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St Kilda Military Installations

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St Kilda has hosted military installations since World War I, even though the islands were of no strategic value then, or during World War II. Such installations have only been seen on the main island of Hirta.

World War I

The outbreak of World War I led to the arrival of the Royal Navy on Hirta, where they established a signal station. Several men from the island were employed in construction of the station, and went on to assist the small naval staff posted there with lookout duties.

While this event brought benefits to islanders, able to make regular contact with the mainland thanks to the radio station, to receive regular supplies, and trade with the naval personnel, these were short-term benefits, and were ultimately to lead to an increase in the feelings of isolation suffered by the islanders when the conflict ended and the navy left, leaving them on their own once once again.

Bombardment

1918 Gun emplacement, 2007
1918 Gun emplacement
© gajtalbot

On May 15, 1918, a German U-Boat arrived and carried out a bombardment of the island, destroying the naval radio station, and causing some damage to the islanders' property.

Gun emplacement

The bombardment of the island led to the installation of an armed gun emplacement some six months later, intended to protect Village Bay, however this was installed very late in the war, and was never used.

World War II

With no permanent population or apparent strategic value, the islands of St Kilda were abandoned during World War II, and took no active part in the conflict. Of the surviving St Kildans evacuated in 1930, four are reported to have joined the Army, while three more joined the Royal Navy. All are reported to have survived the conflict, which means that no St Kildan was killed during either World War.

Cold War

The graveyard with the Army camp in the background, 1988
Graveyard with army camp behind
© Des Colhoun

The MoD (Ministry of Defence) has leased a small part of Hirta from the NTS for some years, amounting to some three hectares, where it has established a tracking station for the Army missile testing range on South Uist, to the east. Dating back to 1957 and Operation Hardrock, this presence began with the construction of a radar station during the Cold War, together with a military camp to provide the required facilities for the personnel stationed there. Up to thirty civilians could be employed at the station.

In 2005, the MoD renewed their lease for St Kilda, reported to be committed to paying SNH £100,000 each year for the next 25 years.

Operation Hardrock

Operation Hardrock[1] established the need for St Kilda as an early warning radar outpost during the Cold War, and led to the building of a rocket tracking station on Hirta, which evolved into an MoD Base for the South Uist Rocket Range. Construction of the original installation was carried out by the Royal Air Force (5004 Airfield Construction Squadron under the Command of Wing Commander Cookson), for the British Army over the two summers of 1957 and 1958, with over-wintering by a skeleton RAF force. The Army provided sea transport using ageing LCTs (Landing Craft Tank) based at Marchwood, Southampton Water - a very long distance by sea by such transport.

In order to cause minimal disturbance to the village and surrounding area, the base was established on glebe land - agricultural land controlled by the church - but this conflicted with the original plan, which called for demolition of the abandoned village to provide stone for road building. This move was successfully opposed by The Nature Conservancy and the NTS in 1957, saving the village and its house. Instead, stone was obtained from a new quarry established above Village Bay.

The men working on the project, many on national service, lived under canvas for almost nine months, during which time they created a quarry from which they blasted rock to crush and construct roads, including a 1 in 4 inclined route to the top of the island, and constructed Nissen huts, buildings, and other structures which still stand on the site, and also repaired the old church, where they had their meals, and used as a cinema.

632 signal troop was responsible for communications on the island, and in the beginning, the factor's house was used as the signal communications station.

The base needed electricity to function, and it was provided with its own small power station to supply this, operated by the Royal Engineers and referred to as the St Kilda Light and Power company. Worrying references had been found to the KGB at the base, however this was actually the Kilda Generating Board.

Mail deliveries were dependent upon LoganAir, and aircraft would swoop into the bay and drop the mailbags into the sea in the hope that they would be blown into land. The process was not always successful, and those posted have spoken of their memories of watching air drops where the kit bags went disappearing over the cliffs.

At 23, James Mackay became the only Lieutenant to command the island and probably the only non-gunner ever to command an artillery unit. In his book, Soldiering on St Kilda, Dr James Mackay looks at life on St Kilda from the viewpoint of the soldiers who served there on National Service from 1959 to 1961, and gives a detailed record of memories of what military life was like in this remote outpost.[2]

Further development is understood to have been carried out on the base during the mid to late 1980s by ARC Construction Ltd.

