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


Saturday, 31 March 2018

RAF Saxa Vord - The Construction Years

Life in the UK in the early 50's was not as easy for most people as it is now. WWII had ended in 1945 but rationing and National Service were still a fact of life. The RAF alone had employed up to 1,000,000 personnel at one period during the War and, following discharge, many had still not found permanent civilian employment.

The International situation was, as always, tense. The Russians had tested their first A Bomb in 1949 and the Cold War was in full progress. The Korean War took place from 1950 until 1953 - over 100,000 British troops were involved and over 1,000 were killed. The UK's Air Defence System, which had just coped during WWII, was in dire need of updating to meet the perceived Soviet threat from modern aircraft such as the Tu-95 Bear Bomber, which first flew in 1952. The technology behind the old Chain Home (CH, CHL and CHEL), needed modernizing. The British Government instigated a massive air defence programme called ROTOR and, as part of this, Decca Ltd were tasked with producing a more sophisticated search radar. Decca took a radar project codenamed GREEN GARLIC, which was being researched at the Telecommunications Research Establishment at Malvern, and continued its development. The equipment became more commonly known as the Type 80. Details of the ROTOR programme have been covered by others and I intend to discuss it only when it is pertinent to Saxa Vord. Part of the ROTOR programme called for the building of 3 Centimetric Early Warning (CEW) sites in the north of Scotland - at Aird Uig in the Hebrides, at Faraid Head near Cape Wrath and at Saxa Vord in Shetland. The site for the CEW radar at Saxa Vord was chosen in 1952 and, from then on, complex plans had to be made about communication links, power, water, workforce, equipment etc.
After WWII the Soviet Navy developed a fleet of fast, ocean-going submarines based on German wartime technology. The Admiralty realised that there would need to be major efforts in an attempt to counter this threat. Along with some NATO allies, particularly the USA, much UK research into detecting and tracking submarines was carried out. The Admiralty Research Laboratory (ARL) Project CORSAIR was designed to investigate the use of a form of passive sonar to achieve useful detection ranges against Soviet submarines. The project involved 3 remote ARL sites: Admiralty Experimental Station Perranporth in Cornwall, Admiralty Marine Physical Station at Portballintrae in Northern Ireland and Admiralty Experimental Station Unst (AESU). Planning and construction of AESU was carried out at a similar period to the planning and construction of RAF Saxa Vord. In fact, the Navy began trials from the site about a year and a half before the RAF Station became operational. For a period it was expected that the RN & RAF would have had co-located, but separate, units. In Feb '56 it was thought that, by 1958, the establishment of the RN unit would be about 74 personnel, including 7 Officers and 10 Chief Petty Officers. Whereas, for comparison, by mid '58 the actual RAF establishment was in the region of 180, (including 11 Officers and 3 Warrant Officers).

Until 1973 the Shetland Islands Council did not exist. It was formed by legislation which led to the amalgamation of the Lerwick Town Council and the Zetland County Council. The Air Ministry had many dealings with the Zetland County Council in the preparations for the new radar station, particularly in regard to roads and water supplies. Until the 1950's there had been no mains water scheme on Unst but the Zetland County Council had embarked on a series of schemes in other parts of Shetland. A major scheme had been undertaken on Whalsay and, following a commitment from the Air Ministry to make a significant contribution, a scheme for Unst was given the go ahead in 1952.
Unst Water Scheme. As far as I can tell about 60 men at a time were employed on the Unst Water scheme between 1952 and 1954. Some of the workforce found local lodgings but a small camp was built near the Baltasound Pier to house up to 24 workers, mainly from Whalsay. The Whalsay workers would have been a great asset as most of them were likely  to have gained experience on the earlier scheme at Symbister. The sketch map below was drawn in about 1954 and shows the area to the east of the Baltasound Pier before the RAF bulk fuel tanks were built (the coloured labels are mine). The area at the top of the sketch, shows the water scheme camp, with a garage (at B),  offices (at C) and an accommodation hut ( at E) - the small unlabelled hut in the middle was the ablutions. The fuel tanks were erected in 1955.

