Sunday 30 September 2018

A History of RAF Skaw ( AMES 56) Part 7 - Remote Reserve AMES 56R

The idea of back-up facilities for Chain Home Radar Stations originated early on in WWII. By the middle of Aug '40, at the height of the Battle of Britain and as a result of some success by the Luftwaffe, it was decided that radar sites in the SE, including Ventnor, Pevensey, Rye and Dover, needed better physical protection, better anti-aircraft protection, more back-up equipment and better dispersal of resources. This led to a number of measures which included hardened shelters, provision of mobile assets and the construction of "reserve sites". The static reserve sites fell into 2 categories, Buried Reserves and Remote Reserves. As the name suggests, Buried Reserves tended to be on or near the main site, with most of the equipment and personnel underground for protection - only the towers and aerial arrays were exposed. On the other hand, Remote Reserves were some distance from the main sites, usually above ground, with some degree of protection and usually camouflaged. The cost and complexity of building Buried Reserves meant that, for economic reasons, most back-up sites  after Spring 1941, especially those in the west and north, were built as Remote Reserves.
Although the two Shetland Chain Home Sites were not among the first to be built, the inclusion of Reserve Sites was agreed long before the full Chain Home Radar sites were complete. The Advance Chain Radars in Shetland were operational at the beginning of 1941 but the full Chain Home Radars were not commissioned until April & May '42. Discussion about the siting of their Reserves began as early as May '41. In this article I will be dealing with RAF Skaw, the story of RAF Noss Hill has been published elsewhere (

Finding a suitable location for the RAF Skaw Remote Reserve was not simple. Discovering a large enough piece of land with, all the right characteristics  and within a suitable distance of the main site proved to be a problem and, in the end, compromises were made. The Authorities were after a piece of land 500 to 2,000 yards from the main CH equipment and with good access. It had to provide maximum detection ranges on the 2 main Lines of Shoot - 100 degrees and 280 degrees. There needed to be as little distortion the radio signals as possible. At the beginning of Jun '41 it was decided that the best place available would be on the headland of Outer Skaw to the north of Lamba Ness (Inner Skaw)- Left Click on pictures to enlarge,
The selected position could to be used for height-finding but this facility would be restricted in the west where higher ground would cause problems. In July a number of details for the reserve were officially recorded. It would fall under the jurisdiction of HQ 71 Group, be under the command of RAF Skaw, have the name Skaw Remote Reserve and be allocated the designation "Air Ministry Experimental Station"(AMES) 56R, (RAF Skaw was AMES 56). The mean height was recorded as 63' and the exact position was noted using the wartime National Grid System. The lines of shoot for the radar were recorded as 010, 100, 190 and 280. The land at Outer Skaw was shown to belong to the Garth Estates Ltd and the tenant was a T. Clark Esq of the Haa, Skaw.

"Good access" was available by a track which ran from near the RAF Skaw main domestic site to the "Haa". The track was not built for heavy vehicles  and the surface deteriorated quickly when used by construction firms, especially in the winter months. Having got as far as the "Haa" the route had to be extended half a mile to the furthest point of the Reserve site (the Receiver Building). Construction would have been undertaken by a couple of the firms responsible for building the main CH Site on Lamba Ness - Riley & Neat & WJ Watsons,. The main structures on the Reserve were 2 wooden towers , a Receiver Hut, a Transmitter  Hut and a building to house the Generators . Other elements  of the site included  a Guard Post, a Mess Hall, 2 x Chemical WC cubicles and areas for disposal of rubbish. It was not the intention that the site be permanently manned by technicians and operators. If needed, crews would come from the off-duty personnel at the main site or from survivors of an attack. The only permanent manning was intended to be an Army guard, probably from the local defence forces already allocated to defend RAF Skaw.  The Flash Earth image below shows the approximate location  of the various parts of the Reserve - more details will follow shortly:

The Transmitter and Receiver Towers were both 120' tall and made of wood. They have long since been dismantled but similar towers, from St Lawrence on the Isle of Wight, can be seen in this photo from the Imperial War Museum:
A low quality plan of the 120' Towers is seen below:
 At the base the legs of each Tower formed a square, approximately 16' x 16'. What remains of the base of the Transmitter Tower can be seen in this recent photo:

The Towers were demolished in 1944 and  a Tower was subsequently rebuilt as part of the transmission system for the AMES713 LORAN Unit . This was where the old Receiver Tower used to be so I believe that the feeder arrangements, in the centre of the Tower base below, are different from those used on the earlier Reserve site:

Nothing remains of the Transmitter Hut - the wooden structure was demolished and in 1944 it was subsequently replaced by a Nissen Hut housing LORAN Equipment. However, it was protected by a brick  blast wall,  which still remains:
Finding the site of the Receiver Hut is even more difficult, unless you know where to look. Just north of  the base of the Reserve Receiver Tower, a few bricks can be found embedded in the soil giving an indication of where the operators and receiver technicians were expected to work:

The National Grid had not reached as far as Unst by the start of the Second World War so military units needed to generate their own power. To be independent of the main site, the Reserve site required  to produce its own electricity and, therefore, a separate Power House was constructed.

The next picture shows the Guard Post, with the Power House to the left. The headland, which can be seen in the distance, is Lamba Ness, the location of the main RAF Skaw station.
The only other buildings on the Reserve itself visible today were for the 2 x two-seater chemical  WCs at the eastern end of the headland. They were constructed so that windows and doors faced inland to prevent lights shining out to sea and possibly attracting enemy shipping or submarines. I'm sure that the closeness of the sea and the direction of prevailing winds would have been considered when choosing locations for these buildings.

Some distance to the south-west there is a further reminder of the period. A separate Mess Hall and incinerator  were erected but would have seen little use. A  small brick and concrete structure exists  just to the west of the Mess Hall. It may have been for fuel supplies but it is possible that this was put up by later inhabitants of the Haa as storage for the Essy Cart (Garbage Truck). These structures were near the Haa but on the south side of the Burn of Skaw. Personnel would only have used the Mess Hall if the Remote Reserve were to be activated.
The Incinerator lies near the mouth of the Burn of Skaw:

Just to the west of the Mess Hall, in the foreground of the next picture, lies the next object. Its purpose is unknown but, like the main RAF Skaw Station, the Remote Reserve and the WWII  Admiralty Experimental Station on Saxa Vord, it was made using bricks from Edinburgh!

In the areas of the Transmitter, Receiver and the Power House a number of ground-level ducts can be seen. They are of two types: The first type, to provide access to GPO cables and wiring, can be seen in the next picture (which has a distant view of the most northerly point in the UK, Out Stack, in the top left:
The second type of duct was to provide cable access for the RAF technicians. The example in the photo below came from near the base of the reserve Receiver Tower and shows, once again, that some people cannot be trusted near wet concrete - it would be interesting to discover whose initials were inscribed more than 70 years ago! It is quite possible that this duct was made later for the LORAN Transmitter Tower.

There is very little in the operational rerecords of HQ 60 Group, 70 & 71 Wings and RAF Skaw about the Skaw Remote Reserve - not really surprising since  it appears never to have  been used operationally. The Chain Home construction programme was immense and sites received priority in line with the perceived threat and, due to difficult locations, island sites tended to suffer from difficulties in the supply chain.  A few of the details I have been able to glean are listed below:
June '41                RAF Skaw Remote Reserve site chosen
April '43               "Buried "Reserve at Skaw 95% complete -  either "Buried" or "Skaw"  is a  Staff  Officer error I think! 
April ' 43              Good progress has been made with the aerial installation at the Skaw RR
January 44          Remote Reserve Transmitter & Receiver disconnected - ready for removal (HQ 70  Wg)
February '44       Dismantling at Skaw Remote Reserve complete on the 25th
Apr '44                  RR Transmitter Tower dismantled
May '44                RR - second Tower dismantling complete
Jul '44                    7 Jul Work started on AMES713  (LORAN Site) and erection of  a 120' Tower  (Transmitter) - completed in early Sep 44
As there were no RAF personnel posted into the Reserve and, because any army guards assigned to protect the area would not be allowed access to the buildings & equipment, I have found no detailed anecdotes relevant to the site.