Military camp

The base is MoD property, and contains a military camp for use by MoD staff and contractors. The camp includes facilities such as an accommodation block, officers and sergeants messes, medical facilities, running water, power station, boat house, fuel/oil tank farm, communications centre, workshop, landing ramp, all supported by appropriate lines of supply. The current buildings were occupied in 1969. In common with most such facilities, all non-military activities are managed by the MoD approved sub-contractor QinetiQ.

The Puff Inn

Puff Inn sign, St Kilda, 2003
Puff Inn sign, St Kilda
© Paul Evans

The Puff Inn was known as one of the most remote pubs in Britain until 2005, however it is now strictly off limits to visitors (without prior MoD approval), and its patrons now only number around a dozen - staff based on St Kilda to operate tracking facilities linked to the army missile testing range on South Uist. Originally opened as a NAAFI catering facility, and never a pub or licensed premises, it gave soldiers posted to the island somewhere to relax when not on duty.

MoD supply lines

The Ardennes lands in Village Bay, St Kilda, 1988
LCL Ardennes
© Des Colhoun

Landing facilities to support the camp comprise a narrow concrete ramp across the boulder beach in the northwest corner of Village Bay, and a concrete pier in the northeast. Between the two is a 60 metre length of stacked gabion baskets, installed to protect part of the MoD site from coastal erosion, with two further 10 metre lengths to the east added to protect a later septic tank. A helipad to the northwest provides a stable platform for helicopter operations. Although helicopters have less capacity than seagoing craft, and still require suitable weather conditions to fly, they are probably the preferred option for personnel as they avoid the vagaries of the sea crossing.

Many sea trips to St Kilda are aborted, even though they set out in ideal conditions - in less time than it takes to reach the islands, the sea can become too rough to permit a safe landing. There are no sea trips in winter.

A number of craft have been involved in the task of transporting personnel and supplies for the base.

Her Majesty's Army Vessels (HMAV) - Mark 8 Landing Craft in this case - made weekly supply runs during summer:

Ardennes
Described as a 1,600 tonne displacement landing craft which served a number of roles including the resupply of the garrison on the island of Hirta. Still operational at least between 1990 and and 1995. L4001 was commissioned in 1977.
Arakan
a Royal Corps of Transport landing craft. Operational in the years 1978 to 1984. L4003 was commissioned in 1978.
Agheila
Army Landing Craft HMAV Agheila (L4002) are also described between 1966 and 1969. Ramped Craft Logistic (RCL) Agheila was sold off between 1994 and 1995. L4002 may have been the last Mark 8 LCT to be decommissioned from the Army Fleet.[3]
LCL Ardennes anchored in Village Bay, 1988
LCL Ardennes anchored in
Village Bay
© Des Colhoun

Originally designated LCT (landing craft tank), these duties saw them become LCL (landing craft logistic), designed for amphibious delivery of stores and material. Capable of beaching, the craft were equipped with a bow ramp to allow vehicles to drive on and off, and could carry 350 tonnes of stores, 36 ISO containers, 5 tanks or 118-ton trucks. The craft were primarily used to support the Royal Artillery ranges located in the Hebrides, an operation latterly transferred to civilian helicopter transport.

A converted trawler, the Mull, has been referred to by soldiers serving at the base during the 1960s, together with the discomfort of the journey for anyone was prone to seasickness.

The journey by LCT from Benbecula was described as a 10 hour trip, although the state of the sea for this duration was not given. Other points of origin were given as the Army base at Loch Carnan on South Uist, and the naval base at Faslane during the 1980s. Many posted to St Kilda in those days considered themselves to have spent most of their time travelling on the various LCT from Helensburgh Pier on the Clyde, via Benbecula to St Kilda on the various LCT.

On the beach, 1967
The beach
© M J Richardson

The supply run to St Kilda has als been described as operating from the beach at the formers Rhu Seaplane Base, next to Rhu Marina, which was the site of a former Royal Army Service Corps (RASC) depot.

