Thursday 31 May 2018

A History of RAF Skaw (AMES 56) Part 3 - CH Ops - May 42 to Aug 45

Initial check flights for, using a Blenheim aircraft, occurred on 21 Apr 42 and the full CH site at RAF Skaw was finally commissioned on 17 May 42. This was a month after the other Shetland CH station at RAF Noss Hill near Sumburgh, nearly 70 miles  to the south. Because of the logistical problems and harsher weather conditions both sites had taken much longer to complete than similar radar installations further south. Just because commissioning had occurred it didn't mean that all work was complete, there was plenty more to be done and the calibration of the radar needed to continue. There were still buildings and smaller aerials to be erected and a number of RAF technical working parties would have to be deployed to Unst from places like RAF Kidbrooke, in the London area. Initially the ACH equipment and buildings were retained (and maintained), in case there should be faults with, or damage to, the new installation.
When the first batch of servicemen arrived at Baltasound in Nov 40 there were just over 60 RAF personnel to get the ACH working  and to operate it. Those who were there in May 42 would have transferred  to the full CH but, by the time it was commissioned,  the RAF strength would probably have increased to over 100, not including working parties on temporary attachments . It was recorded that the new CH equipment was achieving  a considerably better performance than the ACH kit. Although check flights had occurred in April to provide assurance that to radar could function well enough to be declared operational, calibration of various aspects of the kit , such as height-finding capabilities, would continue for a few months. Calibration would also be needed every time there were significant changes to the equipment and, as  far as I'm aware, all formal checks at Skaw were performed using Blenheim aircraft.
17 May to 31 Dec 1942.
May 42.  The first two weeks of operations with the  new radar were carried out in dull, changeable weather, with a mixture of rain, sunshine and occasional strong winds. With  the time of the year "double summertime" was in force and, because  of the northerly  latitude, official blackout conditions existed only between midnight and 0300hrs. With the increased range provided by the new equipment,  a number of hostile aircraft were plotted but the was no significant increase in the number  of tracks reported from previous months. The only German aircraft actually seen was identified by the anti-aircraft crews as a Ju88.  It approached the Station from the NE at about 500' but then dropped almost to sea level before making off in an easterly direction.  On the 21st May the Station projector was transported to the Haroldswick Hall where, for the first time on Unst, there was a public performance of a "talking picture". The evidence available suggests that those who saw the film were not particularly impressed!
June 42. It was noted that the new equipment was performing well and the following detection ranges were recorded:  185 miles to the SE, 150 miles to the E,  151 miles to the NE, 70 miles to the W and 138 mile to the SW. The shorter range to the west may well be explained by the mass of Saxa Vord lying in that direction!  A hostile in the area, although being plotted by the Naval radar on Saxa Vord, was shot down on 8 Jun By a Beaufighter from 248 Squadron, based at Sumburgh.  The aircrew identified the German aircraft as a Ha140  (a Blohm & Voss seaplane) and that is how it was entered in the official records of the time. In fact, only 3 prototypes of the Ha140 twin-engined seaplane were ever built and, after the war when Luftwaffe records became available,  it was re-identified as a Blohm & Voss Bv138, a three-engined , maritime reconnaissance seaplane, flow n by Lt E. Stieper Nevertheless, the incident would have been a morale boost to many servicemen in Shetland .

On another occasion in June the calibration aircraft was 15 miles from Skaw when the crew had a lucky escape, a German Me110 was observed within about 100 yards of the Blenheim. For some reason the crew of the Messerschmitt,  with 2 x 20mm cannon, 4 machine guns and a speed advantage of around 80mph, did not attack and soon made off!

