HMS Victorious 1996 BBC Documentary

An excellent documentary produced in 1996 chronicling Britain’s nuclear deterrent in the post-Cold War world. Skip forward 20 years later and the need to replace Victorious and her sisters has never before been such a contentious political issue.

Please note: this site is not affiliated with this documentary series.


Bloodhound – The Ack-Ack Missile

British Pathé newsreel of the Bloodhound Surface-to-Air Missile being tested at Woomera in Australia. What’s particularly interesting is how the narrator describes the weapon as an “Ack-Ack Missile” reflecting the period of transition between the weapons of World War II and the more sophisticated weapons of the Cold War.

The Would-be Plague Ship – Operation Cauldron and the Carella Incident

The Carella Incident

The Cold War. Just the very mention of it conjures up thoughts of spies, paranoia and political brinksmanship while civilisation itself sat literally minutes away from nuclear Armageddon but there was another, perhaps even more frightening angle to the stand-off between east and west. While the nuclear arms race took centre stage, behind the scenes another just as deadly arms race was on; the development of the perfect biological weapon that could quietly, cheaply and effectively destroy the enemy and Britain was in it from the beginning.

Britain had an active biological and chemical weapons program in place since the First World War situated at Porton Down, Wiltshire. It was established in the wake of the German use of poison gas on the Western Front; an act which opened a Pandora’s Box in terms of biological and chemical warfare to break the stalemate of the trenches. The site was used to develop both new types of poison gas and employment techniques as well as developing countermeasures to an enemy’s weapons. Eventually the site morphed in to the Microbiological Research Establishment which further advanced research in to weaponised nerve agents for use on the battlefield and possibly beyond should British cities ever be attacked first – it was this threat of retaliation that eventually stopped Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany from employing biological and chemical weapons against British cities.

The romance between the east and west born out of the need to destroy Nazism died almost as quickly as the war ended and both sides viewed their former allies with suspicion over the future. Without question the spoils of the war lay in the advanced German weapons research leading to both sides scrambling to get their hands on data, equipment and of course the scientists themselves believing they would not only speed up the rebuilding process but also give an advantage over the opposition in the newly gestated Cold War.

MRE Porton Down reseacrh NBRC

Exercise at Porton Down (

German research in to nerve agents such as tabun, sarin and soman was especially sought after by Britain and the United States not just for application in their own inventories but also to prevent the Soviet Union from gaining by the technology. In the wake of the devastation of World War II which saw entire cities and their populations on the brink of annihilation a brutal theory began to develop regarding how the next war could possibly be fought. If one side could develop biological weapons that could eradicate an enemy population, then it would leave all the enemy country’s valuables intact for plundering and all this would be achieved at very little expense. It was hardly a new idea since biological warfare stretched back to antiquity when infected bodies would be dropped down wells or thrown in to besieged towns and villages to contaminate the people but now there was a very real possibility of it being perfected to a science.

The staff at Porton Down wasted no time in its race to further develop the captured German research as well as continue their own research projects. This led to a series of trials carried out in 1952 intended to test the effectiveness of various pathogens released in to the air and study how they would disperse and infect a target area. Called Operation Cauldron, the tests required cooperation between the team at Porton Down, the Royal Navy, the Royal Air Force (primarily for logistical purposes) and the local government in Scotland. The plan required the use of live animals, in this case guinea pigs and monkeys, to be infected out in the open air by clouds of weaponised pathogens released by the researchers in order to study the infection and lethality rates. To do this without risking contamination of the general public the tests were to be conducted at sea off the coast of the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides.

The extremely secretive tests began in May 1952 and continued until September making use of the calmer weather of summer. The Royal Navy granted the team use of HMS Ben Lomond (below) under the command of Captain Phillip Welby-Everard to act both as the control ship for the tests and as a field laboratory for the scientists. The unfortunate animals used in the tests would be taken from Ben Lomond’s hold and restrained aboard a floating pontoon, in fact a converted mulberry harbour barge from the war, where they would be exposed to various pathogens.

HMS Ben Lomond.jpg

(For more details about how Cauldron was conducted you can view the video at the bottom of this article)

Among the pathogens tested were;

  • Brucellosis – A disease known under many local names such as Malta Fever or Gibraltar Fever as it was quite common in the Mediterranean. A highly contagious disease, it can be caused by the ingestion of unpasteurized milk or undercooked meat from infected animals or by close proximity with their secretions. Symptoms include profuse sweating and joint and muscle pain with a 2% mortality rate. A weaponised version could be used to incapacitate an enemy force or population reducing effective resistance.
  • Tularemia – More commonly known as O’Hara’s Fever or Rabbit Fever. Symptoms include very high temperature (fever), lethargy, loss of appetite, signs of sepsis and if left untreated death will occur. It is highly virulent in humans meaning large numbers could be infected quickly and given its long incubation period there is a reduced chance of an enemy becoming aware that their troops have been infected and taking appropriate countermeasures before large numbers of people are contaminated.
  • Pneumonic plague – One of the three main forms of plague caused by the bacterium Yersina pestis it is far more contagious than bubonic plague (v.) but fortunately much rarer. This form of plague aggressively attacks the lungs and is contracted from inhalation of fine infective droplets which can be transmitted from human to human without involvement of fleas or animals. Without urgent treatment death occurs in up to 90% of all cases even with 2015 medical technology to say nothing about 1950s medicine.
  • Bubonic plague – Perhaps the most well-known form of plague thanks in no small part to its place in history where it wiped out millions across Europe in medieval times, bubonic plague is an infection of the lymphatic system and is most predominantly contracted from the bite of an infected flea. Bubonic plague creates a vast array of painful and disabling symptoms including muscle cramps, very high fever, seizures, vomiting blood, gangrene in the bodies extremities such as fingers and toes and the decomposition of skin while the person is still alive.
MRE Porton Down research Operation Cauldron