The following picture was taken from the pier just after the  fuel tanks were constructed and some of the water scheme encampment can be seen:
The picture below, from a magazine "The New Shetlander", shows 3 of the Whalsay men on Unst together with a WWII vintage Dodge truck. The man in the black beret is Tammy Reid, an ex RAF radar operator who had served on the WWII Chain Home Low radar unit at Clett on Whalsay.
In the 1800's two small dams were built by a burn to the SW of the Hill of Colvadale.  Above these dams the burn was known as the Burn of Coutts Dams and below them it joined the Burn of Watlee. I am uncertain of the purpose of these dams, possibly to control water flow at old mills. Following the Burn of Coutts Dams upstream there was another small dam, then there was a small sheet of water. Beyond that there was a loch called Hellier's Water. It was at this third dam that a new, larger dam was built for the scheme, causing the smaller area of water to combine with Hellier's Water to form the larger reservoir now in existence.
Heavy equipment, including diggers, had to be shipped to Unst to build the dam and to excavate the trenches for pipe-laying. Some of the mains pipes laid had a diameter of 7" but this decreased the further from the water source the scheme went. There may have been more, but I know of two intermediate storage tanks to the north of the reservoir, one was on the Heogs and the other was on the Saxa Domestic Site . It should be noted that there was no plan to pipe mains water up to the proposed Saxa Ops and Tech Sites at this early stage - more about this later.
Roads and Hardcore. In the early 50's the Zetland County Council would have employed a Road Works Team. Their usual remit would mainly have been the maintenance of the existing tracks and the few roads on Unst. The decision to create the radar station  with its various sites at Valsgarth, Saxa Vord, Sodersfield and Ward of Norwick would have entailed expansion and reinforcing of the thoroughfares. There would also have been a requirement for many tons of hardcore. Apart from the workmen, the main beneficiaries from this would have been Sandisons Quarry at Setters Hill and the two local haulage contractors, Duncan Mouat of Sunnyside and John Sutherland of Spragatup. I believe both of these contractors may have had extra vehicles shipped up to Unst via the Earl of Zetland and engaged extra drivers. This next photo, showing an early stage of the building of the Domestic Site, features a wagon from each Contractor:
Work was also generated on the island with the manufacture of hollow breeze blocks, which were used extensively in the building programme:
During WWI a track. known as Whites Road, had been laid up Saxa Vord and it had been reinforced to serve the Admiralty radar site which was operational on the hill from 1940 to 46. Before more modern, heavier vehicles could use the route it would need to be strengthened again and new "spur" roads laid up to the Tech Site, to allow the more modern radars to be installed, and to the sites chosen for the Receivers and Transmitters. 
Power. At the start of the 50's there was no mains electricity on Unst. Most of the population relied on solid stoves for heating and cooking but needed Tilly Lamps for the hours of darkness. A few had lights which ran on small butane gas cylinders. Some had access to small windmills and accumulators but the electricity generated was barely enough to power a radio set. The Springfield Hotel had fitted a 48 volt DC generator which charged a bank of 4 x 12volt batteries and it's probable that the local halls had their own generators for functions. With two or three hundred contractors and servicemen to be accommodated, plus the need to provide power for the new radars (the Type 80 alone needed 2.5 MW for its output), a Power House was essential. At least two Mirrlees Blackstone generators were delivered to Baltasound on board the Landing Craft ADC 1204 in April 1955 and other generators followed later.

The equipment was installed in a newly finished Power House near the Main Guardroom on the Domestic site:

The installation was carried out by Air Ministry Fitters from RAF Burtonwood in Lancashire. Eric Fairhurst, his friend Ernie Jolley (known as the "terrible twins"),  Reggie Dixon, Danny Cowley and Eddie Burns were responsible for much of the electrical work. Because parts of the Domestic Site were still being built the Fitters were accommodated in the huts provided for the labourers, rather than in the Sergeants Mess - which would have been their normal expectation.
The 'gaffer', Mr. Montague Talbot, would normally have bunked in the Officers' Mess but, whilst on Unst, had to stay at the Springfield hotel.

