Friday, 31 July 2015

Rod Pye - Saxa 1964/65 & Attachment 1967

Rod Pye was an Air Defence Operator who completed a tour at RAF Saxa Vord from about March 1964 to September 1965. He was posted in from Hartland Point in North Devon - his journey to Unst was a bit of a marathon. He describes his  trip as follows: Day one. By train from Bideford to London Paddington  - Tube - Kings Cross travelling over night to Aberdeen arriving around 0600. Day two. Wasted the day in Aberdeen before boarding the St Clair for Lerwick.  A really rough crossing, sea sick, arrived in Lerwick. Day three.  Staggered off the boat to be told that the Earl of Zetland was not sailing that day. I phoned the Camp and was told to go to the Mission for Deep Sea Fishermen and ask for a room and to go to the Police station for £5 from the CO’s fund. This is where I met up with a great guy called Jimmy Winchester who told me to come down the Earl, which I had to do any way to check on sailings, and he would see that I was fed. We also had a great night out at the Planets, the local Dance hall, which was DRY! The greatest problem was two lads dancing would bump into each other and breaking their wee dram bottles. We had stashed ours outside in the bushes and so we would look at each other and say “to the woods” and pop out for a nip. Days four & five. Still in Lerwick, waiting for the weather to moderate. Day six. The Earl Set sail and I spent most of the day travelling up to Unst to Uyeasound, where I had to step off the Earl I with all my kit into a flit boat which was bobbing up and down alongside,  timed it perfectly and stepped into the boat with a great sigh of relief. (Left click on pictures to enlarge)

Rod must have wondered what he had let himself in for when he finally arrived at the gate of his new station!

For part of his tour his Watch Commander was a Flight Lieutenant Ferguson, who had a bit of a reputation amongst some of the operators as being difficult to work with. Rod had no particular problems with this boss and has memories of him monitoring the chat on the cross-tell line to Buchan during night shifts.

 (Note -The cross-tell line was used to pass aircraft plots to the Master Radar Station and, hopefully, to receive back the identification of the aircraft being seen. On long night shifts, when little was happening,  it was not unusual for some interesting chats to develop - it kept people awake and besides, even if there were no WRAF as Saxa in the 60's, there might be one on the Buchan end of the line!).

He also remembers another incident which illustrates the severity of the Shetland climate: " One night we were plotting these returns and they were all going out from the clutter, we then found out we had been plotting some of the Radome panels, needless to say we closed down then."This may have occurred in May 64  as I note that the T80 was off for the whole of June, the following month, for radome repairs. The picture below, from Lez Fishman, shows some of the gaps in the Radome where panels are missing but I'm not sure if this is after the same incident:

I have had a number of strange happenings in the Admiralty Building end of the R10 (Operations Block), mentioned to me over the years, including an account from Rod. I have added the information I have in an Annex at the end of this section.

 He has numerous other memories from his tour, including: "Following the snowplough down from the top site to change shifts and coming out from a dance when it was so dark I had to stop and carefully check which side of the road had the ditch then, after a little while, I could make out the light on the corner of the cross roads (near the RSV - Radio Saxa Vord) and then, very slowly checking each step, make my way back to the camp. No I was not three sheets!" It sounds as if the dance may have been at the Haroldswick Hall.

 Rod spent some of his off-duty time as a DJ at RSV and a photo he took of the equipment in use at the time, is below:

Rod used to borrow a bike and managed to visit various parts of Unst, including  Norwick, Haroldswick,  Burrafirth and Baltasound  - he even made a few unsuccessful attempts at catching sea trout. He took his camera with him and some of the views he captured are shown in the following pictures. The first was taken from Setters Hill - the Saxa Vord top site can be seen in the distance and the domestic site is on the right of the photo.

