Five days after the recapture of South Georgia, this signal arrived at Ascension Island on the evening of 30 April.
From Air Commander
Operation Black Buck
1. Execute op Black Buck 1AW HQ 18Gp AAA/19F/KAA 300853Z APR 82.
2. Time on target 010700Z May repeat 010700Z May.
3. Delays in mission launch are acceptable provided that TOT is not later than 010900Z May 82.
This signal set in train a four-day period of air and naval action which would prove to be of the utmost interest and diversity, sometimes violent and often tragic, and yet, historically, it was no more than the opening of the preliminary phase in the campaign to recapture the Falklands.
Black Buck One was the code-name given to the remarkable operation in which a Vulcan bomber flew from Ascension Island to Stanley and back to Ascension, a flight equivalent to an aircraft flying from England to bomb Chicago airport and then flying back to England or, if in an easterly direction, to Western China and back. The origins of Black Buck One were to be found in the R.A.F.’s anxiety to help, in circumstances which had all but excluded that service from the war. The R.A.F.’s long-range bomber force – the V Force – had been reduced almost to a skeleton after the transfer of Britain’s nuclear deterrent to the Polaris submarine force, but there were some Vulcans with trained crews still remaining and, if the means could be found to refuel these during flight, they could reach the Falklands or the Argentinian mainland. The R.A.F. suggested that these Vulcans be used to attack the runway at Stanley airfield. Admiral Lewin and Air Chief Marshal Beetham submitted the idea to the War Cabinet. The politicians had to decide whether to escalate the war in this manner and, if the Vulcans were to be used, whether to attack targets in the Falklands or in Argentina. It was quickly decided not to attempt raids against targets on the Argentinian mainland; this would stretch the British justification for military action too far. There was some anxiety over the danger to friendly civilians if the Vulcans bombed Stanley airfield but Air Chief Marshal Beetham was able to reassure the War Cabinet that the people of Stanley, two and a half miles away, would be safe. Permission was given for the Vulcans to be used.
The Vulcan attacks on Stanley’s runway and the effect upon Argentinian air operations were later to be the subject of much debate and inter-service comment. It is important to record the exact intention. Stanley’s runway, 4,100 feet long, was just on the limits for use by the Argentinian Super Étendard, Mirage and Skyhawk jets but, if the Argentinians did decide to use Stanley as a forward airfield, then the British task-force ships would be faced with the threat of air attack from any direction for as long as they remained within Sea Harrier range of the Falklands, particularly if the Argentinians used in-flight refuelling as well. If this happened, the task force would either have to provide an all-round missile and Sea Harrier defence, instead of covering the much narrower cone of threat from aircraft operating only from the mainland, or withdraw 200 miles further east, which would prevent the Sea Harriers from covering any eventual landing. But, if the Stanley runway could be hit near its mid point, no high-performance jet could use it until a perfect repair had been made; fast jets can be badly damaged by using an imperfect surface.
If the bombing of the runway was left to the task-force Sea Harriers, these could only bomb with any accuracy from an altitude so low as to be very vulnerable to ground fire. Each Sea Harrier could carry three 1,000-lb bombs; a Vulcan could carry twenty-one bombs and could bomb accurately from a higher and safer altitude which would also give the bombs a much greater terminal velocity and, therefore, penetration power. In short, one relatively safe Vulcan sortie was approximately equal to seven dangerous Sea Harrier sorties and the Vulcan bombs would make bigger craters. Only one Vulcan at a time could be used because of limitations in the number of refuelling aircraft available, but the Vulcan raids could be repeated with some regularity and allow the Sea Harriers to be retained for other work. The old Vulcans, soon destined for the scrap heap, could perform a useful function without robbing the task force of any resources.
The R.A.F.’s remaining Vulcans were all based at Waddington, near Lincoln. Ironically the Argentinians had tried to buy some of the Vulcans being disposed of earlier in the year but the British Government had declined to sell. The Vulcans selected for service in the South Atlantic had first to be converted to receive fuel in flight; this was not difficult because the Vulcan had – thirteen years earlier – operated in this role and it was only a question of refitting fuel probes and lines already available. An inertial navigational set, the Carousel, and improved electronic-countermeasures equipment were fitted, the former to help with navigation on long, ocean flights and the latter to counter the Argentinian radars believed to be stationed at Stanley. The work was carried out swiftly and efficiently, mostly by R.A.F. ground engineers at Waddington. One Vulcan pilot says, ‘If you hand out any bouquets, give them to the engineering guys; they did things in twelve hours that would normally have taken twelve months.’ Another officer says that, ‘Freed from the dead hand of bureaucracy, modifications were rushed through in one tenth of the time and much cheaper than if normal procedures were used.’