Practice in Wireless Telegraphy (usually abbreviate to W/T) was carried out with the Filter Room in Lerwick  and the quality of the communications and the speed at which plots were passed were both recorded as good. Field  defence tactics were taught to personnel during their time off and a flight over the Station by the calibration aircraft was a welcome distraction, whilst providing a check of the effectiveness of the camouflage measures in place.
July 42. During the month calibration of the new CH equipment was almost completed and, from a technical point of view, there were few problems. The radar continued the give a satisfactory performance and the following ranges were noted in the records: 150 miles to the SE, 150 miles to the S,  65 miles to the NW and a regular German reconnaissance flight,  which had been christened FOTO FREDDIE, was plotted 182 miles to the NE (almost as far as the Norwegian coast).  Overall, enemy activity was slight and the nearest approach to the Station was on the 26th when a Hostile aircraft  approached to 13 miles.
The W/T transmitter was moved from the Transmitter Hut to the Transmitter Block. The aerial mast had been erected by the GPO from Lerwick. The masts supported an inverted "L shaped  aerial" which was cut to match the plotting frequency of 2150 kcs and the system seemed to work satisfactorily. It was also recorded that a site for the Interrogator masts had been chosen and that they were under construction.
Most personnel had completed their basic ground defence training by the end of the month and a stand-to exercise was held. Several senior RAF & Army officers visited Skaw to discuss defence plans in close conjunction with the military units on the site. The weather included 50 mph gales, thunder and lightning,  temperatures from near freezing to almost sub-tropical - it was unusually  varied, even for a Shetland summer.  Just before the end of the month, on the 29th, a Norwegian drifter put into Baltasound (presumably carrying refugees, as discussed elsewhere on the blog).
Aug 42. The Calibration of the site was completed on 10 Aug but it had been found impossible to obtain height calibration on the northerly "line of shoot". Strong recommendations were to made HQ 60 Group that the aerial system should be altered to provide N and S "lines of shoot" in addition to the E and W.
There was much more air activity in August, with good plotting practice achieved on the regular German reconnaissance flights. It was noted that it was now possible to get friendly fighter into the area more quickly than previously and each watch was eager to achieve the first "kill".  On the 21st  a Heinkel, flying at very low-level, managed to escape the defences intact.  Although the aircraft came well within range of the ack ack, it was so low that it was impossible for the guns to be deflected  at an angle low enough to engage the enemy!  Early in the morning on the 23rd an interception was achieved with the fighter crew calling Tally Ho  (visual)  on the enemy. The fighter managed to get two bursts of gunfire onto the Hostile, which was last seen losing height with smoke pouring from it. The Hostile was claimed as a "probable".
The weather was poor, with wind and rain culminating in 70mph gales on the 15th. Repair crews were busy and the disposal squads were active removing mines which had come ashore and chasing barrage balloons which had come adrift. Nevertheless, ground defence training continued in August and a start was made on 4 gun pits for "Motley Stalk Mountings". (I think Motley Stork Mountings was actually meant - various types  of gun mounting, normally for .303 Machine Guns). The picture of a Motley Stork Mounting below was tor twin Vickers .303 anti aircraft guns being used by Australian troops:
Sep 42. Air activity was light, with most flights being reconnaissance aircraft an coastal missions. On the 25th one Hostile flew fairly low over the Station but it was dark and cloudy so the ack ack were unable to see it. The hostile continued on its way, without causing an incident. A calibration aircraft from 71 Wing carried out several height checks during the month and the results were good.
A Station  Welfare committee had been formed and it met to plan weekly entertainments programmes in advance. What was described as "a splendid concert", featuring Station personnel, took place on 6 Sep. Three days later, on the 9th, the Air Officer Commanding and a small group of staff, made a visit to the Station.  The weather for the month started poorly, improved for most of the month but ended with south-easterly gale and torrential rain. A Station Commanders conference was held at Headquarters 71 Wing , RAF Milltimber, Aberdeen, on the 29 Sep. Apart from HQ Staff Officers there were 15 officers from various CH & CHL radar units controlled by the Wing. I don't have details of the discussions but it is recorded that Flying Officer HBP Ellis attended from RAF Skaw.
Nov 42. November was a very interesting month from an operational viewpoint. A number of Hostile aircraft were intercepted and, although no "kills"  were claimed, the Luftwaffe would have realised that the defence forces were effective. In summary, the following claims were made during October:
7 Oct      H204      Damaged - the Hostile "played hide& amp; seek" in the clouds for 30 minutes. A check with the Filter Room in Lerwick afterwards confirmed the Skaw track plotting and ranges had been extremely accurate.

7 Oct      H297     Damaged
11 Oct   H298      Probable
13 Oct   H294     Probable
17 Oct   H299      Probable and severely damaged - the station was congratulated by an Air Vice Marshal from Fighter Command.

