Sunday, 16 October 2011

The Admiralty Building and Underwater Cables Part 3

The next stage of Saxa Vord & the submarine cables is a little more complicated to recount. Data is difficult to come by but I can at least shed some light on what went on. The US equipment, mentioned by John Marchment in an earlier section:
was finally ready in the late 50’s. The second trial was under the auspices of NATO but the equipment and personnel involved were mainly American. A US cable laying ship, accompanied by a support ship with a small Landing Craft, laid the cables & hydrophones on the sea bed. The land route used was different from that chosen by the Admiralty a few years earlier. Whilst the route was similar from the Admiralty Building, it then deviated and descended into Burrafirth about a mile north of where the Admiralty cables lay. The cables went down at a point called Hagmirs Geo (this name cannot be seen on modern 1:25,000 scale maps but is shown on earlier 6” to the mile maps, or it may be visible on Admiralty charts). I have marked its location on the map (kindly provided by John McMeechan for the Cables Part 2 section) below. (Left click on pictures to ennlarge)

The next 2 pictures were taken from Hermaness in Sep 2011 and show Hagmirs Geo. They were taken from about 1km away. I will try to confirm the exact location of the cables next summer but I may have to take up rock climbing, abseiling or sailing to do so. The possible route is based solely on what looks like concrete on the beach – it could just as easily be a slab of rock!
The equipment used was designed by Bell Telephone Labs Co (US) and one of their employees paid an early visit to Saxa on 14 Aug 59. When the trials took place there were watch-keeping US civilians, employed by the Bell Telephone Co and attached to the US Navy, working on the Mid (Ops) Site. There were only a small number of them (maybe 4 or 5) and they were accommodated in the Officers’ Mess on the Domestic site. For the living-in Officers this was a useful addition to their numbers. As civilians they paid higher extra messing fees and, as Americans, they had access to items which were not normally available to the RAF. They were able to use US Commissaries – including the one at RAF Edzell and this, combined with the extra money, furnished the Mess which all sorts of unknown luxuries such as blueberry pancakes and maple syrup.
The fact that there were classified anti-submarine trials going on in the area seems to have been a poorly kept secret (apart from the RAF personnel on site). The following picture is a copy of a clipping from the 27 Feb 62 issue of the Shetland News and, in itself, is a copy of an article which appeared in the Observer Newspaper. (Some enlargement may be necessary).
As this trial took place on UK soil and in Admiralty facilities there had to be a UK Officer in overall charge. Lt Cdr Frank Spragge was at Saxa from 1961 until 1963 and fulfilled this role. It certainly eased dealings with local authorities and people.
As in the earlier Admiralty trials, much of these operations were dependent upon local workers for construction work. Bertie Henderson, mentioned by John Marchment when describing the earlier Admiralty Trials, was retained as the Caretaker of the Admiralty Buildings right up to his death in Jan 1977.
Of course American designed equipment had a major drawback at Saxa – no American power supply. The problem was easily solved (NATO money) – put up new building, install generators producing 120v/60Hz and get on with it. A pre-fabricated structure, called a Cosley Building, was ordered from a Midlands supplier and shipped north. Who supplied the generators - I don’t know but it’s fairly certain a landing craft would have been needed.
The Cosley Building was connected to the 2 storey Navy Annex by a specially built passage – the outline of which can be seen in this recent photo:
How did the trials go? To be honest again, I don’t know! By this time the US had an extensive system of submarine cables in existence as part of the SOSUS System (Sound Surveillance System). The system had its’ origins in 1949 and was intended to provide a method of detecting/tracking submarines. Parts of this system had been in operation for some time in both the Atlantic & Pacific Oceans before the “Top Secret” Projects began at Saxa. So – what were they trying to do at Saxa. Once again I can only guess. When the UK Admiralty started its’ trials they had been expecting the Americans to be ready with their equipment so it must have been new. Possibly something intended to be a “next generation “ SOSUS. Whatever it was by the end of 1963 this NATO funded trial ended, the Bell Telephone Co personnel left and much of their equipment was dismantled. The generators in the Cosley Building were removed and the building itself donated to the RAF (saved the money of shipping south). This trial was over – what was learned - I don’t know, but no great NATO or US operational system came into being. As far as I have been able to determine, nothing very much happened in the Admiralty Buildings for the next 4 years.

The building which had housed the generators for the US power was left in place until 1974/5 – when it was dismantled and re-erected on the Domestic site. It became the new Skittle Alley and Penguin Club – much of the work being carried out in off-duty time by a serving “scopie” - Harry Bowyer. In the later 70’s an emergency water supply tank was built on part of the foundations of the building.
So we have seen 2 projects, one UK Admiralty and one US/NATO. By the end of 1963 both projects appear to have been wound-up, equipment dismantled and personnel gone. On the surface it looks like the end of the story but I have some unanswered questions about the 2 projects and it is apparent that the Admiralty became re- interested in the site a few years later. Another section will be issued

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