Aiming For The Ark


Revolutionary Organisation November 17 rocket mortar attack HMS Ark Royal

The story of how the Greek terrorist group November 17 tried to fire rockets at HMS Ark Royal.

On March 31st 1994, HMS Ark Royal steamed in to the Greek port of Piraeus located south-west of the centre of the capital city of Athens. The Invincible-class aircraft carrier, known to her crew as simply “The Ark”, was the fifth vessel in the Royal Navy’s history to carry the proud name which has long held an important place in the hearts of the British people. Commissioned in 1985, she was a great deal smaller than her predecessor operating a mix of helicopters and the revolutionary Sea Harrier Vertical/Short Take Off and Landing (VSTOL) combat aircraft. Nevertheless, she still carried 1,200 British sailors as they exercised British foreign policy around the world.

In 1994 that meant operations in the Adriatic to support NATO and UN peacekeeping operations over the former Yugoslavia. Operating under the banner of Operation Grapple (not to be confused with Operation Grapple; the British nuclear tests carried out in the mid-1950s) and then Operation Hamden, the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm provided logistical and fast-jet support to British troops on the ground in Bosnia via its helicopters and Sea Harriers respectively.

On January 28th 1994, HMS Ark Royal set sail from Portsmouth under the command of Captain Terry Loughran to rendezvous with her sister-ship, HMS Invincible. The two aircraft carriers met up on February 4th at Gibraltar where they completed a handover of duties before the Ark set sail for the Adriatic to assume her station.

The following interview was given by Captain Loughran during the operation and outlines the vessel’s mission as well as a brief glimpse of life aboard the carrier.

For the next two months the tempo of operations was high. The Ark proved so valuable that port visits to Naples and Toulon were cancelled to keep the vessel at sea. By the end of March, the carrier was given a reprieve from her duties and set sail for Piraeus where many of her crew were looking forward to shore leave. It was also an opportunity for the ship’s engineers to fully inspect the machinery that powered the vessel before they returned to the Adriatic. The visit to Piraeus was to be more than just a break for the crew with the customary tours for British and Greek delegates having been arranged during the stay. As the Ark steamed in to the picturesque Greek port her crew didn’t know of the plan that was being hatched against them on shore.

Greece’s post-World War II period was far more turbulent than most other western European countries. In 1967, the country was rocked by a military coup ‘d’état that would see seven years of dictatorship under the Juntas. In 1973, the general population and especially the Greek youth had become so frustrated with the Junta that they rose up in a mass demonstration of opposition. The Junta reacted harshly and on November 17th 1973 tanks burst through the gates of the National Technical University of Athens where a number of students and staff were on strike. 24 people were killed in the incident many of whom were young students.

The military dictatorship had survived the incident but their days were already numbered and the following year, as a result of pressure from members of the European Economic Community (European Union), the United States and as a result of the Turkish invasion of Cyprus, the Juntas fell. However, the legacy of the tragedy at the university remained. Many of the students protesting were advocates of socialism and were displeased with the pro-capitalist government that formed in the wake of the Juntas. They were especially unhappy about the influence foreigners were having on Greece’s internal policies especially regarding the United States and the UK; Britain had a significant military presence on Cyprus in the 1970s. With the Greek political establishment still rocky they formed themselves in to their own army in an attempt to seize power and they named themselves in honour of those who had fallen at the university. Thus, Revolutionary Organization 17 November (often referred to as simply “November 17” or “17N”) was born in 1975.

November 17 flag

Flag of November 17 (commons.wikimedia)

They immediately made a name for themselves by attacking the American Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) station chief in Athens, Richard Welch, gunning him down outside his Greek home in full view of his wife. The Greek government tried to downplay the group’s involvement and this resulted in November 17 leaving calling cards with many of their victims’ bodies in the future often outlining why they had targeted that individual. Over the next 27 years the group would conduct a number of high profile assassinations and attacks on government and foreign officials. In the late 1980s these attacks became more sophisticated as the group seized a number of obsolete yet still effective anti-tank weapons from a Greek army depot and configured them to fire from homemade launchers. These were then used to attack foreign businesses and government vehicles including an attack on an armoured riot police bus in 1991 killing one officer and injuring 14 others.

Despite the apparent escalation of the group’s activities, the early- to mid-1990s saw a decline in November 17’s fortunes. The popularity they had enjoyed in the late 1970s and 1980s amongst the Greek population was quickly evaporating thanks to a number of incidents where innocent bystanders were killed or maimed in their operations resulting in their activities becoming more sporadic and with fewer successes. By 1994, morale amongst the group was at an all-time low with members abandoning it in droves. The hardcore remnants therefore planned a series of spectacular and high profile rocket attacks aimed at restoring morale and bringing the group back to the attention of the world’s media. They would be carried out in relatively quick succession and be primarily aimed at foreign targets in Greece. So when Ark Royal, the most well-known warship in the British fleet, docked at Piraeus on March 31st it proved too tempting a target to pass up.

