Sunday, 18 September 2011

The Admiralty Building and Underwater Cables Part 1

The Admiralty Building was constructed as a 2 storey building as early as 1954/5 and a year or so later a third storey was added. At the same time that this storey was added the Navy Annex was constructed. The following notes from The Public Records Office, referring to a 1953 document, show an outline of the original plan for the Admiralty Building – the notes were kindly provided by Bob Jenner.
 Notes from PRO (NA) File AIR2/12064-Saxa 18-05-1953
Design and construction of a Laboratory site 70 feet North of R10 and connected to it by a corridor. It is a two storied building with a flat roof capable of carrying an additional storey later of 60’ x 30’ x 9’.
The Building to contain: Dark Room, Battery Room and Store and a Workshop to contain: 4.5” Lathe,.25”Drilling Machine, Bench Grinder, Hand Folding Machine, Small Guillotine, 120’ of benching, 100’ of steel racking, Component Storage Cupboard, Office Furniture and Stools.
Cable ducts for cables to hydrophone arrays at sea to come ashore at Burra Firth. A Naval Radar Type T277 or similar will be required. (See Note 1.)Staff will be accommodated at Haroldswick. A new RAF pattern ‘Canberra’ bungalow will be provided for Admiralty use .
Officially RAF Saxa Personnel were barred from both buildings and they were therefore associated with an air of mystery. (Left click on pictures to enlarge).
Many personnel posted to Saxa and serving on the Ops & Radar Sites for much of the life of the Unit were intrigued by the apparent Top Secret goings on associated with these buildings and rumours of underwater submarine cables were commonplace. Certainly in the early years many a serviceman left Unst with photos of Russian Trawlers in Burrafirth which were reputedly spying on these submarine operations. Stories of soviet divers going over the side to see what was going on were rife.

In fact, there were top secret “goings-on”. The copy of an obituary from an Oct 2007 Daily Telegraph (sent to me by Bob Jenner), gives an idea about how concerned the government was about the security of the project in the 50’s.
With the passage of time much of the operational work has been declassified. It came as a surprise to me that there were 2 separate projects and at least 3 phases to the operations. The first project was controlled by the Admiralty and involved scientists from Teddington and Portland – this took place in the mid to late 50’s. The second was NATO controlled and involved the use of American equipment and personnel – this happened in the early 60’s. Recently I discovered that there was a third phase to this enigma – after the US equipment and personnel moved out around the end of 1963, the UK Admiralty became active again. I have been fortunate enough to get hold of some of the data and even luckier to be given anecdotes by some of those who were involved with the projects.
Whilst this facet of Saxa Vords life did not officially involve the RAF Unit greatly there were some implications for the camp. For a period, some of the people who worked in the Admiralty Building lived on the domestic site, for part of the time the RAF Power House was needed etc. If construction work was required a number of local people were employed by firms such as Cubitts or Pearson and Tawse. Later on one of the buildings, which had been erected for the trials, was dismantled and re-erected on the Domestic Site as one of the incarnations of the Penguin Club/Skittle Alley. However, I have recently discovered a small amount of evidence of some direct RAF association with the work being carried out in the Admiralty Buildings.
When I first started looking at this subject I thought I would add a section to the blog. However, there is so much interesting material now available that there will be at least three more sections over the coming weeks.Whilst these sections will not answer all of the queries about this intriguing part of Saxas history they will provide some indications of the work undertaken. The first of these sections, to be issued in a couple of weeks, features the memories of John Marchment, who was a Scientific Officer working for the Under Water Detection Establishment at Portland. He visited Unst on a number of occasions in 1956 & 57 and has been kind enough to allow me to publish his memories of the period.

Note 1. Radar Type 277
The Type 277 Radar was a Naval radar, first produced in 1943 and was normally used for height-finding. It had a wavelength of 10cm (S Band)

Other sections about the Admiralty Building & Underwater Cables appear here:


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