The selection of Vulcan crews for these operations was initially a low-key matter. Five crews from each of the four squadrons at Waddington were ordered to practise formation flying – an essential part of the refuelling preparation – and four of these crews were selected for further training. The feeling was that ‘this was just a little bit of show, a little flurry at the end of the V Force’s life; we never really thought we would ever bomb seriously’. So low was the initial priority that crews nominated to fly in air displays that summer were removed from consideration and, in one of the four final crews, the regular navigator/plotter was allowed to leave because he had booked a holiday in the United States; this was at the same time that nearly all naval personnel left in Britain after the task force sailed were told that foreign holidays would not be allowed that summer!
The four crews carried out their final training – refuelling flights over the North Sea with Victor tankers and bombing at practice ranges in Scotland and the Isle of Man. The only major problem was caused by faulty seals in the Vulcan’s receiving probes, which frequently caused fuel to spray over the aircraft’s cockpit. Instructor pilots from the Victor tanking base at Marham were sent to fly as Vulcan co-pilots for the training flights, and it was later decided that these should remain for the operational missions. The regular Vulcan co-pilots were unwilling to be left out and they became reserve pilots and old-fashioned flight-engineers, mainly computing fuel consumptions. Calculations on fuel being used and stocks remaining would dominate every Black Buck flight.
Three of the Vulcan crews flew to Ascension at the end of April; Squadron Leader Alistair Montgomery’s crew was the first to leave England.
We came straight off our last training sortie on April 26th, to be met by a service policeman. We flew to Brize Norton by V.I.P. Andover and found a VC10 had been held back for us. We were off to Ascension within four hours of landing from the training sortie.
Before we landed at Ascension my co-pilot and I went to the flight deck to have a good look at the airfield. We naïvely thought that we would be there for one mission. We were looking forward to being the first operational crew but were disappointed; I became the detachment commander and my crew all became the section heads of their own speciality.
Squadron Leader John Reeve and Flight Lieutenant Martin Withers flew two Vulcans out to Ascension on 29 April, being refuelled twice on the way by Victor tankers. On his arrival at Ascension, John Reeve was ‘impressed that we were surrounded by professionals. The best of the Air Force was down at Ascension. It was absolutely marvellous to be part of that. I was particularly impressed with the tanker operations people. There was no hanging around and waiting. We got started the next day.’
The concentration of interest on the Vulcans in the Black Buck operations is understandable though misleading. These were really combined Vulcan/Victor operations; in fact it can be said that the Black Bucks were really Victor operations on to which a Vulcan bomber was grafted. Both of these fine aircraft were more than twenty years old, being the product of the great leap forward in jet-engine design of the late 1950s. In terms of years of service, it was as though the Battle of Britain in 1940 was fought with Sopwith Camels! The Victors operating from Ascension were all Mark K2s, formerly a bomber but now refitted as a tanker aircraft capable of carrying 123,000 pounds of fuel (nearly fifty-five tons). The Victor crews at Ascension came from 55 and 57 Squadrons and 232 Operational Conversion Unit, all based at Marham, but individual crew identities rapidly disappeared as the detachment immersed itself in a hectic round of operations. Air Marshal Curtiss, under whose command the Victors at Ascension were now operating, says that the ability of the Victors to fly so intensively was the most unexpected bonus in Falklands air operations, especially the way the delicate hydraulics of the Hudu fuel-transfer mechanisms stood up to so much use. ‘The more you use an aeroplane’, he says, ‘the fewer problems it usually gives.’
The R.A.F. had never flown anything remotely resembling this complicated operation. The Vulcan bombing plan had been prepared in England but up to a dozen experienced Victor officers took two days to complete the tanking plan at Ascension. Flight Lieutenant Dave Davenall is credited with masterminding the planning process. The main problem was the uncertain fuel consumption of the Vulcan, ‘the stranger in our midst’. Squadron Leader John Reeve and his 50 Squadron crew had been told in England that they would be the primary Vulcan crew; Reeve’s radar navigator, Flight Lieutenant Mike Cooper, the man who would release the bombs, was regarded as one of the best in the V Force, ‘a real scope wizard’. Flight Lieutenant Martin Withers and his 101 Squadron crew would fly the reserve Vulcan. Eleven Victor tankers would take off in two waves. Two Victors would be reserves; the remainder would refuel the Vulcan and each other in diminishing numbers until the Vulcan was finally left with full tanks north of the Falklands. A Nimrod and two further Victors would take off to meet the Vulcan on its return flight. It will be described later how part of the operation went wrong and how two further Victors had to be employed. This would make a total of eighteen sorties flown, by fifteen Victors, two Vulcans and a Nimrod. Just over two million pounds of fuel would be required (nearly 260,000 imperial gallons or 925 tons) and approximately seventeen separate fuel transfers would take place.