November 17’s operatives began scouting around the dock for a suitable place to launch the attack and spotted a desolate area near a timber yard approximately 200 yards away from where the ship was docked. Two 2.75in rockets were loaded in to metal tubes angled in the direction of the moored 22,000ton British warship which were to be triggered by a timer set to give the terrorists enough time to get a safe distance away from the area which no doubt would become swarmed by police and security services in the wake of an attack. Having returned to their safe houses the terrorists must have waited patiently for the news channels to start pouring out reports of a rocket attack on a British aircraft carrier. They knew the small rockets had little chance of inflicting serious damage on the warship by themselves but if they were lucky enough to have them ignite some of the aviation fuel for the vessel’s air wing or even detonate some of the weapons on-board the result could be catastrophic.

USS FOrrestal Fire 1967

The Forrestal fire in 1967 (

In July 1967, the US Navy carrier USS Forrestal was engaged in combat operations over Vietnam. Sailing through the Gulf of Tonkin, a strike mission was being prepared when a single Zuni 5.0in rocket inadvertently fired from its launcher beneath the wing of an F-4B Phantom II striking the external fuel tank of an A-4 Skyhawk getting ready for launch. The destruction of the Skyhawk resulted in a series of explosions aboard the vessel as fuel and weapons were ignited. By the time the resulting fire was brought under control 134 sailors were dead, 161 more were injured and US$72 million (equivalent to $511 million today) of damage had been inflicted. The threat posed to Ark Royal in 1994 from the two rockets was therefore very real.

Much to the terrorists’ frustration however, the news channels were not reporting an attack on the carrier. As the hours continued to tick by it was becoming increasingly obvious that the rockets had failed to fire either because of a malfunction or because they had been found by police and defused. Either way it was yet another blow to the group’s morale but undeterred they continued on with the attacks they had planned. On April 11th, the day Captain Loughran and his crew left the Greek port behind, November 17 detonated two bombs that exploded about three minutes apart in the northern suburb of Maroussi. The blasts damaged the offices of the American Life Insurance Company (Alico) and the Dutch insurance company Nationale Nederlande.

At around noon the local police in Piraeus received an anonymous phone call from a man claiming that he was passing the timber yard and had seen two strange tube-like objects inside. It has long been suspected that the caller was actually a member of November 17 because just a short while later a local radio station received a call claiming to be from November 17 taking credit for the bombings and an attempted rocket attack on the British aircraft carrier.

Police swooped in on the timber yard and located the two weapons before beginning the process of defusing them. An inspection of the two launchers showed that the triggering mechanism had failed as a result of shorting out during heavy rainfall. It is unclear exactly when the group had set the rockets to fire but the phone call to the radio station said that it had been planned for earlier in the week. In the end, bad luck on the part of November 17 had saved the Ark from attack.

HMS Ark Royal 1994 Adriatic




Weapon File: Red Top

Final Red TopThe De Havilland Red Top was an infra-red guided air-to-air missile and was the successor to the earlier Firestreak. Often viewed as merely an upgraded Firestreak the Red Top is in fact a far more potent and mature weapon.

Development of Red Top began under the codename Blue Jay Mk.4 before being re-designated Firestreak IV for operational use. However, De Havilland argued that the changes to the weapon were so dramatic that a new name should be selected and therefore it was named Red Top to distinguish it from its forebear. Whereas the Firestreak looked like something out of a 1930s Flash Gordon serial the new missile was more modern yet menacing to look at. It was certainly larger being a noticeable 13cm longer and weighing an extra 40lbs and having redesigned wings of greater span but it was inside the weapon that made the greatest difference.

red topIn developing Red Top the De Havilland team completely reassessed the layout of the Firestreak. One of the more unusual decisions taken in building the original weapon was to place the warhead in the tail of the missile around the motor. Not only did this limit the size of the warhead but it also limited its effectiveness upon impact. In Red Top the warhead was placed behind the seeker assembly in the nose and consisted of 68lbs (compared to Firestreak’s 50lbs) of explosive triggered by a proximity detonator. Like Firestreak the new weapon was controlled by four guidance fins at the rear that gave it excellent agility.

Guidance for the weapon was provided by the Violet Banner infra-red seeker. For the early 1960s this was a very sophisticated scanner and was one of the first infra-red missiles to introduce a cooling system in the seeker head to improve the infra-red image of the target. In all infra-red guided missiles (and even infra-red cameras) background heat from inside the sensor such as that generated by the hot electronic equipment or the heat built up on the seeker’s window as a result of friction as the missile flies though the air can overpower the comparatively weak signal of the target. Cooling the seeker head therefore clears up the infra-red image of the target and dramatically increases sensitivity.

