Tuesday 30 April 2019

A History of RAF Skaw (AMES 56) - Some Civilian Anecdotes

Shetland was particularly affected by WWII. The islands were extremely important in the prosecution of the war, with large numbers of servicemen based in the Northern Isles. The peacetime civilian population was around 20,000 but, after 1939,  the strength of the garrison added another 20,000 to that figure. Unst was very  active militarily with elements of the Navy, Royal Marines, Fleet Air Arm, Army and RAF all based on  the island. The interaction between local civilians and servicemen changed many lives forever. Fortunately, a number of the people have recorded some of their memories. In this section I have released some stories from some civilians, anecdotes from some of the servicemen who were posted to the island appeared here: https://ahistoryofrafsaxavord.blogspot.com/2019/03/a-history-of-raf-skaw-ames-56-some.html

Some of those who lived through the period were fairly senior by the time their memories were recorded and some of the details they recall may well be coloured by time. Occasionally more than one person remembers the same incident but the "facts" surrounding an event may have been recalled differently . I have resisted the urge to edit accounts and have issued them as recorded. I'm grateful to the Unst Heritage Centre for allowing me to repeat some of these accounts which are held by them.


Berta Inkster's Memories of 1939 to 1941

In thinking of our young days here in Unst, it came to me that we had a quick change in our peaceful ways when war was declared on 3rd September 1939. Before that most of the young men had to leave Unst to find work, as the crofts were not big enough, and the fishing had failed. Most of them went to sea and got home only for short spells between voyages which took them all over the world. This meant that many of them did not come home and settle down, but married and settled down "sooth". Consequently, there were always more lasses than boys at dances and other entertainment.
Then the war came and the balance quickly reversed with the first of the R.A.F. and Navy arriving in the island. With workmen putting up the camps and masts at Skaw and making and improving the roads to Saxa Vord and Skaw, Unst was a very busy place indeed. The Navy moved into Hamarsgarth and Springfield. The R.A.F. took over the reading room and the hotel at Nord and a detachment of Marines were camped at the pier. Any local men who had not been called up, or gone back to sea, were in the Home Guard. Shetland was right in the front line at this time. German planes often came over and sprayed machine gun fire at whatever they fancied, even the hens out in the rigs. I think they wanted to show us how vulnerable we really were. I was postmistress in Baltasound at the time and one morning, when getting ready to open the Post office, there was a roar of a plane over the house and an awful bang. This proved to be a cannon shell entering the roof! When I got to the Post Office there was a machine gun bullet lying on my writing table and windows and partitions with holes in them. Next door at Sandison's shop, windows had been riddled too. It was very lucky that the hit-and-run attack has been before shop opening time. The Postmaster at Gutcher was not as lucky as I was that morning, he had gone to look at his boat and was machine gunned and his arm was badly broken.
Red Alert
That year we had many Norwegian folk who came across in fishing boats and small boats, to escape from the Nazis, who had occupied Norway. We also gave hospitality to quite a number of British soldiers who had been sent to Norway as an expeditionary force, but were too late to stem the Nazi advance. Boats with seamen whose ships had been torpedoed off our islands arrived with their often tragic cargoes. About this time there was a Red Alert in Unst, which meant that invasion by the enemy was imminent. A curfew had been set for all Shetland, which meant that no one could be on the roads between the hours of 11pm and 5am unless they had a police pass. I had a pass as I had to be out early three mornings a week to despatch the mails. I had to go to the Post Office at all times for urgent telephone messages too and I had to carry my pass to get through the Home Guard who were sometimes on duty at the C.O.'s office. It gave me quite a jolt, the first time I heard that gruff, "Halt! Who goes there?"

The Home Guard
The Home Guard had some arduous assignments. Once a Sunderland Flying Boat had been disabled and managed to get in to Woodwick. The Home Guard had to go there through deep snow drifts and guard her until she was safely removed.

Baltasound harbour was a busy place once more with all the Navy vessels, MTB's, MLs and supply drifters and sometimes a flying boat. A Walrus Seaplane, which acted as Postman for the Navy, came daily from Lerwick with mail and dispatches. Once it failed to stop and ran aground on the Bight of Dale. A big Estonian freighter, the "Valva" had run aground there in February 1940, the story of which is extremely well told by Adam Robson in "The Saga of a Ship".

