Site Records

Site Name: RAF Nethertbutton/BBC Netherbutton

Orkney Islands
OS Grid Ref: HY464045

Sub Brit site visit 8th June 2004

[Source: Nick Catford]

Following the development of radar at Orfordness and at the Bawdsey Research Station in Suffolk during the mid 1930's, the Air Ministry established a programme of building radar stations around the British coast to provide warning of air attack on Great Britain. A survey was undertaken in 1938 to assess the suitability of the local terrain for Air Defence Radar operations with the first of these new stations coming on line by the end of the year. This network formed the basis of a chain of radar stations called CHAIN HOME (CH).

These stations consisted of two main types; East Coast stations and West Coast stations. The East Coast stations were similar in design to the experimental station set up at Bawdsey in 1936. In their final form these stations were designed to have equipment housed in protected buildings with transmitter aerials suspended from 350' steel towers and receiver aerials mounted on 240' timber towers.

The West Coast stations differed in layout and relied on dispersal instead of protected buildings for defence. Thus the West Coast stations had two transmitter and receiver blocks with duplicate equipment in each. Transmitter aerials were mounted on 325' guyed steel masts with the receiver aerial mounted on 240' timber towers.

The majority of Chain Home stations were also provided with reserve equipment, either buried or remote. Buried reserves consisted of underground transmitter and receiver blocks, each with three entrance hatches (two for plant and one for personnel) set on steel rollers. Nearby were the emergency exit hatch, ventilation shafts and 120' wooden tower carrying the aerials. On some stations the transmitter and receiver buried reserves were together on an adjoining site (often the next field).At others the two buried reserves were separate but located close to their respective above ground building. Many of the West Coast stations had remote reserves some distance from the main station but utilising similar above ground transmitter and receiver blocks. The station at Netherbutton was a standard east coast style chain home radar station with buried reserves.

Photo:The transmitter block after conversion to a dwelling
Photo by Nick Catford

In January 1939 a radar station was proposed for Orkney as part of the defences for Scapa Flow which was the main anchorage for the British Fleet, this was to be an extension of the Chain Home network. The site chose was Netherbutton, an area of high ground four miles east of Kirkwall. This was not considered to be an ideal location but was the best site available on Orkney's generally flat terrain.

13 Acres of land were acquired and the first construction on the site was accommodation for the workforce within the compound. A power house was built at Deepdale Farm to the north west of the site. As Netherbutton would not be connected to the mains supply this would provide the main power supply for the station. There were two 60kw generators driven by 175HP Blackstone diesel engines. In case the main power station was knocked out during an enemy attack as standby power station or 'set house' was also provided within the main compound.

RAF Netherbutton today with the remaining buildings indicated

Because of urgency of this new facility a decision was taken to equip the station from other redundant sites rather than wait for new transmitter and receiver sets to be manufactured. 90 foot guyed wooden towers for the transmitter and receiver aerials came from the radar station at Drone Hill in Berwickshire and the aerials, transmitter and receiver came from the redundant station at Ravenscar near Whitby in Yorkshire. Work started on the installation on 13th May 1939 and a test flight on 1st June 1939 showed that the station was functioning correctly with a Blenheim aircraft flying at 8000' being detected at a range of 60 miles. This temporary Advanced Chain Home (ACH) station was handed over to the RAF the following day.

The four 350' transmitter masts

Because of its poor location, RAF Netherbutton did not prove as reliable as had been hoped and Bill Hewison describes the station as 'essentially useless' in his book 'This Great Harbour Scapa Flow'. The Air Ministry refuted these suggestions although the Admiralty claimed that long range data from the light cruiser HMS Curlew was "worth half a dozen Netherbuttons!"

In October 1939 there was a proposal to improve coverage by replacing the 90 foot towers with 240 foot wooden towers and converting the station to all-round coverage.

This work was completed on 29th October promoting the station from Advanced (ACH) to Intermediate Chain Home (ICH), a temporary stage before upgrading the station to a permanent Final East Coast Chain Home. At this time the transmitters and receivers were housed in sandbagged wooden huts but these were eventually replaced with protected brick transmitter and receiver blocks surrounded by blast walls and an earth traverse.

Four new 350' steel transmitter towers had been erected by February 1940 in an attempt to improve the performance of the station and final calibration work on the new all-round array was completed in July 1941. With all these modifications the stations performance was found to be greatly improved.

Initially, Netherbutton was linked to the operations room at Wick but from October 1940 the station relayed information on approaching enemy aircraft to the combined gunnery and sector operations room at Kirkwall from where the anti-aircraft guns located around Scapa Flow were controlled.

At the end of the war RAF Netherbutton was placed on care and maintenance but was later selected as one of 15 stations promoted to a 'readiness chain home'.

Sector Operations Centre at Kirkwall
Photo by Nick Catford

The station was requipped with a Type 1 radar and two channels, as part of the first phase of the rotor programme. (Code BNT) In 1954 it was still listed as 'readiness' but with the introduction of Type 80 radar in 1955 RAF Netherbutton was redundant.

For further information and pictures about RAF Netherbutton click here

[Source: Nick Catford]

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