That wasn’t something that happened very often. Obviously, they had to be fired sometimes, just to prove that they still worked and that everyone remembered what to do. But on the other hand, these things didn’t come cheap. They were a few thousand pounds a time, so not something to be shot off on a whim. So normally they would wait until there was a missile coming to the end of its shelf-life, which meant it would have to be either used or returned to the factory. No one liked to return them, so just now and then we fired one off.
Being a rare occasion, the Navy liked to make the best of it, and get as many people involved as possible. Officially, this was ‘training’, but the truth was most of us just liked things that went ‘whoosh’ and ‘bang’. That’s why we joined the Royal Navy rather than the Merchant Navy, after all – certainly in the Gunnery (or, up to date, the Missile) department.
So it was a big operation, and lots of people got to join in the fun. There was the Captain, of course – he had more fun than anyone else, being as he got to join in with anything he wanted. So he’d be up on the bridge, watching everything that happened, taking notes of things that didn’t happen, and like everyone else, waiting for the ‘Whoosh-Bang’ part.
Safety was a major consideration, of course. If some civilian wondered onto the firing range, in a yacht or a fishing boat or a light aircraft, and got hurt, it was considered a bit of a black mark all round. So there was an officer designated as Visual Range Safety Officer, who’s job it was to keep a good lookout with binoculars and make sure nobody got in the way.
And there was the Blind Range Safety Officer. Which wasn’t as pointless as it sounded – in this case ‘Blind’ was Navy speak for ‘radar’ (as opposed to Visual). So the Blind Range Safety Officer’s job was just to check the radar to make sure nothing untoward was showing up there.
And of course there was a whole team of sailors closed up in the Action Station positions ready to to do all the jobs necessary to actually fire the thing. The Loading Team who put the missile on the launcher, the Weapons Electrical Artificers hanging round in case something broke, the Officer Of the Watch who had to manoeuvre the ship to be in the right place and pointing the right way at the right time, the Radio Operators who maintained communications with the target towing aircraft (or later the drone pilot) so that they would be in the right place and time – and so on.
The coolest job was, of course, the Seacat Aimer. He sat up in the director and looked through his binoculars at the target. When the missile fired, he guided it onto the target with a little thumb-joystick. And, with a live missile, when it got within the right distance of the target, the proximity fuse should make it blow up in a wonderfully satisfying manner.
Don’t forget, this was the ‘70’s. Computer games hadn’t gone much beyond two paddles and a bouncy ball, in black and white, and not many people even had access to that. So this was like the best game available at the time, and only the Seacat Aimer got the chance to play. Plus which, he got a shiny gold missile badge to sew onto his No. 1 Uniform, and at the end of the exercise, providing everything went right, he got to shout ‘HIT HIT HIT!’.
However, it wasn’t easy to do. Even with the director radar-locked onto the target, so that the Aimer didn’t have to track that as well, it took a certain amount of coordination to anticipate and control the movements of the missile, to bring it under control and keep it on target until it hit. They didn’t let just anyone do it- these things were expensive, remember, and potentially a lot more expensive if you were in a combat situation and the Aimer wasn’t up to the job.
To get to be a Seacat Aimer, you had to do an aptitude test and if you past that, you did a course. I failed at the aptitude stage, where it was quickly determined that I had none at all.
But instead, I got to do the second coolest job: Seacat Controller.
This was down in the T.S, the Transmitting Station. A little room down in the ship, some way below the director and the launcher. A room full of huge metal consoles, studded with buttons and little control wheels, and fitted with what, to modern eyes, would be laughably small radar displays (about six inch square) in orange or green. Dials which showed target range and – just as importantly – closing speed. A light which came on when range and closing speed combined gave the optimum firing solution. In other words, the best time to fire the missile to put it in the right place for the Aimer to guide it onto target.
The whole system was controlled from here – the launcher, the director (with the fire-control radar). And the person in charge was the Seacat Controller.
I’m not sure how I got that job, especially as this was on HMS Sirius – the very same ship on which I had previously bent a Seacat launcher. I suspect they were short of people. But I went away and did the course and came back qualified to be in charge of a Seacat Missile system. I got to stand behind the Radar Aimer and the Radar Range-Taker and give orders over the system intercom. And I got to press the foot-pedal that actually fired a missile.
Mostly, of course, this was all done ‘for exercise’. We went through the drills without any actual missiles being loaded. But once, just once, I got to do it for real.
It was very tense. We had the full crew ‘closed up’. We had all the Range Safety Officers in position. We had a live missile on the launcher, and a target incoming, and the orders started.
There were a lot of them. In a real situation I suppose there would be a lot less, but I never got to experience that!
It was something like ‘Blue System, aircraft blind!” Meaning the ships radar was now sending range and bearing information on the incoming target to the system. The director turned to point that way, the fire-control radar went active, the launcher followed it (‘Launcher following’ came across the intercom system to confirm that).
“Aircraft visual!” from the Seacat Aimer in the director.
A little blip showed up on the radar screens, the Radar Aimer fiddled with controls to lock it in, the radar started to track automatically.
“Target acquired!” I announced. “Range (whatever it was), closing.”
“Visual range clear!” from the Visual Range Safety Officer.
“Radar range clear!” from the Blind Range Safety Officer.
“Captain happy,” confirmed the Officer of the Watch on the Bridge. Because if the Captain wasn’t happy, then the whole thing was off. And then nobody was happy.
But he was, so the next thing over the intercom was from the Principle Warfare Officer in the Operations Room.
This was it. That was permission to fire. But now it was up to me to decide when to press the trigger.
I was watching the range decreasing. The target had to be as close as possible, to give the Seacat Aimer the best shot. But not too close, or he wouldn’t have time to get the missile onto the target.
The light was on.
I triggered the intercom, and said ‘Shoot,’ to announce that I was firing, and pressed the foot-pedal trigger.
This was expected. With a gun, the response to the trigger was immediate. Press it and ‘bang’. But with a missile, there was a delay whilst all its systems went live and the firing sequence started. It was only a second or so. But that was long enough for a whole stream of thoughts to rush through my head.
‘Nothings happening – NOTHINGS HAPPENING – its gone wrong, its a misfire, what’s the misfire procedure, I CAN’T REMEMBER THE MISFIRE PROCEDURE!’
This was a very real possibility. With a complicated piece of kit like a guided missile, there was a lot of things that could go wrong, especially as the missiles being fired were usually old ones near the end of their shelf life. On a previous shoot with the Sirius, a Seacat had actually exploded on the launcher. Not, fortunately, the warhead itself, but the motor. This consisted of two parts, an initial booster stage which launched the missile and accelerated it up to operational speed, and a sustainer that then took over and maintained speed up to the target. Only in this case, both charges had gone off at once, causing a very loud bang and scattering bits of the launcher all over the flight deck. The missile itself had just flopped into the sea.
That was probably in my mind as I squeezed a years worth of panic into a fraction of a second.
Then, to my utter relief, a klaxon sounded, which was the final warning that a missile was about to launch, and immediately afterwards there was loud and very satisfying ‘whoooosh’.
Shortly afterwards, the Seacat Aimer announced ‘Missile Hit!’. But I didn’t much care about that. The important thing was that I’d done my bit correctly, and fired a real, live missile. For the one and only time in my Naval career.
I left the Navy not long after that. A few years later came the Falklands war, and the Seacats were used in action for, I think, the first time. It turned out that they weren’t very good. One report I read stated that out of eighty missiles fired, there was only one confirmed ‘kill’. After the Falklands, the Seacat’s were very quickly withdrawn from service, I understand. No great surprise there!