Wednesday, 2 July 2014

John Courtis – Saxa Vord 1960-62

John Courtis had been called up for National Service and, as he was already a qualified accountant, he opted to sign on for 3 years and to go for commissioning. On 26 Oct 1960 he was posted to Saxa Vord from RAF Turnhouse as OC Accounts.
(Left click on pictures to enlarge)
Thinking that there might be little to do during his 18 month tour he planned a project to keep himself occupied before heading north. He already owned an almost new Ford Popular but he decided he would construct a new car from a kit. He arranged for the Nickri chassis to be shipped up by rail and ship to Baltasound. There it was picked up by some of his RAF contacts and conveyed to Saxa Vord. The body was a bit more hands on. He collected it from Essex, strapped it to the roof of his Ford and drove north. For those of you unfamiliar with the "road transporter"  -  the Ford Popular 100E was a small family saloon which sold quite well. It had 4 forward gears and a top speed of about 70 mph - I remember the model quite well, having owned one myself around the same time.
The Popular and body shell would then have been lifted onto the North boat in Aberdeen and then transferred to the Earl of Zetland in Lerwick – no driving on and off the ferries in those days. The Earl of Zetland did not have much room for vehicles –the picture with enlargement which follows give some idea of the normal method of carriage for cars:

The next few photos show the car on Unst

The engine for the car involved more complications. Once when south, presumably on leave, he bought a Lea Francis saloon (an expensive vehicle but with an aluminium body less likely to rust in the salty Shetland air), on behalf of an Unst resident - believed to be Marcia Lightfoot. The drive north used more petrol than he originally expected – probably because he was carrying a reconditioned Ford Popular engine in the boot! I believe the original Ford engine was used for the kit and the reconditioned engine put into the Ford Popular about a month before he left Unst.
 The Ford was sold on Unst for a good price. There were few cars on the island and it was difficult & expensive to get new ones shipped in. On posting John took his new pride and joy with him. The photo below shows the vehicle being unloaded in Aberdeen

 John’s collection of photos includes many with people, both fellow servicemen and civilians. A lady called Celia Brook Hart  appears in three of his pictures. She appears with John in a boat at Baltasound in the next picture:
She is seen again, also at sea, in this photo which also includes John Cheesbrough (Technical Officer) and his wife Sue.
She is also present in the following picture of the archaeological dig at Underhoull, near the Westing. The two other people are the late Viv Owers and his son Stewart.

John took a number of pictures of his contemporaries and some of them are copied below. Flt Lt Alan Bridges was an OC Admin (usually known as the Adjutant in this era) during John’s tour.  He arrived from Yatesbury in Jan 61 and left to go to HQ Bomber Command in Aug 62:
Alan was replaced by Hugh Bain, who arrived from Spitalgate in Jul 62. Hugh can be seen handling what may be a Great Skua (Bonxie) chick in the photo below. Hugh was at Saxa until Mar 64. Unfortunately Hugh died at a fairly young age.
Hugh can also be seen with Bob Sawyer at Tonga, south-west of Hermaness:
Bob Sawyer had arrived from Hendon in Jun 61 as the Education Officer. Bob was largely instrumental in organising one of Shetland’s most important archaeological digs. It was at Underhoull, near the Westing, and was supervised by Professor Alan Small from Aberdeen University.
The following photo shows Bob Sawyer with Jon Cheesbrough.
John Cheesbrough was posted in as Fg Off Technical Officer in Nov 61. He stayed until 21 Apr 64. A point of note, the CO at Saxa from Sep 57 to Sep 66 was always a Sqn Ldr Technical Officer. The CO would have a variety of duties to attend to especially on the Domestic Site and hosting visitors – it was important to have an engineer “up the hill”. In 1966 the CO became a Fighter Controller and the post of Technical Officer at the Top Site was upgraded to Sqn Ldr Rank. John can be seen at the bow of the boat in the next photo, with Bob Sawyer at the stern.
I believe that the he group below are pictured at Hamarsgarth in Haroldswick. John Courts is carrying a shovel and John Cheesbrough is in the centre.
I’m not sure what couple in the following picture were hunting with their shotgun. I know that in the early 60’s a few people went after snipe & curlew but the most frequent prey was rabbit. The headland in the distance is Blue Mull, which lies between Lunda Wick and Bluemull sound.
John climbed the Water Tower near the Officers Mess & Sick Quarters to take the next two photos. The first is a view of the old Wesleyan Kirk on the opposite side of the Norwick Road from the camp and the second is of the Domestic Site.
A nice view of Haroldswick with Setters hill on the right and the Keen of Hamar in the distance left is next:
John was on the Unit when Saxa's second Type 80 was severely damaged by Gales in 1961. A picture of the a18.5 ton reflector on the ground follows, contrary to popular myth – it was not blown off a cliff! I’m not sure how John managed to take the photos considering the security restrictions in place but more of them were included in a section here:
During John’s tour a number of ACE High communications sites were built in Shetland and by late 1962 four small Units were up and running, manned by RAF personnel. One of these Units was at Saxa Vord but the other three were on the Shetland Mainland at Mayberry Camp, Mossy Hill and at Collafirth. RAF Saxa Vord had a parenting responsibility for these servicemen and accounting was an important function. When John’s tour was ending there was a handover period with his successor Harry Cairns. The next picture is of Harry Cairns on one of the overland ferries, quite possibly on a trip to the ACE High Units with John as part of the transfer of duties.

By the time John Courtis left Saxa he had been promoted to Fg Off and completed his 3 year engagement. He left Unst on 8 Dec 62 to start his terminal leave.

My thanks to John Courtis for permitting me to reproduce his photos.  Thanks also to Harry Cairns & John Cheesbrough for providing information and correcting some of my mistakes.  Some more John Courtis photos appear in this section:




  1. What is the car brand of the red car PS 3752 plssssss


  3. John has just confirmed that the lady in the photograph above was indeed Celia Brook Hart

  4. Thank you Miranda - I have amended the text & re-labelled the 3 photos.