MES (Wks) St Kilda

The St Kilda group of islands (Hirta, Boreray, Soay, Dun, Levenish and their rock stacks) lie 110 miles off the West coast of Scotland (45 miles from the nearest point in the Outer Hebrides).  It has been inhabited for 4,000 years until 28 August 1930 when the population was evacuated at its own request.

 In April 1957 it was re-settled by the armed forces and subsequently became an outpost of the rocket range in South Uist.  In 1997 the MOD announced that the Army would leave St Kilda as part of its cost cutting moves.

 MES (Wks) St Kilda was the RE detachment on St Kilda.

“I arrived on St Kilda a little ‘green around the gills’ April 93 having made the eight hour crossing from Benbecula aboard an LCL (there’s an experience!).  My first image of the Island was its craggy cliff bound outline silhouetted against the night sky and later as the LCL made its way into the village bay, the dimly lit slipway and short string of street lights against the total dark background of Hirta is an image that will stay with me forever.  It wasn’t until the following day that I realised just how desolate a place St Kilda actually is.  I think it’s fair to say that the small military site looks like the dreariest soul destroying place ever built by the men in green!  That said I can’t think of a posting, tour or visit to any part of the world that has fascinated me so much, only the total philistine would fail to realise that they had arrived somewhere special.  The shear isolation of St Kilda was made up for entirely by the friendly, laid back atmosphere of its inhabitants (Sappers!) 

I quickly settled into the daily work routine of little actual work, plenty of brews and games of Euchre and a long leisurely lunch followed by a bit of phys in the afternoon (often kicking around a footy in the small gym, I would say 5-a-side but there was rarely enough people!) followed by a few beers in the evening.

 At a weekend, weather permitting, you could go for a stroll.  At just over 2 ½ square miles in area, almost totally surrounded by sea cliffs and a whopping great hill in the middle, ‘strolling’ room was pretty much limited to up and down village bay with an occasional trip further afield, so mostly it was board games and pool tournaments in the bar otherwise known as the Puff Inn (a play on words I hasten to add, taken from the sea bird the Puffin!) 

During the (far too short) summer I enjoyed using one of the sea canoes to go visit the seals in the bay and messing about in the surf in a kayak with an occasional snorkelling session around the jetty, but after meeting a rather large conger eel I restricted my activities to on shore or in a boat.  By the time I left St Kilda in November I’d had enough of the monotony that is continuous rain, unfortunately I was then posted to 33 in Ireland.... more rain!”  Foz

MES (Wks) St Kilda

 MES (WKS) St Kilda was part of a wider detachment made up of the trades necessary for self sufficiency on the island drawn from the following Corps/Regiments (in alphabetical order):

Army Catering Corps (x2), Royal Army Medical Corps (x1), Royal Artillery (x2), Royal Engineers (x8), Royal Signals (x1)

Most were deployed to the Island on a six month tour except for a couple of exceptions like the chefs from the ACC who operated on a two weekly rota from the base on Benbecula.  In overall command of the island was an RA officer (normally Capt.) with an RA BSM.  In command of the RE detachment was the Clerk of Works (Mechanical) with two Electricians, two Fitters, one Plant Op, one Carpenter/Joiner and one Plumber.  Further to this were a number of civilian contractors also on a two weekly rotation who operated the radar station on the island.

Power was supplied by the RE detachment using four Mirrlees Blackstone diesel generators housed in their own purpose built power station.  One generator was kept running constantly to supply the accommodation and workshops, a further generator was brought on-line whenever the radars were in use.  Each generator was rotated on a regular basis to allow ‘down time’.  As a by product, the hot exhaust fumes from the generators supplied heating during the winter. The operation and maintenance of the power station was carried out by the Electricians and Fitters.  The supply of fresh water on the island was the responsibility of the Plumber.  Rain water captured from streams was diverted into tanks where it was then filtered and treated.  Often over chlorinated, it’s no wonder most ‘Islanders’ preferred to obtain sustenance from the Puff Inn rather than drinking the tap water!

Re-supply to the island came in two forms - During the summer months an LSL would make the twice monthly voyage to St Kilda carrying people, supplies and fuel.  The LSLs had to transport enough fuel during the summer to supply the power station throughout the following winter.   Before re-supply the POM would need to doze the beach with the D6D to clear all the boulders that are frequently washed up, and then during re-supply the POM would use a Volvo with forks attached to unload the many trailers towed ashore by the LCL crew.  The fitters would connect fuel hoses between the LCL and the bulk fuel storage tanks on shore then supervise the re-fuelling operation.  Everyone else would be employed man handling the vast amount of stores needed for Island life (including the beer!).  During the winter months the weather was often too severe for an LSL crossing.  Also the sandy beach totally disappears during the winter leaving a boulder strewn shore too obstructed for a landing ship to ‘beach’ so re-supply came twice monthly by helicopter.  Weather permitting a fixed wing light aircraft would also carry out a mail drop (an army kit bag lobbed out the window).

You can find out more information about St Kilda at the National Trust for Scotland official St Kilda website - Also at the St Kilda facebook group

 Amongst the many books on the subject you can read about the Army’s early history on the Island in James Mackay’s book “Soldiering on St Kilda”   ISBN-13: 978-1870192484  

He even mentions a certain TA Sapper (Billy) Connolly, an apprentice welder in one of the Clyde’s shipyards “...I have never met anyone with such a droll line in ‘the patter’.  Later on of course, he would make a very handsome living at it...”

And finally Issue 30 of After The Battle has a very interesting article about wartime wrecks on St Kilda