With gales reaching 90 mph very little damage occurred to the equipment, although some insulators needed replacement.  Ground Defence training was a priority and it continued but practise was difficult in the gale conditions!
Nov 42. Flying was restricted by the poor weather and operations were rather monotonous.  However, this allowed more time to be devoted to checking the second CH Receiver, which was commissioned on 19 Nov.  Initially there were some phasing problems between the two Receivers but the performance proved satisfactorily. Two receivers were required in case of unserviceability and to provide down time for maintenance. The second Receiver  had an operational Mark III Console attached, whilst the unit were waiting for the Console for the first Receiver to arrive.

 he weather was not good, with wind gusts of 90mph and, on the 15th Nov, the meteorologist recorded a speed of 120mph. At one stage the Interrogator tower lifted and began to list dangerously. The contractors were recalled on the 21st to make the tower safe. There were regular defence lectures and training practise. It was recorded that  the "Swift Training Rifle " was effective in making some of this training popular. It was a training aid, more popular in the RAF than in the Army. It was a device used for gaining experience in how to hold a weapon and how to use rifle sights - no cartridge s were used. The following picture has been taken from a Lee Enfield Training Manual which has been displayed on the internet: Http://


Dec 42. The poor weather continued into December, once again reducing the amount of air traffic, both Friendly and Hostile. However 3 air raid warnings were issued, though there is no record of any bombs being dropped or of any enemy damage to the Station. It was noticed that the second Receiver,  commissioned in November, was not giving heights as accurately as the first Receiver. Lack of air activity made it difficult to investigate if the discrepancies were caused by technical problems or by operator error - investigation would  continue. The Mark III Console for the first Receiver arrived and was commissioned on 15th.

Training in defence matters was carried on throughout the month and a Station exercise was held on the 9th. The Swift Training Rifle was arousing such enthusiasm it was decided to hold team completions. With the bad weather, mail deliveries were interrupted and travel, both on and off the island was a problem. The weather had also made maintenance of the aerial systems difficult but the efficiency of the radar was not affected. I'm sure that there were celebrations over the festive period but, unfortunately, I have found no record of the events arranged for the period.

1 January  to 31 December 1943
Jan 43. Once again the weather was poor, a few Friendly tracks were seen but enemy traffic was absent. Transport was interrupted with no sailing to or from Lerwick from 7 to 14 Jan and the overland ferries did not resume until the 14th. Mechanical and technical problems were encountered with the radarequipment but none serious enough to affect the Stations efficiency. The military officers on the Station held a conference to discuss a proposed defence plan before submission of a draft to HQ. LAC Trade Tests were held and technical lectures were arranged for operators and mechanics.

Feb 43.  The whole of Shetland experienced severe weather conditions  for much of February and- particularly, in the latter half of the month. The CH Station at RAF Noss Hill lost most of one of its 240' Receiver Tower, only a 70' stump remaining.  The two CHL sites at Watsness and Clett spent much of the month with their aerials lashed down to protect them from the gales. Skaw also suffered problems, losing a number of dipoles from the towers in the wind. Fortunately an aerial working party from 71 wing was able to repair the damage fairly quickly.
 A few Hostiles were seen, leading to seven red air raid warnings being declared, but no damage to the site was reported. Two Station defence courses were run and a Station Defence Officer arrived on the 17th. Although the new Station Defence Scheme was still awaiting approval from higher authority, the digging of slit trenches (part of the new scheme), was expected to start shortly.

Mar 43. Although there was less Hostile activity than in the previous month, with just three red air raid warnings declared,  there was a slight increase in the number of Friendly Coastal Command aircraft plotted. There was an exceptionally fine period of weather during the period from 17th to 27 and this allowed lost time on aerial maintenance to be made up. Training lectures for Radar operators took place and training in  W/T plotting was in progress. Defence training continued and the new Station Defence Scheme received tentative approval.

Apr 43. I think there is a glaring error  by a staff officer in the 71 Wing official records  for Apr. The entry states that  "The Buried Reserve at Skaw (four lines if shoot), is 95% complete." This is the only entry in all the records I have seen referring to a Buried Reserve (ie underground) at Skaw. The entry must refer to another unit or to the Skaw Remote Reserve, one mile to the north. Although there wasn't much air activity a couple of interesting tracks were noted in the records. On the 6th a suspected Hostile was picked up 60 miles to the NE at 7.000'. It was plotted to within 19 miles of the Station before an air raid warning was sounded, A few seconds later the aircraft was identified as a Friendly from Coastal Command and the all clear was sounded. On the 8th a Liberator at 20.000', returning from Russia, was detected at 117 miles to the NE and tracked to 82 miles to the west of the radar.


