Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Mick (Ginge) Churchward, Saxa Vord '63- '66 : How I came to be posted there and my subsequent journey into the ‘unknown’!

"Getting an Air Radar Fitters Course was deemed virtually in 1962 impossible, so I elected to go Ground Radar like so many ex boys, which initially I thought was a step down leaving Air Radar.  As time went bye I realised I was being stupid.  So of I went for 13 months to complete my Ground Radar (Rotor) Fitters Course at Locking, Compton Basset and back to Locking. 

With the usual RAF efficiency I was posted in late March 1963 back to Cottesmore to await an appropriate Posting.  However, I was posted in May to a Stafford MU, which was ear-marked to become a holding site and maintenance unit for Thor Missiles; I must add here that Stafford was made up of 6 different MU sites at the time.

So having had a lot of cash spent on training me as a Air Radar Mechanic and then a damn sight more on getting me trained as GRF, some twerp (in Gloucester Records Office) thought it would be a good idea to send me to work on something I’d never seen.  That is, if and when the missiles were going to arrive, which no one was able to confirm.

One day in late June we were told that the Stafford RAFA was to be opened by the AOC, and it was suggested we young airmen should go along and swell the numbers, which we did.

After I’d had a walk around and a few pints I was approached by some nice oldish, well-spoken bloke who asked me if I was stationed at RAF Stafford.  I said yes and he went on to enquire about my trade and what I did there, and if I liked what I was doing. You may recall that I am inclined to speak my mind and be direct, so I did, but what I didn’t know was that he was the bloody AOC.

 Next morning the Sqn Leader (CO of the unit where I was based) called me in and in no uncertain manner asked what the hell I was playing at, talking to the AOC like that. I tried to point out that the AOC had asked me questions and I thought he genuinely was interested in what I did.  Well you can imagine the response that generated, and the admin staff next door heard every word.  It soon became common knowledge about this fool of a J/T who had upset the Sqn Leader by having had the temerity to talk to an AOC, but worse still had the stupidity to tell him the truth!!

 It was later that day that I was called to the General Office to be given two choices of posting to a Ground Radar Site, wait for it, wait for it:  Saxa Vord or Aird Uig. 

Now, for the uninitiated or those not from Scotland or just not so good at the old geography, these two little gems feature in the North Scottish Islands and West Scottish Islands respectively.  They do have something in common though, (apart from housing a Radar Site each I mean) the Islands that they are on both start with a U, Unst and Uist.
I asked for the weekend to think about it and was generously given the OK.  Only to hear on my return that “Only one is left”, which one I asked, Saxa Vord was the reply, to which I smiled sweetly and said, “Oh great, ‘cos that was the one I wanted.”  I spent the next six weeks in the Technical Records office for my sins, up dating AP’s before departing Stafford for the Shetland Islands in August of 1963.

 It was the summer season and not a bed/cabin was to be had aboard the ferry to Shetland - the MV St Clair:

Arriving at Lerwick at 6.15 in the morning I woke up with a blanket wrapped around me, obviously some kind seaman had the job of issuing blankets to those without a cabin; my first trip over the North Sea (NS) was the kindest I ever had. I found the office where my rail/bus warrant needed to be changed - Leasks Travel:

At Leasks I received a strip of 6 tickets, with names like Gutcher, Mid Yell, Toft & Belmont  on them.  I was somewhat bemused.

The first bus was just like any other coach, comfortable seats etc, but it carried nothing like any other coach.  However, I didn’t realise that until after an hour or so of driving, we then stopped at a small pier at a place called Toft.  With absolutely nothing in sight left or right or out to sea, we sat and waited.  While we waited loads of stuff was unloaded onto the quay, milk, (crates of it), packages, cases, kitbags and all the usually stuff associated with travel, together with the Royal Mail. 

We still waited.  I did say my first crossing with the North of Scotland ferry to Lerwick was the best, so you can imagine that the weather was very good, it was. But, standing there waiting for the inter-island ferry it felt freezing cold, believe me it wasn’t nice.  Then, at last, with a chug, chug, chug a smallish boat came around the headland.

