the Air Ministry Works Directorate) and a Flying Officer Lawrence. At the end of their survey they recommended that two sites on the east side of Fetlar (at Hesta and Funzie) would be preferable to Inner Skaw.  However, on 27April 1940 a Mr Cowie  did a further site recce  of Lamba Ness (Inner Skaw), the most easterly point of Unst, and reported that it would be suitable for a CH site with height-finding capabilities.

It should be noted that there were two other radar  sites on Unst which opened before RAF Skaw. The first was a transportable radar, which was deployed in April 1940 and was operational for a few weeks from May on the Keen of Hamar ( The second was Admiralty Experimental Station No. 4, which was a Coastal Defence U Boat station situated on the summit of Saxa Vord, which became operational in September  1940, (

It should also be recognised that the construction of a full CH station was  a major undertaking and, even if the materials, equipment and workforce were readily available, it would still take a long time to complete. In many cases less complicated, smaller  facilities known as Advance Chain Home (ACH) and/or  Interim Chain Home (ICH) stations were erected to provide some operational capability, whilst  the  much larger and more complex  full Chain Home equipment and buildings were assembled. RAF Skaw was such a place and almost needs to be considered as two separate radar sites; an ACH, which was ready and operational long before the full CH site came on line,  and the much larger full CH unit.  Once the full CH radar was working,  the ACH was initially retained as a back-up in case of need. For the early months of life,  RAF Skaw didn't use the massive towers and the bunkers most people associate with CH radar, instead a much smaller, compact installation  provided radar cover in the area. 
The land on which RAF Skaw was to be built was owned by the Garth Estate (Scott family) and crofted (farmed) by a John Henry Priest who, with his wife Helen, actually lived in a house called Ivy Cottage on the  land in question. The area was requisitioned and suitable financial arrangements were made. The Priest family had to find other accommodation and I believe that Mr Priest, who had been born in 1885,  joined the Local Defence Force (Home Guard). The land was eventually returned to the Garth Estate/ Priests after hostilities ceased. The location of the Priest house can be seen in the Flash Earth Image below with a recent photo inserted, (left click on images to enlarge):
Logistics. Practically all the material for RAF Skaw had to be shipped to Shetland in wartime conditions. The only suitable landing place on Unst was the pier at Baltasound which, in May 1940, had a newly painted  Works Department sign "Load not to exceed 25cwt" (about 1.27 metric tonnes). There was no way that restriction could have been observed when landing the equipment for RAF Skaw. Once ashore the material had to be conveyed along narrow roads and tracks about 5 miles to the western edge of the construction site.  On the way an obstacle, locally known as "The Floggie" (various spellings), had to be overcome. The Floggie was a steep, narrow track which ran from sea level at Norwick, along the side of cliffs, to the relatively flat headland about 250' above. Before the war the largest vehicles to travel this route would have been ponies and carts, heading to and from the extensive peat banks to the north & east of the Ward of Norwick.  The two photos  below from the Shetland Museum Photo  Library show what part of The Floggie looked like in 1938 - hardly a major thoroughfare (Left click on images to enlarge)::

Before any major  work at the site of  RAF  Skaw could commence "The Floggie" needed to be straightened, widened and strengthened. Sections of wooden huts were collected at the Norwick Beach whilst the work was being completed. In the summer of 1940 the Ministry of Transport made three grants for major road works on Unst. The biggest grant was for road improvements  from the pier at Baltasound to Norwick.  Another grant was to provide  a "spur" road from Haroldswick to the Naval radar on top of Saxa Vord. The third was to provide better access to RAF Skaw from Norwick. Some details of the work required for this appear in the illustration below, titled Scheme No.1; note the 6 weeks for completion and the use of "hand labour":
Once the track was ready materials could be delivered to the Skaw site.  A control system, using men with red and green flags, was established to enforce one-way traffic on the hill, which had no passing places. Once "The Floggie" was open the priority was to bring up  and assemble the huts for the workforce, most of whom lived on site during the early months of the project (more of which later). The road way didn't stop at the top of the Floggie,  it had to continue right out to the east end of Lamba Ness where the ACH was to be built. Much of this work had to be completed in the late summer/early autumn of 1940, before the initial group of RAF servicemen arrived to operate the radar.
Once the roadway to the end of Lamba Ness was in place work could start on the first radar site - the ACH. I have labelled some structures on the recent Flash Earth image below - they would probably have been the first parts of the radar unit  to be erected, the other buildings you can see would have been added later in the war.
The ACH elements labelled were 3 brick built blast walls - each of the three would have protected a wooden hut, and the metal mountings for two 90' wooden towers. The walls around what would have been the Transmitter and Receiver Huts are still in excellent condition today. In fact, I found the Receiver "compound " providing protection for a tired Corncrake in 2013.
The Transmitter & Receiver blast walls were built to the same pattern, except the plans were "flipped" though 180 degrees (entrances on opposite sides of the compounds).  The area inside both sets of walls measures approximately 39'6" x 21' 4". Inside the walls there would have been wooden huts for the equipment and operators.  A couple of pictures from the Transmitter compound area first:

Note the concrete foundation within the compound, measuring about 7'4" x 4', which was almost certainly designed to stand the radar transmitter on when it arrived.
The Receiver blast walls are about 100m east of the Transmitter area. In the first photo below the Transmitter compound can be seen in the distance, to the left of the Receiver blast walls:

In the second picture the  small pile of soil against the wall (bottom, left) has been caused by rabbits using a hole which was originally made to allow the feeder from the receiver aerial to enter the compound.
The entrances to the 2 protected areas are alike but face in opposite directions.

The walls which surrounded the generators suffered during the life of RAF Saxa Vord, when the compound was selected as an "ideal" place to organise fire practices:
A later photo shows the area of the Generator Hut more clearly, the holes in the far wall being used for vents to remove the worst of the diesel fumes, judging by the amount of debris the walls used to be significantly higher:
The main responsibility for the building of RAF Skaw fell upon a few firms from south which specialised in constructing  CH radar sites. Whilst they brought in their experts from the UK Mainland, there was also a need for a large local labour force. Men from Yell, Whalsay and Unst were among those employed. They needed to be accommodated and fed, huts being erected at the western end of the site. Many of Shetlands men folk had been called-up, were with the Merchant Navy, or were involved in the fishing & whaling industries - the labour force available tended to have a high proportion of older men and young lads! The main firms involved were:-
W & JR Watsons , from Edinburgh,  the firm with the most employees on site, responsible  for  most of the buildings & concrete structures, they had their own trucks available. One of their employees was Peter Spence, whose father ran the Post Office at Gutcher in Yell.
JL Eve, from England, responsible for erecting the high steel towers. Their trucks were green, with distinctive white lettering. One of their employees was a chap from Norwick called Peter Moir. According to Norrie,  Peters son, the Eves men were paid higher rates the higher above ground they worked. He claimed to have seen a wage slip from his Dad showing a week's earnings of over £39 - not bad for 1940 and almost unheard of in Shetland before that era. The firm were responsible for erecting the two highest towers - the 360' steel towers for the CH Transmitters. (Note for the more pedantic  - the towers were a little  shorter than 360' (by a few inches)
Riley and Neat, they were responsible for erecting the two 240' wooden Receiver Towers.  At the time of their construction  CH Receiver Towers were some of the tallest wooden structures ever seen.
AMWD,  The Air Ministry Works Department, though not a "firm" would also have men on the ground before the first RAF party was posted in.
GPO, The GPO would have had staff in the area from the beginning to ensure communications with both the rest of the world and internally within the station. On site cables would have been buried to where the main elements of both the ACH and CH buildings were to be sited, actual connections being made when required. Off the site the wires would be carried by  normal Telegraph Poles. Evidence of their work is widespread and an example can be seen in the next photo, taken just outside the ACH Transmitter compound:
The two main overseers for the workforce lived on site with their families. Mr James Palmer, was the Air Ministry Clerk of works and Mr Cruickshank,  was in charge of the Watsons employeesa.
The first Commanding Officer of RAF Skaw, Flt Lt Swinney,  was posted to  Sullom Voe on 2 Nov 40. This was to ensure that he was in Shetland in time to meet a contingent of about 60  servicemen who were to form the first operational crew, together with a large consignment of equipment,  which was expected to arrive later in the month. Like the Commanding Officers of practically all radar stations of the period, he was a Technical Officer:
The airmen were required to be at No.6  Recruits Depot, Wilmslow (in Cheshire).  by 4 Aug. A boat was to be made available to convey them and their equipment,  together with the personnel & equipment for the other planned Shetland CH Station at Noss Hill,  to Shetland on or about the 6 Nov 1940. The equipment for shipping to each CH location included generators  (2 x Lister), tools, portable cooking equipment, sandbags, a rifle for each man, in fact, everything needed  to make the Units self-sufficient from the beginning. The servicemen travelled to Aberdeen by rail where, upon arrival, they were formed up and marched to the docks to board a ship for Lerwick in Shetland. According to Arthur Thorp, one of the airmen in the contingent, there followed " possibly the most ghastly twenty-four hours of our lives - all so sea sick we would willingly have died". I believe  that the ship they travelled on was the SS Ben-my-Chree, which usually operated between the Isle of Man and Liverpool. Along with a  number of other vessels she had been requisitioned in September  '39 and, earlier in 1940, she had made three trips from the south coast of England to help with the evacuation form Dunkirk before being damaged  in a collision with another vessel when leaving Folkstone.  She was built by Cammell Laird, was 2,586 GRT and had made her maiden voyage in 1927.
Glad to get ashore,  the troops were billeted in Lerwick whilst waiting for transport to take them further north to Unst. About a week later, on 20 Nov 40, they were paraded in Lerwick before boarding  another ship to set sail for Baltasound. The voyage was a lot better than the one from Aberdeen, though one account mentions that the ship had to stand-off the pier at their destination for a number of hours (bad weather was not given as the reason so this may have been due to adverse tides or waiting for room to berth and unload). The name of the ship  is not given but the first Earl of Zetland was operating the Shetland inter-island service at this time (she was launched in 1877 and was one of the oldest vessels sailing in UK waters). It is known that the Earl left Lerwick for "the Northern Isles" on 21 Nov 40.