Preparing the guinea pig boxes (Crown)

Initially the animals were infected on the pontoon by being sprayed with clouds containing the pathogens but in later tests to determine their suitability for military applications, bombs were exploded near the pontoon that contained the pathogens in an effort to disperse their spores over the target animals. These tests eerily echo similar tests carried out by the Imperial Japanese Army’s notorious Unit 731 biological research unit based in China during the 1930s up to the end of World War II except in those instances the Japanese used living humans instead of animals. 3,492 guinea pigs and 83 monkeys were used in the test program almost all of which were killed and then meticulously dissected aboard the Ben Lomond to study the effects on their bodies the weaponised diseases had.

By mid-September 1952 the tests were drawing to a conclusion. The weather was becoming more and more of an issue as a Scottish autumn set in leading to the final day of testing to have to be delayed until September 15th. Captain Welby-Everard and the research team was under increasing pressure to complete the day’s trials or scrap them and attempt again the next day; an undesirable proposition since the weather forecast showed that conditions would continue to deteriorate overnight with an unfavourable wind for the trials on the 16th. Finally, at 1800hrs the first test was allowed to begin with the pathogens being spread across the pontoon at 1809hrs. The infected test animals were then moved away and replaced with “clean” samples. A second test was carried out at 1839hrs and again the animals were replaced with a third and final batch. The final batch were to be used in the testing of an air detonated explosive device fitted with bubonic plague bacteria.

It was as the preparations for detonation were getting under way that Captain Welby-Everard was alerted to the presence of an unauthorised vessel approaching the target area. The vessel was quickly identified as the fishing trawler Carella, a nineteen-year-old, 421-ton vessel of the famed Fleetwood trawler fleet with a crew of eighteen aboard and under the command of skipper E. Harris. The ship had apparently ignored visual warnings that the area was restricted and was nearing the test site north of the target pontoon at a range of two miles. Welby-Everard ordered that the vessel be signalled away by radio and signal lamp and continued on with preparations for the test. A similar occurrence earlier in the test program had ended without incident and he saw no reason why this time it should be any different reasoning that with the Ben Lomond and two supporting vessels all displaying warning flags and hailing the fishing vessel with signal lamps that the trawler was bound to turn away before it could get in to any trouble regarding the test.

carella 2.jpg

The Carella (Fleetwood)

Captain Welby-Everard therefore ordered the test to proceed and at 1902hrs the bomb was detonated engulfing the pontoon in a cloud of plague-carrying particles which was then carried away by the wind. Efforts to signal the Carella continued to fail however forcing one of the supporting craft to intercept the trawler and try to make direct contact. The trawler continued on oblivious to the fact that it was soon two miles downwind of the pontoon and in very real danger of coming in to contact with the invisible cloud of plague particles. Lookouts aboard the supporting craft and the Ben Lomond noted that the entire trawler’s complement were below decks which goes some way to explaining why the signals were not spotted but when the supporting craft made contact with them the crew of the Carella claimed they had attempted to signal the Ben Lomond but without success. This claim has been denied as a lie by the Royal Navy personnel on watch that night.

Captain Welby-Everard couldn’t legally stop the trawler from continuing on its journey, at least not without revealing the very secret nature of the tests to the crew who remained completely oblivious to what was really going on and composed a coded, cryptic message which he sent to the Admiralty regarding the incident and requested instructions;

During Cauldron trails of Agent L at 1900hrs 15th September the steam-trawler CARELLA Number H4 of Hull bound Fleetwood from Iceland(C) disregarded signals and crossed danger area after release of agent. Vessel passed two miles to leeward position of pontoon sixteen minutes after time of release. Wind speed six knots. Consider vessel may have passed through toxic cloud.

Due to the highly secret nature of the operation the message was met with a more lukewarm response than it deserved. Just what “Agent L” referred to was known by only a few individuals even at the Admiralty and it would not be until noon the next day that a response was sent back to Welby-Everard. The Admiralty and the staff at Porton Down assessed the situation and deemed the threat to the Carella to be negligible requiring no further action on the part of Welby-Everard and his people. With a six knot wind recorded over the pontoon at the time of detonation of the weapon then the trawler would have left the danger area before the plague spore-carrying particles could have made contact with it. Even if some of the plague spores did reach the trawler then in all likelihood they would be dead by that point not having a host within which to incubate.