One of the things that really aggravated us at that time was the broadcasts from Germany by the traitor we knew as Lord Haw-Haw. On the day after the steamer left Baltasound for Aberdeen with Unst cattle, he told the crofters in the North Isles that they should have kept their cattle to eat when they were blockaded.

It was found out soon after that there was a spy transmitting information about all shipping from the Queen's Hotel in Lerwick. This traitor was reported by Mr A. T. Clones, who was a linguist and picked up the messages on his radio in the middle of the night.

I hope that this article will start a spate of wartime memories in the Blue Mull Triangle. It is good to let the young folk know that war was very different from that often shown on TV, when the heroes always come through smiling. There was nothing romantic about existing on food and clothing rationing and knowing that many of the companions of former days would not come back. God grant sanity to the world so that such a war never happens again.



War-Time Memories - Lexie McMeechan, Northside, Baltasound, Unst.
I spent the war years as a teenager in Baltasound, Unst, living at Midgarth, just east of Sandison's pier, where we saw many changes take place. In the summer of 1940 we looked out one morning to see a number of tents down by the seashore. Overnight a contingent of Royal Marines had arrived and set-up camp. They had come from Lyness in Orkney to construct a landing slip to the west of Sandison's pier, for small Walrus seaplanes (or "Flying Boats"). At about the same time a party of RAF men arrived to set up and operate an experimental Radar Unit on the Keen of Hamar. The Airmen were installed in the Nord Hotel and the Baltasound Hall, with a few billeted in private houses.

The Marines eventually moved into the big stone house near the pier. They left again in September 1940, when their job was completed. The remains of the slipway they constructed can still be seen to the east of the new marina. The little Walrus planes arrived in the spring of 1941. It amazed us to see them fly in and land on the sea, taxi along and run up the slipway to be "tethered" to special posts set in the concrete bases made for them.

On the 3rd May 1941 one plane didn't make it when taking off out of the sea at Baltasound harbour. It crashed on the beach below Dale farm. The crew weren't hurt, but we heard that it was the third plane that the pilot had destroyed.

As the war years went on many ships came in to tie up at the pier, MLs and MTBs and Air Sea Rescue Boats. They moved in and out the harbour on their various missions, where to, we didn't ask. The Air Sea Rescue crews were billeted in the old house that the marines occupied. They sometimes threw a party and invited local girls, when we danced to old gramophone records in the Swedish Kirk. We were treated to supper in the dining area of the stone house. Other occupants of that same house were men working on the construction of the big RAF camp at Skaw. They had been bombed out of their quarters at Skaw by German planes in early 1941, but they were soon able to go back. The house of Springfield was then owned by the Sandison family and was taken over to accommodate Officers from the various ships that came into the harbour.

Later in the war a group of Commandos arrived and stayed in the stone house. They were tough and very frightening to us living so near. Violent fights would break out among them and it was said that they threw live grenades and flaming Tilley lamps at each other. They walked around with loaded guns, firing at anything, just for practice. Many old buildings were left scarred by their bullets. We were thankful to wake up one morning to find that they had gone for good.

There was much activity at the Northside with steamers arriving to unload materials for the building of the camp at Skaw and buildings on Saxa Vord. The only inter island crossings then were by small motor boats, so all goods, except mail, came by steamer to Unst. Food and all supplies for the camps at Skaw and Saxa were brought in by small fishing boats requisitioned for the duration of the war. Names I remember are the; "Pilot Us", "Amaranth", "Lord Curzon", "Research", "Valkyrie", "Thistle", "Innovator", "Day Dawn", "Jeannie", "Twig" and "Heather Bell".

During all the war years a look out was kept on top of the Keen of Hamar, the men who did this were mostly ex-Navy having served in the 1914-18 war and too old for active service in the second war. These look-out watches were kept all round the island, the purpose being to watch for and report every movement of ships (convoys), airplanes, submarines etc. Each sighting was reported and logged in a Secret Publication Book, signed "Correct" at the end of each watch. Four men did six hour shifts, changing each week. The men who did the Keen of Hamar watch were; Charles Bruce, Peter Ned Mouat, William Sutherland, and my father John Sutherland, also James Spence and Peter Hughson as stand-ins. It was a long, hard six years for those men, all past their prime, but they survived.
During the war years mines would break loose and float in the sea, an extra danger to ships and even to those ashore at times. A huge mine floated in and got stuck in a geo in the face of the Keen of Hamar in early 1941.  On the 28th January 1941 my Father was on duty in the afternoon when the mine exploded. Huge rocks were blown to the top of the hill and all around the watch hut; he was extremely lucky to be inside the hut and was unharmed
War-Time Memories - Joan Mouat, Sunnieside, Haroldswick, Unst
We realised that war was near us when in the first week of October 1939, a life boat reached Braewick, Saxa Vord, with nine men on board. They were half of the crew of a Swedish ship the S.S. Vistula' which had been stopped by a German U Boat (submarine). The other half of the crew in the second lifeboat did not reach land. Two of the men climbed the cliffs and started walking inland where they met two men, R Thomson and J Clark from 'Valsgarth'. The rest of the crew were taken to 'Valsgarth', several other houses helped accommodate them.
On the 20th October the lifeboat from the 'S.S. Sea Venture' came in to Outer Skaw. All the crew were safe and were taken to the 'Haa' by Johnnie Clark.