During Apr it was also recorded that there had been good progress with aerial installation at the Remote Reserve.

May 43. Some good tracks were plotted on Coastal traffic to the north. On the evening of the 15th May the escort of an "important" convoy from the north was tracked into Lerwick but, because of the official secrets act, the air of mystery remains! A few exchange liaison visits with the personnel from the Admiralty Experimental Station (CHL) at Saxa Vord took place to the mutual benefit of both units.  On the 22nd a  new procedure, not explained, was introduced for track telling with the Filter Room in Lerwick and the Skaw Operators seemed satisfied with the results.
Towards the end of the month a field kitchen was erected for practice and, after many delays for bad weather, it was used to provide an "open-air" meal for personnel on 26 May - "the novelty of a picnic meal was enjoyed."

Jun 43. No record found.
July 43.  On 7 Jul it was noted that contractors had began dismantling  the top section of the northerly CH Transmitter Tower, prior to the re-alignment of the cantilever. Early in the morning of the 8th two Hostile aircraft were seen on the radar, at 01.55 the first was seen 14 miles to the NE and the second was seen 10 minutes later 20 miles to the east. It was suggested that both aircraft must have passed overhead the Station without being seen or heard. Later the same day, at 22.25, a large formation of at least 11 ships was seen 10 miles to the East of the Station. The formation, protected by two Coastal Command Aircraft, was thought to contain an Aircraft Carrier and was heading in a southerly direction. On 20th, just before midnight, a submarine was seen heading North, just off the point of Lambaness .

The dismantling work on the North Transmitter Tower was completed on the 23rd and it was recorded that the re-orientation of the cantilever was nearly complete on the 31st. On the same day, work began on the new feeder run for the North-South Arrays.
Sep 43. Calibration of the RF7 142 (Mark III Feeders) began on  8 Sep, using a Blenheim  aircraft with special equipment. To be honest I don't know what is meant by RF7 142 (Mark III Feeders) but  the Receiver R3046 was also known as the RF7.

 On the 25th a Hostile was picked-up 87 miles NW of Skaw and it was tracked in an Easterly direction for 50 miles. An unsuccessful attempt to engage the German aircraft by 2 Fighters was also plotted.
Oct 43. No record found.
Nov 43. There was better luck on the 22 Nov when a Fighter, patrolling to the north of Skaw, engaged Heinkel 177 at 8,000'. The Fighter was a Mosquito from 307 (Polish) Squadron, flown by Flt Sgt Jaworski and Fg Off Ziokowski.
A number of accurate bursts of fire lead to a confirmed kill. The Poles were not aware of the type of plane they shot don as the He 177 had been rarely seen in that part of the world. In fact, over 1,100 He 177s were built and it was very unusual in that, although it had 2 propellers  each one was driven by 2 Daimler Benz engines . It had a decent performance, with a top speed of about 350mph and a combat radius of around 1.000 miles. The picture below is in the public domain but, in fact, was taken by the US Navy in 1943.
The success continued with another Polish crew  (Suskiewicz / Kalinowski) from the same Squadron shooting down a Ju 88 A1 on the 26th. Although the operators at Skaw didn't  see this hostile, they were able to track the Fighter. After the 2 interceptions  compliments  were received from the Filter Room in Lerwick regarding the accuracy of information supplied by Skaw. It was also noted that a number of Polish aircrew were volunteering to do detachments to Shetland, previously not regarded as a popular place to be!
On 29th the installation of the Identifications Friend or Foe (IFF) Mark III Interrogator was completed.
Dec 43.  The recently installed transmitter for the IFF Mark III was modified to give an increased output. I am grateful to Mike Dean, who sent me a copy of the Christmas Day Menu. This copy was signed by a number of personnel who were on the station at the time, including the CO and one Canadian:
1 January to 31 December 1944
Jan 44. A number of selected Radar Stations had searchlights installed and Skaw was one of them. They were to be switched on only when ordered and their purpose was to help in the recovery of friendly aircraft which may be lost. The lights were to used to indicate the direction to the nearest  suitable landing site. The searchlight at Skaw was exposed on 20 Jan for the first time to help guide a Consolidated Catalina Flying Boat to Sullom Voe. After a successful landing the pilot personally thanked the radar Station personnel.
As early as 29 Jan 44 it was recorded that The Remote Reserve Transmitter and Receiver had been disconnected and were ready for removal. Work had begun on dismantling the associated aerial arrays. Similar work was in progress at a number of other CH sites, including Noss Hill, so it can be inferred that, either the operational need for these Reserves had reduced, or, the equipment was required elsewhere.
Feb 44. The weather was poor with high winds causing breaks in aerials on a number of sites, including  the RAF Skaw main CH installation. Dismantling of the Remote reserve was completed on the 25th.
Mar 44.  Although the weather was still not good routine inspections and overhauls of the aerial arrays were carried out. Broken dipoles on the north/South Transmitter array for the "A" Channel were repaired by 16 Mar. A representative from No 2 Installation Unit at FAF Kidbrooke (London) visited from the 1st to the 8th of the month to survey the site for a four-way looking Channel "B" Transmitter Array. On the 13th lightning struck the Channel  "A" Transmitter Array but the damage was quickly fixed by Station personnel
Apr  44. The Advance Chain Home (ACH) Transmitter and Receiver Towers were dismantled by the 10th. The two 90' wooden structures had stood since Dec 40 but were no longer required - I'm sure some local use was found for the 5 inch thick pine timbers. The slightly larger Transmitter Tower at the Remote Reserve was the next to be taken down - the 120' high tower was down by the 19th.

