Monday, 29 February 2016

Terry Luxford - 91SU/Saxa Vord - Summer 57 to August 58

Terry Luxford, a Cpl Radar Fitter, was posted to Saxa Vord in the Summer of 1957 after spending several years at  RAF Sopley (near Chichester, Hampshire). With Saxa being a new unit, few RAF personnel had a clue where it was and, when people did find out, many thought it must be a "punishment posting". In fact, for the next 50 years it proved to be one of the most popular UK postings, with many servicemen extending their tours and many others returning for second & third visits. Terry was one of those who enjoyed his time and has happy memories of his posting to Unst. Terry was employed in the Radar Office in the R10 on the mid-site and I'm sure it was no coincidence that his previous unit also had Type 13, 14 and 80 radars.
Fortunately, for those interested in the history of 91SU/Saxa, Terry had been given a camera for his birthday and some years ago had 2 photos published on the Saxa pages of the Subterranea Britannica site here:      I was lucky enough to make contact with Terry and I am grateful to him for sending me copies of those photos and a number of others he took during his tour. He has kindly given me permission to reproduce them.
Very few photos seem to exist of the Saxa Type 80 in its early days before it was enclosed in a Radome (which happened during the summer of 1963). Apart from the following picture, taken by Terry in 1957/8, most of those that I have seen tend to have been taken at long ranges. (Left click on pictures to enlarge)

It didn't look quite the same after the dome had been built:

During the planning of 91SU/Saxa Vord it was envisaged that up to three Type 13 height-finding radars might be built. In the construction phase two possible sites were prepared. One of these was just to the east of the Type 80 where a Type 13 was erected on a plinth. The other site was a gantry, just to the west of the Type 80 - all the necessary cables and earthing mats were laid. In the end only the plinth mounted Type 13 height-finder was ever in use at Saxa. The gantry, pictured below, never carried a radar, though in Terry's photo there is an anemometer mounted on it.

