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Ward Hill Radar Station South Ronaldsay

(Redirected from Stews Head Radar Station)

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Station remains, 2005
Station remains
© J M Briscoe

Ward Hill Radar Station was a World War II radar station located on South Ronaldsay, the most southerly of the Orkney Islands.

The station was sited on Ward Hill, 387 feet (118 m), the highest point on the island, and was a Chain Home Low (CHL) radar station. RAF aerial photographs of the site showed nine Nissen huts and three machine gun emplacements, together with the main site buildings and related cable trenches.

Records indicate that this was a Chain Home Low (CHL) radar station and, from the description, was involved in other developments. A variety of radar equipment types is listed for the site, including Type 13 (Mk I), height finder; Type 50, surface watching set and Type 273, a naval designation for a surface watching set with paraboloids mounted inside a perspex structure describes as being similar to a lighthouse lantern.

Modern mast to right of remains, 2005
Modern mast to right of remains
© J M Briscoe

A number of buildings survive on the site, some more complete than others, together with various concrete bases remaining from both masts and buildings. One of the original buildings has been reused, together with one of the mast sites, for a modern installation. An OS trig point is reported to have been built on the top of a brick built building near the foot of the modern radio mast.

Stews Head centimetric radar

Stews Head is a coastal site a little way to the northeast of the Ward Hill site, and was used for testing of centimetric radar systems. A reference found to the testing of such radar at Stews Head on South Ronaldsay:

My only job of any potential operational significance on South Ronaldsay was to supervise the installation of a new radar for the detection of low-flying aircraft. The Chain Home system, which had proved its worth so dramatically during the Battle of Britain, performed well enough for the detection of aircraft at long range provided that they were flying at a reasonable height, but had no competence when it came to dealing with low-flying targets. The enemy early realised that high-flying photographic reconnaissance flights over Scapa were not profitable, given the concentration of AA batteries and the proximity of fighter squadrons. The threat was the Focke-Wolff, with its fine BMW radial engine, which could skim over the waves from Bergen undetected, climb steeply over the Flow for photography and speed back to Norway before guns could be manned or fighters scrambled. Our poor old GLs were of no use for detecting or tracking this kind of target, and the army at that time had nothing suitable for the task in the islands. Effective long-range centimetric radar with the capacity of detecting low-flying aircraft had been developed by early 1942, and forty sets of Type 271 had been ordered for the navy and installed in the principal ships, the first in the world to have such a facility. However, for ships in the Flow the surrounding hills masked all the main directions of approach, including the critical one from the North Sea. So at some high inter-service level it was agreed that one of the precious naval sets should be housed in a suitable cabin and installed in a land site where it could survey the seas to the east. The highest cliff on the east side of the islands was Stews Head on South Ronaldsay, and it was ordained that here the set should be placed. I had no part in the planning of this or the determination of the site; nor do I suppose that anyone had surveyed the potential of Stews Head except from a map. All vehicle access tracks ended well before the base of the landward climb, after which rough pasture extended upwards until it finally gave place to peat hags and rocks. I looked over the whole area and worked out, dubiously, a possible approach to the summit, where indeed one did have a fine view over the North Sea. The equipment arrived at St Margaret's Hope with its own crew and a Lister generator (the latter a beastly weight, not at all suitable for transporting over peat). With a tractor and a RA detail we began the job, and finally struggled with the whole set-up to the cliff top. The crew got the set working, but whether or not it would pick anything up was another matter. I reported our success with the installation, and suggested that we ought now to have a test on some actual low-flying aeroplanes. Back came the intimation that on a designated day at 1100 hrs a flight would arrived from an RAF base in Caithness. Dead on time three Spitfires appeared, wave-hopping at a disturbingly low altitude. They shot at high speed towards the cliff, switched into an almost vertical climb almost at the base, did a quick circuit and disappeared back towards the Scottish mainland. We never detected a thing. My active participation in the project was terminated at this point, and in the way to become familiar with many of my army experiences, I never did hear whether the installation proved to be any good for its purpose. All that came through to me later was the rumour that the Spitfire pilots were probably Polish.

- J Heslop-Harrison Autobiography [1]

Reference

1 J Heslop-Harrison Autobiography: War Service Part 3 "The Mount"

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