The first two photographs show LCL Ardennes, commissioned in 1977, with the caption:

Crewed by the RCT (Royal Corps of Transport) this beach landing craft made regular supply runs to the garisson (sic)on St Kilda. Officially classified as LCL Ardennes with a prow no of L4001. (LCL = Landing Craft Logistics).

The third photograph shows the beach photographed from the landing craft, with the caption:

Unloading the fortnightly delivery from the Army tank landing craft on to the beach at St Kilda - this was in 1967. This was a summer-only event - beaching in the winter was too uncertain to contemplate. As well as supplies for the Royal Artillery the boat carried two inspectors from the Ministry of Public Building and Works, checking on the restoration of houses on Main Street, and two scientists carrying out a fungal survey for the Nature Conservancy.

Radar stations

Mullach Sgar radar station, 2006
Mullach Sgar radar station
© Bob Jones

Various radar facilities have occupied the island's hilltops over the years, and there are now two sites with installations which serve the South Uist rocket range to the east.

One radar station is located to the north on the summit of Mullach Mor , while the second station lies to the south, on Mullach Sgar . The stations contain equipment which allows them to track test firings on the range by radar, and to record images of missiles in flight.

MoD damage

There seems to be a trend to blame the military for causing damage to St Kilda, and to "score points" in discussions by declaring that the base should never have been allowed on a World Heritage Site. Such remarks would appear to belong to those best described as activists, with little interest in facts, only their own agenda - in the real world, the NTS and the MoD work as partners on St Kilda, and the World Heritage Site was only created in 1986, almost thirty years after the MoD established its base on a deserted Hirta in 1957.

The position may perhaps be best summed up in a reply to various misinformed comments made in a St Kilda guestbook in June 2008:

I was the military commander of St Kilda in 1994-5. In response to some of other contributors' points:

There is a graveyard but I don't recall there being many, if any, legible gravestones as such. I think there is quite a recent one of an islander whose body was transported back for burial in the 70s or 80s.

The MOD's telemetry station has never, to my knowledge, caused the death of a single bird (or other St Kildan animal). When I was there, at the NTS warden's request, we switched off the lights so as to avoid confusing fledging birds; and, with military colleagues, I helped the warden catch and ring pufflings. We were forbidden to climb on the cliffs; and we could only use humane traps for the voracious mice (who are not nearly so cute when they've chewed through half your wardrobe).

Yes, the MoD's buildings are unsightly - but they were built years ago, and are not the fault of anyone currently serving in the MoD.

- Frances, Wiltshire, June 30, 2008.[4]

Concerns over missile range jobs

Concerns are mounting about the future of 250 jobs linked to the testing of missiles on the Western Isles.

Storas Uibhist, the community-run landowner on South Uist, said there was speculation locally that jobs could go.

Sites on South Uist, Benbecula and Hirta on the St Kilda archipelago test and track guided weapons.

The Ministry of Defence (MoD) said an announcement concerning the sites would be made on Wednesday. It refused to comment on speculation about jobs.

It denied the sites would be mothballed.

The sites are run on the MoD's behalf by defence company QinetiQ.

Guided weapons are fired out to sea from South Uist and tracked by stations on Benbecula and Hirta.

Huw Francis, of Storas Uibhist, said any job losses would have an impact on the islands' economy following recent cuts in the construction industry.

He said: "There has been a lot of speculation about the facility for quite a long time.

"QinetiQ is one of the largest employers on the islands and they are skilled jobs which are in short supply here."

Storas Uibhist led the community buyout of South Uist Estate and manages 93,000 acres of land covering almost the whole of the islands of Benbecula, Eriskay and South Uist, as well as a number of other small islands.

SNP MP Angus MacNeil said he was seeking clarification from the UK Government and QinetiQ on what was planned for the sites.

He said: "If it is confirmed this week that there are to be major job losses in the defence sector in Uist, then the UK Government are dealing a very heavy blow to the islands.

"If the UK Government has any commitment at all to supporting island jobs and maintaining island populations, they must understand that."

The site on South Uist was formerly used by the Royal Artillery to test weapons.

In 2004, the MoD instructed an environmental survey to be carried out to assess any potential risk from cobalt-60, a radioactive material used to help gauge the performance of the weapons.

