Operation Hardrock: When St Kilda served up its toughest mission yet

The job started with blasting through the Herculean granite cliffs of St Kilda in an operation that would bring a human population back to the remote archipelago for the first time in almost 30 years.

By The Newsroom
Friday, 19th April 2019, 5:47 pm
Updated Friday, 19th April 2019, 5:54 pm
The 'tent city' set up by servicemen was twice blown away in the storms that hit St Kilda. PIC: NTS/Contributed.
The 'tent city' set up by servicemen was twice blown away in the storms that hit St Kilda. PIC: NTS/Contributed.

In May 1957, Operation Hardrock was launched in a bid to build a RAF radar station on Hirta with the tremendous task undertaken by 350 servicemen.

The work was gruelling and weather conditions just as bad. Rain kept away for just three days in four months and winds, which reached 120mph, destroyed equipment and parts of the ‘tent city’ that emerged at Village Bay.

A trailer loaded with 10 tonnes of equipment blew away “like a cardboard box”, according to accounts.

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A four-mile bridge was built on arrival to allow equipment and materials to be taken to the site of the new RAF radar station. PIC: NTS/Contributed.

At that time, Hirta - whose last permanent resident was evacuated in 1930 as living conditions became untenable - was home only to the world’s largest puffin colony, the odd wandering naturalist or a troubled trawlerman seeking shelter or drinking water.

Up until the early 1950s, it was owned by Lord Bute who was determined to keep the island a nature sanctuary of the purest order.

According to Andrew Fleming in St Kilda and the Moden World, Tales of an Iconic Island, Lord Bute’s wish was to have an island “without trace of the influence of man.

“Man’s future on St Kilda is in one role only - the role of observer,” he wrote.

A landing craft and bulldozer pictured on the beach at Hirta, St Kilda, where more than 4,000 tonnes of equipment arrived for the tough construction job. PIC: NTS/Contributed.

It was not to be. According to Fleming, Lord Bute wrote his statement only a couple of years after Hiroshima.

By 1955, the British Government was proposing to construct a radar station on Hirta to support a new rocket range on South Uist as the threat of nuclear warfare tightened.

Lord Bute offered little resistance to the idea and, after bequeathing the island to National Trust for Scotland, arrangements began for Operation Hardrock which would construct the radar station at the top of a 1,300ft cliff.

There had been no tougher job undertaken by the men of the Airfield Construction Unit based at Wellesbourne RAF Station in the Midlands since its inception in 1940, according to Wing Commander WM Cookson, who led the operation.

With aircraft unable to land on the island given the high winds that circled it, around 350 men made the sea crossing by landing craft before blasting a ramp through the cliffs. In total, around 4,000 tons of equipment were unloaded.

To get vehicles to the radar station site, the men had to fist construct a 60ft bridge and lay four miles of road over the sharply ascending terrain.

Operation Hardrock became a “race against time” as summer quickly gave way to autumn storms and winds of 120mph. By late September, the weather became so harsh that it was feared that personnel would be marooned there until spring.

“Most people believed the job could not be done in one summer, and it was certainly one of the toughest we have ever tackled.” Wing Commander Cookson said at the time.

He added: “We have seen waves breaking over 300 ft headlands.

“Gales of up to 120 miles an hour have twice wrecked all our tented accommodation. A loaded trailer weighing ten tons was blown away like a cardboard box.

“For seven days a week, the men have been working all daylight hour. We had only three days without rain, the worst downpour registering three inches in 24 hours.

“Yet morale was always high, and the work went to schedule.”

The servicemen, some who returned the following summer to finish the job, passed their free time with puffin watching, fishing, sunbathing and playing cricket in Glebe Meadow, Fleming wrote, with the church turned into a cinema.

Beer was rationed to a pint a day— except for a mass party to celebrate the completion of the project.

Today, the military’s work continues on St Kilda with a new base currently under construction.