 Passengers helped unload the contents of the boat on to the bus and then we all heaved and lifted the unloaded stuff onto the boat, which had been previously loaded from the bus onto the pier.  Then we all climbed on the boat too.  Forty minutes later we were unloading the same stuff, then loading it onto a less smart bus, with harder seats and a noisy gear box.  As we travel along on what is mostly a single, but tarmac road, the driver stops in what seems to me to be in the middle of nowhere?  OK, I can see a small track leading away over some peat fields!  Where he deposits milk and mail; this was certainly becoming an eye opener for me. 

He repeated this many times before we reached Mid Yell an hour later, when we did the unloading and loading up activity yet again, except it was now from one bus to another old one

Well I’m sure you’ve got the hang of this by now.  Off we jolly well go for another hour, again as postman pat and milk man and dropping off all manner of things that small peat farmers and Shetland ponies need.  Eventually we arrive at another, but much smaller quay, and a boat arrives not much bigger than a rowing boat.  It’s OK though, because our numbers have shrunk to seven people, four blokes including me, a couple and a young woman.

 After we rounded the headland and 20 minutes on I saw the oldest looking coach you’ve ever seen, well what I mean is, I’d ever seen.  It was backing down this causeway towards where I assumed the boat would tie up – well I got that right and I’d arrived on Unst. 

 Just another 40 minutes drive on rock hard seats, no evidence of springs in the suspension and a gear box that had more to say than me, and my journey was over. “Fine day” and welcome to Saxa Vord said the bloke in the General Office, the expression “fine day” I was to learn was used by everyone and especially the locals IN ANY WEATHER conditions, and believe me we had weather conditions up there.

I always seemed to pick the worst weather to go on leave, booked way in advance, so much so I was asked to ‘post’ my proposed leave dates on the notice board so that others could avoid them.  I flew out once on leave and once when there was an epidemic of something in Aberdeen, all the other times the weather was far too bad to fly so I had to use the over-land and then St Clair into Aberdeen.  Funny how I could always fly back though, I began to think someone ‘upstairs’ had it in for me. (Note: I believe the "epidemic" referred to in Aberdeen was a famous outbreak of Typhoid, caused by South American Corned Beef -"

 Having said all that, I had a great time there, basketball in the winter and football in the summer and I almost lived in the gym when I was single.  An entry from Station Routine Orders from Jan '64, supplied by Pete Brindley:

A Saxa Soccer team photo (with key) from 1964, supplied by David Shields, I'm in the centre of the front row with the shield:

My stay was interrupted in June of ’64 to attend my Conversion Course and become C & R GRF, so Rita (my then wife and eventual mother of my two children, Tom born in Lerwick and Jen in Cyprus) and I went to RAF Locking and Weston Super Mere. 

I was asked to complete a posting request whilst at Locking as my 18months would be up shortly after going back to Saxa, I requested 91SU, Saxa Vord and the Shetlands. 

 We duly returned in November, only this time we drove a mini van from Locking to Aberdeen, trouble was we’d failed our driving tests, which we had had to take in Bristol, not Weston-super-Mare where we had learnt to drive. 

Our qualified driver to Aberdeen was a 6 foot 2 direct entry lad named Bert Weedon whom would have just finished (with me) his Conversion Course.  I really don’t remember his first name, but he was a smashing bloke and I've never seen him since.  We all shared the driving and it was great adventure for us and gave us what we didn’t have for the test in Bristol, driving experience.

 The following picture was taken in the Grand Hotel, Lerwick, by Lez Fishman:

Taking the driving test six months later was fun on Unst.  Imagine you are approaching a set of traffic lights -Mr Churchward, they are… Similarly, 25yds ahead is a zebra crossing; neither of these things existed on Unst then.  I went back in the afternoon with Rita as her qualified driver!  Interestingly, I had never seen so many L plates appear in the space of two days ever before, or since.

Foot Note: - I had an email from Bert (Alan) Weedon 22nd December 2016; funny old World isn’t it?"