The building of the ACH and CH sites had started well before the men to operate the radars arrived. Shipments  of vehicles, wood, steel, bricks, cement etc arrived at Baltasound in the late summer and autumn. The SS Kyle Castle (registered in Liverpool) arrived at Unst on 18 Nov 40 from Aberdeen via Lerwick and, having unloaded "govt stores" at the pier, sailed just as the first contingent  were in transit from Lerwick. The servicemen arrived alongside the pier at Baltasound on the morning of 21 Nov 40 and it was then a case of disembarking the men and the equipment. Freddie Flowers was a Wireless Operator who had already spent a year on a Chain Home station before being sent to Unst. He described the arrival in these words: " On arrival at Baltasound, all the equipment had to be lifted onto the jetty and the Transmitter & Receiver were moved some considerable distance on wooden rollers until they could be finally manhandled onto a local farmers tractor and trailer and transported to the tech site at Skaw. This took most of the day in driving rain and sleet and, on arrival, the equipment was found to be full of sea and rain water. While the technical staff attempted to dry it out,  the rest of the personnel were employed as labourers getting the diesels, diesel oil, technical equipment and stores from the jetty to the site. "
Some of first airmen can be seen in the picture below:
It is worth repeating that these men and equipment were bound for the Advance Chain Home radar, not the later site with its massive steel and wooden towers. The image from Flash Earth below gives some idea of the layout:
However, the situation regarding early accommodation is somewhat confused. There appear to have been 2 areas which could be described as domestic  sites. Both sites would have been partially built before Flt Lt Swinney and his men arrived. The largest, which was certainly in use throughout the life of the station,  was on either side of the track just inside the camp gate at the west of the camp. This site had the main administration buildings, billets for personnel, huts used by construction workers (including a large building used by the firm of JL Eve), Station Medical Centre etc. This site expanded as the war went on with the addition of new facilities, even a boxing ring at a later stage.
 The other site was over half a mile  further east, to the south of the track leading to the point of the Ness.
The evidence as to which was used by the early servicemen is conflicting. However, Freddie Flowers, one of the servicemen in the first batch to arrive, describes the accommodation thus:  The domestic site, which was about half a mile inland from the point, consisted of about 7 large nissen huts and one small one.  Four of these were our billets, 2 were stores huts and the remaining one was two-thirds the dining hall and one-third canteen. The small one was the CO's Quarters. The image below is from Flash Earth and shows the site nearer the ACH operations area:
The remains which can be seen in the picture are of the location as it was after the site was vacated - the number and usage of the buildings may well have changed during the war years. Using Freddie's description and what little remains to be seen on site today, I believe the foundations  could be interpreted as in the following diagram  though, without  pictures and more information from the era, I have to admit that the image is conjectural :
This site would have been suitable in size for the initial contingent of round 60 servicemen and, I suspect, was used at least in the early months whilst the civilian workmen were housed at the "outer site" together with administration buildings. Later on the situation may have changed with the full CH Station needing extra personnel to run it, but more of that at the appropriate time. One thing which many of the new arrivals commented on was the fact that the accommodation was anchored to the ground by steel cables which passed over the top of the huts. When they experienced their first Shetland gales they understood the reason for the precaution.
There being no mains electricity on Unst and no power house to supply the Domestic Site yet ready, the new arrivals were reliant on paraffin lamps for lighting and used stoves, burning coal/coke, for heating the billets. Initially there  was no plumbing  which meant there were no laundry facilities, so it was a case of negotiating with local crofters for ensuring clean clothes. It also meant that chemical toilets had to be provided and in some parts of the Station that requirement would exist throughout the war.  In some ways it was lucky that they were on a headland with the sea relatively close to all parts of the camp - waste disposal  methods would be frowned upon in the modern world!
The strategic importance of Shetland led to many servicemen being posted to the islands. By the end of 1940 there were personnel from the Royal Navy, Army, RAF and Royal Marines on Unst, together with visits from Fleet Air Arm Walrus aircraft from Sullom Voe. The other islands had their share of military units as well.  As early as Sep '39 a number of small boats were requisitioned to help carry equipment to and re-supply these remote Units. Using local crews and vessels with shallow draughts it was easier for them to reach some  places that larger vessels were unsuitable for.  It also has to be said that, in a wartime environment with enemy aircraft looking for targets of opportunity, these small boats were less attractive and more expendable than larger ships. They became essential, especially in the frequent delivery of items like  drums of diesel fuel, coal, mail and food. Lexie McMeechan, who lived close to the pier at Baltasound, remembered a lot of these small boats including:  Pilot Us, Amanrath,  Lord Curzon,  Research, Valkyrie, Thistle, Innovator,  Day Dawn, Jeannie, Twig and Heather Bell. The first on this list, the Pilot Us, was still  afloat early in 2016 and moored by the Shetland Museum in Lerwick.
Luckily, Frank Wells one of the first airmen to arrive, made a list of the personnel he could remember who travelled to Skaw in Nov '40. Another person on the list, Bill Badcock, helped make sure that the list was preserved. I have added the names at the end of this section as Note 1.
Now, to look at the ACH operational/technical site in more detail. As far as I am aware no contemporary photos of the ACH area are available (though I'd love to hear from anyone if they have  such gems). I will therefore try to paint a picture using modern aerial images, recent photos and archive pictures  of similar equipment.  A Flash Earth image of the area with more detailed labelling follows:
I'm grateful to Mike Dean for providing the pictures of the types of Transmitter and Receiver  which were installed, they are reproduced below:

The Lister Diesel Generators used would have been very similar to the one in the picture below,  though they would not be on trailers when installed. The photo has been kindly provided by Bob Jenner:
The 90' Wooden towers for transmission and reception were only a quarter of the height of the Chain Home steel transmission  towers which were being erected a short distance away. With the ACH site the 2 towers were similar and the modern photo below show what the bases of the  towers look like today. At ground level the 4 legs formed a 10' square and each leg was 5" x 5" thick:
To put the ACH towers into perspective, the graphic below gives rough comparisons of the ACH towers with the full CH Receiver and Transmitter Towers (the towers in the graphic are representative and not the ones from Skaw, but the proportions a reasonably accurate and illustrate the scale of the ACH relative to the later CH radar):
The equipment shipping list also included 105' guyed masts (number unspecified). I'm not sure what these masts were for, possibly an early form of Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) - used to help recognise friendly aircraft, or possibly for communications.  I have searched the immediate area for signs of this equipment but have only managed to find guying points which were used for a later 105' mast for a Mk III IFF system, associated with the later full CH radar. However, it is  possible that the same guying points and a similar mast were used for an earlier version of IFF. This mast would have been almost exactly half way between the transmitter and the receiver. One of the anchor points can be seen in the foreground of the next photo, with the transmitter and generator walls behind. Saxa Vord can be seen in the left distance:
The winter of 1940/41 was one of the worst in living memory according to the locals, with rain, mud, snow and gales in abundance. The crew had been issued with sheepskin coats but, according to Freddie Flowers," We were issued with sheepskin coats which were so stiff and heavy and came down to our ankles it was impossible to work in them. They were alright for just standing in". The Ops and Tech staff had plenty to do assembling  the equipment and preparing the site for commissioning. Those with other roles were frequently required for transporting  supplies from the Baltasound Pier to the site. Rations, coal, diesel and water were amongst the suppltes which needed to be collected. This task was relatively easy in decent weather but, when The Floggie  was impassable to MT  due to snow or ice, supplies were still required. According to Arthur Thorp teams of 6 men were sent out  on foot to manhandle the required materials, using sledges when needed. In another source it is mentioned that a gate was "borrowed" to help move items. Many of the airmen were glad that, like the men of the Royal Navy, they were entitled to a daily ration of rum. However, there were some periods when the weather was somewhat better and, with few entertainments for  "city types",  extreme boredom set in. Bill Badcock, a radar mechanic, makes the point "non-tech types nearly died of boredom, in fact, one went berserk and had to be sent back, others tried it but without success"
Any airman who thought that a posting to the remote island of Unst would be a "safe billet, away from enemy action" had a rude awakening quite early on. Another quote, this time from Freddie Flowers:  " We had been on site for 3 or 4 weeks, when one morning we were all indoors keeping warm when suddenly a Dornier appeared at about 500' machine gunning our living quarters. He circled us 2 or 3 times and you could clearly see the gunners shooting at us. At the first shots we ran outside with our rifles, which were the only defence we had, and I, like most of the others , took cover behind a tuft of grass and returned his fire. Our C.O. was rushing about firing his revolver into the air and shouting "take cover". Behind what I am not sure.
