Saturday, 26 March 2016

Stornoway and the Strategists

Masters of War

When the Supreme Allied Commander Atlantic (SACLANT) chose to develop Stornoway out of fifteen possible airfields for NATO's use, officials in the Air Ministry and Ministry of Defence found that such a proposal was likely to arouse strong local opposition. For some, in this unemployment black spot, the prospect of job creation would outweigh other considrations, but there were enough dissenting voices to send a good few memos and minutes flying around Whitehall. How to deal with those ungratefully reluctant participants in the Cold War effort? - without of course telling them much about what that effort consisted of, and what risks closer participation in it might entail. There were security objections to explaining "operational reasons" for the plan, nevertheless a local enquiry might have to be held.

Pesky Politicians and Contumacious Clerics

Secrecy was prominent among the concerns of the by then long-established Labour MP for the Western Isles. Malcolm K Macmillan, who wrote in September 1958 to complain of the mysterious activities of "surveyors and officials running loose" worrying his constituents, and to request details about the prospects of demolition. Croft lands, with some (Ross & Cromarty) County Council and croft houses, were being looked at in May that year, and the men at the Ministry had cannily decided to extend the lease on Melbost Farm, on the outskirts of the town, to save compensation later. (Melbost Beach, formerly a cherished amenity for townspeople, had been lost in the MoD takeover, along with other land including the old golf course, during the Second World War. Militarisation of the wider area dates back at least to the First World War and it continues.) 
A view of Stornoway in 1959
                With the national ban-the-bomb movement still in its early days there was not much sign of specifically anti-nuclear activity in the Western Isles, but it was clear to many that having defence planners eyeing up your back yard as a place to park and service state-of-the-art equipment was undesirable on several grounds. By early 1959 the Free Church Presbytery of Lewis was taking a principled stand; in a letter they outlined their fears, from noise to risk of war: the threat to existence itself as well as to "moral and spiritual welfare" and the traditional way of life. They blamed the policy of sacrificing the Hebrides to the interests of the industrial south and insisted that, if it came to the worst, it would be better to lose young men from the island through emigration - to seek employment - than to have hydrogen bombs stored there.
                In a response addressed to the Reverend Macaulay on 10 February, Number Ten offered the assurance that Prime Minister Harold Macmillan felt the "inconvenience" would be less than predicted, and would be "loyally accepted". In contrast to the church stance, the Town Council debate on the issue was apparently swayed by the "jobs first and foremost" line (advocated forcefully by a local schoolmaster) if not by the spirit of patriotic self-sacrifice, and it decided to take no action.

More trouble than it's worth?

Without seriously entertaining the notion that the people who lived in the place should have a real say in what was going to happen there, the chaps at the desks, ready as they were to do SACLANT's bidding, were having a few second thoughts. All this fuss being stirred up might lead to Parliamentary Questions (and answers) and "other political transactions". The Scotsman on 1 April 1959 published a description of the proposed airfield. There was some worry as to how the paper had got the information, and surmise that the leak might be not unconnected with the recent visit of US and RAF personnel to Lewis, which had included an overnight stay at a hotel in Stornoway - the suggestion being that conviviality may have overcome discretion. Altogether the "present project" might prove troublesome and should perhaps be re-examined. It showed signs of being expensive, inconvenient, and a political embarrasment: in fact "Stornoway could be a thorn in our side".
                Pressure was on for an early decision, and surveys would be required. On 21 April a statement was obtained of aircraft that would use Stornoway in war - not of course for public distribution, although Macmillan, the MP, was to be "reassured" that NATO only came in for occasional exercises, "or, of course, for war". The files do not record his reaction to this consoling thought. In any case he and others continued to express opposition. They were told in May that plans were not yet firm enough to say if anyone would be evicted; anyone who was would receive compensation but no firm decison had yet been made. In June the County Council of Ross and Cromarty expressed support for a Free Church protest of two months earlier and voiced complaints over the lack of information. It was regarded as doubtful whether a public enquiry would satisfy the Free Church.
                Behind the secrecy, admittedly, there seems to have been a genuine absence of clarity. By now "root and branch reappraisal" was being advised, for whatever mix of logistical, bureaucratic or policy reasons. Occasional unexpected or intriguing comments crop up amid the files' officialese. A confidential note, signed "Tom", to the head of Special Branch asks "Could we have a word? - about precisely what, or whom, remains unspecified. Another note-writer in what presumably is an example of Civil Serive humour would like an assurance that the "Brahan Seer or any other Gaelic clairvoyant has nothing to say that would save us wasting our time." Meanwhile, although some think there is no alternative, other locations are being canvassed, Benbecula among them.
                In the USA, where else, the Supreme Allied Commander Atlantic eventually opined that although Stornoway was the only one suitable among those offered originally "for wartime support", they could perhaps use Lossiemouth. Whitehall sent Lord Forbes on a visit and observed that while there were political objections to Stornoway and financial ones to Lossiemouth, the latter was becoming more favoured as the recipient of this dubious honour, with Stornoway relegated to being a "hideaway" due to its perceived lack of logistic facilities. A "Siting branch" would be set up there in May 1961, while lucky old Macrihanish airfield in Argyllshire came under "development for NATO" in its turn in the early 1960s, attaining the status of "probabIe nucIear target" by 1967.

