AES7 - Sæból, NW Iceland
In May 1940 British & Canadian forces invaded and occupied Iceland because of its strategic importance and to deny the Germans access. In 1941 the Admiralty decided, in the light of the U Boat threat in the North Atlantic and the danger of German surface raiders getting among allied merchant shipping, that a Coastal Defence U Boat Station should be constructed in NW Iceland to provide radar cover in the Denmark Strait between Iceland and Greenland. It should be noted that the Bismarck and Prinz Eugen had transited the Denmark Strait just before sinking HMS Hood and damaging the Prince of Wales on 24 May 41 - this engagement may have hastened RN actions. At its narrowest point the Strait is 180 mile wide.
Accordingly, Lt Jack Addison Lewis (qualified as a Civil Engineer), RNVR and Captain MacDonald, a Royal Marine Engineer, plus a number of naval personnel were despatched to Iceland to begin the work of erecting AES7. To begin with the labour force consisted of Royal Marine Engineers and some local Icelandic men. Lt Lewis had been the first CO of AES4 on Unst until 17 Jan 42 so work would have begun as soon after that as the arrival of equipment and the weather would have allowed. Weather was to be a far more significant factor at AES7 than at the other 6 AES, as will be seen in some of the photos which follow. Lt Donald MacAuley Carmichael, RNVR, soon arrived to join Lt Lewis to help run the operational unit. There appears to be little material published about this station so I have included some material from Feachems collection which applies to the period before he arrived in Iceland.
The station was built near Sæból, NW Iceland, between Aoalvik and Ísafjörður.
The base camp was built near sea level close to the shore of Aoalvik Bay and the first radar, an NT273, was set-up on a knoll close to the nissen hutted accommodation.
Looking at modern satellite images I believe that the location of the Base Camp can still be detected. The next two pictures were, taken from "Zoom Earth" and, for those of you with a desire to look for the site, I think that the Lat & Long of the accommodation is: 66° 20' 22.19N 23° 6' 2.44W.
The base camp can be seen in the next photo. The tall masts were for radio communication. The tallest tower contained the fresh water supply, the four circular structures in the right foreground were cooling towers for the generators and the nissen hut on the left was the officers' quarters:
In winter the snow could reach quite a depth, as can be seen in this montage, which shows Lt Carmichael by a radio mast (it soon blew down!)
The station was very isolated with all equipment, personnel and supplies having to be brought in by sea from Reykjavik, about 180 miles away. In the beginning small craft had to be used to move supplies from larger vessels to the shore and in 1942 a short pier was built, complete with a narrow gauge track to make it easier to bring shipments across a narrow stretch of boggy ground. The photo which follows shows the pier and, next to it, a 30' Norwegian boat called "The Viking", provided by the Admiralty. It and local boats were used to unload freighters in the first year. In the picture below Lt Donald MacAuley Carmichael is leaning against the wheelhouse and one of the Icelanders in the water is Benedickt Magnussen:
The movement of stores was greatly improved in 1943, when two beach landing craft were made available.
The next two pictures show some of the crew and two of the officers who were there early on. I don't have a list of names, the only identities for those in the photos I have are for the officers in the middle of the back rows. Lt Jack Addison Lewis in the first and Lt Donald MacAuley Carmichael in the second:
The only other serviceman I know who did a tour of duty at AES7 was Leading Seaman Smith, who can been seen in the following photo, taken on Fair Isle in 1940. According to Feachem he "became a useful Leading Seaman in Iceland":
Two of the Sæból inhabitants; firstly an unknown local tending his potato patch:
and; secondly, Benedickt Magnusson, whose brother Jon was a leader of the community:
In the beginning the NT273, being at relatively low level, was limited in its radar cover due to shape of Aoalvik Bay - it was used in1942 as a stop-gap until access to an upper station was constructed on a plateau at an altitude of approximately 1,600 '. Before the upper station could be completed a great deal of work on providing access was required. Firstly, a road was laid to the plateau:
The road was impassable to vehicles once the winter snow arrived. Supplies had to be sledged from the base camp to where, on the steepest part of the slope, a stretch of 2'gauge railway had been laid. It had a petrol driven Ace winch at the top and another half way up, the winch cable having to be unhooked and changed in the middle:
It is worth noting that the largest load carried on the rail track was over 16 cubic metres and weighed more than 2 tons. Once the equipment or stores reached the upper winch there was still nearly a mile to go across the plateau to the radar. The road had been laid all the way to the upper radar site. However, there was sometimes snow on the plateau for 9 months of the year - this problem was first solved in traditional manner - teams of ratings and sledges:
Should there be too much snow for the bogies to use the track, sledges sometime had to be used all the way from the base camp and connected to the winches!
Later a third winch was added to help move supplies across the plateau when the weather permitted.