Sunday, 30 April 2017

Arctic Circular - April 1986

This is the last issue of the Arctic Circular that I have a copy of. According to the editorial they were having production problems. The quality is poor in places, especially the article written by my late father-in-law, Hughie McMeechan. If anyone knows of latter editions I would be pleased to hear from them because, as far as I know, there follows a gap of 12 years until the next Station Magazine, The Saxa Voice, appears in 1998. (Left click on images to enlarge).







Thursday, 30 March 2017

RAF Saxa Vord - Northern Front Line of the UK Air Defence Region - Corporal Bob Abbott, RAF PTI

This is the second instalment of Bob Abbott's memories of Saxa Vord and I am grateful to him for sharing his recollections with us.

"I arrived on a posting to RAF Saxa Vord in June 1962.  Located further north than Leningrad and on the same latitude as Anchorage, Alaska, and Bergen, Norway, this northerly RAF Station was named after Saxa Vord, which at 935 ft (285m) was the highest hill on the island of Unst.
I was to discover that this radar station, with its Type 80 radar, was providing long-range coverage of the airspace to the north of Scotland.  The station's motto "Praemoneo de Periculis", Forewarn of Danger, reflected its role.  Because of its isolated location, my posting there in the summer of 1962 was initially for a limited tour of eighteen months.  Like quite a number of my RAF colleagues, who took to the Shetlanders and island life, I applied to extend my tour by six months.  It was during those extra six months that I was to meet the love of my life, ELizabeth MArgaret Leask.
The station was officially opened on 27 September 1957 as No 91 Signals Unit.  In the following years it was a vital part of Britain's air defence during the Cold War in a game of cat-and-mouse with the Soviet Air Force. 
During my time there it was the Fighter Command English Electric Lightning aircraft, from RAF Leuchars in Fife, that intercepted the Soviet TU-95 (NATO code name "Bear") probing flights, which had been spotted by the Saxa Vord radar head, and escorted them out of the UK area off interest.
Being a Control and Reporting Post(CRP)/ Reporting Post (RP), it passed its radar picture and information (along with RAF Benbecula) to the Master Radar Station (MRS) at RAF Buchan, which also received information from the Danish radar site on the Faroe Islands.
The Type 80 reflector was unfortunately lost when it was dislodged in a historic gale in January 1961.  I heard that when the radar head had collapsed in the gale that the anemometer had registered a 177 knot gust of wind.  The official photos of the incident showed radar metal mountings torn like sheets of paper and the scanner some distance from its turntable. The scanner was subsequently cut into pieces for disposal.

An urgent exercise by the contractors (mainly Currans & Decca) was mounted to reinstate the Type 80.  After flight trials the Type 80, with a new reflector, was accepted as serviceable on 11 Sep 61. During my time there in 1963 a Norwegian firm enclosed the radar with a radome constructed of perspex triangles on a neck of concrete.
My role on the Station, as the Cpl Physical Training Instructor, was to provide a voluntary programme of sporting opportunities to enhance the quality and lifestyle of the circa 120 personnel stationed there.  The following photo was taken from the water tower on the Domestic Site and shows the camp from the east.

The Water Tower, Sick Quarters and Officers' Mess at the eastern end of the Domestic Site:
In fulfilling this role the two years on Unst was to prove a very significant highlight in my 36 year career in the RAF.  Future articles will reveal that the memories still linger long, for it is people that make places.  I will never forget my RAF colleagues, the Unst and Lerwick folk, the frequent overland specials for football matches in Lerwick, and the badminton matches in the Unst community halls".  

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Posted to RAF Saxa Vord – Corporal Bob Abbott, RAF PTI - 1962-64

From Jun 1962 until Jul 1964 Cpl Bob Abbott served as the Physical Training Instructor at RAF Saxa Vord. His tour of duty was to coincide with some of Saxa Vords best sporting achievements, particularly in Basketball, Badminton & Soccer. An Admin Officer, known as Flt Lt  "Dickie" Bird, took a number of the photos used in this account and presented copies to Bob. The intention was to record the typical overland journey as experienced by RAF personnel posted to Saxa in the early 60's. The pictures in this account would have been taken in the first half of 1964, "Dickie" Bird being posted in as the Adjutant in Feb '64. "Dickie" used his own motor scooter to keep ahead of the "overland" and to preposition himself to take the photos. If anyone can identify individuals in the pictures I would be pleased to hear from them and the names will be included in a future amendment.