Eric, who had been in the Royal Navy during WWII, made 2 trips to Unst taking 3 days to reach Haroldswick - train from Warrington to Aberdeen, night stop; DC3 to Sumburgh, night stop in Lerwick and the Earl of Zetland to Unst. A picture of Eric standing in the snow, in the area where the Gym and Ice Cap were built a few years later, follows. An AMWD Quarter and the new Power House can be seen in the background, the building in the foreground was demolished a long time ago

Another two rare photos from Eric shows the interior of the Power House in the early days follow. It is just possible to detect the name "Brush" on the further engine in the first picture - the equipment was designed by Brush Electrical Engineering Co, whose horizontally opposed diesel engines were sold exclusively by Blackstone& amp; Co.  
Being able to produce power is one thing but distributing it is another. Providing energy to the Domestic Site would be comparatively simple, laying cables to the Ops and Tech Sites 3 miles away would be more complicated. The late JD Thomson worked for the firm of J Scott and Co, probably the biggest firm of Electrical Engineers in Scotland. In 1954 he was sent to Unst to work for a client - the firm of Holland, Hannen & Cubitt. The task was to lay an 11kv cable from the Power House to the top of Saxa Vord. The cable was to follow an indirect route and would be about 4 miles long. A trench had to be dug from the Domestic Site to the top of the Ward of Norwick, where the transmitter masts were to be erected. From there a spur was dug to the proposed Receiver Site on Soddersfield, whilst the main trench continued to the Ops & Tech Sites on Saxa Vord. The work, involving the movement of tons of peat and rock, was arduous and the jointing of cable lengths complex, especially in periods of bad weather.
The JD Thomson picture below has been reproduced from an issue of the Shetland Life Magazine (Oct 2000) and shows the cable trench from the Ops Site to the Tech Site. The building in the top left is the Ops Block and the fact that it is an early picture is indicated by the lack of an Admiralty Building and Admiralty Annex on the right-hand  side of the photo.
The laying of the main cables was finished by Mar 56.
Because there was a surplus of electricity available for normal Navy and RAF operations it was agreed to sell power to the North of Scotland Hydro-electric Board who, in turn, would provide power to civilian customers on Unst (see:
Fuel for the Power House. As mentioned earlier, the RAF Oil Tanks by the Baltasound Pier were constructed in 1955.
The land (0.6 of an acre), was purchased from Alexander Sandison & Sons. A pipe was laid from the pier to enable fuel to be landed for the RAF and a 4 inch pipe was laid from the tanks to the new Power House at Valsgarth, a distance of about 3 miles. An arrangement was made so that Sandisons could draw on the bulk fuel supply, through a metered system, to supply their own tanks for resale.
Water Supplies to the Ops and Tech Sites. It was originally envisaged that water supplies to the top of the hill would be provided from a tank  at the Tech Site, frequently topped up by a 200 gallon bowser delivering supplies from the Domestic Site. This would normally entail 3 round trips a day just to maintain the supply. It was realised that this would be expensive and risky - the road up the hill was not always useable in the winter months. In Sep 56 Sqn Ldr Bulpitt, who was at Saxa, wrote to RAF Bishopbriggs (parenting Saxa Vord at the time), to suggest that the same water source that the Admiralty had used in WWII be made use of. A natural spring, less than a quarter of a mile from the Ops Site, had been tapped and had provided up to 600 gallons a day (supposedly without fail), for the duration of the war. Whoever had the original idea of using this spring for the Saxa Ops & Tech Sites, it was this idea which was adopted together with a plan for a back up water bowser, should it be needed