This sigh of relief was short lived.

A follow-up report noted that the original report of a six knot wind over the pontoon did not mean that the wind speed was consistently six knots up to the trawler’s position. It was quickly determined that in actual fact the wind speed at a distance of two miles north of the pontoon would actually be in the region of anywhere between five and nine knots increasing the chances of the plague-carrying spores reaching the Carella. To exacerbate the perceived threat to the trawler a reassessment of the distance of the vessel by the Ben Lomond showed that the crew had been in error of around 400 yards meaning it was that much closer than first thought. This meant that there was now a very real chance that the Carella had indeed come in to contact with the invisible cloud and its deadly contents.

Duncan Sandys

Duncan Sandys (commons.wikimedia)

Alarm bells within the Admiralty rang out and an emergency meeting was held by late afternoon, almost 24 hours after the incident, to assess the danger. In attendance were Duncan Sandys, Minister of Supply (and Winston Churchill’s son-in-law), and representatives of the Admiralty, Ministry of Health and Ministry of Supply who had an umbrella of authority over Porton Down and their activities. During the meeting, Sands was given all the information available and after intense debate they concluded that the likelihood of the Carella’s crew being in any danger was still remote but not beyond the realms of possibility.

The next question therefore was to how best respond to the situation. A plan was considered whereby the crew of the trawler would be ordered to a secure British port and given injections of streptomycin for several weeks under controlled conditions while the vessel itself was detained and thoroughly decontaminated. But there was a problem. If they proceeded on this course of action, then it would prevent any outbreak but it would also almost certainly blow the lid on the intense secrecy of Operation Cauldron and confirm that Britain was developing “plague weapons”. Given the low chance of the crew having been infected it was decided not to implement the plan and thus keep the secret safe from the oblivious trawler crew and the world at large.

This of course begged the question; what if? The Carella was on its way to the rich Icelandic fishing grounds and it was not uncommon for Fleetwood trawlers to dock in Icelandic ports either for rest or repairs. If the crew had been infected, then there was the chance they could infect the people of Iceland which would not only potentially kill countless innocent people but cause a major diplomatic incident and blow the secret anyway. Put simply, Sands and the Admiralty couldn’t just ignore the problem. Therefore, a plan was put in place to monitor the Carella’s crew as they went about their trade in the cold Icelandic waters.

HMS Zambesi z-class destroyer

HMS Zambesi (IWM)

A Royal Navy destroyer, HMS Zambesi, was tasked to clandestinely track the Carella with only the senior medical officer onboard knowing the exact nature of the operation. In order to maintain the secret of Cauldron’s tests even the Zambesi’s captain was kept in the dark as to why he was tracking a British trawler although he was told that there was a chance the crew were infected with a contagious virus. Zambesi’s orders required the Royal Navy ship to stay out of sight of the crew so as to not alert them to the fact they were being tracked. To keep track of their quarry therefore the ship monitored the trawler’s regular communications with the owners in Fleetwood who had been instructed to keep in contact with them by the Ministry of Supply but again weren’t told why.

The Zambesi was to only break its cover on the following conditions;

  1. If the crew signalled for medical assistance indicating that a crewmember had been infected and was showing symptoms. The senior medical officer onboard had been given a consignment of antibiotics and instructions on how to treat the crew should this happen.
  2. If the vessel attempted to dock at an Icelandic port regardless of the medical condition of the crew.
  3. The crew attempted to make direct contact with another vessel.

These instructions were memorised by the officers and then promptly destroyed.

With regards to timescale the decision was taken that the danger would not pass until October 6th by which time any symptoms would have manifested itself amongst the crew. If no symptoms presented themselves by that time, then it was clear that either the crew weren’t infected or if some of the spores did reach the trawler then they had long since died and were no a longer a threat.

HMS Truelove Algerine-class minesweeper

HMS Truelove (IWM)

The Zambesi trailed the Carella as it reached the rich Icelandic fishing grounds until on September 22nd another vessel, HMS Truelove, took over the surveillance operation. Truelove was one of a number of Algerine-class minesweepers built in Canada during World War II for the British and Canadian navies. Like a few of her sisters she had been relegated to the fisheries protection role and had become a common sight to British trawlers. Truelove was therefore a less suspicious vessel to be roaming the fishing grounds at the same time as the Carella should the trawler crew have spotted her. Truelove operated under the same orders as Zambesi and monitored the Carella’s radio transmissions and movements through until the end of September and in to October 1952 all the while maintaining a distance of around 50 miles.

In the meantime, the government was looking for someone to blame and Captain Welby-Everard found himself in the firing line. He was accused of committing an error of judgement regarding continuing the test while aware that the trawler had not yet cleared the area. He was also criticised for not highlighting the urgency of the situation in his initial dispatch, however some blame for the latter has to go to the Admiralty itself for not having officers on duty to receive the dispatch and know exactly what it meant since Welby-Everard did inform them of what had happened using legitimate coded language for the operation.