May 44. The Receiver Tower at the Skaw Remote Reserve was dismantled in May and the official records show that removal of the gear from both the Skaw Advance Chain Home and Remote Reserve sites was complete by the end of the month,
Jun & Jul 44. Very little information seems to be available about the events  which occurred during the middle of the Summer. The most notable was the decision by HQ 60 Group on 25 Jul to form Air Ministry Experimental Station 713 (AMES 713) on the site of the remote Reserve, which had just been cleared 3 months earlier. AMES 713 was to be an RAF manned Long Range Aid to Navigation (LORAN) site, The American LORAN equipment was highly classified at this stage of the war and the Unit is described in more detail here -

Aug 44. On the 3rd RAF Skaw was visited by Gp Capt Richardson from HQ 70 Wing, it was recorded at the time that the Station Strength was : 1 Officer, 47 Airmen  and 17 attached personnel. These figures wound not have included any Army defence personnel  and probably show a significant decline on the peak strength, particularly after experienced airmen would have been needed before, and following, the D Day landings. The August report from Skaw was signed by Fight Lieutenant JF Prince, Officer Commanding RAF Skaw.

Sep 44. An acute shortage of Telephonists and, to a lesser extent, Wireless Operators was reported in 70 group. One result of this was the removal of telephone switchboards from some Ops Rooms and smaller ones being established in Guardrooms to save personnel. Some rearrangement of lines was necessary at RAF Skaw and at the Admiralty Experimental Station on Saxa Vord to free-up communications for the new LORAN unit - AMES 713. In Sep the first personnel posted in to AMES 713 arrived at Skaw, the Strength increased by 1 Officer and 2 Airmen. On 7 Sep a detachment of aerial  fitters began the installation of obstruction lights on the 2 tall CH Transmitter Towers.

Oct 44. The station strength showed a significant increase to 2 Officers , 58 Airmen plus a further 24 Airmen on attachment, the extra personnel possibly due to the opening of AMES 713. The Officer Commanding the Shetland Garrison, Colonel Rusk, paid a visit to the Station on 7 Oct and work on installing the obstruction lights on the Transmitter Towers was completed during the month. 

Nov 44.  It was noted that the Station was able to function despite all admin sections being at least 50% below the establishment  strength for a number of months. 