In later years numerous other items were attached to it. In this 1983 picture aerials belonging to the Civil Aviation Authority, Coastguard & Shell can be seen:
The gantry was finally demolished in 2011,  it was in a poor state of repair and considered a safety hazard. All that remains is a small concrete building which appears to still be in use (not sure what for!).
Theoretically the Type 80, with a pulse repetition frequency of 250 pulses per second,  was limited to a range of  372 miles (governed by the speed of radio waves and the time taken for an echo to be returned). In practise, because of equipment limitations, the maximum feasible range was about 335 miles although an aircraft would normally have to have  been at very high altitude to be detected at that sort of distance. Under normal atmospheric conditions a target detected at 240 miles would have to have a large cross - section and be flying at 35 - 40'000 feet. However, atmospheric conditions were frequently abnormal and the radar waves were often "bent" either up or down - a phenomenon known as  anomalous propagation. On a number of occasions I've seen the coast of Iceland (around 450 miles away) and parts of the Norwegian coast  190 - 300 miles from Saxa Vord.
During the planning stages it was envisaged the Saxa Vord Operations Block (the  R10) would contain six Type 64 consoles, two Type 61 consoles, one "A" Scope and 3 video mapping Units. Most of this equipment was to be installed  in the operations area but some of it was destined for the Radar Office.
The Type 64 consoles were Plan Position Indicators, designed to give the range and bearing of the target from the radar, and were used for tracking and controlling aircraft in association with the Type 14 and Type 80 search radars. The longest range scale available on a normal Type 64 console was 0 to 240 miles.
The Type 61 consoles at Saxa were associated with the Type 13 height-finder and, dependent upon the manual you read and the date it was published, were known as "B" Scopes , "E" Scopes or (the term I prefer) Range Height Indicators. On the Type 61 screen the beam nodded up and down in unison with the height-finder and gave the elevation and range of a response - this allowed the height of the target to be calculated.  If an aircrafts height was required it was usual for the operator/controller on a Type 64 console to designate the radar response with a marker (controlled by a joystick). This indicated the required bearing to the height-finder equipment & turned the Type 13 onto the appropriate bearing where it started nodding up and down searching for the target.
There had been a rapid development in aviation technology since WWII. Aircraft like the TU 95 Bear, which first flew in 1952, had a service ceiling of 45,000 feet and the US RB45C was capable of flying at over 46.000' (occasionally and clandestinely with RAF crews). The English Electric Canberra, which first flew in 1949 ,had a service ceiling which significantly exceeded that of the Bear.   The advisability of extending the Type 80's search envelope beyond the normal Type 64 maximum 240 mile range scale was agreed early on. A separate channel  was used to provide an "Extra Long Range" (ELR) facility on a "Type 64 Special Purposes Display" and the work was carried out by personnel on the strength of the unit. Terry was one of the men involved in the modifications, which entailed hours of work in the radar office providing an extended time-base,  lifting flooring and laying extra cables in the ducting through to the Operations Room. The result was a console with a Type 80 range scale of 80 to 320 miles. For the next 20 years radar operators spent many a boring hour in front of the "Extra Long Range Console" watching the trace go round. The occasional detection of a distant target could quickly make up for all the inactivity!
All the air defence radars had to be calibrated regularly. In UK calibration runs in the era of Saxa Vord were normally carried out by Canberra aircraft flying set tracks at specific altitudes. However, these flights were expensive and not flown every day.  The technicians needed to be able "set-up"  the radars on a regular basis and so a "permanent echo" was selected for each Unit to enable basic calibration to be done. The "permanent echo" was usually a hill of other high point on a known bearing and at a known range from the radar. In the case of Saxa Vord Terry remembers that the island of Foula, to the south west of Unst, was selected. The highest point on the island is 1,371' and it lies 47 miles from the radar site - these factors made it easily recognisable and, therefore, ideal for the purpose.
The winter of 1957/8 had it share of snow and those working up Saxa Vord were sometimes isolated when the road up to the site became unsafe. The picture below from Peter Barnes, who was also at Saxa !957/8, shows a not unusual occurrence, in this case it happened even before the driver got to the bottom of the hill proper (the Domestic Site is in the left background):
This early on in the history of the Unit there were no WRAF and the winter snow came in handy when the Radar Office personnel were stuck on duty and were trying to remember what women looked like:
The next 2 photos from Terry were also taken just outside the Radar Office. The first shows Burrafirth and the Loch of Cliff on a very wintry day:
The second shows Muckle Flugga in the distance - of great interest to me is the pile of crates in the foreground. It looks to me that the crates are in front of a building known as the Admiralty Annex and it is known that the Admiralty Research Laboratory was engaged in underwater trials as part of Operation CORSAIR during the winter of 57/58. However, it is also possible that they contained material for the recently operational 91SU/Saxa:
The Domestic Site also experienced its share of snow. In the following photo a building on the left would be used by the NAAFI and became the Airmen's' Club - the NAAFI organisation did not arrive at Saxa until the end of Jan 1958.
Unst had been an officially a "dry" island since 1921. Alcohol could not be bought legally from any of the shops, although it is known from the records of the Sherriffs Court that alcohol was sometimes sold "under the counter". Apart from the camp, the only establishment permitted to sell drink was the Springfield Hotel and then only to customers eating on the premises.  I believe the hotel staff were quite expert at making a quick sandwich when the need arose. A number of the local men folk produced "home Brew" from anything which could be encouraged to ferment and provide  alcohol. This was sometimes manufactured in galvanized baths and could be very potent. It wasn't until 1965 that the first licencses to permit the sale of alcohol in selected shops were issued.
Terry arrived in the summer of '57 and the first CO of the operational 91 SU arrived ion the island on 16 September. Sqn Ldr Gordon Millar made a note in the official record at the end of that month which included the statement "A general lack of furniture in the Airmens Billets and Offices is evident". At least personnel had somewhere to sleep and the following picture of Terrys Billet should bring back similar memories for a number of people who were at Saxa in the early days:
The next picture shows the rear of the Domestic Site Fire section. The building later housed the GDT Section and, at one time, the Hobbies Club. In the mid-80's Radio Saxa Vord was reopened in the building. The 2 long, ridged wooden huts in the distance (centre, left), were used by construction workers. Work on some of the camp went on for another 3 years with 2 of the later buildings being the Education Section and the Ice Cap (cinema):
In these early days there were no official RAF Married Quarters. The only official residence was known as the Admiralty Bungalow. It was built in the expectation that there would be a permanent RN presence based at Saxa Vord. As far as I know it was never used by the Navy but was leased to the RAF on one year's notice and was occupied by the Station Commanders and their families from 1957 until the early 90's , when a new build of Officers Married Quarters was completed very close by and named Taftens:
The next sequence of photos from Terry shows a number of Unst views which will be familiar to most of the servicemen who were posted there. The picture below was taken looking south from the Domestic Site. The land in the foreground is part of an area of Unst known as Valsgarth - indeed the whole area of the Domestic Site was at Valsgarth. The summits in the right distance are called The Heogs.
Another photo from the Domestic Site follows, this time looking towards the north-east. The hill on the left is the Ward of Norwick where the Transmitter Site was located and the headland on the right is Lambaness, where the WWII Chain Home radar station called RAF Skaw was situated.
The next shot was taken looking towards Norwick, with the headland of Lambaness beyond.
The Hill of Clibberswick lies to the east of the Domestic Site and, at 520 feet, is the highest point on the east side of Unst. The exposed cliffs on the seaward side are quite impressive:
The most northerly Lighthouse in the UK was built on a rocky outcrop to the north of Unst at Muckle Flugga. I believe that 3 Lighthouse Keepers manned the light at any one time and spent a month on duty. In poor weather reliefs were frequently late, extending periods of duty, sometimes considerably. Off duty Keepers and their families stayed at the Shore Station at Burrafirth. The Light was automated in 1995 and the Shore Station was put on the market. The white building in the picture below is the Shore Station and the ship to the left is a coaster, probably discharging Lighthouse supplies. The summit of Saxa Vord can also be seen with, from left to right, an unused Type 13 Gantry, the Type 14, the Type 80 and the plinth mounted Type 13.
The next two pictures are of the beach at Norwick:
The grass-covered, rocky feature in the following picture of Norwick beach is known as The Taing:
A shortage of sunscreen was never a problem, in fact most people had never heard of it in those days, but summer did occasionally visit Unst. The group below at the Taing made the most of one warm day (I do have some names suggested but am looking for confirmation before adding labels - help with names would be appreciated):
In 1957/8 there were hardly any private cars on Unst. The Doctor, Ministers and some of the big landowners (Lairds) would have been among those with this select mode of transport. Most local folk walked to their nearest shop when the need arose and when money/credit was available. This meant that there were a significant number of "shops", often in a croft house and open for limited hours. The three shops closest to the Domestic Site were Mouats, just outside the camp to the east, Virse, on the road to Norwick and Sandisons Shop, by the shore in Haroldswick.  At this time the main shop on the island would have been Skibhoul in Baltasound, which was also owned by the Sandison family and supplied goods to a number of the smaller shops. The group below are standing outside Sandisons Shop at Haroldswick in November 1957 (if anyone can supply the missing surnames it would be appreciated).
The final picture was taken at Victoria Pier, Lerwick and shows a view which will be remembered by many a serviceman when arriving in or departing from Shetland, though they may not have been as lucky with the weather!
Terry left Saxa on 14 Aug 58  and was demobbed soon afterwards. He enjoyed his Shetland tour and says his one regret was missing the annual fire festival of Up Helly Aa. My thanks to Terry for allowing me to reproduce his pictures and for sharing some of his memories.