Don Wright was posted in to RAF Skaw in March 1942, to work in the Power House. He had previously been an Aero Engine Fitter on an airfield but had experience of working with diesel engines. His wartime story would be worthy of recounting at length elsewhere. He was believed to be the first WWII RAF "incomer" to marry a local Unst girl.  He remained at Skaw to the end of the war, arriving as an airman;  a number of promotions followed until he became the Flight Sergeant in charge of the Power House. He remembers that he and other members of the Power house crew had to go to the Remote Reserve occasionally to start up, run and maintain the diesel generators, just to ensure they were available in case of need.
I have been unable to find out details of the technical equipment installed at the Reserve. However, as it would require to be manned and operational quickly, it would seem sensible that, as much as possible,  it should be similar to the main site. This would enable the operators and technicians to have the place "up & running" expeditiously. There were a number of companies which produced power plant for the Chain Home stations but I know for certain that the generators used on the main site were Blackstone (primary power) and Lister (stand-by). As the LIster Company took over Blackstone in 1937 and were renowned for slightly smaller units, I think it highly probable that the Power House would have had equipment like this installed (Metrovick = Metropolitan Vickers):

If the radar Transmitter and Receivers were the same as those on the main site, they would have looked like those in the pictures below, also reproduced from the SD 0458:
One aspect of the Reserve was a puzzle at first. On the west side of the Power House I noticed parallel lines of concrete and metal remnants:

On closer Inspection similar remnants could be seen all around the building, though the layout didn't seem to be completely symmetrical. Later, more cement and metal was found around the locations of the Transmitter and Receiver Huts . Looking at recent Flash Earth images patterns can be distinguished. With the help of Mike Dean and Bob Jenner it became obvious that I was seeing the perimeter of the camouflage netting.

The 3 views above are seen in perspective below:

The outline of the camouflage for the Remote Reserve Transmitter site seen in the Flash Earth images above can be compared with an early plan, drawn for the Air Ministry in Aug 41.

It's interesting to see that the road/track which had to be constructed can be seen on the right of the plan above. Seventy years later it can be detected visually on the ground, but the further  north of the of the Transmitter Hut you go, the more difficult it is to trace.
So, that's the story of the RAF Skaw Remote Reserve (AMES 56R). It was started in Jun 42 and largely demolished by May 1944,  apparently without any actual operational use. Any research on the site is complicated by the fact that; less than 3 months later, work began on another (even more classified),  unit - AMEs 713. The story of the LORAN Navigational site has been told here:

Previous articles on RAF Skaw

Part 1 of RAF Skaw -
Inception to Jan '41 is here:

Part 2 of RAF Skaw -
Advance CH - From Jan 41 to May 42s is here:

 Part 3 of RAF Skaw -
CH Ops is here:

Part 5 of RAF Skaw - Some of the Other Buildings at RAF Skaw

Part 6 of RAf Skaw - Defence & Protection

Scheduled Monument Status: 
AVIA 7 - 312 Unst, The National Archive
Air 26 - 094 HQ 70 Wg ORB Appendices, The National Archive
AIR 26 - 095 HQ 70 Wg ORB, The National Archive
Air 26 - 100 HQ 71 Wg ORB, The National Archive
SD 0458 - Photographic Record of Radar Stations (Ground), Air Ministry, Aug 43
Building Radar by Colin Dobinson, English Heritage, Methuen, 2010
Mike Dean MBE
Bob Jenner
Leslie Smith
Lexie McMeechan
Rita Carle







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