In early November 1939 we heard the sound of aircraft to the east of Unst. They eventually appeared flying low over the wick of Norwick. They were German planes on their way to bomb ships that were in Sullom Voe.
On 17th Jan 1940 the British Ship 'S.S. Polzella' (4751 tons) was sunk off Unst. There were no survivors. At the same time a Norwegian ship the 'Enis' (1,800 tons), with a cargo of wood pulp destined for Dublin, was set on fire. Both lifeboats got away with the crew, eight men in each boat. The Captain's boat with oars and sail was picked up by a trawler and landed on the British Mainland. The other boat, in the Mate's charge, reached Unst. This boat had a motor. The men were taken to Lerwick on the 'Earl of Zetland'. The burning ship could be seen on the horizon for several days.
In April 1940 on a beautiful sunny morning a lifeboat came sailing into Norwick. We were alerted by my brother, who was on his way above our house at 'Valyie' to work on the Saxa Vord road. Annie and I went down to see what it was and the boat had just reached the north side of the Taing. It was the lifeboat from the 'S.S. Swainby'. All the crew were safe but the ones that had been asleep at the time of the attack had no time to get dressed so were only in vests and pants with bare feet. We took twelve of them up to 'Valyie', where we found jumpers and socks for them to put on and gave them tea. We took two of them to the shop where they could get clothes. The shop sent the account to the Ship Wrecked Mariners society. The Captain and Officers were taken to "Kirkatown" and the 'Banks' and later in the afternoon a truck took them to Baltasound so they could be taken on to Lerwick.
Another ship, the 'S.S. Stancliffe', was sunk to the east of Unst. A lifeboat eventually came into Haroldswick with the crew in poor condition.
In April 1942 a Norwegian boat with refugees was near Unst when their engine stopped. Hearing the sound of planes overhead, one of the men took his wife and two children in the small boat and sailed towards the land that they could see. They landed on Norwick Beach, just as it was getting dark. This family stayed with us at `Sunnieside' overnight.
The Home Guard was formed and was led by Major W. Hunter. The men were issued with a great khaki coat and a rifle and had a rota of service, in the evenings they patrolled the coastline. Soon men were called up for war service and many joined the RAF, Navy and Army. A lot of Unst men were already in the Merchant Navy.
The new 'Earl of Zetland' began service in 1939 but was soon taken away for service elsewhere and the old 'Earl' was put back on the route. Supplies to the shops kept up very well and with local croft produce there were no shortages. Croft work went on as usual with work and forces men helping on their days off.
When the RAF Station was to be built at Hamer Skaw there was no road to it, just a path from the 'Banks' to the top, so work started on widening the path and it had to be extended behind Lowrie Laurenson's house and over part of the 'Bartleskirk' croft. This was in early 1940. In the meantime hut sections were stacked on the ayre (beach) until the road was ready. When it was completed and traffic was ready to use the hill men were assigned to control traffic using red and green flags as the foot and top of "The Floggie" were out of sight from each other and there were no passing places.  As there was no source of water in Skaw it had to be taken up in tanks on the back of a truck. A pipe was laid from the 'Valyie` spring well along the road to the lower end of the 'Floggie' road, where the tanks were filled. To ensure that there was no loss of supply, Peter Hughson had the job of plastering the outside walls of the well with concrete. It was and still is a perfect spring. Later a dam was built across the burn of Skaw, between Saxa Vord and the Wart to supply. Until this was ready the water was continued to be transported up the 'Floggie'.
Watson's Contractors from Edinburgh had two trucks and employed a lot of men from Unst and outwith the island. The firm of J.L. Eves from England erected the steel pylons. (Peter Moir was a teenage worker with them).

