A lot of my naval career (such as it was - it only lasted seven years) had to do with Seacats. Sometime in the late ‘70s, while I was on HMS Sirius (my last ship) I broke one.
Look, it was an honest mistake. Easy to make.
A bit of background. The department responsible for maintaining the ships weapon systems was the ‘W.E. Department’ - W.E. standing for ‘Weapons Electrical’. Because pretty much everything, but especially the weapons, ran on electricity. (A long way from the days of muzzle loading cannon and brute force, when the equivalent would have been the ‘Weapons Musculature and Honest Sweat’ Department. But I digress).
Most of the W.E. Dept. was made up of Electricians and Artificers (Tiffs in the common tongue of the mess decks). Clever blokes, who knew how electricity worked and how to make it work other things. And then there were a couple of W. E. Seamen. Not such clever blokes, who knew how to clean things, grease things, and paint things. I got to be one of them for a while.
On this particular day, me and my ‘oppo’ (Navy slang for mate, friend, pal. Colleague: in this case the other W.E. Seaman) had the job of cleaning the forward Seacat Launcher.
This was not an easy job. The launcher was quite a big bit of kit, with lots of irregular shapes and awkward sections. There were four sets of chrome guide rails (used to literally guide the missile into place when loading) and a whole lot of other bits which had to be got at with water and detergent. Quite apart from keeping it looking nice (always a major consideration) there was also the fact that salt in the atmosphere would settle on surfaces and could be corrosive if allowed to remain. One of the unfortunate side effects of being on a ship in a salty ocean.
And, due to its situation, one side was easier to get at than the other. Naturally, we did that side first, before dragging everything round to do the other side.
Which was when I had my flash of inspiration.
It wasn’t just awkward to wash down the far side, it was also difficult to load that side as well, especially as these missiles were pretty big and heavy. It took two beefy blokes to drag one missile out of the magazine, lift it onto the guide rails and then raise it into position for firing. To make that go a bit faster (which could obviously be crucial if under attack) there was a loading switch that could make the launcher swivel round into the optimum positions for loading all four missile platforms.
So, I reasoned, why take all the gear round the launcher when the launcher could come round to us? It was simple enough to do. We had the keys to the launcher control console. Just a matter of switching it on and turning the switch to the right place.. Afterwards, we could use the console to return the launcher to its normal position.
A good plan. So we did it. Switched on the console, turned the switch.
It was at this point that it became suddenly clear that there was a significant gap between what I knew and what I didn’t know, a gap best defined by the word ‘ignorance’. I knew that I could put power on the console and turn the switch. I did not know that putting power on the launcher was a separate operation, not controlled from the console. I did not know that, when you tried to operate the console for an un-powered launcher, Bad Things happened.
Turning the console power on merely released the brakes that kept the launcher from flopping over in response to gravity. We watched in shock and horror as it did precisely that.
We went out to inspect it. Not only had it flopped over, under the effects of gravity it had swung round, which brought one of the guide rails into contact with a stanchion.
A stanchion that was clearly labelled ‘Remove before operating launcher.’
We had not removed it. We had not removed it because it was a big heavy thing to shift around, and in our original vision for rotating the launcher, it would not have got in the way. However, under the combined effects of gravity and ignorance it had been very much in the way, and the guide rail was significantly bent.
We looked at the launcher. We looked at the guide rail. We looked at each other.
“I’ll go and tell the Chief,” I said. After all, it had been my idea.
Surprisingly the Chief (Chief Petty Officer Electrical Artificer) did not erupt in fury. No doubt he was used to ignorance, especially from W.E. Seamen. But he did instigate formal proceedings. Punishment Parade followed, in front of the WEO (Weapons Electrical Officer), who awarded us with No.14s as I remember – extra work. All things considered, I think we got off lightly.
And on the plus side I had learned a valuable life lesson about ignorance and its consequences.