Dec 44. A Calculator on Channel B was wired and checked. The Calculator, in this case, was a device developed by the GPO at their site at Dollis Hill in NW London. It used a goniometer, a piece of equipment designed to measure precise angles. Goniometers were used at listening stations to determine the bearing of a transmitter. On early radar sites they were used to measure the angle of elevation of signals returned  from aircraft responses. This information, combined with the ground range of the response,  allowed its height to be calculated. The following picture, from the SD0458, shows it was not an insubstantial item:

RAF Skaw and AES4 on Saxa Vord would have been among the places visited by a senior Canadian  called Supervisor Brookbanks, who toured a number of Units with a Concert Party. He also delivered boxes of chocolate to all RCAF personnel and I'm sure that some were made available to the RAF! The month brought the earliest record of a pantomime  on Unst that I have seen. Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves was performed by some of the Station characters, though I'm not sure if civilians were allowed on camp to watch it:

Another event over the Christmas period  took place when RAF MT transported many of the local children to the NAAFI for a party - the sight of "modern technology" and "goodies" four years into the war must have been memorable.
On 28th it was recorded that an overhaul of all of the CH apparatus had been completed.  I'm sure that there would have been celebrations over the New Year Period amongst the Scottish Servicemen and it is worth noting that a significant proportion of Unst folk still celebrated old Christmas and old New year - 13 days later than the rest of the UK and based on the Julian Calendar (pre Gregorian).

1 January 1945 to shut-down
With the end of the war in Europe only a few months away, the number of entries in the Skaw records seems to decline considerably. In Jan a working party from 21 Installation Unit, Kidbrooke completed the installation of a new, high power, Mark X Marconi Curtain Array but there is no information regarding the difference between this array and its predecessor. The working party had to return in the following month to install a different aerial matching transformer as the one fitted for the Mark x Array the previous month had been the wrong length.

David St George, a Radar Mechanic, arrive at Skaw late in 1944 and remained for about a year. I believe that he was posted in to AMES 713. the LORAN Unit on Outer Skaw. All the personnel from that Unit were accommodated by, and considered part of,  the main RAF Skaw camp. David was allocated to  a billed  in part of the westerly domestic site area. He took the following picture of his hut, which was kindly sent to me by Mike Dean:
David mentioned that, unlike his previous  4 years in the RAF, there was plenty of space.  I notice that  in was a wooden hut, rather than a nissen hut and that the ladies in the pin-up photos are wearing more clothes than I saw those displayed in billets during my RAF time!
Along with Noss Hill and the RAF Chain Home Low Stations in Shetland (Clett, Grutness and Watsness), Skaw was instructed to cease reporting tracks on 4 Aug 45.  VE Day had been declared 3 months earlier on 8 May so, hopefully, all the recent traffic had been friendly. Orders were also issued that the same Stations were to be placed on a Caretaking basis with effect from 22 Aug. In Oct a working party from 21 IU Kidbrooke lowered the Transmitter Arrays at RAF Noss Hill, the other Shetland CH site, 70 miles south of Skaw. The same working party actually overhauled the Arrays at Skaw so the site, even though non-operational, retained the capability of being reactivated fairly quickly.
Ron Simkin arrived on Unst in Apr 44 and stayed until Apr 44 , I believe  he was moved to the south coast of England prior to D Day.  He, like a number of servicemen, returned  to the island after the end of the war. He decided to make a map of RAF Skaw as he remembered it. A copy was sent to my mother-in-law Lexie McMeechan  and it is reproduced below, together with an enlargement of the domestic area at the western end of the camp. There  are a number of omissions as some of the camp buildings fell into disuse before he arrived, but the map is an excellent record. The map has been copied and displayed in a number of places, often without Ron receiving the credit due  for his work. Unfortunately, Ron died in 1999.

 Part 1 of RAF Skaw is here:
 Part 2 of RAF Skaw is here:
AIR 26 - 092 - 70 Wing Inverness
AIR 26 - 094 - 70 Wing Appendices 1944
AIR 26 - 095 - 70 Wing Inverness Jan - May 1945
AIR 26 - 096 - 70 Wing Inverness Jul - Nov 1945
AIR 26 - 100 - 71 Wing Bucksburn 1940 - 1943
SD 0458
Luftwaffe Over Scotland by Les Taylor (Whittles Publishing}
Brief History of No. 307 Squadron by Wilheim Ratiszynski
Mike Dean
Bob Jenner
Lexie McMeechan
Leslie Smith
Unst Heritage Centre