Accommodation, the NT273 radar (possibly an NT273S) and associated equipment had to be moved from beside the Base Camp and erected on the plateau when the weather was suitable - not an easy feat with snow on the ground between Sep 41 and Jun 42. Deep concrete foundations were laid for a turntable (normally used as a gun mounting), and a radar hut was mounted on the turntable. The radar aerials and their reflectors were then fixed to the sides of the hut and assembled as this sequence of pictures shown:
Rather than the nice tidy image above, personnel would have been used to seeing the radar looking more like this for much of the year:
The first 2 officers in charge of AES7, Lewis and Carmichael, were required to serve 12 months in Iceland. Feachem arrived in the Spring of 1943, shortly after handing over command of AES6 at Dunnet Head. A second radar, the NT277 became operational in 1943.
It was planned that the radar crews would spend three weeks at the upper site followed by three weeks at the base camp at Sæból in the winter months, changing to two week shift pattern in the summer. It was fine to have a plan but it was very weather dependent and watch changeovers were often delayed. Accommodation at the radar site consisted of two double-skinned, streamlined huts, joined by a low corridor. The huts were specially made by the firm "Car Cruiser Caravans". Behind them was nissen hutted space for stores, messing and a diesel engine for power:
In the winter months the conditions could be quite extreme:
For air defence the upper site was equipped with a 20mm Oerlikon anti-aircraft gun, which is under canvas at the extreme right of the next photo, the seaman is unknown and the NT273 is in the background:
The Oerlikon was similar to this one:
The location of the upper station can still be detected on modern day satellite images and the roadway to & from Sæból is clearly visible:
The only fresh food supplied to the Unit though official channels was a regular delivery of potatoes and onions. To rectify this, a barter system with the local inhabitants was introduced. Issue rations, such as corned beef, were exchanged for small amounts of fresh meat, eggs and fish. It was noted that, in the Spring, a boats crew could catch enough cod in one afternoon to feed the Station for a week. Leisure pursuits, apart from fishing, included riding local ponies in the summer ans skiing in the winter. A few of the ratings volunteered to extend their tous of duty.
The records indicate that Lt Carie-Fenton arrived to take-over the Station in Oct 43, so it was probably then that Feachem left for a spell of leave before commencing a tour of duty at the Admiralty.
After returning from Iceland Feachen spent a year in the Admiralty Signals Department, before being drafted to his last command, which was in the Orkney Islands.
AES5 - South Ronaldsay
AES5 on South Ronaldsay in Orkney, was built on the top of Ward Hill at a height of about 390', roughly 3 miles south of the community of St Margaret's Hope. South Ronaldsay itself lies at the south eastern corner of Scapa Flow, anchorage for the Home Fleet during WWII. In RAF terms it was a Chain Home Low, and later a Chain Home Extra Low, radar site.
Lt Feachem was posted to AES5 as the Commanding Officer in Dec 44. He had just spent 12 months working in an Admiralty post in London and was looking forward to putting his previous experience on radar units to the test again. I believe that the equipment when he arrived consisted of a Naval Type 277S, a radar with a 10cm wavelength and optimised for the detection of surface targets
and an AMES Type 2 CHL radar, operating on a wavelength of 1.5m and with a good medium to high level performance against aircraft:
According to Admiralty records the unit also had a height-finding radar, a Type 13 (Mk 1). The Type 13 Mk1 was originally intended for use by the Army but they were not keen on the equipment and they rejected it. The manufacturer, Marconi, produced only 13 sets and they were subsequently offered the Navy. It was designed for providing the height on incoming aircraft and operated on a 10cm wavelength. The equipment was mounted on a searchlight type trailer and the signals were fed to a separate cabin. The illustration which follows has come via Mike Dean:
The abbreviation in the above diagram, CMH, just means - Centimetric Height Finding.
The duties of a Commanding Officer can be very varied and, when young men are serving a long way from home, it is sometimes necessary to become involved in delicate matters. The name of the seaman in the letter below has been obscured, even though it relates to a period more than 70 years ago:
Some of Feachems' thoughts on his arrival and time on South Ronaldsay: "We drove round the harbour, past the Church of Scotland hut into the village, up the main street of some 200 yards, past the squalid Murray Arms Hotel, round a difficult and dangerous corner and up a steep hill, past the Army Sick Quarters and the NAAFI on into open country. The road undulated, first up a long rise and then down with Widewall Bay to the right, then up past a little school to the corner from which the south end of the island could at last be seen. The radars on the Ward Hill had been visible since leaving Thurso, but now they could be distinguished as a set of aerials on low dark buildings at the top of wide Ward Hill. As the car swept along the range of the base huts could be distinguished. Round a corner, down a dip and then up sharply the car turned abruptly from the road to the track leading to the camp.