The second view was taken looking west from Skaw (often called Outer Skaw) and shows the Saxa Vord top site in the distance. The place where the photo was taken from actually had 2 RAF WWII sites located on the same headland. The first was the reserve radar site for RAF Skaw (located on Lambaness (Inner Skaw) to the south. The second was Air Ministry Experimental Station 713, a LORAN site which operated in 1944/45. The building , which can be seen on the right of the picture, was built as the piquet post for the RAF Skaw Reserve Site.
Those of you who have been to Unst will know that the island boasts some of the UK's best beaches (shame the weather is such that they can't always be enjoyed!). However, when the chance arises  the beach can be the ideal spot to pass a little time. The next 2  photos were taken at Norwick beach. Help with the missing names would be appreciated.
The only person whose name Rod remembers in the next photo is the chap on the right, lighting a cigarette, whose surname is believed to be Patel:

The route to the WWII site RAF Skaw & Outer Skaw, where the most northerly inhabited house in UK lay, ran up the cliffs on the north side of Norwick on a steep old road known locally as "The Floggie". The photo below was take from "The Floggie" towards the beach - the rocky promontory  is called "The Taing". The road has since been declared as unsafe and a new road to Skaw has been constructed. 

The photo below was taken at Lambaness and shows part of RAF Skaw, the WWII Chain Home Radar station. The bunker centre, left was the standby power house. The RAF Saxa Vord Top Site, with its new radome can be seen on the skyline
The billets at Saxa changed very little from the time the station opened until the reconstruction of the site ,which started in the early '80's. The next 3 of Rod's photos should, therefore, bring back memories to many who served there.

Just outside the eastern fence of the Domestic Site, beyond the old Water Tower, lay Mouat's Shop. Across the road, which led to Norwick, was the dwelling known as Upper Huyea, featured below:
Many people had their photo taken outside the most northerly Post Office in UK, Rod was no exception:

The Haroldswick Post Office closed in 1999 and the one  at Baltasound is now the UK's most northerly.
At the end of his tour Rod was posted to Bentley Priory . However, in early 1967 he volunteered to return to Saxa on detachment to stand-in for a soccer player , SAC Tresham, nicknamed "Tresh", who came from Burma. "Tresh" was require d to represent the RAF and so Rod arrived during a cold February. Fortunately Rod had his camera with him again and made very good use of it. On this trip he managed to see much of Unst, as can be seen in the pictures below.
The next shot  was taken from near the Domestic Site, looking SE, the island of Balta and the Keen of Hamar can be seen in the distance:
Halligarth House was built in 1832 and, by Rod's time, was home to the largest grove of trees on Unst. To this day it is a popular place for ornithologists looking for rare migratory birds.
On the road from the Domestic Site to Norwick beach one had to pass the cream and red coloured building, seen on the left in the next photo. It used to be the Norwick Schoolhouse but was closed a long time ago.  It  still stands but looks rather dilapidated, as can be seen in the Google Earth image which follows it.

Very few visitors to Shetland leave without a few pictures of  Shetland Ponies. In fact a, over the years when there has been a surplus of Pones at the annual sale, they have been sold for as little as £1 or even 50p. Occasionally servicemen and/or their families regret hasty decisions when they become aware of the shipping costs to the UK Mainland! The following pictures were all taken near the Domestic Site:

The next two pictures were taken on the road between the Camp & the Haroldswick Hall/Haroldswick School and feature Rod Pye. The Domestic Site can be seen in the distance and the the  croft  of Setter is between the photographer and the Camp.

The next picture was taken from the Domestic Site:

Unst did not have a resident policeman until the 70's and there are many stories about the islanders hearing of the approach of a policeman as soon as one boarded the overland ferry at the north end of Yell. Funnily enough all untaxed, uninsured or unroadworthy vehicles seemed to be off the road by the time the ferry arrived at Belmont in Unst. The vehicle in the next photo is on the track to Mulllapund, on the side of the Norwick road opposite the  Domestic  Site,  perhaps  it was back on the road a little later.
To this day Unst and Fetlar, because of their remoteness, are places where cars do not need MOTs and learners, whilst needing to display "L" plates, do not need an instructor beside them!
He did manage to capture a couple of significant events in the history of Unst. The first was of the results of a fire in the Springfield Hotel on 7 Feb 67 and; secondly, the wreck of a Russian Trawler at Skaw on 4 Mar 67.
The Springfield (now the Baltasound Hotel) played a significant role in the local community. Up until 1965 Unst was "dry", the only place licensed to sell alcohol (apart from the RAF camp) was the Springfield and  then only to customers eating on the premises. By 1967 some shops had licenses to retail alcohol but there were still no other "pubs" available. An event, such as a fire which disrupted business, was not to be taken lightly! Over the years there  were a number of fires at the Springfield including one which occurred on 7 Feb 67. The first photo was taken at long range from the area of the Baltasound Pier
I believe that the fire started in the kitchen area - the next picture was taken from much closer and illustrates the extent of the damage more clearly.
The incident was covered by the Scottish Daily Express on the following day, 8 Feb 67.
Rod was also able to take some photos of the Russian Trawler Orel (SRT 4240), which ran aground at Skaw. Largely due to the reaction of the local coastguard there was no loss of life but the wreck was an  "attraction" until it broke up soon afterwards. There was a short piece on the blog about the affair here:
Rod has sent me  a number of photos relating to the incident, three of which are appended below and the others will be published at a later date and probably sent to the Heritage Centre and Shetland Museum. In the first picture Rod can be seen on board the vessel with, what looks like a hammer & sickle by his left elbow!
In the next picture the trawler can be seen, with loose nets, firmly aground.
Russian trawlers around UK operated as fleets and, soon after the event, this was the view from Norwick:
At the end of his attachment Rod travelled south via the overland rather than the Earl of Zetland. Luckily he took a few pictures of the wintery trip which are reproduced below. The first is of the Hunters bus (FBU149) waiting outside the Ice Cap at the camp gates.
The bus took passengers to the pier at Belmont, where the ferry Tystie was waiting to cross Bluemull Sound to Gutcher in Yell.
For reasons not properly understood by most servicemen, it took 2 buses to carry passengers the length of Yell (about 20 miles). It meant the passengers and luggage had to be transferred to the second bus at Mid Yell.
On arriving at Ulsta at the south end of Yell it was necessary to cross Yell Sound to Toft on the Shetland Mainland. On this occasion the ferry at Ulsta was the Osprey.
From Toft Rod still had another 60 miles or so by road before reaching Sumburgh. A Leasks' bus, waiting at Toft, is seen in the next picture.
The route to Sumburgh took one through Lerwick, where  the next 2 pictures were taken:

British European Airways had operated Handley Page Heralds on the Sumburgh - Aberdeen route during Rod's earlier tour.

BEA switched to Viscounts between his 1964/65 tour and his attachment in 1967 as shown in the next two   photo's  which show a BEA Viscount  landing at Sumburgh and then again on the tarmac being prepared for departure:

After his return to Bentley Priory Rod married Sue, a WRAF he met there - she had been posted in from RAF Boulmer.   
Rod now lives in Cumbria but would love to visit Shetland, and Unst in particular, again. Unfortunately, the high cost of travel to, and accommodation in, the Isles make the trip a daunting prospect - but, maybe one day! My thanks to Rod for his help and his permission to share his memories and pictures.
Annex. Unexplained events in the R10 Ops Block/Admiralty Building.
Even before I started writing this blog in late 2009 I had heard a number of accounts of strange happenings, usually centred on the western end of the main corridor of the old Ops Block in the vicinity of the kitchen/entrance to the Admiralty Building. I have reproduced a couple of these accounts below, starting with that from Rod:
Rod Pye (64/65). The Ghost of Top Site
There were normally three ADO’s on nights who took turns working whilst the others slept when it was quiet. I can remember finishing my part of the shift and getting into the camp bed and settling down. A short while later I heard someone coming down the corridor, however, they only came through the double doors and a short distance along the corridor before coming up the stairs into the kitchen next door where he made around twelve drinks, I counted the cups being put on the tray and stirring. I was wide-awake and absolutely frozen. They then went down the stairs, cups clinking, turned and a few steps and almost immediately through double doors. Them I felt the heat returning and the place got warm again. The other lad in the room with me had felt it get cold and had woken up but had not bothered to listen to the drink making. To explain; the corridor at top site from the ops room to the rest room was a long walk and you could hear people coming from along the corridor. However, if you left the rest room and walked down the steps and turned right you came up to two double doors into the Naval section that was never used. This is where I believed the source of the noise came and went. On normal duty at night there wer three ops, two J/T’s (who never got up unless the gear decided to fail). People at work made drinks at change over normally or if they had a drink it was a couple of cups and out and along the corridor, officers and NCO slept in offices or were on duty. We checked with the security and no one was in the naval area and no one else said they had made drinks at the time of the incident. Now whether I fell asleep and dreamt this then so be it, However, I don’t believe I was dreaming. 
A lot of people had had similar experience and so the Radio Saxa Vord Tech guys set up a couple of tape recorders in the Navy area and left them running, there was only ambient noise on the tapes until nearly the end of the experiment when there was a loud bang recorded, similar to a door or window being slammed shut. Shortly after this you could hear the squeak of the double doors opening and the lads walking down the long corridor and again through the double doors into the Naval area to finish the recording. All the tapes and cottons they had strung around the doors and corridors were intact.
Bernie Wooldridge/Rein Boomsma (Saxa 1970 - 73) - on an ADO site
Yes I seem to think that too Bern, an ex Navy guy but if it was during WW2 I'm not sure. I've fired off an email to our mutual pal ---  -------- to ask for any info he remembers from the old Saxa days. It was him that told me about the ghost I do remember. Up until then I never felt anything strange. But after he told me I never felt at ease on a nightshift making coffees or doing the supper. (1970-71)
And what about that ghost up topside? Many a time did I hate walking to the canteen to make a brew only to feel this whatever it was close. Making a brew was only done before sundown, never after dark.
During my tour (1971-73) we had to go down in the basement and clear a load of stuff (cannot remember what these were). If I recall the doors were open and we went down some long stairs to the basement, it was very gloomy even with the lights on. I think it was loads of very old crates.  As for the Ghost I remember doing the coffee run (about 10 at a time) and the Kitchen turned very cold. I said, keeping a brave face, “do you want a coffee then”  and the coldness went away. I was told that someone (no name remembered) had bumped into the ghost when walking into the main corridor from the Kitchen corridor and spent a few days in sick bay.
My Thoughts.
I have never believed in ghosts; however, I remember visiting the Admiralty Building one evening in 1968 and I recall the eerie atmosphere to this day. I can't explain what caused the sensation other than suggest it may have had something to do with the electrical equipment on site. A few years ago someone else asked about the "ghost at the Ops Site". I did some research and replied with the short piece below. Unfortunately it doesn't provide any answers - just explains some of the surroundings!
There have been a number of strange stories about the Admiralty Building over the years involving a peculiar atmosphere and sometimes "ghostly appearances". I can only muddy the water a bit. I have copies of the official navy records for Saxa from 1940 to 46 and there are no records of any violent deaths due to enemy action, accidental death or suicide. The first picture was taken in 1946 and the red rectangle shows where the Admiralty Building and Saxa Ops Block were built.

Between 1954 and 57 the "new" build took place and I am certain that the RAF R10 Ops block was built before the Admiralty building as the following picture, which was taken by contractors laying the cables from the radar head area shows the Ops block unattached:
The next picture was taken in 1963, and shows the Admiralty Building and the R10 Ops Block:

You'll have noticed arrows in the last 2 pictures - they mark the area of the Ops Block which would have been the kitchen and WCs in your day. I have spoken to 2 of the contractors who built the site and they both say that the area marked incorporates one of the RN original 1940 buildings. I have checked and that part is built of bricks, rather than blocks (bricks were used on all WWII CHL sites in Shetland), blocks were used on most Rotor sites. That gives some continuity with the 1940 to 46 unit but I have no record on any death on site before your time (afterwards-yes).
There is one death associated with the site but not on it. As you will know the Admiralty used the buildings for secret anti-submarine trials (mainly between 1956/9) and one civilian scientific officer met a horrible end. The story is covered here:
I believe those involved in the inquest would not have been able to reveal the location of the incident because the trials were so sensitive , I suspect it was off Burrafirth. I have been in the Admiralty Building alone twice and agree it's an eerie place but, personally, no ghosts etc, but I have been in contact with a few people who have been seriously frightened.
With regard to lights coming on I can only suggest the caretaker, Bertie Henderson would have been able to get access without going through the piquet post and he would have needed to do regular checks. I believe he was known to go there for a quiet time to himself and may not have been good at switching things off.
Sorry - no easy answer