Written by Lt Cmdr Chris Howat, Royal Navy (Retd) and Commodore Barry Rutterford, RFA (Retd)

Most people will probably never heard of Rockall, so what and where is it?  Rockall is a small, uninhabited granite islet in the North Atlantic around 300 miles west of the island of St Kilda, Scotland.  The size of the islet is surprising at 102 feet long by 83 feet wide and about 70 feet high.  Rockall has an interesting history considering its isolation, but over the years it has been claimed by Ireland, Denmark, Iceland and of course the United Kingdom.

 

 

Written by Lt Cmdr Chris Howat, Royal Navy (Retd) and Commodore Barry Rutterford, RFA (Retd)

Most people will probably never heard of Rockall, so what and where is it?  Rockall is a small, uninhabited granite islet in the North Atlantic around 300 miles west of the island of St Kilda, Scotland.  The size of the islet is surprising at 102 feet long by 83 feet wide and about 70 feet high.  Rockall has an interesting history considering its isolation, but over the years it has been claimed by Ireland, Denmark, Iceland and of course the United Kingdom.

 

SS05_Rockall_Map

 

Rockall was first recorded in written accounts as far back as the 1500’s, though it is only during the twentieth century that ownership has been disputed, mainly because of the fishing rights around it and latterly by the prospect of finding oil and gas in the area.

The earliest recorded landing on Rockall was made by Basil Hall, an Officer from the Royal Navy frigate HMS Endymion, who landed on the rock with a small party during survey work in July 1810, the party had been separated from the ship by a haze, so they climbed to the summit of the rock to try and spot the ship which had by this time been lost in the fog which had developed.  The party eventually managed to spot the ship and were rescued.

 

rockall_stamp

The next recorded landing occurred in 1862 by a Mr Johns from HMS Porcupine, which was surveying the sea bed in the area, prior to the laying of a translantic telegraph cable, and it was to be a number of years before the next visit to Rockall by the Royal Navy in fact on the 18th September 1955, when a Royal Navy helicopter from HMS Vidal landed Lt Cmdr Desmond Scott, Royal Navy, Sergeant Brian Peel and Corporal Fraser, Royal Marines who were accompanied by a civilian scientist Mr John Fisher.  This small team attached a small brass plaque to the rock face on Hall’s Ledge and then hoisted the Union Flag to claim Rockall for the United Kingdom.

In June 1972 RFA Engadine, a helicopter support ship visited Rockall with a party of Royal Marines to level the summit of the rock in preparation for a navigation beacon, which was installed amidst a good deal of controversy.  The story of these visits are told by Commodore Barry Rutterford, RFA (Retd) who commanded RFA Engadine and Lt Commander Chris Howat, Royal Navy (Retd) who was an Air Engineer Officer with 819 Squadron Royal Navy, who was part of the Naval Air Crew who installed the navigation beacon in 1972.

 

The Ship Perspective

 

During an earlier landing on the Rock by an HM Ship, the Commanding Officer left a White Ensign and a plaque to commemorate the occasion. Word has it, that the Captain of the RFA who was tasked to level the top of the rock in preparation for the light, allegedly, as a gesture of good will, removed the remnants of the Ensign and the plaque and returned them to the Commanding Officer of the HM Ship concerned!? The Captain of the RFA also marked the occasion with his own plaque. The following year, allegedly, that plaque was removed and sent to the Captain of the RFA concerned, as it was assumed; he would want his gesture of good will repeated. These are some of the stories I have heard from time to time, sadly, no one has sent mine back to me.

 

 

Rockall_-_RFA_Engadine

 

RFA Engadine off Rockall, Picture Copyright Chris Howat

 

Following our arrival in the vicinity of the Rock and after the first soirée by the Marines to prepare the site for the light, the weather deteriorated and Engadine spent the night hove to in close proximity. The weather worsened during the night and developed into what was later described as “The Great Storm”. By early light, the conditions were such that a decision had to be made to make a run for the shelter of the Islands. Large rollers were coming in from the south west with Engadine heading into them, with the sea on the port bow. When down in the trough between the swell, the top of the next one was high above the Engadine bridge. A sight not for the squeamish. The ship had to be turned to run east for the shelter of the Outer Hebrides. Fortunately, she was fitted with stabilisers and by going full speed and hard to starboard with her stabilisers working flat out, she rode the swell brilliantly and settled down for the run to shelter. No hoses were needed to wash down the bridge, but relief was felt all round.