Cold War Coasts

As early as November 1948 the Ministry of Civil Aviation and the RAF agreed that Stornoway aerodrome would be available for use in emergency by short-range aircraft on Atlantic flights. It featured in TOP SECRET and NATO SECRET documents, and was marked on homegrown UK Coastal Command (CC) plans dated 1957 as providing facilities including storage tanks. A visit was made on 19 and 20 March 1959 with the remit of considering it with regard to deployment of one CC Shackleton to Stornoway on outbreak of war and at periodic intervals in time of peace, and determining its suitability as a wartime (supporting) operational base for No. 210 Squadron. Formal agreement for use in war had not yet been reached at Air Ministry or Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation level, but permission had been granted for an on-site review.  "Tentative agreement" had been reached on Shackletons deploying to Stornoway in peacetime, on condition, among other techinical specifications, that there should be no interference with civil aircraft movements.
                A "third use" for this handy outpost, UK, was that it would be required to implement CC dispersal plans for Phase 1 of a future war: as a war station to provide fuel and refuellers, domestic and technical accommodation, weapon storage, essential commmunications and heavy ground equipment. One may speculate whether, as seems likely, the existence of this list would have brought the place to the interested attention of Soviet intelligence.
                Reporting on 14 April 1959, the visitors gave their verdict that Stornoway could be used as a hideaway base in "extreme emergency" only, scheduled to supply fuel to enable eight Shackletons to fly back to Ballykelly. Operations were at present out of the question due to deficiencies of accommodation and of medical and other facilities. Stornoway was, hjowever, noted as being earmarked for development by NATO, with £2.5 million already allotted in the sixth tranche of NATO's Infrastructure Programme. If this went ahead as planned the deficiencies would be made good. It was decided that transfer of fuel should proceed anyway, in case of delay. A newspaper account about the airport being flooded by the sea in December 1959 was added to the file, and may have increased misgivings, but "rehabiitation of Stornoway airfield" went ahead. CC planned that when completed it would be used as a deployment base, under Air Ministry control within CC and under RAF command in peacetime (as at Macrihanish).

Brave Britannia's Bombers, or, Anyone for Plane-Spotting?

An update in July 1963 particularised aspects of wartime use as an RAF/CC dispersal base for Shackleton Squadron, i.e. six aircraft with air and ground crews, and as a US Navy dispersal base for one  Squadron, P2V (Neptune) and emergency land-on facility for carrier-based aircraft. Occasional essential use in peace was also planned, for both NATO and national exercises and in national surveillance operations in time of tension, as part of the North Norwegian Sea area. Transits (flying over) would be necessary in peacetime for practice, to familiarise pilots with the area. An RAF Holding Party would be in place.
                Much of the subsequent business concerns the minutiae of maintaining personnel in the style to which they were accustomed (the idea of bomber-command type caravans was found not to be practical in the rugged climate) and a certain amount of sorting things out with the Americans and between ministries. The record of modifications and delays goes up to 1967. "Local political difficulties experienced during early development planning" were relegated to background briefings; the project's history from November 1955 was cited to explain why plans had now to be modified at a late stage. Stornoway was deemed "likely to be an important NATO base for some years to come" in view of the input of resources. It had its spot on a swathe or continuum from Ballykelly in Northern Ireland through Macrihanish (an emergency deployment, wartime, base for two Shackleton Squadrons), although unlike those places it does not feature on the Joint Intelligence Committee's list of "where the nuclear bombs would fall in wartime". (1)
                The early 21st century has brought plenty of reminders that the Hebrides sea area is still a favourite arena for war games. Exercises are mounted with scant regard for the convenience or safety, even in the shortest term, of the islands' inhabitants.Incidents such as those of 2002 - the civilian aircraft ordered to change course, the damaged nuclear submarine - could no doubt have been worse, and that is perhaps also the best that can be said in summarising the history, so far, of Lewis in its strategic context.

Based on research in the National Archives
Originally written around late 2002.
Previously unpublished.

1. Peter Hennessy, The Secret State. Allen Lane, 2002; endpapers [below].

"Probable nuclear targets" including Macrihanish
Postscript: Apparently Orkney was in the running too...
"Nor did anything come of newspaper reports at the end of 1957 that Orkney might be chosen as a missile launching site and that the United States was interested in the former RNAS airfields... Orkney was going through a bad economic patch at the time with the consequent depopulation problems, but even so the idea of a missile site in the islands was received with very mixed feelings - but it did not happen either." - W.S. Hewison, This Great Harbour: Scapa Flow. Birlinn, 2005; p.335 (Orkney Press 1985)

Further documentation on the militarisation of many areas of the country
(June 20040. No relation to the 'Heritage' publication of the same title.

13-year-old writing in Stornoway school magazine 1961.
Latin: melius = better; dulcius = sweeter; semper = always; ludere = to play.


1 comment:

  1. Postscript on the opposition to militarism in Lewis, showing that it did not only come from the church.
    From an article in "SY Gone By" no.49 winter 2017-18 p.5 -
    '... In the early sixties proposals to upgrade the airport with longer runways for use as a NATO base really alarmed Murdo [Macfarlane*, "the Melbost Bard", subject of the article] and others like him. The Cold War was at its height and Murdo dreaded the thought of a Third World War. His fervent opposition to the proposed airfield upgrading was harnessed by Keep NATO Out (KNO) in the seventies and he gave a rousing speech to them in 1981... As it transpired, an enquiry was held but the fall of the Berlin Wall ended much of the concerns Murdo had... "A Third World War will descend upon us like a thief in the night, like a summer thunderstorm, the sky will be white!" was Murdo's best remembered contribution... KNO was very active with huge support on the island, especially from youngsters, and several protest marches and sit downs were mounted. Those who were of the opposite view were generally silent and arguably only looking for financial gains to the local economy should the base expand.'
    * Murdo Macfarlane 1901-1982) is described as 'an ardent socialist from his teenage years...'