After a little more than 12 months away it was a great relief to be back in a wardroom of one's own again - for the whole habit of those previous 4 years was not lightly forgotten. --------------- I assumed for the last time the command of an AE Station. I could make a contrast between this and my other commands. First, AES1, when the war was young and the work was new - not only new to us but to the crews, and indeed, to the technical staff whose task it was to create the instruments we were to use. Second AES3, then eventually AES2 as well, the only double command in these northern stations. Here the strain of 1940 had overhung the routines, and although the routines were becoming familiar, there was still a lot to learn - lots about the slowness of events beyond one's control - structural programmes and replacements. Lots about weather, and men and marines and the enemy. Then it was AES4, for 2 short periods as relieving officers on leave. Then AES1 again, and then AES6 on Dunnet Head where, being on the mainland, one was subject to visits from all kinds of officials. Then the great experience of AES7, Iceland's remotest station for servicemen, naval radar's biggest job, once again pioneering. But coming to AES5, which I had never seen before, in December 1944 was not as coming to other commands had been, I knew all the answers to all the standard questions - knew when to be patient against the forces of nature, with men, with facts, above all, not to worry uselessly. I found as I handled the daily and hourly problems that they were just like handling the controls of a familiar car which one hasn't driven for some time. There was a quintessence of the experiences at other stations which had, perhaps aided by the twelve months away, been welded into an Achievement, a Profession. Here though, there was a greater accord with the men than had been possible in the circumstances of the other stations. The Petty Officer Daniel D Moreland for example, took me down to the local AA (anti-aircraft gunners) mess, for an evening with beers, songs etc, at frequent intervals - crude but comradely. My songs were delivered the first night with such nerves as I cannot describe. But it worked; and it welded AES5 as nothing else could
So the winter passed, with all the normal struggles - no food because of the snow, no watch because of faults in the apparatus - and so on, all overcome satisfactorily. And the war, the German war, was won although Orkney and Shetland remained on unaltered watch for two weeks for fear of surprise desperate German raids from their as yet uncapitulated airmen in Norway. Then the station started disintegrating. Groups of men were posted elsewhere until by the middle of August we were an about half strength, about 25 men. Watch was now kept by day, watching training flights. Then came the end of the Japan war, VJ day, 15 August. Still a few men remained until, on the 8 September we all left, handing the station over to the RAF lock, stock and barrel. We drove for the last time down the hill, and as we left there was only one of the AE stations left under RN operations - Wilkinson still has Saxa Vord, though not for long. ------------ In the last light of the calm September day I saw the aerials of the Ward Hill and of Dunnet Head gaunt against the now peaceful skies. The last command was ended nine months after it had begun."
A few of the AES5 buildings remain and the site is still in use by BT. These pictures from 2015 were taken by Martin Briscoe. The first one shows what appears to be an engine house:
The second picture is of a rectangular building which looks like it once had a radar aerial mounted on its roof:
Old RAF photos indicate that there were nine nissen hats, at least three machine gun posts and possibly an anti aircraft gun emplacement in the vicinity of the operations site.
After the war was over Feachem was released from the Royal Navy in 1946. Making use of his University qualifications from Cambridge he resumed his career as an archaeologist. From 1947 until 1965 he worked for the Royal Commissions on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland (RCAHMS). He did much field work and produced many learned papers. He wrote extensively on Scottish, Celtic and Roman settlements. He also researched early agriculture in the UK, again publishing his findings. Whilst at RCAHMS Feachem discovered a large amount of useful archaeological information by studying RAF aerial photographs with a stereoscopic viewer. At some stage during his time with the Royal Commission he met and married Kathleen, also an archaeologist. They each continued working individually and with others, but completed a number of "digs" together, including a Viking house at Drimore in South Uist and at Duncarnock Hill Fort in East Renfrewshire.
In 1963 he published a book entitled "A Guide to Prehistoric Scotland", which was dedicated to his first wife Kathleen Megan Feachem. In 1965 there followed "The North Britons : the prehistory of a border people". The Guide to Historic Scotland sold well enough to be revised and reissued in 1977. this edition being dedicated to his son, Richard Charles Alexander Feachem.
He married his second wife Dr Anne Ross, a Celtic scholar who was a fluent Gaelic speaker, in 1965. This is also the year he left the RCAHMS and began working as an archaeologist with the Ordnance Survey. Anne wrote numerous books on Celtic history and mythology, the most famous being "Pagan Celtic Britain", first published in 1967 and reissued a number of times. She appeared in several media programmes as a Celtic specialist, even introducing 8 episodes of "The Celts" for the BBC Radio 3 in 1967 and appearing in another series of the same name for BBC TV in 1987, but she was most proud at having lectured at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC.
After a spell with the Ordnance Survey Feachem left to become a freelance archaeologist . This allowed him a degree of independence and the opportunity to contribute to several of his wife's books as an illustrator. Unfortunately he died in 2005 and his wife Anne in 2012.
Richard Charles Feachem for permitting me to reproduce material from the collection of his father - Richard William Feachem
Irene &Tony Mouat
Unst Heritage Centre
Sandison & Sons Archive
Shetland Amenity Trust
ADM 116 - 4275
ADM 116 - 4897
However, I accept responsibility for any mistakes and will be happy to make corrections where necessary.
A link to Part 1 of Lt Richard Feachem, RNVR - Wartime Service (AES1 to AES7 : https://ahistoryofrafsaxavord.blogspot.com/2018/11/lt-richard-feachem-rnvr-wartime-service.html