Orkney’s WW2 Radar Stations in New Book

Radar gantry and aerials, World War II Chain Home Extra Low radar station, The Ward, Deerness (Copyright- HES Archives)

The fascinating history of Scotland’s wartime radar stations and the vital role they played in the Second World War is revealed in a new book by National Museums Scotland aviation curator, Ian Brown published this month by the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland.

Featuring a unique blend of technical and social history, Radar in Scotland: 1938-46 describes how Scotland’s radar chain operated, how radar information was processed and used for the country’s air defence and what life was like for those who lived and worked in these mostly remote sites.

The history of each of Scotland’s 93 sites is explained and accompanied by a series of first-hand accounts from servicemen and women who were stationed there. Photographs of many of these secret sites are featured, including a number previously unpublished.

Radar was a relatively new technology at the start of the war but it evolved rapidly and soon came to play a central role in the conflict. Radar’s connections with Scotland go back to the origins of the technology when Scot James Clerk Maxwell calculated the theoretical existence of radio waves in 1864. It was another Scot, Robert Watson Watt, who in the early 1930s suggested that radar could be used for detection and who worked hard to endorse it as a sound programme for Britain’s air defence.

The radar sites in Orkney were:

  • Breckness
  • Crustan
  • Deerness
  • Gatnip
  • Hesta Geo
  • Netherbutton
  • Northtown
  • Rerwick Head
  • Russland
  • South Ronaldsay
  • Stanger
  • Stromness
  • Whale Head

A list of all those in Scotland is available to download at the end of the article.

The Scottish ground radar stations featured in Ian Brown’s new book comprise a number of different types of signals installations which were used to detect hostile aircraft, shipping or surfaced U-boats attempting to enter British waters.  Some of the sites were equipped with searchlights to direct lost aircraft to the nearest suitable airfield.  The book also features the Gee system – the first radio navigational aids to enable accurate aircraft navigation over enemy territory. This used the same equipment as the ground radar stations, and its ground component was manned by personnel who had previously served on radar sites.

Scotland’s radar stations were part of a broader UK-wide Home Chain of coastal early warning systems and were manned by RAF Nos 70, 71 and 72 (Signals) Wings – a mix of service personnel and civilian scientists.  Information gathered at the radar stations was reported to a filter room where it was used to estimate a true picture of aircraft movements.  This true picture was then passed to the operations rooms at Fighter Command Headquarters, where decisions were made on how to deal with the attack.

Radar in Scotland: 1938-46 offers an insight into the realities of life for the servicemen and women on Scotland’s radar stations. A series of fascinating accounts illustrate the skill and resourcefulness required in setting up and operating the equipment and also describe living arrangements and the impact of local weather conditions. 

At the Sango station in the Highlands, Eric Brittin described how in winter,

the winds were so strong that a rope was stretched from the house to the station so that we could hang on and not be blown away when the gusts were at their worst.

In 1941, he reported that the snow was so bad that Lancaster bombers had to drop their food supplies in by parachute. At Skaw radar station in Shetland, Bill Baddock noted that the Nissan huts on the domestic campsite were anchored with cables over the top to secure them when the gales reached 100-120mph.

Living in a distillery warehouse, where the cook’s stove was the only heat source, was less than ideal for Leading Aircraftman Wylie Barrett who was posted to Saligo radar station on Islay, Argyll and Bute. Bathtime was once a week in the brown peaty waters at Bruichladdich distillery two miles away. Barrett described the water as

the colour of McEwans ale but as soft as milk.”

Al Tunis was posted to North Cairn station in Dumfries & Galloway where he served alongside an aspiring young comedian, Aircraftman Anthony (Tony) Hancock who became a household name after the war. The two men organised a variety show in the airmen’s recreation hall where Tunis described how

a slight, stooped young man with sad eyes stepped on stage to assume the identity and manner of a born comedian.”

Radar in Scotland: 1938-46 also illustrates the important role played by servicewomen in the operation of the radar system. As the war progressed and men were needed for overseas service, servicewomen from the WAAF (Women’s Auxiliary Air Force) were stationed at a number of radar stations, including at Netherbutton in Orkney, and on a number of Gee Radio Navigational Aid stations. They also played a significant role in the filter rooms, where high levels of skill were required to estimate the true position of enemy aircraft.

Radar in Scotland: 1938-46 has been a passion project for its author, Ian Brown who has been researching the country’s radar sites for 35 years. Based at East Lothian’s National Museum of Flight at East Fortune, itself a historic former Second World War airfield he has spent 35 years painstakingly researching official records and first-hand accounts to bring together this unique and important new record of Scotland’s ground radar network.

Ian Brown said;

We owe an enormous debt of gratitude to the servicemen and women and scientists who developed and operated Britain’s radar-based warning and control systems. They were able to identify the potential of the technology and to apply it in a way that created a complete air defence system – the first to be used in wartime operations.

Scotland played a vital part in this but until now, there hasn’t been an accurate account of the country’s significant contribution. I’ve long been fascinated by the technical and social aspects of Scotland’s ground radar network and hope that this book will help to explain the important role that the stations and the people who worked in them played in the outcome of the war. “

Radar in Scotland: 1938-46 by Ian Brown is published by the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland and is available at Waterstones, The Shetland Times Bookshop or through the Society’s online shop. Price £30

Image credit Paul Dodds

You can download a list of the radar sites in Scotland here:

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