Red Top missileThis led to a general belief that Red Top was the world’s first all-aspect infra-red air-to-air missile however this is not entirely true. Red Top could only engage targets from the front that were travelling at supersonic speeds thanks to the target developing a rather large heat plume from its engines and the friction-heating of the fuselage at high speeds. For targets travelling at subsonic speed then a more traditional rear-hemisphere attack was required. An often cited problem with the seeker however was that cloud inhibited its effectiveness in tracking a target but it is important to note that this was a common problem with all infra-red weapons of the day. While this would potentially be a drawback fighting tactical aircraft at low to medium altitude it remained a very effective weapon intercepting high altitude bombers where there was little cloud. The seeker was aided by the launch aircraft’s own radar which can transmit the location of the target to the missile while its on the rail so that the seeker is looking directly at the target upon launch.

hawker_seavixenRed Top was cleared for service in 1964 and armed the RAF’s English Electric Lightning F.3/6 and the Royal Navy’s De Havilland Sea Vixen FAW.2 (right). While the Gloster Javelin was armed with the earlier Firestreak plans to equip it with Red Top were shelved due to the aircraft’s impending retirement. Of the two aircraft that carried Red Top operationally the Sea Vixen was arguably the better platform for the weapon having a second crewman who could plot and prosecute the target more efficiently without having to fly the aircraft as well. The Sea Vixen could carry up to four weapons whereas the Lightning could only carry two (theoretically the Lightning could carry four weapons but plans for additional weapons to be carried under the wing pylons for export aircraft never materialised).

Lightning Red TopHowever the Lightning’s own performance actually increased the performance envelope of the missile. When flying at speeds in excess of Mach.1 at the Lightning’s service ceiling of 54,000ft the Red Top could generate enough energy to reach an altitude in excess of 70,000ft. The Lightning’s supersonic speed also increased range and reports from testing claim the weapon flying out to a head-on target range of 7-8 miles (when in the chase position this range will decrease as the target is moving away and so the weapon has to overtake it). Carrying the quite heavy weapon did impose restrictions on the light and aerodynamically pure Lightning and pilot notes for the Lightning F.6 model dictated that whilst armed the aircraft should not fly passed Mach 1.75 so as to not overstress the airframe.

Any infra-red air-to-air missile developed in the 1960s will ultimately be compared to the US AIM-9 Sidewinder family. Compared to the AIM-9B Sidewinder, Red Top was a far superior weapon with a more sophisticated seeker, longer range, greater agility and a substantially more powerful warhead. The AIM-9B also had a very limiting launch load factor of just 2.6G whereas Red Top could be fired at up to 4G making Red Top the better weapon in a dogfight. The only real advantage the AIM-9B had was that it was much lighter weighing just 180lbs compared to Red Top which weighed in at nearly 340lbs and could be more easily integrated on to a wider array of aircraft. This latter fact was the key to its export success compared to most other air-to-air weapons of the era including Firestreak and Red Top. When you consider that the primary Soviet close-in air-to-air missile for the 1960s and 70s was the AA-2 “Atoll”, a reverse engineered AIM-9B, then it can be claimed that Red Top was better than this weapon also.

Red Top & AIM-9B SidewinderThe AIM-9B’s extremely poor showing over Vietnam forced rapid development of an improved model, the AIM-9D Sidewinder and this had advantages and disadvantages when compared to Red Top. The AIM-9D had a marginally longer head-on range compared to Red Top again dependant on the conditions at launch. Red Top still had the more sensitive seeker and its larger window gave it a better view of the world outside. Also Red Top’s larger warhead meant that it was more likely to destroy whatever it hit or inflict fatal damage with a proximity hit. It’s interesting to note however that when the Royal Navy selected McDonnell Douglas’ F-4 Phantom II in its Anglicized F-4K Phantom FG.1 form both Red Top and AIM-9D were tested against each other. The Admiralty decided to keep the AIM-9D as the aircraft’s primary close-in weapon despite Red Top already being supported in service with the Sea Vixen. The main reason cited for this was to simplify the introduction of the already overly complex British Phantom to squadron service.

Consequently, Red Top was withdrawn from Royal Navy service in 1972 when the Sea Vixens were retired leaving the Sidewinder armed Phantoms as the Fleet Air Arm’s primary fighter. Red Top continued to arm the RAF’s Lightnings until 1988 and in July of that year the very last live round was fired over Cardigan Bay, South Wales (see top image).

  • Wingspan : 0.91 metres (2.95ft)
  • Length : 3.32 metres (10.89ft)
  • Body Diameter : 0.23 metres (0.75ft)
  • Weight : 154 kilograms (340lbs)
  • Warhead : 31 kg (68.3 lb)
  • Speed : Mach 3.2 (2436 mph)
  • Range : 7.5 miles
  • Service Ceiling : 70,000+
  • Launch Load Factor : 4G