HMS Tern

HMS Tern

Photo F Grahame

It was on the 9th May 1945 that the last plane took off from HMS Tern also known as Royal  Naval Air Station Twatt, Orkney. Today the site is leased from Orkney Islands Council and is being restored where possible by Birsay Heritage Trust.

You can visit the site at any time parking in Briarmeadow Road at the second opening but I took advantage of an excellent tour by World War II expert Andrew Hollinrake. Andrew is a qualified green badge tour guide and archaeologist.

Approximately 40,000 military personnel were stationed on Orkney between 1939 and 1945 with about 1300 of them at HMS Tern one of four airfields in Orkney during World War II. The first plane, a Swordfish, landed on 25th June 1941.

The runways are hidden now by grass but they are still there and can be seen from above or where the grass is yellowing in the summer sun. The four runways numbered according to their position on the magnetic compass were quite short in comparison to the ones we are used to today. But then these pilots were accustomed to landing on air craft carriers.  As the war continued the airfield was extended and was about the size of our current Kirkwall airport,which of course was originally Grimsetter/HMS Robin.

Today several of the buildings remain standing although many like the residential quarters have gone with just the concrete foundations left to mark where they were. The site is kept strimmed and accessible by the amazing Birsay Heritage Trust volunteers who have already made repairs to the buildings.

Inside what was the Fire Engine shed near the main gate are housed a collection of artefacts and information boards compiled by William Shearer and the volunteers of A.R.G.O.S.

HMS Tern

Inside the air raid shelter (F Grahame)

Walking us round the site Andrew Hollinrake took us into one of the many air raid shelters which would have kept safe about 50 people. The shelters were kit made by the Balfour Beatty Company and could be adapted to any size. The site was never bombed – anchored ships at Scapa Flow being more of a target.

During World war II people could not freely move around in Orkney and this applied also to the  personnel stationed at HMS Tern. 1300 men and women had to be entertained when they were not on duty so the site contains a cinema, squash court (officers only), a rugby pitch, several football pitches, 2 hockey fields and a netball court. The cinema which was open to the public also doubled up as a theatre. Many of the top entertainment acts of the time visited: Gracie Fields, George Formby, Yehudi Menuhin and John Mills amongst them.

HMS Tern

Andrew Hollinrake outside the cinema/theatre (F Grahame)

There are great plans for the restoration and future use of the cinema/theatre building and this has already commenced. Interestingly some of the original asphalt flooring has been melted down and used to repair roofs on other buildings on the site.

The air field also required power so there were small power stations located on it with a larger one constructed as the site expanded. Water was pumped from Hundaland Loch for the Fire Engines with 100,000 gallons of drinking water pumped up from Boardhouse Loch.

The expansion of HMS Tern was necessary when 771 squadron was added to the personnel having been relocated from HMS Sparrowhawk/Hatston once it had a surge in combatants from the US military. This also necessitated the expansion of the control tower which today can only be entered on the organised tour. Inside there are more information boards. The control tower is also being restored but at the moment you can still see the Faraday cage in the ceiling of the Signal Room. This was to prevent the detection of the signal room by the enemy. It would have been a noisy place.

HMS Tern is a fabulous place to visit in Orkney. Some of the first helicopter flights took place here and for thousands of service personnel it was home. It is open to the public so is free to visit but to get the most out of it one of the tours is well worthwhile. The tour lasts about 1 1/2 hours.

HMS Tern

The control tower with signal room beneath (F Grahame)

Prices are:

  • Adult £6
  • Concession £5
  • Child 5-15 £4
  • Under 5 Free
  • Family Ticket £16

For more information visit

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Reporter: Fiona Grahame

2 replies »

  1. Excellent. I’m putting together a short presentation for our Scottish Society here in Florida. It is about Scotland during WW II, including locations of former installations. This was very interesting. Kudos to you all for the preservation efforts.

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