More than eighty aircrew gathered for the briefing in a flapping tent at Wideawake Airfield, their tables littered with soft-drink cans, cigarette ends and the notes from long Victor-planning sessions. The lights flickered; the megaphone did not always work properly. Outside was ‘a brilliantly clear, hot, South Atlantic night’. It was all very strange for the Vulcan men fresh out from England, particularly when their briefing gave details of three isolated houses on the Falklands which they should attempt to reach if shot down and which would be visited by a task-force helicopter for three consecutive days. The main force of aircraft took off, four Victors and two Vulcans in the first wave, seven Victors following soon afterwards. Wing Commander Alan Bowman, the Victor detachment commander, remembers it as ‘the most memorable moment of my time on Ascension. We had all been in the service for twenty years, drawing our monthly pay cheque, and that was the first time we’d had to perform in anger. There was tremendous satisfaction and relief when they were all on their way.’
But the primary Vulcan immediately became unserviceable. Squadron Leader Reeve:
It was one of the little triangular side windows. I must have closed that thing a thousand times during my R.A.F. career without any problems, but as soon as we got airborne the noise went up and up and up as we accelerated away till we could hardly speak on the intercom. The rubber seal had come loose from the frame. We tried to fix it with a polythene bag out of the ration box. Then I opened and closed it several times, to try and get it to seal. We were climbing all the time and, by the time we got to about 16,000 feet, it was clear that the aircraft wasn’t going to pressurize. It was about the one fault – decompression – that we couldn’t carry on with. I had no option but to declare ourselves unserviceable and Martin Withers took over.
Flight Lieutenant Withers and his crew had to make the sudden mental adjustment needed to fly this long trip of nearly 8,000 miles. Withers says:
The only adrenalin I felt all night was when I found we were taking over. The feeling soon went, we had too much to occupy ourselves with. There were aircraft all over the place. We did one orbit to get into formation and then joined the gaggle going south. I nearly formated on to a particularly bright star; then I formated on to the wrong Victor and had to ask for a red flare from the correct one. He was behind us. It took us thirty minutes to sort everything out but we were moving south the whole time.
It was ironic, after the task-force ships had unloaded all of their overseas exchange officers, that Martin Withers should be an Australian, though with a regular commission in the R.A.F.
One of the Victors also had to turn back; if a third aircraft had been forced to return, the whole operation would have had to be abandoned. But the ten remaining Victors and the Vulcan flew on, the formation being led by the ‘tanker lead’, always an experienced Victor captain. Squadron Leader M. D. Todd was tanker lead for the first part of the operation, handing over to Squadron Leaders A. M. Tomlin and B. R. Neal for later parts of the flight. The tanking plan unfolded steadily. Some of the refuellings took place in ‘CAT’ – clear air turbulence. One Victor man says that ‘the planners seemed to do a marvellous job of placing a refuelling bracket smack in the middle of areas of CAT; they became affectionately known as the Duty CAT.’ But the biggest problem on this flight was that the Vulcan was steadily consuming more fuel than had been estimated. Its best height was 33,000 feet but it had to keep descending to a less economical 27,000 feet to refuel from the heavier Victors.
The most serious incident occurred near the end of the outward flight, when one of the two remaining Victors broke its probe while refuelling in an air of turbulence. The Victor concerned was the one designated to accompany the Vulcan on the final stage of the refuelling operation but it could not take enough fuel from the other Victor. The two aircraft exchanged roles and Flight Lieutenant Bob Tuxford, who should have been returning to Ascension, took back the fuel he had just passed to the damaged aircraft and then flew on with the Vulcan. This setback consumed further fuel. Tuxford gave as much as he could on the final transfer but left himself short of fuel for his own return flight rather than cause the operation to be abandoned. The Vulcan was now carrying an estimated 5,000 pounds short of its planned reserves but Withers decided to press on and accept that shortage; later calculations were to show that he was actually 8,000 pounds short. Withers was later awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and Tuxford the Air Force Cross.
