Editor’s note: What follows is extracted from Lighthouse, the RAF St Athan Magazine during the 1950s; the author of this article, 17 year old Don Shipton, writing under the pseudonym “Mountaineer,” was a member of the St Athan MRU. 

The Christmas papers bore accounts of a young Army Officer who, climbing on Ben Nevis in the snow, was lost, and has since been presumed dead. The R.A.F. Mountain Rescue Unit of Kinloss, volunteered to search for this lost climber, and forfeiting their Christmas Grant, they raced 100 miles to the spot and searched for three days in appalling conditions, unfortunately without success. 

As we have a Mountain Rescue Unit at St. Athan, of which people know but little, perhaps this is the best time to give out some gen on the work, organisation, aims and purpose of the Mountain Rescue Service. To begin with, there are five units in the British Isles, all of whom come under the Rescue Group-the Group which deals with Air/Sea, Mountain and all forms of Rescue. They are located at St. Athan, Kinloss (Scotland), Llanbedr (North Wales), Harpur Hill (Derbyshire) and Topcliffe (Yorkshire). 

The aim of the service is to rescue aircrew from aircraft, service or civilian, which crash in parts normally inaccessible except by specialist units. Also for any other hazardous work of mercy such as the operation on Ben Nevis. 

We will deal with our own Unit at St. Athan, which until a year ago was based at Madely, Hereford, where it did some very fine rescue work indeed. The personnel are all volunteers, and well trained in ground navigation, both by day and night, walking, climbing, first aid and stretcher work. The unit covers the area from the South Coast of Wales up to Aberystwyth and across to the English border. Frequent exercises are held to accustom the personnel to the country in which they are likely to operate, and also, stretcher exercises with a special type of sledge-stretcher which is the only type suitable for the terrain are performed regularly. As well, square searches are carried out, for when a crash is located, it is always presumed someone has baled out and this involves a great amount of walking. The life is hard and grueling, for the average walk is roughly ten miles over really hard country and when one bears in mind that the Brecon Beacons range, which is a popular hunting ground, is the highest range in South Wales and rises to almost 3,000 feet, this will be apparent. 

The personnel are well equipped for the work with warm clothing for travelling, good stout climbing boots (which can be fitted to skis) and wind-proof suits for climbing. This is admirable while one presses on, but should one pause to appreciate a view, for instance-and there are some views breath-taking in beauty-he soon begins to freeze. For on the top it has been extremely cold since October. Indeed, six or seven weeks ago, even the waterfalls were frozen and there has been much snow and ice since. 

When on exercise, a forward base is set up and parties go out on pre-arranged routes which are mapped out at St. Athan. Parties usually comprise two or three men, one carrying the navigation pack which includes compass, altimeter, protractor and maps, first-aid kit, crash-axe, Verey pistols and cartridges, and so on while another carries the radio pack. For the whole time an exercise is on, continuous wireless communication between the parties and forward base (by “walkie-talkie”) and forward base and St. Athan (by Morse) is maintained. So any important information can be transmitted within minutes. At the base is situated the mobile hospital, with Medical Officer and Orderly in attendance with all facilities, as well as the Main Radio Link and the Field Kitchen. Once the unit leaves St. Athan with its jeep and ambulance it is entirely self-supporting until it returns. Should the occasion arise, it could cope indefinitely until the crash were located and the personnel accounted for. 

Although this description is quite inadequate, at some later stage I would like to describe one of our exercises in full, in order to fill in some of the gaps. But, at least, it will serve to inform people of some of the work performed. At the time of writing, Command of the Unit is passing from F/Lt. Chandler, who has been with the unit since the Madely days, to F/O I. Geddes. This Officer will be pleased to interview anyone who is interested in Mountain Rescue. For there are always openings for volunteers who can “take it”, who are physically suited and who are keen. Perhaps keenness is the best qualification of all! In closing (and I can’t resist this), should there be anyone who, seeing the unit on its carefree way up the valleys to exercise and viewing it as a first-class scrounge, a hearty invitation is extended for him to join it for a trial. He will then learn how bitter some experiences are…  

In order to refute the popular impression that the Mountain Rescue Unit was lost over the period 20th February to 24th February, here are the facts.

A week-end exercise was planned for a day and night climb in the Tregaron area of Cardigan and the Unit left Camp on Friday, 20th February, being scheduled to return on Sunday, 22nd February, But this was not to be . . . On the way up the weather was intensely cold, and the personnel travelling in open Jeeps had a very thin time of it. 

The village of Tregaron – last link with civilization – was reached, and from there up a rough, rocky track which had a sign-board “Unfit for motor vehicles”, the Unit struck South West into the mountains. Among the rocks there was evidence of snow, but none was falling. It was the intention of the Unit to camp in bivouacs, but this was decided against as impracticable. So a deserted and derelict farmhouse was entered. This place had not been occupied since a Commando Unit was in occupation during the war, and was consequently in a shocking state of disrepair. Indeed, the outer wall was a clear foot away from the rest of the house, the stairs were falling to pieces and there were hardly any floor-boards left to the upstairs.  