RAF personnel arrived as soon as the camp was ready. There were no laundry facilities on the camp so their washing was done at the local houses, so they soon got to know the local people. There were also some Army Soldiers from the Highland Light Infantry (HLI) and the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. The Royal Artillery manned the anti-aircraft guns.
Saturday night dances were held in the Haroldswick Hall and it was on its way to a dance that a lorry with workmen aboard slipped over the edge of the road, just at the back of Lowrie Laurenson's house. One man from Yell broke his leg; there was no dance that night.
Waves of Lancaster Bombers came over one evening on their way to bomb the German raider ship in Norway. There was a Picture House on the Camp and local folk could go there too. There was also Entertainment Shows and Dances in the NAAFI that the locals were welcomed at as well. They were all very good. At Christmas in 1944 they had a party for the local children in the NAAFI. Knitting received a welcome boost when both workmen and service men saw the warm jumpers and ordered garments for themselves and their families.
There were also Navy personnel stationed at Haroldswick at Hamarsgarth, who worked on the radar on Saxa Vord.


Peter  Moir
(As recorded by his late son Norrie Moir)
The Accident
My father was Peter Moir, who hailed from Kinmundie in Aberdeenshire and had been introduced to Mum in a rather unusual way.  He had worked for the Watson Company that built the wooden and steel towers, carrying the aerials, for the early “Chain Home” radar system.  The same ones that were to prove so vital, to our defence in WW2, by pinpointing German air attacks as they came across the English Channel.  He travelled all over the U.K. doing this work, and built the masts at the RAF station at Skaw in Unst, whilst there he worked with a local chap, Duncan Mouat from the Schoolhouse in Norwick.
Whilst working there he and a friend decided to go to the weekly dance, probably in the Haroldswick or Baltasound hall, one particular evening.  They decided to get ready and catch "the transport," a lorry that left at a predetermined time, from certain pick-up points around the camp.  Theirs being the last before the camp gates and the outside world.  They miss-timed it and arrived, just in time to see the lorry pulling away.  They gave chase, shouting and making as much noise as possible, to no avail as the laden lorry left without them.  They chased it as far as the camp gates, soundly cursed the driver for being oblivious to their presence, and watched forlornly as the canvass covered back of the lorry receded in the distance.  It was quite full too, some of those on board waved mockingly, as they trundled off up the road.
The Flagi  ©Shetsand Museum

Item Details:       Photo Number; P04158, Photographer: Peterson, J

[1]This is the local pronunciation, if you look up in The Shetland Museum Photographic Archive, they spell the word     Flagi.

They retreated to the NAAFI, to console themselves with a pint, and bemoan their fate.  It was about a half an hour later, when a general commotion ran through the camp, word had been received that the lorry had had an accident.  Going down “The Floggey,”[1] the steep road that connected Skaw to Norwick, the lorry had gone off the road and rolled down the steep slope at the back of the house called “The Banks”.  Many were badly injured although I don’t think anyone died.  It later transpired that the lorry’s brakes were faulty, the driver had been in the habit of “changing down” as he started the descent in order to slow the vehicle.  This time he had failed, to engage a lower gear, they had accelerated down the road to their fate.  Two quick thinking men, in the back, had heard the crash of gears and realised what was about to happen.  Almost instinctively they had grabbed a young lad, a teenager who happened to be on board, and thrown him out of the back of the lorry and yelled at him to go and get help.