Three hundred miles out from the Falklands, the Vulcan reached the point known as ‘top of descent’. In a long training flight this would be the time when the crew prepared to descend for a landing with the prospect of a bath, a drink and bed. But now it was the moment when Withers and his crew prepared for what might be the most dangerous part of the flight. To stay below the cover of the Argentinian radar, the Vulcan came down to 300 feet, where it was just clipping the top of some sea fog; it was very dark. Then the Vulcan lifted to 1,000 feet at forty miles out and the Falkland hills showed up on radar dead ahead. Flight Lieutenant Gordon Graham, the navigator/plotter, had done a perfect job. (The aircraft did not even have a map of the South Atlantic; the whole operation was plotted on a map of the northern hemisphere turned upside down!) The aircraft climbed hard to 10,000 feet for the bomb run – 350 knots indicated airspeed, actual speed around 400 knots.
The bombing run was almost an anti-climax. Flight Lieutenant Bob Wright, the radar navigator who actually released the bombs, quickly found the echo of Mengeary Point headland, three and a half miles from the runway, which would be used as the ‘offset aiming point’ for the dropping of the bombs; the runway itself did not show up on radar. The angle of approach was critical. The intention was to get just one bomb somewhere on the runway. The stick of bombs was to be dropped at an angle of thirty degrees across the runway, which was 150 feet wide, the bombs being set to burst at intervals of 100 feet. If any part of the stick straddled the runway, one hit was virtually guaranteed, two were just possible.
The twenty-one bombs were released in just over five seconds while the Vulcan was still two miles out over Port William – the forward speed of the aircraft would carry the bombs to their target. The attack appeared to be carried out perfectly, ‘just like a training run’. Flight Lieutenant Withers pulled the bomber round, away from the target. There was no anti-aircraft fire. The air electronics officer, Flight Lieutenant Hugh Prior, had earlier detected the pulses of a Skyguard gun-control radar set and had jammed it.
The bombs were dropped at approximately 3.40 a.m. local time, well inside the two-hour period allowed by the Black Buck signal from Britain. The Vulcan’s flight had been plotted by radar in Coventry, the task-force ship acting as ‘air safety cell’, and her packed Operations Room was delighted to hear the code-word ‘Superfuze’ from the Vulcan; the attack had been carried out successfully. The news was quickly passed on to Fleet Headquarters but someone along the way inadvertently sent the wrong code-word and there was a bad twenty minutes at Northwood until the position was clarified.
The Vulcan crew still had to face the long return flight with low fuel reserves. There were also two Victor tankers still airborne and in trouble, the one which had sacrificed fuel to allow the Vulcan to fly on and another aircraft which had developed a fuel leak. Two Victors which had landed earlier from the first wave were hurriedly prepared and took off to meet the two aircraft in trouble and these were safely recovered. Two further Victors and a Nimrod came out to meet the returning Vulcan, the Nimrod placing itself half-way between the returning Vulcan and the Victor meeting it off Brazil, and guiding the two aircraft to a critical rendezvous. Everyone landed safely at Ascension. The Vulcan had been flying for nearly sixteen hours.
The Vulcan’s bombing results were later to be the subject of much unjustified criticism by those who did not understand the true purpose of the mission. The flying of Flight Lieutenant Withers and the bomb aiming of Flight Lieutenant Wright had been near perfect. The bomb release had only been a fraction too late but the first bomb of the stick had struck the southern side of the runway, nearly at its mid point, and produced a large crater. Eighteen of the other bombs had exploded in a long line across the aircraft dispersal and fuel storage area as planned. One Pucará was destroyed and other aircraft were damaged. The remaining two bombs struck rocks and ‘deflagrated’, the cases breaking open and only part of the explosive igniting in a mild, ‘low order’ explosion. There were no casualties on the ground. The Argentinians made a rough repair of the Vulcan crater but Royal Engineers who had to make a permanent repair after the war vouched for the severe damage caused, ironically stating that it ‘caused us far more trouble than it ever did the Argentinians’. It is debatable whether the Argentinians ever intended to use the runway at Stanley for their high-performance jets. What the Vulcan did was to ensure that the Argentinians never reconsidered this matter, not even in desperation when things were going so badly for them later. The operation was certainly a superb exhibition of airmanship by the Victor and Vulcan crews involved.
A Sea Harrier took a high-level photograph of the airfield and news of the hit on the runway reached Ascension. Among the messages of congratulations was one from the task force, in which Rear-Admiral Woodward said, ‘Please can we have a raid like this every night.’ Seven days later the Argentinian army authorities in the Falklands published the first issue of a soldiers’ newspaper, the Gaceta Argentina, in which the editor, described as an army chaplain, promised that ‘our first objective will be to tell the truth according to the facts’. The first entry in a ‘Summary of Events’ was:
1 May 1982. An unidentified enemy aircraft attacks the airfield during the night, dropping two 450-kg bombs.