The technical  site, which was not yet operational, was not attacked. On checking the damage, we were amazed to find no one had been hurt. Our billets were full of holes and so were our clothes and equipment which were hanging on the walls. The worst was the dining hall, the tables were riddled with bullets. Bottles of sauce, glass and  crockery were in pieces. If we had been eating at the time of the attack there would have been many casualties.
As a result of this attack, a detachment of Argyle and Sutherland Highlanders were sent to defend us and two or three machine gun posts were established, About a week after their arrival, one evening they broke into the storeroom and drank the entire stock of rum, The snow was about 3 feet deep and we had to search the area in the dark to get them all inside before they froze to death. We were not pleased but, I'm pleased to say, the rum was replaced".
Mind you there were lighter moments. Arthur Thorp recalls the period around Christmas 1940. "On one particular day we had an evening meal on long tables set out in our hut, (as distinct from the Airmen's Mess) and attended by the C.O. (Sqn. Ldr. Swinney) and the Adjutant (Flt. Lt. Slater) who was a lawyer in private life. The latter turned out to be a humorist who was the life and soul of the party which totally belied his appearance.  We also had an England v. Scotland football match on Christmas Day. I know Scotland won 4-2. I was left half for England - our goalkeeper was a Cpl. Wilkinson (R.A.F. Police) and I believe Freddie Flowers Played. I remember Cpl. Stewart for Scotland whose goalkeeper was named Finlay". (Note - despite the preceding anecdote, the photos I have from the period show Swinney to be a Flight Lieutenant and the Adjutant to be a Flying Officer). The CO And Adjutant can be seen seated in the next photo, together with four more from the original crew:
In a relatively short space of time the ACH was assembled and ready to fulfil the role for which it was established. I don't have an exact date for this but it was during the month of January 1941 that RAF Skaw first became operational.
In the next part of this history of RAF Skaw I will cover the events which took place between January 1941 and the full CH radar system being commissioned about 16 months later.
Note 1.  Some of the Personnel in the Initial Contingent (From Frank Wells)
Ainsworth ?
Aldridge GW
Badcocck WF - RDF Mechanic
Barnard W
Brown JB (John)
Burke J
Dibblin S (Stan)
Feasey G (George)
Ferguson W (Bill)
Fisher C (George)
Findlay W (Bill)
Fleming G
Flowers Freddie - Wireless Op
Ford G
Gray L
Harris G
Hart J
Hartley GF
Hawes G
Hewitt ?
Howie J
Hyde RC- RDF Mechanic
Jones RA
Johnson D
Kay W
Latimer W
McGeachy J
McGeown B
Matlow ?
Medd G
Mottram JR
Muir J
Monroe AF
Murdoch D
Norman R
Parker B
Partington N (Norman)
Ramsay J
Reid W
Rich RW
Rowley ?
Saul FS
Shand WS
Sharman J
Simmons CW
Slater AD - Adjutant
Stewart c
Swinney E - First CO
Tabb RE
Tamblin  C
Taylor-Neale D
Thorpe A - RDF Operator
Tomlinson ?
Walker ?
Weldon G
Wells Frank
Wilkinson R - RAF Police
Acknowledgements :
RAF Air Defence Radar Museum
Shetland Museum Photo Library
Unst Heritage Centre
Sqn Ldr Mike Dean MBE
Bob Jenner
The Late Norrie Moir
The Late Lexie McMeechan
John McMeechan
Rita Carle

AIR 26/96



  1. This is fascinating. I grew up a stone's throw from Baltasound pier, and spent many an afternoon poking around Skaw.

  2. My dad, John Reed, was stationed at RAF Skaw in WW2. Now 93yrs I hope this site will bring back memories of time spent there.

  3. Thanks for getting in touch. I would love to hear more of your dads memories from Skaw. he's one of the few survivors and must have been young at the time! - there's an email address in the about me section on the right-hand side of the blog. Cheers Gordon