Potatoes, lamb flesh and rabbit meat were tested.

The survey concluded that the radiological risk of consuming the foods to the public was negligible.

Islanders' views on the establishment of the range were also the subject of a 1961 documentary, Rocket Range Benbecula.

Job cuts planned at rocket range

About 125 jobs are set to be lost at a missile test firing ranges on the Western Isles, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) has announced.

Twenty jobs linked to an underwater range near Raasay, off Skye, are also expected to go, along with two at a site on the Clyde.

West Freugh, a military range and test facility near Stranraer, will not be affected.

Cuts are being made as part of an effort by the MoD to make £50m savings.

The savings and staff reductions are to be achieved by 2028, the MoD said.

The largest share of the cuts are being made on the Western Isles, where there are four ranges and facilities on Benbecula, South Uist and St Kilda. They are operated by private defence technology company QinetiQ.

The job losses account for more than half the workforce.

The SNP group on Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, Western Isles council, has joined forces with local Nationalist MSP Alasdair Allan and MP Angus MacNeil in condemning the proposed losses.

Planned job losses in QinetiQ and contractors follow changes to how the ranges will be controlled.

The ranges' radar tracking station on Hirta - the main island of the St Kilda archipelago - is to be unmanned.

It will be operated remotely with staff only visiting for maintenance and servicing.

The ranges' command and control centre on South Uist is to close by 2014 and the rocket trials on the Hebrides run instead from Aberporth in Wales using new technology.

West Camp - an Army base at Balivanich, Benbecula - will remain open but one accommodation block will close meaning fewer domestic staff will be needed.

The camp is linked to training with the Rapier air defence missile system which is used by the Royal Artillery and RAF.

A 30 working days consultation period inviting views on the proposals has started.

Defence Minister Quentin Davies said: "I know that this will be very disappointing news for the staff at our ranges, and I do not underestimate the impact these proposals and job losses will have on the Hebrides community, especially in the recession."

Range an 'invasion of sassenachs'

In the 1961 documentary Rocket Range Benbecula, the presence of the military on the island is described as an "invasion of sassenachs".

At the height of the summer testing season, several hundred British Army personnel were stationed on the island.

In the black and white film - clips of which are among the archives of Scottish Screen and BBC's Scotland on Film - islanders give mixed views.

Some welcomed the military, while others worried they were now targets.

The construction of the site came in the wake of the end of World War II and the start of the Cold War - the stand-off between East and West edged by a real fear of nuclear holocaust - and the race to develop weapons of mass destruction.

The Korean War which saw US and British troops in action against forces backed by Russia had been fought in the 1950s, while the period around the time of Rocket Range Benbecula was punctuated by major incidents.

In 1961 an American U2 spy plane was shot down over Russia by a surface to air missile and for 14 days in 1962 the world teetered on the brink of nuclear war as the Cuban Missile Crisis played out.

For one couple interviewed for the documentary the building of the rocket range made Benbecula a target for the Russians.

However, widower and father-of-six Donald Macdonald said he was happy to see the army on the island and said the range was good for the Western Isles and for Britain.

A visit by German military officials to the range was described by the islands' MP Malcolm MacMillan as "a cynical insult to men who saw military service" during World War II.

Yet another islander interviewed for the film said he had no problem with the visit having been treated fairly as a prisoner of war of five years.

In more recent times, the range and its associated facilities on South Uist and also Hirta - the main island on the remote St Kilda archipelago - became a key player in the Western Isles economy.

When the Royal Artillery pulled out, defence technology company QinetiQ took over the management of the site and there was a local campaign to keep the facilities open.

From an invasion of sassenachs, the rocket range emerged as a crucial provider of jobs and investment on the Western Isles.

Verbal volleys in rocket jobs row

BBC News. Verbal volleys in rocket jobs row. June 17, 2009

Rockets move 'threatens' St Kilda

The remotest island group of the British Isles will be put at risk if a radar station is left unmanned, the National Trust for Scotland has warned.

The Ministry of Defence (MoD) and contractor QinetiQ plan to control the site on Hirta, St Kilda, remotely as part of proposed £50m savings.

NTS, which owns the islands, said staff at the test rocket tracking station helped to protect the environment.