Fleetwood trawlers

Fleetwood trawlers (Fleetwood)

September gave way to early October and the Truelove reported that they were now following the Carella back to its home port at Fleetwood. They estimated that the trawler would arrive in port between the 4th and 5th of October and requested instructions since technically the trawler was not yet in the clear. With no sign of any illness amongst the trawler’s crew there was a general consensus that given the low probability of infection in the first place and with no symptoms having manifested yet that the trawler should be allowed to make port unmolested unless the situation aboard changed during the transit home. Thus the Carella arrived home with her catch on October 5th 1952. Covert measures were taken by the Ministry of Health to monitor the whole crew in the days after their return but it was clear to all concerned that the danger had passed.

All that remained now was for the Admiralty and the Ministry of Health to cover up the mess to avoid any embarrassment. Their efforts were so successful that the crewmembers of the Carella would only learn the truth of what they nearly exposed to and the military operation to track them when the BBC made a documentary on the incident some fifty years later!


Here is an official film made by the research team involved in Operation Cauldron that was not released to the public until 2012. Even then the MoD wanted part of it restricted showing just how secret the operation was.

If I have included it for those who would like to know more about Cauldron BUT BE WARNED if you are upset by the sight of animals being used in testing. It does show the animals being prepared for the tests and while it doesn’t show them getting infected there is a section showing the dissection of the poor creatures. Other than that it is quite dry in places but quite fascinating for those who have an interest in the Cold War and biological weapon research.







Weapon File: Fairey Fireflash


It has long been the belief that air-to-air missile technology was developed as a result of the increase in speed afforded to aircraft by jet technology. While this certainly spurred on the development of such weapons their genesis can be traced back to the need to destroy heavily armoured, well defended bombers quickly and out of range of the bomber’s own defensive weapons.

This requirement was dramatically highlighted in the Battle of Britain where it was found that the Royal Air Force’s fighter aircraft which were armed with .303 machine guns lacked the hitting power to bypass the German bomber’s protection such as self-sealing fuel tanks. The RAF’s answer was to install 20mm cannon armament which had a better punch and from then on nearly all RAF and Luftwaffe fighters featured some kind of cannon armament culminating in an all-cannon armament in the RAF’s fighters towards the end of the war typified by the Gloster Meteor jet fighter.

For the Luftwaffe the need to destroy well protected bombers quickly became more and more urgent as the war progressed. Fighting a combined force of RAF bombers at night and American bombers by day the Luftwaffe needed a weapon to allow high speed attacks on the formations. The Germans experimented with yet heavier armament using cannons in the 30mm to 40mm range but this became impractical. They therefore looked at ways of launching an explosive device against the bombers which would decimate them in a single pass. This resulted in the development of the first guided air-to-air missile, the Ruhrstahl X-4. This simple weapon was guided by its launch aircraft via a wire trailed behind it. The weapon was never tested in combat but the potential was obvious to all and this led to a number of experiments in to the concept by the victorious allies (it should be noted that while the X-4’s guidance method was not successful for air-to-air use it did lay the ground work for a number of successful anti-tank missiles that used wires for guidance such as MILAN and TOW).

The story of the RAF’s first air-to-air missile begins in 1947 when the British Air Ministry, anticipating a new generation of jet powered bombers capable of 600mph, issued a requirement for an air-to-air missile to arm Fighter Command’s aircraft in the 1950s. The result was the Red Hawk missile project but the weapon looked set to impose such performance limitations on the launch aircraft that, coupled with its complexity, by 1950 the RAF had deemed it impractical and lost interest.

In 1949 however the Ministry of Supply issued a requirement calling for a de-rated weapon that would not impose such a weight penalty and address some of the complex problems associated with it. Known briefly as Pink Hawk, in reference to its ancestor, the project then became known as Blue Sky and development was undertaken by Fairey Aviation. By that time Fairey Aviation’s weapons division was well established in the fairey fireflashdevelopment of guided weapons having begun research as far back as the closing stages of the war when they worked on developing guided weapons to use against Japanese Kamikaze aircraft. They had also undertaken development of multi-stage weapons culminating in the S.T.V.1 test vehicle that featured four boosters that could be separated in flight.

In mid-1950 the Ministry of Supply were presented with Fairey’s proposal for a beam-riding weapon incorporating two jettisonable rocket boosters to power it to the target. The weapon was small enough to be carried by nearly all jet nightfighters of the period such as the Gloster Meteor. This was necessary as the weapon required a radar equipped launch aircraft to guide it. The Ministry of Supply were sufficiently interested to order a development batch of weapons for firing trials and the weapon was later renamed Fireflash although the blanket term for the trials remained Blue Sky. At the same time the Ministry of Supply also gave the go ahead for De Havilland’s missile project, the infra-red guided Blue Jay, which eventually became the Firestreak.

Fireflash was a two stage missile consisting of the main weapon flanked by two rocket boosters. The weapon itself was essentially an unpowered, fireflash missile meteorguided dart and relied on the boosters to accelerate it to its optimal speed of around Mach 2. This took the boosters approximately 1.5 seconds to achieve after which they were jettisoned allowing the main weapon to continue on to the target. The two rocket boosters were solid fuelled and attached to the dart by a U-shaped separation device that consisted of a tube housing two cylinder mounted pistons. A 0.06lb cordite charge would power the pistons forward when a pressure switch detected that the boosters had extinguished their fuel thus separating the boosters from the main weapon. Stabilising fins on the boosters prevented them from tumbling upon separation which greatly reduced the risk to the aircraft.