 Bob Abbott has already drafted the second instalment of the story of his tour on Unst and I look forward to issuing more of his material. My thanks to Bob for this very interesting chronicle of the trip to the most northerly inhabited island in the UK!

"In June 1962 the telephone rang in the Physical Fitness Flight at RAF Upavon, HQ Transport Command.  “You’re posted” said Jock Brown, the national service clerk in Station HQ.  “Where to?” I responded; “RAF Saxa Vord” says Jock; “Where’s that?” I said.  Jock retorts: “Come over and I’ll show you.”  Arriving at Station HQ Jock brings a chair around the counter and placed it in front of a map of the UK which stretched from the floor to the ceiling.

 Standing on the chair Jock reaches up and points to a group of islands away north of Scotland, where the wall met the ceiling.  Looking at me with a quizzical smile he tells me: “RAF Saxa Vord is near the north end of the island of Unst.”

The journey from Upavon to Unst was to take three days.  An RAF travel publication detailed three travel warrants required: the first one was for the train from Pewsey to Aberdeen; the second warrant for the North of Scotland, Orkney & Shetland Steam Navigation Company's MV St Clair’s 13 hour overnight ferry crossing from Aberdeen to Lerwick on a Monday or a Thursday; and the third warrant was for the John Leask & Son overland bus journey from Lerwick to Unst.

 Arriving in Aberdeen on the overnight train from Kings Cross I spent the day getting to know the granite city of the north, before heading to Matthews Quay to board the MV St Clair at the timetable sailing time, which varied depending on the tides.  The 13 hour crossing is the longest domestic ferry crossing in the UK.  The berth bunk bed with a blanket was a welcome respite from the rough sea journey to Lerwick.

Arriving in Lerwick,

I made my way to the John Leask & Son car park for the bus to Toft, the mainland ferry point to cross to Ulsta, on the island of Yell.  Around the bus was a hive of activity as mail, bread, milk, and a variety of parcels and luggage was loaded aboard.  This included numerous mail bags stacked on the seats of the bus, with just about enough seats for the number of passengers heading north.

The journey north was on single track roads with passing places.  The bus stopped along the way to deliver mail bags to various mail sheds, where postmen awaited their arrival.  One of the scenic places on the journey was Voe.
Arriving at Toft we piled into a nearby café for a welcome bowl of oatmeal broth soup, while the luggage was loaded onto the ferry.
 I often would assist with the loading and it was always a pleasure to meet and chat with other travellers, like my RAF colleague Dave Mawson, and the Methodist Minister, Rev Wesley Crocker, who was going to Unst to conduct the Sunday services at Haroldswick, the most northerly Methodist Church in the UK. 

Once the loading was complete the passengers boarded the ferry for the crossing to Ulsta, where the luggage continuing north was loaded onto the next bus.
The bus followed a route up the east side of the island, making deliveries as it travelled north: 

Eventually reaching  Mid Yell for a change of bus:

Then the journey then continued  to the Gutcher ferry point for Unst.  Yell is noted for its untold acres of peat.

Arriving at Gutcher the remains of the luggage and remnant of passengers boarded the ferry for the short crossing to Belmont on Unst. 

We were met by the bus for the final leg of the journey through Unst, calling in at the three main communities on the island: Uyeasound in the south, Baltasound mid isle, and Haroldswick in the north.

En route we passed the Loch of Snarravoe, with Yell visible in the distance:
and Numerous Shetland Ponies:
The view as we descended Setters Hill into Haroldswick was particularly memorable:
We stopped at the Haroldswick Post Office, the most northerly one in the UK, to deliver the mail:
After three days travel by train from Salisbury Plain to Aberdeen, an overnight ferry to
Lerwick, a nearly five hour journey, by four buses and two ferries to Unst, I finally arrive at RAF Saxa Vord, my home for the next two years.  It was to turn out to be one of my most memorable postings, as the lone Cpl PTI for the circa 120 personnel stationed there. "