It's been said that if you scratch Orkney, it bleeds archeology. That's very true. For most people that phrase brings to mind the huge wealth of prehistoric archeology that can be visited and enjoyed. But there's also an amazing amount here that dates back a century or less, to the conflicts of WWI and, especially, WWII. Scapa Flow was an important naval base during both wars, and during WWII Orkney's pre-war population of a little more than 20,000 people was tripled by the 40,000 or so military personnel based here: with exact numbers varying over time and depending on the number of ships at anchor in Scapa Flow.
It seems hard to believe now, but during WWII, Orkney was home to no fewer than four military airfields. RAF Grimsetter, now Kirkwall Airport, and RAF Skeabrae were used by the Royal Air Force to help defend Scapa Flow against aerial attack. Meanwhile Royal Naval Air Station Hatston, also know by the navy as HMS Sparrowhawk, lay a little around Kirkwall Bay from Kirkwall itself.
The fourth air base, known as Royal Naval Air Station Twatt, or HMS Tern, was established in the heart of Orkney's West Mainland, very close to RAF Skeabrea. What is particularly interesting to the modern visitor is that many of the buildings at HMS Tern have survived, and as a result it is possible to visit and try to imagine yourself back in time to the very different world of the early 1940s. (Continues below images...)
HMS Tern provided a range of training facilities for the Royal Navy, and it also became home to squadrons of aircraft normally based on aircraft carriers that had anchored in Scapa Flow. It became operational in April 1941, and after the war was maintained in usable condition until its closure in 1957: though we've seen it said that the last aircraft took off from here on 9 May 1945.
The best way to gain a real understanding of what took place here is by means of a guided tour: see the link on this page. It is also possible simply to visit under your own steam, though in that case fitting the fragmentary remains together to make sense of the idea of an airfield is more difficult. Nonetheless most visitors will notice the front of the camp cinema, next to the road leading onto the site. The main body of the cinema exists only as a floor: presumably it was originally built as a temporary structure. There are also some poignant memorials that add hugely to the atmosphere of the place.
The most iconic building at HMS Tern is the control tower. This is highly unusual, as it in effect comprises an exposed upper floor forming the control tower, placed on top of a ground floor that is heavily defended by earth banks designed to deflect bomb blasts. Plans were in place in 1986 to demolish the control tower - it is said you can see where the holes were drilled to take the demolition charges if you know where to look - but it was reprieved at the last minute. It should be noted that the control tower is only accessible to view externally.
The Birsay Heritage Trust has done much to clear out the remains and ensure they have survived to date. There are plans to turn the control tower into a museum, and we hope they come to fruition.
Visitor InformationView Location on Map
Grid Ref: HY 259 228
What3Words Location: ///rave.capers.tune
WW2 Orkney In Fiction
Bloody Orkney by Ken Lussey (29 June 2021).
It’s November 1942. Bob Sutherland, Monique
Dubois and the Military Intelligence 11 team fly in to review security in Orkney. But an unidentified body has been found.
It becomes clear that powerful men have things they’d rather keep hidden and MI11’s arrival threatens the status quo.
Parts of the novel set on West Mainland.