He had run, the mile or so, back to the camp and raised the alarm at the guardroom.  As there were probably few, if any, telephones in the local houses it was probably the fastest way to get medical help.  Amongst those on board was an old family friend, Henry Hunter, he suffered a broken collarbone and other injuries.  The miracle was that anyone survived at all! It should be remembered that back then, the road did not run the course it did in the 50's 60's and 70's, with the long curved bend at the bottom. It came down between the two houses that sit nearest the sea, known as "The Banks" and the house of Laurence (Lowrie) Laurenson. The old track of it is still visible, and some older photos of Norwick, show this road as it was originally laid, as can be seen in the photograph below.            
Norwick and the old, old road, to Skaw, ©Shetland Museum
Item Details - Photo Number R00287.Photographer, Ratter, J D
I once saw a pay packet he had kept from 1939; it came to £39-17/-7½d (£39 and 88.125p).  This was a considerable sum, in those days, when the average weekly wage was about £2-10/- (£2.50).  The reason was that when they reached a height of 50 feet the “danger money” they were paid doubled and did so again every 50 feet thereafter.  Some of those masts were 350 ft high!  I once asked him if he ever worried about working at such heights, he said “no not really, once past six feet you’ll break your neck anyway, six or sixty the outcome is usually the same!”  He gave it all up, when conscripted in 1939, to join His Majesty’s Royal Air Force at the princely sum of 6d. (2½p) a day!
(This photo, sent to me by Norrie, shows the lower part of one of the steel Transmitter Towers at RAF Skaw. I believe that the  small posts near the foot of the Tower had been used to carry the feeder lines  which took the signal from the Transmitter Block to the base of the structure)
The first person he met, when he walked through the gates of his reporting station, was Duncan Mouat. They were to serve together all through the war, doing their “square-bashing at Blackpool, their physical training instructor was Freddie Mills the famous boxer.  Next they were on a troopship to India, via Cape-town where they visited Table Mountain, and thence on to Bombay.  From Bombay they crossed the Indian continent by train, taking eight days, and then they caught another ship for Ceylon.  There they were to spend four years; serving on the island now called Sri Lanka.
Whilst there my father asked Duncan for Mums address, back in Unst, although he had seen her during his time there he had not actually met her.  Duncan gladly obliged and he wrote asking her to be a pen pal, she replied and they corresponded all through the remainder of the war.  After the end of the war and repatriation, he travelled to Unst to meet her.  They must have hit it off as they were married in 12th 13th or 19th of March 1947.
In 1964, Shetland got TV, a Transmitter/Relay Station being set up on the Ward of Bressay, I can remember my father remarking to me at the time "Shetland could have had TV years ago!" When I asked how this could have been, he told me the following story.
At the end of the war, or shortly thereafter, a signal was sent, presumably from HQ in London, reportedly saying "Blow up the masts in Uist!" For whatever reason, misreading, a typo, and or mis-routing, it was read as "Blow up the masts in Unst!" This was duly done, the perception was that had they stayed up, they could have been used to convey TV to the islands.
©Norman. W. Moir. Somerset, September 2012.  Any writings by me, are copyright, to me and to my immediate family, and may not be used in any context, without the author's prior permission 
Museum photographs are copyright of Shetland Museum Photo Archive
Pauline Palmer
(As recounted by the Late Lexie McMeechan)
Miss Jemima Sutherland, who was the district nurse in Unst during the war years (and for sometime after, told the story of a baby boy born at the Skaw camp on the 22nd June 1941 to the wife of the then Clerk of works. The young woman refused to leave her husband even for the birth, against all advice. When Dr Saxby and Nurse Sutherland were called there, on a lovely midsummer day, they were refused entrance to the camp as there was an air raid warning on. When they finally got permission to proceed the young mother to be and an elderly helper were alone, as her husband had gone to his emergency post. The baby was born at 0345 the next morning; both mother and baby were safe and well. His father was still on duty when the doctor and nurse left but the next afternoon (Sunday), when they went back the couple's minister, from Lerwick, was there for the christening, and there was a little celebratory gathering, which the doctor and nurse were to share in. After renewed warnings the mother was at last persuaded to take the baby home to "somewhere in England" where it was hoped they would be safe. I always wondered what happened to them

The parent's names were Pauline and James Palmer, the baby boy was named James Spellisey Palmer (pictured above with his mother). The helper mentioned who attended the birth was Mrs Clark, whose late husband had at one time been the principal light-keeper at Muckle Flugga Lighthouse.

By coincidence in the summer of 1998 a lady wrote, from England, to Bayes Photographic Shop in Lerwick asking if they could supply her with photographs of Norwick, Unst. She explained that she had been there during the war and while she and her husband were there she had a baby. My daughter Rita was friendly with Mrs Laurenson who worked in Bayes and she had heard the story, from Rita, of the woman who had a baby at the camp at RAF Skaw in the wartime and how I wished that I could find her. I got her phone number and when we spoke I realised I really had 'found' her after all those years! She told me that her son, James Palmer, had died of a heart condition aged about forty. She remembered Nurse Sutherland and they made contact. She sent a photo of herself on her 80th birthday and a photo of her and the baby. I have often spoken to Mrs Palmer on the phone and she is a very bright and cheerful person.    


Shetland Museum

Unst Heritage Centre

The late Norrie Moir



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