The dart itself featured cruciform wings along its centre of gravity and was steered to the target via four steering rudders at the tail positioned at 45 degrees in relation to these wings. The warhead was located near the nose of the dart and was triggered by an early proximity fuse mounted just ahead of it. The guidance systems were located in the rear of the missile ahead of the steering servos that controlled the rudders.

Fireflash was guided to the target via a process known as “beam riding” which was a common guidance system for early air-to-air and surface-to-air missiles. The concept works by having the launch aircraft direct a narrow beam of radar energy at the target which in the case of Fireflash was achieved by synchronising the radar beam to the aircraft’s gun sight. The pilot would aim at the target using the gunsight and then launch the Fireflash keeping the target aircraft in the gunsight throughout the entire engagement. Receivers in the rear of the missile determined the strength of the radar beam in the longitudinal and lateral axis and issue corrections to the rudders in the tail of the dart. The stronger the radar signal the weapon detected then the more it was on course. The entire assembly was designed to rotate immediately after launch so as to offset any asymmetrical thrust produced by one of the boosters producing more thrust than the other which also kept the weapon roughly within the guidance beam.

Gloster Meteor Fireflash NF.11

Test launches of the weapon began in the summer of 1951 using a modified Armstrong-Whitworth (Gloster) Meteor NF.11 fitted with a distinguishable “bump” on the nose that housed the radar beam antenna. The guidance radar on the Meteor and subsequently any other aircraft to be armed with the weapon was an X band system using a helical scan dish meaning the scanner rotated at a slight angle rather than transition from side to side as in a search radar for example.

The first firings were carried out by Fairey Aviation employees I. R. Ryall, acting as pilot, and P. H. Clark, acting as observer. The target aircraft were often Fairey Firefly drones and the early missiles lacked the warhead until the guidance system had been properly tested. Once satisfied that the missile wasn’t about to fly off in to some populated area live firings began shortly afterwards. The RAF were sufficiently interested to keep funding the weapon’s development but De Havilland’s Firestreak project was closing the gap on the lead Fairey was enjoying at the time. Testing of the weapon was proving remarkably trouble free and as 1955 dawned the RAF commissioned the No 6 Joint Services Trials Unit at RAF Valley to continue developing the weapon and perhaps more importantly develop operating principles for RAF use of guided weapons.

Talks now centred on a production contract with the RAF and Fairey requested a minimum order of 1,000 rounds to take in to consideration operational usage and to make the weapon financially viable. It was at this point however that the RAF began to rethink the whole project. Fairey must have known that there were clouds gathering over the project as well for most of their test pilots were combat veterans themselves and had already recognised the weapon’s obvious limitations.

Fairey Firefly Gloster Meteor Fireflash missile

Fireflash shooting down a Fairey Firefly drone

Despite its accuracy, Fireflash was a comparatively short ranged weapon. The unpowered dart, the very “business end” of the weapon, had a maximum range in the region of 2.2 miles (3.5km) whereas De Havilland’s Firestreak was promising a range of 4 miles (6.4km). Assembling the weapon was a tricky and time consuming process that, unless it was already assembled, increased an aircraft’s turnaround time during missions.

The biggest criticism however centred on its method of guidance. On the one hand it proved quite reliable and was largely immune to physical countermeasures such as chaff since the pilot could keep the target in his gunsight and therefore re-establish contact quickly after the chaff had dropped away. However the weapon required what is known in military circles as a “cooperative target” meaning a target that offered the most ideal positioning for a shot which in this case was directly head of the launch aircraft flying straight and level. This was not so much of a problem for an attack on a lumbering bomber or transport aircraft but against a tight turning fighter it was useless. Also, the fact that the launch aircraft had to keep aiming at the target also left it very vulnerable to attack from another aircraft. De Havilland’s Firestreak, which was infra-red guided, had none of these problems.

Intensive trials of the Fireflash continued on but no full-scale production order was ever given and by the time No 6 Joint Services Trials Unit was redesignated No 1 Guided Weapons Development Squadron in 1957 flying 10 modified Supermarine Swift F7s to carry the missile the project was effectively dead. Instead the unit was now tasked with using the weapon to continue developing the operating principles for guided air-to-air 11713487_10153537915142845_1383701414_nweapons that would then be implemented on future weapons. There were efforts to save the project by its supporters who wanted it adopted for the high altitude bomber interception role but anything the Fireflash could do Firestreak (right) could do better and the last units were withdrawn in 1958.

A cynic might say that Fireflash was something of a failure however this ignores the important contribution it made to the RAF and the British weapons technology effort at large. Fireflash has the distinction of being the first British air-to-air guided missile to be fired, the first guided air-to-air weapon fielded by the RAF (albeit in a trials role) and perhaps most significantly gave the RAF valuable experience in handling such weapons. It therefore paved the way for future weapons from Firestreak and Red Top up to today’s AIM-132 ASRAAM and Meteor.