The downstairs room was knee deep in debris – the accumulation of years – and all in all the place resembled more a pig sty than a dwelling house. But the Unit soon adapted itself to these conditions and by dint of hard work got the place fairly ship-shape. By 2100 hours the snow had started to fall. The searching parties set out on their fifteen-mile walk and the link radio station was set up on top of a mountain. It took three men to set this tent up because of the exposed location and the fierce wind. Incidentally, when the wireless operator emerged from the tent after his all-night vigil only the top of the tent showed above the snow. The exercise was on, and the snow was falling heavily. 

During the absence of the C.O. Unit, S/Ldr. Davis, F/ Lt. Akers assumed command. Also present were S/Ldr. Bailey of A.D. Rescue, Air Ministry and W/0 Pitcairn, the Chief Training Instructor of Mountain Rescue. There was also a senior N.C.O. from the Kinloss Unit present, who had been one of the team attempting a rescue on Ben Nevis at Christmas time. 

The long night with its raging blizzard passed on, and by morning all the parties except one returned to base, blue from exposure and with lumps of solid ice hanging from their eyebrows. They had had a very rough time of it. Of the other party there was no sign and continuous R/T watch was maintained. By mid-day, fifteen hours after they had set out, they were picked up on the radio, and returned to base at 1600 hours. Their walk had taken 16 hours, for they had lost their compass in the bogs, and found getting back difficult, to say the least. 

As the snow was now at a depth of over four feet it was deemed prudent to return to Camp before all the vehicles became immobilised. But it was left too late, and when Camp had been struck and a road cut through the snow for about a hundred yards, it was found that only Jeeps could get through. Further, two of the other vehicles had developed some mechanical trouble. So the party was split and two Jeep loads set off for St. Athan. 

It seemed that everything was against the Unit on this exercise, for when one of these Jeeps reached Lampeter, possibly because of the rough handling it had had in the snow, broke down, and the personnel were entertained to an uncomfortable night’s rest in the Police cells. The other Jeep pressed on (a) to get the volunteers back, and (b) to get M.T. help from the Camp. Back at the farm-house it was hoped to make an early start on the Sunday, and get out then. But more snow came, and the position worsened. It was clear that men alone would never move the vehicles. Accordingly a party set out for the nearest farm-some three miles away – which was known to possess a tractor. This actually set out to give the Unit’s M.T. a pull out, but became snow-bound itself and had to be abandoned. 

Meanwhile another party, F/ Lt. Akers, F/ Lt. Davidson, Sgt. Darnell and A.C. Hook struggled through to Tregaron, on foot, and contacted the Station. They were away all day and the effort they put into it must have been killing. Food was beginning to run low, and permission was granted to purchase food locally. Other parties went out, therefore, foraging at the local farms and came back loaded up. One volunteer carried 56 lbs. on his back for over three miles through the drifts. Then it was the fuel position. Normally the Unit, when making fires uses only dead wood, but the area of Camp, was singularly devoid of this and with the coverage of now, it was impossible to find any. So some trees were felled and chopping details ordered. Despite the cold, this was warm work indeed. 

But over the whole period of being snow-bound, hard work was the order of the day. The stream was frozen to a depth of a foot, and required breaking in every time water was wanted. The food position was low, and sleeping on the cold concrete floor, which even the sleeping bags could not improve became a trial after two days. Further being isolated with little sign of getting out began to tax even the strongest sense of humour. 

On Monday, a strong wind started and began to drift the snow high, leaving patches of bare earth. Then a quick thaw followed and a vehicle from Station transport, plus the Jeep which had returned from St. Athan to Tregaron, managed to force their way to within two miles of the farm. The Jeep being driven by W/0 Pitcairn. From there the drivers floundered up to base. A conference followed, and a plan of campaign formulated. First, all available hands were detailed for snow shoveling, and a huge drift about a quarter of a mile long and four feet deep was moved. The next step was to break camp and extricate the vehicles. The sludgy snow-heaped road up to the farm which cut through two streams was completely impassable, and a new route driven through a couple of fields. At one stage, this route lay down a huge terrifying slope and through another stream to the road. But by dexterous driving, and much heaving, all the vehicles finally made the road. There they dare not stop lest they got stuck, and it was funny to see the volunteers running along behind trying to get on. They were on their way. Further down, another mishap occurred when a diversion had to be made to avoid another great drift, and the heavily laden Bedford broke through the snow into a bog beneath. Another bit of man-handling was called for, and after two hours of solid -effort was finally cleared. Tregaron was reached by 1900 hours. So the Mountain Rescue Unit was overdue for two days only. Perhaps it was a good experience for them. Over this time, by human effort only, they kept St. Athan informed of their position even though each telephone call meant a grueling walk of 20 miles or thereabouts. They fettled for themselves, supported themselves and showed common sense and initiative. 

At no time were they lost, as uninformed people thought. And any time at all they could have got out by themselves, but it is against the traditions of the Unit to abandon any of their men, vehicles, or equipment. In closing the words of a famous airman’s song are indeed apt. “Hardships. You don’t know what hardships are . . . .”