A water intake, storage & pump house were built just below the Ops Site and mains pipes were laid to the area where a 20,000 gallon static water tank was to be erected to the south of the T80 plinth where, I presume, there was a chlorinating plant. The location of the intake and pump house can be seen in this modern photo:
Looking at these structures from the opposite direction in the next photograph, some older foundations can be seen in the left foreground. I believe these belonged to an old WWII  hut which housed a pump or generator for the Admiralty:
The water tank at the Tech Site was about 190' above the pump house and was close to the access gate. It is marked in this later photo:
Sometime afterwards an emergency water supply tank was erected close to the Admiralty Building.
Communications. The need for fast and reliable communications is essential for air defence sites and, historically, the role of the GPO has been vital in setting up radar stations in the UK. From the beginning the GPO were deeply involved in the planning and provision of modern radio and telephone systems at Saxa Vord. Trenches had to be dug, complex cables had to be laid, numerous joints had to be made and the terminations had to be installed where they were needed within the buildings. A few junction boxes, like this one at the foot of the spur road to Receivers and Transmitters, can still be seen:
The main communications with aircraft were to be via the VHF Transmitter and Receiver towers but these had to be connected to the R10 Operations Block by GPO landlines. Less well known is that the main point-to-point telephone routes went via VHF towers at the Transmitter site, which were also connected to the Ops site by landline. The next photo was taken by David Goodall about 1960. It shows the Transmitter Site with the ground to air communications handled by the larger tower in the middle of the picture. The smaller towers surrounding it belonged to the GPO and carried the normal telephone links, initially to a site on the mainland of Shetland:
The GPO had a separate building at Transmitters which, after extension, was to become Radio Norwick later in its life. This photo by Tony Sparkes shows this building on the right in its earlier GPO role:
Another communications system, separate from the GPO, was put in place slightly later - the NATO Ace High link: 
It is also interesting to note that very early on in the ROTOR programme extensive discussions about providing Saxa Vord with a direct "radar link" to RAF Buchan took place. The main points considered included economics, possible establishment reductions and the technology available. An Air Ministry letter in 1957 stated that no method for providing this link had been chosen and, besides, suitable equipment would not be available for 3 or 4 years. A while later it was noted that the technology would probably not be developed until the early 70's!

Construction Workers. The main contract for the non-technical building work on the RAF Saxa Vord sites was awarded to the firm of Holland, Hannen & Cubitts, a long established company which had undertaken many WWII projects. Other firms were subsequently sub-contracted to carry out some of the tasks. Under the ROTOR programme there was a drive for speed, efficiency and economy. Dependent upon the roles of the units being built there were standard sets of plans; for example, GCI units were provided with R3 (ROTOR 3) underground Ops Bunkers. The Centimetric Early Warning sites, like Saxa, usually had R10 Ops Blocks, above ground. Although patterns could be varied from site to site, standardised plans simplified the supply of materials and hastened work.
Not enough labour could be found locally and a high proportion of the workforce had to be brought in from other parts of Shetland and further afield. Accommodation had to be provided and so an encampment was built on ground outside the Station boundary, near the Main Guardroom. Some of this accommodation can be seen in this 1958 photo from Terry Luxford - the two long wooden huts in the distance:
The saying that Rome wasn't built in a day certainly applied to Saxa Vord. Contractors started arriving in 1954 and parts of the work continued until 1962. Priority was given to the operational requirements (the Admiralty Building was in use by 1956) and essential accommodation; whereas, less vital areas, like the Education Section, the Gym and the Ice Cap, were finished later. Work in progress can be seen in the next two photos. In the first, the person second from the left is possibly a worker known as "Coney" (Konrad) Gjerde, an ex-Norwegian fisherman, who settled on Unst:
In the next photo the unfinished Gym and Ice Cap can be seen behind the snow-plough:
The technical equipment required the presence of different contractors - Decca which had refined the design of the T80, Marconi which had designed the T13, T14 and were involved with the T80 project and John Curran Ltd, a Welsh firm, which had designed the T80 turning gear. The companies carrying out the work on the Tech and Ops sites had wooden, hutted offices in the area which was later used for the top site fire section. In the Admiralty Buildings much of the electrical work had to be carried out by scientific officers but access to an RAF radar and radar console (Type 64) had to be provided. One task a scientific officer had to complete was the selection of a route for a cable trench to be dug to Buddabrake, on the east side of Burrafirth, as part of Admiralty trials:
Throughout the building of Saxa Vord (and afterwards), there was a strong presence from the Air Ministry Works Department (AMWD).    The appropriate files contain frequent references to the AMWD Works Superintendent and there is a mass of correspondence about the provision of married quarters for AMWD personnel, particularly trained staff able to run the Power House. In the 50's, other than for the CO, there was very little correspondence regarding the provision of married quarters for servicemen. The three houses near the Power House, shown in the following photo and similar to the Admiralty Bungalow used by the CO, were built for AMWD staff:

The RN Advance Party.
By Feb 56 a naval advance party of 19 personnel, including 3 officers, were expected to be on site. How many arrived and how long they stayed is a bit of a mystery. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence to indicate that some arrived but, what their function was and how long they stayed, is not apparent. It is likely that they provided support to the Admiralty Scientific Officers who participated in the anti-submarine exercises and trials carried out from the Admiralty Building (Exercises Thermostat, Nightshade etc). By 1958, thoughts of a permanently manned RN unit seemed to have disappeared and the Admiralty just used the site for occasional trials - perhaps their initial trials had not been as successful as had been hoped! The US carried out their own tests from Unst (using American equipment), between 1961 & 63. The only permanent member of staff at the Admiralty Experimental Station (Unst) from 1958 until 1977, was one civilian caretaker - Bertie Henderson.
The RAF Advance Party.

On the 27 Sep 57 a Board  of Officers assembled on Unst for the purpose of transferring the Technical and Domestic Sites at RAF Saxa Vord from HQ 90 (Signals) Group to HQ Fighter Command. Before that we know that the Unit had been parented by RAF Bishopbriggs, near Glasgow, and that construction had been taking place for more than 3 years. An advance party of RAF personnel had been on Unst throughout this period and, in this time of National Service, a number of people would have completed their tours before the Unit became operational. "The original establishment of the unit was charged with the task of caring for and maintaining the buildings and equipment during the period of construction and installation. In addition, due to the lack of hotel and civilian accommodation, the unit had to provide accommodation and messing for members of the civilian contractors parties," - the authority for this quote was contained in an Air Ministry letter dated 16 Sep 54
George Southwick, a Sgt caterer, was at Saxa from about Aug 56 until Mar 58 and he recollects that in his day the "Advance Party" consisted of about 27 servicemen and he remembers that these included:
Flt Lt Davidson (the CO)
Warrant Officer Donaldson (i/c the Radar Site)
5 Sgts (Admin, Stores, Fire, Accounts & Catering)
3 Cpls (Police, MT & Catering)
6 Firemen
6 Cooks
4 MT Drivers
1 LAC Steward
From other sources a few names have been uncovered. The first CO of the operational station was Gordon Millar (from Sep 57), but it is apparent that there were at least 2 other officers in command at Saxa before him.  The Operations Readiness Book shows Flt Lt CA Davidson as handing over command to Millar when HQ 11 Group took over the station. As early as Sep 1956 Sqn Ldr NTR Bulpitt sent a letter to RAF Bishopbriggs from Haroldswick and the signature block read "Officer Commanding, Royal Air Force Saxa Vord". The Sgt Fireman was Frank Brand, who spent many years on Unst and we know that SAC Dave Childs, a policeman, arrived in Mar 57. Another policeman, who was there at about the same time as Dave Childs, was called Moss Bilson. For much of '56 & '57 Joseph Cross (Caterer) was an Acting Cpl on the Unit. Although the post is not mentioned on the Southwick list, there was also a Medic called Don Quinn. I would be very interested should anyone have more information about "the advance party".
Airstrip. It will come as a surprise to many that the RAF had early plans to build an airstrip on Unst  "suitable for an Anson type aircraft".

In 1956 plans were drawn up and costed for the construction of a 2,400' runway, longer than the airstrip eventually built at the south side, Baltasound (2099') by the Royal Engineers in the late 60's. As surprising as the fact that the plans existed was the proposed location, which can be seen in the extract from a Fighter Command plan, dated 17 Oct 56, reproduced below:
The estimated cost of the project was in the region of £85,000. I do not know why these plans were not implemented, perhaps because Britain was in the midst of an economic crisis in Oct 56 due to the British involvement in Suez and the subsequent ignominious withdrawal in November.
Further Construction at Saxa. Large projects at RAF Saxa Vord were a fact of life during much of the existence of the Station. The rebuilding of the T80 in 1961 and installation of a  radome in '63, the Married Quarters at SHE opening in '67, the re-engineering of the Top and Mid Sites in '77 to '79, the rebuild of most of the Domestic Site in the 80's and the early '90's - all provided work on Unst. In 2017/18 work has been carried out erecting a new "Remote Radar Head" - what next?
AIR 2 12066
Shetland Museum & Archives
Shetland Life, Oct 2000
The late Joe Cross