  • Wingspan : 2.34ft
  • Length : 9.31ft
  • Launch Weight : 330lbs
  • Speed : Mach 2 (2436 mph)
  • Range : 2.2 miles
  • Number Built : 300
  • Life Span : 1951 – 1958

DotR on YouTube – Aim to Kill-Warsaw Pact Equipment Recognition Booklet

A brief video looking over this recognition booklet produced for American, British and Canadian forces based in West Germany in 1986 during the height of the Cold War. I found this at a charity shop for 50p but when I got home I discovered these go for around £25 on Ebay as they are becoming something of a collector’s item for those interested in the Cold War.

I will be uploading stills in the future should anyone want to look at it in more depth.

The Jaguar that got “foxed” by a Phantom

RAF Phantom FGR.2 (

RAF Phantom FGR.2 (

It’s hard to imagine now but in the 1980s the airspace over West Germany was alive with British warplanes. The Cold War was entering its final and perhaps most tense phase with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 putting the West on the defensive. Royal Air Force Germany (RAFG) was on the frontline of the Cold War in Europe maintaining constant readiness for a Soviet thrust across the Rhine and that meant constant training.

Sadly, the very nature of the military means that often this training puts service personnel at almost as much risk as if they were in a war. This was dramatically highlighted in an incident that occurred on May 25th 1982. At that time much of the British public’s focus had shifted from the nuclear armed showdown with Moscow to the unfolding situation in the South Atlantic as British forces fought the wholly unexpected Falklands War. On that same day the Royal Navy lost HMS Coventry in an Argentinian air strike.

SEPECAT Jaguar GR.1 XX963

SEPECAT Jaguar GR.1 XX963 (

For the RAF forces in Germany it was business as usual however and May 25th was just another day of intense training to hone skills in preparation for World War III. During the course of the day two SEPECAT Jaguar GR.1s belonging to No.14 Squadron based at RAF Bruggen were returning to their base after another training flight over the German countryside. The number two aircraft was Jaguar GR.1 XX963 flown by Steve Griggs who spotted a dot on the horizon ahead of them that he quickly identified as belonging to an RAF Phantom; it was not unusual to spot other RAF aircraft in the dense airspace of Cold War Germany.

Griggs reported his sighting to the lead Jaguar as the Phantom appeared to be coming head-on. The Phantom broke away and passed by them without incident. The two Jaguar pilots then spotted the aircraft in their rear hemisphere as the Phantom pilot turned back on to the same course as them. Again this was nothing unusual as Phantom crews often practiced interception on their colleagues flying Buccaneers and Jaguars.

Suddenly, there was an immense explosion behind Griggs sat up in the Jaguar’s cockpit and he found that the aircraft was no longer responding to his control inputs as it began to buck and twist. His radio crackled to life in his helmet with his flight leader’s voice instructing him to abandon the Jaguar which was flaming from the rear fuselage and very obviously no longer able to fly. Griggs ejected from the aircraft which went tumbling down on to farmland approximately 35 miles North-East of RAF Bruggen. He landed nearby suffering the usual minor injuries from an ejection and was later picked up by an RAF helicopter; shaken but very much alive.

A short while later a horrified Phantom crew landed at RAF Wildenrath to face the consequences of having shot down the Jaguar with an AIM-9 Sidewinder missile. An investigation was immediately launched and the Phantom crew would eventually stand before a court martial.

So how did the Phantom crew inadvertently shoot down Griggs’ Jaguar?

RAF Phantom armed with AIM-9L Sidewinder missiles (

RAF Phantom armed with AIM-9L Sidewinder missiles (

The Phantom was engaged in training that called for the aircraft at RAF Wildenrath to be operated under simulated war time conditions. This required the aircraft to be armed with live weapons to both familiarise ground crews with handling such weapons and to allow the aircraft to carry out a real interception should the Soviet or East German air forces stray across the border during the exercise. A number of safety procedures were in place to prevent a live firing of a missile during the exercise and the investigation looked in to why this was not enough to prevent loss of Jaguar XX963.

The investigation found that shortly after the Phantom crew took off from Wildenrath they went through their pre-attack checks that would effectively ready the aircraft for combat including arming the weapons. Normally, both Phantom crew would be aware of the fact that weapons had become live but in this instance the navigator in the rear seat had become preoccupied in his own duties to realise that the pilot had armed the weapons. Had the navigator been aware of the situation then later safety precautions that failed may have saved the Jaguar.

Later in the flight the Phantom spotted the Jaguars and under the operating principles of the exercise which dictated that other RAF aircraft in the region could be considered “hostile” the Phantom crew began an attack unaware that their weapons were armed. The Phantom crew declared their intention to attack the Jaguars to the Sector Operations Centre (SOC) at Wildenrath. At that time, as part of the exercise, Wildenrath was seemingly in chaos as a simulated emergency was being carried out. As a result of this the operator communicating with the Phantom was either not told that the Phantom was armed or had forgotten in the confusion of the exercise. Had the operator been aware of the real situation that was unfolding in the sky then the operator would have given the order “check switches safe” to the Phantom. This would have made the crew realise their weapons were live but this did not happen. The result was the shooting down of Griggs’ Jaguar.

