Kids find it hard to believe that their parents had a life before them. My youngest son in particular seems to be quite struck by the novelty of this idea, and has demanded details. I suspect he means proof, but it's possible he really does want to know what his old man did before he was his old man. So welcome to the Dad Files, a random series of ramblings about the life I used to have.
After all, wandering into the past is just another way of escaping present reality!
In common with a lot of things in the Navy at that time, the Seacat was a fairly old piece of kit by then. If I remember correctly, it was originally designed back in the ‘50’s, so only just post-war, but it had soldiered (or sailored) on through various modifications, and was still going strong when I left. Hopefully, they’ve all gone now, but I wouldn’t put it past MoD to have a few dozen in reserve somewhere.
To understand my involvement with it, you’ve got to understand a bit about how the whole system worked. There was a launcher, with platforms for up to four missiles. There was the director, which had the fire-control radar and one person in it. This person was the Seacat Aimer, who’s job was to guide the missile onto the target – the enemy aircraft – using a little thumb joystick, by which radio signals were sent to the missile to keep it on an interception course. When it got close enough the infra-red proximity fuse set it off, causing a big bang, destroying the aircraft and saving the ship. Well, that was the theory.
There was also the Transmitting Station, or TS, from which the whole system was controlled. The TS crew were the ones who operated the Fire Control radar, locking it onto the target so that the director would automatically track it, leaving the Seacat Aimer free to concentrate on guiding the missile. (Earlier versions required him to track the target and aim the missile, which needed some exceptionally good co-ordination skills).
The initial targeting information came either from a radar contact, sent from the Operations Room, or a visual contact, sent from the Weapons Direction Platform (WDP). And it was this part of the whole system which gave me one my most exciting moments during my first few years in the Navy. (Yes, it was pretty boring a lot of the time).
This was on HMS Hermes, an old aircraft carrier that at that stage of its career carried only helicopters and Marines. An assault ship, essentially. Since it had no fighter aircraft on board, the ships sole air-defence capability was two Seacat launchers. Two out-of-date missile systems didn’t seem much to protect one of the largest ships the Navy had left at that time. But no one asked my opinion.
So picture the scene. I’m up there on the WDP, which on the Hermes was also the roof of the bridge. It’s a dull, damp, typical North Sea day. There’s a Junior Seaman with me – which, because I’m an Able Seaman by this time, means I’m in charge. Dizzy heights.
And we’ve got two mahoosive sets of binoculars – so big that they’re permanently fixed onto steel pedestals, one each side, and they’re power assisted to help turn them around and point them in the right direction. They’re so big that you can’t lift them to your eyes like a normal set of binoculars. You actually have to look down into them through a pair of eyepieces then manipulate the handle to aim the lenses up, which made it very difficult to actually point it at a particular object in the sky. Such as an attacking aircraft, for example.
Never-the-less, that’s what we had. That and a lot of time to kill, because we were up there for probably six hours, supposedly watching the horizon all the time for enemy activity, but actually just chatting, lounging, twiddling thumbs and hoping it wouldn’t rain.
Until, out of the blue, a plane suddenly shows up, flying nonchalantly over the convey we were supposed to be protecting and heading straight for us.
I could see at once that it was an RAF Vulcan. That Vulcan shape – a huge, wide V-shaped wing – was quite distinctive, nothing else like it in the sky. But of course, that wasn’t important. For the purposes of the exercise, everything was hostile until we were told otherwise.
I yelled at the Junior Sailor to get on the sight and track the aircraft – which, amazingly he did very quickly. Then I grabbed the intercom.
The entire weapons system was connected with one ‘broadcast’ or intercom, but the aircraft was on the starboard side, so I called up the starboard Seacat.
“Green System, Alarm Aircraft!” (capitals intentional, I was quite excited) “Range two miles” (That was a guess, I had no idea how far away it was, but it was coming closer and quite quickly).
‘Alarm Aircraft’ is the order for the weapons to engage the target immediately, without waiting for any further confirmation. Of course, it didn’t mean much when we were on exercise, because no missiles were loaded, but saying it sounded really good.
And apparently it unleashed chaos down in the TS, where people had been sitting round dozing, reading, drinking tea and whatever else it took to get through a six hour defence watch. All of a sudden, my alarm call had them jumping forward to twiddle knobs and press buttons in a tangle of hands and arms reaching all over each other.
At that point, the Vulcan changed course and began to fly down our starboard side, still a mile or so away. The Junior Sailor lost it, then found it, the TS crew got themselves together and locked the radar onto it. ‘For exercise, Shoot’, came from the Seacat Controller as he launched an imaginary missile.
Over the intercom, in the background, I could hear someone – who sounded a bit like the Principle Warfare Officer (PWO), the person in charge of all the ship’s weapon systems, asking ‘What’s happening?’
Then the Seacat Aimer dutifully reported ‘Missile Hit’ and the aircraft was (for exercise) destroyed.
Unaware of its own demise, the Vulcan flew off over the horizon, whilst the PWO shouted ‘CHECK CHECK CHECK’ over the intercom.
It then transpired that this particular Vulcan was supposed to be on our side during this part of the exercise, and was therefore a victim of ‘friendly fire’.
I felt not the slightest bit of remorse over that. After all, no one had told me. Up on the WDP, we’d done our part in protecting the ship. I was a bit miffed that no one even said ‘well done’. But at least that bit of excitement broke up the watch nicely. Most fun I ever had on exercise.