RAF Saxa Vord, (potted history)

Saxa Vord was located on the island of Unst, the most northern island in Scotland. In fact, everything there is the most northerly, lighthouse, post office…….. and you will find the nearest railways station is in Norway. I remember Unst in early 1960 before North Sea Oil, then it was a pretty remote place to be. A few crofts, people earning their living from their land, and from inshore fishing around the islands. The land would provide peat to heat their homes and grazing for their sheep and cows. The annual pony sales would bring in a few extra bucks, the value of these beasts would be dependent on what colour was in vogue with the Pony Clubs in the south of England.

So what made Saxa Vord so attractive to the military? Saxa Vord, the name comes from the hill at the north end of the Island of Unst, at 935 feet (285km/h) that may not seem very impressive, but when everything for miles around is sea it makes sense to site your early warning radio/radar station there. Saxa Vord is further north than Saint Petersburg, and on the same latitude as Anchorage in Alaska. However Saxa Vord does come with its problems, links with the mainland are poor, and it does get some severe weather, sunshine one minute, snow the next and holds the dubious accolade of the highest wind speeds recorded anywhere in the British Isles, with wind recorded in 1992 at 197 mph (317 kn/h).

By the end of the war 1945, there were two radar sites in existence, Saxa Vord hill and Skaw on the east coast. Part of the Chain Home radar network.

In 1955 the AMES Type 80 radar, with much greater range, was installed at Saxa Vord giving a good coverage of a large expanse of the North Sea. In 1956 the rotor system of Type 80 was ripped from its mounts and hurtled 50 yards away by winds gusting to 177 mph.

RAF Saxa Vord was a vital part of Britain’s air defence during the Cold War, at a time when NATO and Russia played their little war game. During my time, it was the English Electric Lightning aircraft, that would be sent up like Roman Candles, lighting up the skies on afterburners. Off to intercept the Soviet planes and stop then from entering UK airspace. The RAF station on Unst, consisted of three sites: the domestic site, the technical site and the married quarters called Setters Hill Estate (SHE).

In 2005 the RAF announced that RRH Saxa Vord would close. The Type 93 radar was approaching obsolescence and was increasingly difficult to maintain, (the always had been). It was considered that with a reduced threat funding would be diverted to other defence priorities, (no refund for the poor taxpayer? Not to worry taxpayer have deep pockets). RRH Saxa Vord closed in April 2006, the radar dismantled and the site placed on care and maintenance. In April 2007, Saxa Vord’s Domestic site and the road up to the Mid site were bought by Military Assets Management (MAM)

Fred the Sleepless Wonder.

Amateur Radio Operators, or Radio Ham’s.

It is hard to believe today, in an era of internet streaming and downloading of everything from films to music and text, that not so long ago we only had the radio.

Radio waves were proved to exist by Heinrich Rudolf Hertz in 1888, and adapted into a communication system in 1890 by the Italian Guglielmo Marconi. By the turn of the century there were many amateur wired telegraphers setting up their own interconnection telegraphic systems, but not until Marconi did we get wireless telegraphy. Magazines such as ‘Amateur Work’ showed how to build simple systems based on Hertz’ early experiments. Amateur radio clubs began to spread around the globe, By1910, the expansion was, manic and amateur radio soon became a casualty of its own success.

Congress passed the Radio Act of 1912, restricting private stations to wavelengths of 200 meters or shorter (1500 kHz or higher.) Following this Act the number of radio hobbyists in the US dropped by as much as 88%. Other countries were soon to follow suit. And the following year of the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, the International Convention of the Safety of Life at Sea was convened and produced a treaty requiring shipboard radio stations to be manned 24 hours a day, it was also the beginning of the US federal licensing of amateur radio operators and stations. The term “Ham” was coined by professional operators.

During the 1950s, hams helped pioneer the use of single-sideband modulation for HF voice communication. And by the late 1950s, a radio ham was instrumental in keeping the US Naval personnel stationed in Antarctica in contact with loved ones back home during the International Geophysical Year, and in 1961 the first orbital amateur radio satellite was launched. OSCAR 1 would be the first of a series of amateur radio satellites created throughout the world.

During the Falklands War, 1982, it was a Scottish amateur radio operator, Les Hamilton, GM3ITN that kept London in communications with the islands when the Argentine forces seized control of the phones and radio network.

One other hero on the Armature radio scene, was Fred, George 3 Sugar Victor Kilo. I met Fred when we were servicing equipment up at Saxa Vord. He was also in the RAF and stationed on the permanent staff there. His posting was for 18 months and during that time he managed to contact the majority of armature radio hams from across the world.

Back at out base in Kinloss, I would receive messages from Fred asking if on our next trip I could bring up, X feet of 300 lbs copper wire, insulators …… he wished to try out a new aerial.

As I have said you would be hard-pressed to find a better place than Saxa Vord to site a radio station. Think of it as an upturned teacup on a large saucer. The teacup was the 935 feet (285km/h) hill on the island, on top of which a 90-foot lattice wooden towers stood. And the saucer as the sea that surrounded it. Now think of a modern satellite dish, get the picture. One other advantage, Fred had was he was able to bounce radio waves off the ionosphere, the ionized part of the earth’s upper atmosphere, from about 37 miles (60 km) to 620 miles (1,000 km). And in this way could shoot radio signals over the North Pole and down the west coast of America.

We installed the inverted V aerial for Fred, its apex at the uppermost limit of the tower its two legs cut to a set length, insulated from the ground and spread out to form the inverted V. This was attached to his 70 Watt, homebuilt, transmitter in the radio shack, via a low loss cable. When we had finished our work, Fred sent out a CQ-CQ-CQ he was immediately inundated with replies from the west coast of America. Every radio ham, worthy of his salt wanted Fred’s calling card. What amazed the Americans most was that Fred was transmitting with only a 70 Watt kit, they were transmitting in kilowatts. I was amazed at just who clear their voices came over the speaker, like they were only down the road from us, the telephones on the island were less clear.

It was years later I was in the home of an ex RAF flight engineer called Gordon Moat, who had been an amateur radio ham in his time. When he told me this, I retold my story of Fred and his inverted V aerial. He quickly went off into his den and returned, with a back issue of an armature radio ham magazine. They’re filling the front cover, and as large as life was Fred. The headline read “Fred, The Sleepless Wonder”. It told of Fred’s explodes on Saxa Vord, how he had worked all these stations, and saying how there must now be a partial eclipse of the sun on Unst, with all the aerials Fred has accumulated. (Partial and full eclipse of the sun was not uncommon on Unst, and nothing to do with Fred or his aerials).

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