The investigation did not lay the blame entirely at the feet of the crew (and to a lesser extent the operator at SOC) although the investigators couldn’t fathom how an experienced Phantom crew could have failed to identify the real situation they were in. Further investigation revealed that ground crews did not put a safety tape across the master arm switch before the flight which would have prevented the live arming of the weapons during the exercise (the tape could be removed if the aircraft was called in to a real situation with a hostile aircraft). Perhaps even more worryingly was the discovery that a circuit breaker in the rear of the aircraft that was intended to render the arming system inert was defective and could make the weapons live even if the switch was in the off position.

The incident highlighted how a number of factors had a part to play in the shootdown and it is extremely fortunate that Griggs was not killed. Safety procedures governing armed aircraft during training exercises were reviewed and rewritten after the investigation was published in 1984 but it was clear that the crew not fully realising the condition of their weapons on their aircraft was ultimately to blame for the incident.

In the spirit of the RAF’s macabre sense of humour the Phantom involved, Phantom FGR.2 XV422, received nose art depicting a Jaguar GR.1 silhouette with the title “Jag Killer” underneath which the aircraft wore until it was scrapped in 1998.

Jag Killer (Todd Pormealeau via

Jag Killer (Todd Pormealeau via

The British Army and the S-Tank

Thanks to Tim Morley for recommending this article and providing many of the sources for me.


Strv 103b 2

There have been few truly revolutionary tanks since their emergence in the trenches of the First World War. The evolution of the main battle tank was a slow affair with each new generation adding only a few more improvements over the previous but there have been some that have made the next step quite a radical one. Then there are the real oddities that appear every so often and one such tank is the Swedish Stridsvagn 103 (often abbreviated to Strv 103 or sometimes referred to as the S-Tank). At first glance there is little resemblance to what is considered to be a “tank” primarily because it lacks a turret.

Archer tank destroyer with fixed turret (commons.wikimedia)

Archer tank destroyer with fixed turret.

Turretless armoured fighting vehicles were not a new concept in the 1950s when work on the Strv 103 first began. The first ever operational tank, the British Mark I, carried its weapons in sponsons on the side of the vehicle. Later, as tanks progressed and became more and more integral to victory on the battlefield a series of tank destroyers were developed to counter them directly. These were primarily small tracked vehicles with a fixed or partially trainable main gun built in to the hull. So when the Swedish Army unveiled the Strv 103 to the world in the late 1950s describing it as a main battle tank many observers were puzzled. The Swedes argued that their new vehicle could be used like a main battle tank to hold a defensive line against invading Soviet tanks but offer a substantial increase in protection, be harder to detect and have excellent agility the latter of which was achieved by being the first tank fitted with a gas turbine engine.

The uniqueness of this vehicle extended beyond the exterior. The vehicle had a crew of just three when most turret tanks of the period had a crew of five. Two of the crew sat up front in the forward hull while a third sat at the rear of the vehicle and had an extra driving console for fleeing rearward. Armament for the tank was a bit more conventional however in that it was equipped with the outstanding British L7 105mm gun which at that time had become NATO’s standard tank gun equipping a large proportion of British, American and German tank designs. The barrel was lengthened compared to the standard gun on the Centurion and featured an autoloader which had a firing rate of 15rds/min. Elevating the gun was again a unique operation. The gun was fixed in to the hull so the tank used pneumatic suspension to raise or lower the front of the vehicle and subsequently the gun.

By 1964 the Swedish Army was introducing this seemingly revolutionary new kind of tank warfare and they began courting foreign interest. In the UK the new tank was met with both curiosity and suspicion. The British Army recognised the tank’s attributes quite quickly especially in the defensive role the Swedes had envisioned it would operate but questions were raised about how it would fare beyond that one role. Main battle tanks need to smash through enemy lines and take and hold territory. Also, holding a line involves relocating to new positions since once a tank fires it reveals its position. The British Army questioned the Strv 103’s ability to do this effectively because they suspected the gun could not fire on the move such as when fleeing from an ambush. In fairness this was a somewhat dubious criticism because in the early 1960s gun stabilisation on British and American tanks was quite poor and the chances of a British Army Centurion hitting a moving Soviet Army T-55 or T-62 on all but the flattest ground was low indeed. Nevertheless this was enough to keep British interest away from the Swedish tank until 1968 when the British and Swedish governments agreed to have two Strv 103s tested in the UK at the Bovington tank ranges. Two Strv 103As took part in the trials engaging a number of targets from both stationary and mobile positions. The trials also tested the tank across various forms of terrain as well as assessing its reliability.