The MoD said it would try to minimise the impact of recalling staff.

NTS said radar personnel were a deterrent against vandalism by visitors and assisted in monitoring potential environmental threats.

A further benefit to NTS is that the military shares travel costs of getting to the archipelago, which lies 41 miles into the Atlantic from the Western Isles.

The radar station is staffed all year, mostly by civilian staff, while trust wardens stay on Hirta from April to September.

Without the assistance of the MoD and QinetiQ the trust said the islands could lose their status as the UK's only dual Unesco World Heritage site.

The radar station on Hirta - the largest island on St Kilda - tracks missiles test fired from ranges in the Western Isles.

On Wednesday the MoD announced a series of proposed changes to how its ranges operate.

NTS, which is in the process of making cost savings of its own, said it would struggle to protect the islands' wildlife and archaeological sites alone.

Chief executive Kate Mavor said: "Without the support of the MoD and the infrastructure that they have in place there, there is no doubt that we would find it very difficult to give St Kilda the level of care and attention that it requires."

She added: "The trust would also face a massive increase in costs to maintain our work there and to deal with the redundant MoD buildings.

"At a time when the organisation is working hard to improve its financial sustainability, this is a cost that we can ill afford.

"However, of more concern is the risk that this proposal poses to the environmental and cultural treasures which make St Kilda so special. I would urge the MoD to give full consideration to these issues, before making any final decision."

Last February radar personnel helped monitor the state of a trawler which ran aground on Hirta during a storm.

The 14 crew were rescued but there were concerns about the risk posed by its fuel and cargo of fish.

Fears rats were on the boat were later allayed after baited traps were laid, but remained empty.

Remaining islanders

St Kilda has a long association with the military.

During World War I a Royal Navy detachment to Hirta meant regular deliveries of mail and food for sailors and the islands' residents.

However, the end of the war and withdrawal of the unit reinforced a feeling of isolation among the community.

In 1930 the remaining 36 islanders requested to be taken off St Kilda and moved to the mainland.

Defence technology company QinetiQ lists its role in helping to manage the island group in the key facts section of its website.

The MoD said it would work closely with NTS and Scottish Natural Heritage on its plans for the St Kilda station.

Unesco aware of St Kilda concerns

Unesco is in contact with the UK Government over concerns about the impact a withdrawal of staff from a radar station will have on St Kilda.

Leaving the site on the main island, Hirta, unmanned is part of wider plans to change how military rocket ranges are run.

The National Trust for Scotland (NTS) said the move could affect the islands' dual Unesco World Heritage status.

Unesco said there has been no talk of changing St Kilda's designation.

Its World Heritage Centre told the BBC Scotland news website it was aware of "some issues" concerning the remote archipelago.

A spokesman said Unesco was in contact with the UK authorities to resolve them as part of the normal monitoring of heritage sites.

The World Heritage Committee is meeting in Seville, Spain, from Monday but the spokesman said St Kilda was not due for discussion.

Angry scenes

The MoD and contractor QinetiQ plan to control the site on Hirta remotely as part of proposed £50m savings.

NTS said radar personnel were a deterrent against vandalism by visitors and assisted in monitoring potential environmental threats.

A further benefit to NTS is that the military shares travel costs of getting to the archipelago, which lies in the Atlantic, 41 miles from the Western Isles.

The radar station is staffed all year, mostly by civilian staff, while trust wardens stay on Hirta from April to September.

Without the assistance of the MoD and QinetiQ the trust said the islands could lose their status as the UK's only dual heritage site.

The radar station tracks missiles test fired from ranges in the Western Isles.

Plans to cut jobs at the ranges led to angry scenes in the Scottish Parliament on Thursday.

First Minister Alex Salmond accused some Labour MSPs of lacking respect when they barracked islands MSP Alasdair Allan.

The presiding officer called for order when Mr Allan asked for the Scottish Government's response to the cuts during first minister's questions.

References

1 Operation Hardrock reference

2 Soldiering on St Kilda, James Mackay, Token Publishing, ISBN 1 870 192 48 6

3 Hansard, November 21, 1995

4 Frances, Wiltshire, June 30, 2008.

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