Monday, 30 November 2015
Les White - Radar Operator - Saxa 1961/62
Les White was a cabinetmaker by trade when he was called up for National Service around Nov '60. He trained a Radar Operator and was posted to Saxa Vord early in 1961. In this period National Servicemen were required to serve for 18 months, followed by 4 years on the Reserve. Les spent most of his call-up at Saxa. (Left click on pictures to enlarge).
With his background Les was well-suited & selected by "the Boss" - Sqn Ldr Harris, for the job of getting the station cinema up and running. Prior to his arrival films were shown in the Airmen's Mess. The building, which was to become the Ice Cap. was one of the last Domestic Site buildings to be completed. The picture below from David Goodall, was taken in 1960 and shows it still under construction:
By the time Les arrived the outside of the building was complete:
One of the first tasks was to obtain suitable seating for the new cinema. It was arranged for the seats from a derelict cinema in Edinburgh to be shipped up but ,when they arrived, they were found to be in a sorry state. Les ordered new material and when it was delivered it was Les's job, with some help from a fellow SAC, Arthur Young, to re-upholster them:
Once they had completed the seat renovations Les & Arthur fitted them into the new cinema building.
They installed the two 16mm projectors, the wide screen and the sound system. 'Egg trays were glued to the rear wall to aid the acoustics'
Les & Arthur were also responsible for naming the cinema "The Ice Cap" and for painting the exterior Ice Cap & Penguin on the sign outside:
The films shown were the 16mm versions of whatever was going round the main mainland cinemas at the time. The shows were well attended by servicemen & locals, RAF personnel were charged 2 shillings and the locals were charged half a crown - a fair bit of money in those days! Les trained a couple more lads as projectionists, essential to provide continuity as many of the RAF were watch-keepers. A few more photos from Les of the cinema & equipment follow:
Les was not confined to work and the Ice Cap, he seems to have had a pretty active tour. The Station Accounts Officer, John Courtis, had decided to assemble a sports car from a kit during his tour (see: http://ahistoryofrafsaxavord.blogspot.co.uk/2014/07/john-courtis-saxa-vord-1960-62.html). Because of his skills and experience as a cabinetmaker John asked Less to help with the work.
Les remembers, "It was a red sports job I seem to recall. I had the task of forming the floor panels and on the driver's side it was quite complicated as there had to be slots for the pedals. These were at different angles and travels but I eventually got there. It was the kind of job I enjoyed"
Another of his main pursuits was fishing, both freshwater for trout and saltwater for anything that was available. The Three photos which follow were taken by the Loch of Cliff, the first shows the search for something to tempt the fish with, the second shows the lads getting ready for battle and the third is of Jack Tanner (with Arthur Young and Les White just visible on the left):
I don't know how much success they had and, judging from Les's salt water experience , I suspect their luck was mixed! The next picture shows a Station boat being launched:
A creel is lifted in the hope of finding a large lobster or two!
Better luck next time! - on this occasion the catch was returned to the sea:
There were better days such as the one in Aug 61 when a trip to Harold's Wick produced a fine catch for the cookhouse to deal with:
Les had a couple of other pastimes which kept him busy."Amongst other things I did marquetry, I had done since I was an apprentice cabinet-maker. I took the precaution of taking a case full of veneer to the camp, the difficulty was getting suitable board to mount the pictures on. I'm afraid one or two unused lockers were later to be found to be missing their back". Fortunately for us one of his other hobbies was photography: " One must bear in mind photography was an expensive hobby, especially to us poor underpaid types. Whilst we did our own developing and printing ti would still cost about two shillings a print".
A three mile walk sounds a reasonable stroll for fit young men but when you experience Shetland winter weather and then add the three mile return trip it's a different thing. Les and some of his mates decided to pay a visit to Skaw - the most northerly inhabited house in the UK:
In the photo above the headland in the distance was the WWII site of the RAF Skaw Remote Radar Reserve (CH) and later AMES 713 LORAN unit. The two buildings close together near the far end of the headland were a Piquet Post and a Power House.
In the following picture the radar heads in the days before the first dome cane be seen on the skyline:
I don't know if the tradition continues but on RAF stations, particularly remote ones, the occupants of billets used to have fun decorating their living space over Christmas and providing food/refreshments to visitors. Frequently, the spirit of competition led to strenuous efforts being made, especially when the CO was offering a prize (often beer) to the billet he judged to be the best. The following 3 photos show Les and some of his peers at Christmas 1961, the "Pere Noel" recognising that one of their number, Jean Desvaux, had French connections!
In the next photo Jack Tanner is looking after the food which had been carefully gathered for the occasion. Jack was well-liked apart from being the source of loud snoring in his billet. It was not unusual for various things, like shoes, to be thrown in his direction by roommates who were trying to get to sleep:
National Service brought together people from a variety of backgrounds and, in the case of Saxa, the most common factor was that very few of the lads had any idea where the place was until they were posted there. Although there must have been one or two problems, it appears most people endured their time on Unst, made the most of the opportunities offered and, in many cases, actually enjoyed their tours. The photo below is of good quality and, unusual in my Saxa research of the early years, shows a significant number of named individuals. I think it's possible that they may all have been ADOs, certainly some of them were:
With National Service lasting 18 months there would have been a fairly frequent changeover of personnel and it was quite usual for the days left until demob to be recorded (see the notice held by Arthur Young). Whilst a significant proportion of the Unit complement were National Servicemen there was a need for a core of regular airmen, particularly to fill the NCO posts. The NCO i/c his Billet was Cpl Ron D'Arcy for most of his tour and for a short period it was Cpl Bill Elliot - who was a very good artist. I notice Jack Tanner in the photo above has medal ribbons and so is likely to have been a regular with previous service in somewhere like Korea, Malaya or Suez. Two of the chaps in the photo married Shetland girls, Len Bowyer (who unfortunately died in 2006) and Jean Pierre Desvaux (he & his wife separated some years later). Les says "Our section was mainly National Service and as such I'm sure we enjoyed ourselves more than some of the regulars. We knew our future with regard to time to serve and I know one or two of the regular chaps were not too sure they had done the right thing. That said, speaking for myself, I did enjoy the whole of my service. Had I not had a young family and a trade to go back to, I might have joined for a longer period".
The next picture shows Les and three of the lads posing before heading off to the NAAFI. Apart from the Springfield Hotel, which was permitted to serve alcohol only with meals, all other civilian establishments on Unst were to remain officially dry until Nov 1964 when, by a slender majority of 17, the civilian population voted for the island to become "wet"- before that the NAAFI was a popular facility!
The next shot was taken from near the croft of Feall, just to the south of the road between the Ops Site & the Camp. It shows the Domestic Site with Les's Billet marked by an arrow near the top left.
On posting to and from RAF Saxa Vord everyone, in this period, transited through Lerwick. Les had time to take this photo of the Lerwick Lifeboat, The Claude Cecil Staniforth (1958 - 78). In the background is the Orion ( LK304), a Whalsay based fishing boat:
Les was demobbed from the RAF on 31st October 1962 and returned to civvy street. I am grateful to him for allowing us to share his recollections of Saxa and for the excellent photos.