Strv 103bThe trials amazed the British observers. The Bovington testers reported back that the S-Tank (as the British referred to it finding its Swedish designation something of a mouthful) held numerous advantages over turreted tanks in their tests. The gun being built in to the hull improved stabilisation compared to a Centurion or Chieftain and also the S-Tank was harder to detect and engage quickly than the relatively mammoth-like Chieftain. When the trials were complete the British started to look at the S-Tank with even greater interest and enthusiasm but the trials at Bovington could only tell them so much. What they needed was to test the tank alongside the standard vehicles of the British Army in an operational theatre and compare the two. To that end they began putting together a plan to conduct exercises with British crews operating a number of vehicles alongside and even against the British Army of the Rhine (BAOR)’s Chieftains. Here the tank would be tested in terrain and operational conditions exactly like those they would face in the event of a Soviet thrust from East Germany.

The British Army reasoned that it would need around ten vehicles to properly assess the S-Tank in the field looking at things such as reliability and effectiveness in combined operations. This was a large number for a trial and required support from the Swedish Army to provide the vehicles. The Swedish decided to support the request believing that a successful outcome of the trials might encourage both a highly sought after export sale as well as providing a stamp of approval of the design from the British which could improve the prestige of Swedish engineering.

S-Tank on British transporter (Swedish Army)

S-Tank on British transporter (Swedish Army)

The exercise was scheduled for the summer of 1973. In early 1973 a number of crews from the 2nd Royal Tank Regiment (RTR) were selected for the program and sent to Sweden for training on how to operate the new type. It is important to note that the British crews were primarily trained in the actual operation of the vehicle with tactics remaining primarily British. Upon completion of the training the tanks and their newly trained crews made their way to West Germany for the crews to familiarise themselves with operating the vehicle in the terrain where they would be conducting the exercise in July 1973. With so much invested in the exercise the Swedish sent their own observation mission. The exercise saw two units facing one another; one known as OPFOR with a mix of Chieftains and S-Tanks while BLUFOR operated with Chieftains only. The trials were carried out over a period of nine days and saw the S-Tank operate in a number of scenarios alongside and against Chieftains, Scorpion light tanks and FV432 armoured personnel carriers.

The exercise progressed well and the British crews praised the reliability of the S-Tank which never fell below 90% (there was never a point where less than nine of the ten S-Tanks were not available). By comparison the Chieftains had an appallingly low serviceability rate to the point where a number of OPFOR’s Chieftain’s had to be transferred to BLUFOR to replace broken down ones and keep the exercise going. However, the enthusiasm the British Army had shown after Bovington for the S-Tank was now dropping off. The 2nd RTR crews didn’t seem to perform any better than their Cheiftain comrades when it came down to engaging the enemy. They admitted that there were times that the S-Tank was superior to the Chieftain namely when operating defensively in confined spaces however the tests also showed that the S-Tank had to expose more of its hull when firing over embankments or down from hilltops. Also the fixed gun left the tank vulnerable in an ambush since the whole vehicle had to turn and face an attacker increasing its vulnerability whereas a Chieftain could both retreat and defend itself simultaneously. In the end the British Army concluded that the advantages of the S-Tank were not enough to warrant an acquisition and interest was suspended.

S-Tank British Army 2

The Swedish were not happy. The Swedish observation mission published a damning report on the exercise effectively dismissing the results and heavily criticising the British tank crews and commanders. Among other things the Swedes criticised the conduct of British crews as being very unprofessional and significantly below the average Swedish crew which resulted in a very poor showing of the S-Tank. The Swedes also criticised the fact that British gunners could not engage a target without the tank commander’s order. In the Swedish Army they stated that the S-Tank had a much higher number of firings because they operated on the principle of whomever sees the target first can fire. The incredible report even goes as far as to state that British tank crew’s eyesight was rather poor and not properly tested like Swedish crews.

In terms of tactics the Swedes were aghast at how thinly the British tanks were spread across a defensible line. They argued that to effectively hold an area of territory the number of tanks that were being used needed to be deployed under half a kilometre but British crews deployed them as far along as 800m. This criticism reflects how different British and Swedish operational needs were. Swedish tank units had a high number of vehicles to defend a relatively small proportion of land. British units had a similar number of vehicles but had to defend a much wider line on more open terrain against a numerically superior force. The wide line was needed to limit Soviet tanks’ ability to break through gaps and surround British units. It was this fact alone that actually dictated the design of the Chieftain which was bigger and more powerful than the vast majority of Soviet tanks allowing it to be able to confidently engage a numerically superior force. Just how good the Chieftain was at this role was dramatically displayed in 1991 when a Kuwaiti Chieftain held a street against a number of Iraqi T-55s and T-72s and was only destroyed when the crew abandoned the vehicle after it ran out of ammunition.

All these criticisms proved first and foremost was that the S-Tank was designed for the Swedish Army and not the British Army. The S-Tank or (Strv 103) was a tank for the Swedish theatre where the main concern was defence in heavily wooded terrain where the tank’s low profile made it easy to hide and limited an enemy’s movements. On the plains of West Germany however those attributes became more questionable and given that the Royal Tank Regiments of the British Army suffered at the hands of the Germans in World War II because of equipment that wasn’t up to the task the British elected to stick with the Chieftain leaving the “British Army S-Tank” concept as something of a brief flirtation only.

You can view some translated sections of the Swedish report and some fascinating photographs of the exercise by clicking here