 

Once the weather settled, we returned to the rock to continue the work to install the light and survey the area around the rock and where possible the sea bed. We had geologists and a marine biologist embarked. The leader was a remarkable man he earned my utmost respect. Regretfully, I cannot remember his name but Doctor Fleming comes to mind and I sincerely apologise if I am mistaken. He was a paraplegic but once in the water diving, he swam like a fish. Our main problem was getting him around the ship which was not conducive to someone bound to a wheel chair and he was not small. The problem was finally solved by allocating him a burly member of the crew who carried him on his back up and down the four flights of stairs from the lower decks to his cabin or elsewhere when necessary. Surprisingly the crew member survived the voyage. Although the currents around the rock itself were considered too dangerous for diving, Helen’s Reef some distance away was dived on and a small quantity of special rock formation unique to the area was brought up for analysis. I was delighted to be given a small triangular piece of this rock, which was later turned into a pendant for my wife whose middle name is Helen and she still wears it to this day. 

Whilst we were there, I had the opportunity to be lowered from one of the helicopters onto the Rock itself which was quite an experience.

 

Rockall_1

Picture Copyright Chris Howat

 

Finally the light was installed but regrettably the switching system designed to turn the light on at dusk and off at daylight failed to work. As a result, I enjoyed the champagne. The installers doubled the batteries the next day and left the light on permanently before we left for home. We understand the light lasted some four months.

During the course of our stint off the Rock, we were joined by a small trawler. “Would you like some fresh fish?” He asked. We sent a helicopter over and received a big bag full which we swapped for three large bottles of Johnny Walker Black Label. The trawler disappeared over the horizon. Two days later the trawler reappeared. “Would you like some fresh fish?” !!!

 

819 Squadron Perspective

 

In June 1972, two Sea King mark 1 helicopters embarked in RFA Engadine to assist in the fixing of a beacon on Rockall, out in the Atlantic. In the previous year, the top of the rock had been levelled and the beacon manufactured. June was chosen to give maximum daylight hours and the expectation of good weather. We embarked from our base at HMS Gannet, Prestwick, Scotland. I was responsible for the maintenance of the aircraft with a party of engineering ratings.

 

Operating_off_RFA_O

Picture Copyright Chris Howat 

In the evening of that same day we reached the area and immediately flew Royal Marine Commandos with specific rock climbing skills onto the top of the rock where they proceeded to hammer in pitons to which were attached ropes with emergency equipment, e.g. food, protective clothing, sleeping bags. All this in the event of personnel being stranded there.

 

Rockall_2

Picture Copyright Chris Howat

That night, a severe gale blew up and it was two days before the ship was able to return to the area. I should explain that Rockall is the most prominent of a large number of rocks and reefs and care is needed when navigating here. On landing again, it was found that all the ropes and provisions had been washed away despite being 70 feet above sea level! So we had to start again. By the end of a week, the beacon was fitted and ready to go.

Engadine played host to a number of teams involved with the rock in various ways. There were divers who went out to examine the underwater aspects until they decided that the underwater currents were too dangerous for diving. There was a party of geologists sampling the rocks and investigating the possibility of oil. The most interesting person embarked was the “Rockallologist” as he called himself and gave us a very informative talk that evening on the history of the rock whilst we waited for dusk. Then we would know if the photoelectric cells would trigger the lighting system and the beacon come on.

The Master, it was said, had a wager of an unspecified amount of champagne on whether the beacon would illuminate or not. Midnight came and NO light! Never-the-less the party continued and, if I recall aright, the Master won his bet.


After a post mortem, the beacon designers decided to dispense with the switching system and install double the number of batteries leaving the beacon on permanently. I believe it remained on for about four months.

 

Operating_onboard_RFA_O

Picture Copyright Chris Howat

 

Thus satisfied, Engadine returned to the sea off Prestwick and the aircraft and all our 819 team disembarked. The Customs and Revenue people insisted we did so in the international side of the civilian airport and we had to walk through the public concourse dressed in our overalls and lifejackets! Not our normal procedure.

 

Copyright © 2008 – 2017 Christopher J White

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