Operation Black Buck – The Swansong of the British Nuclear Bomber

Blown Periphery, Going Postal
The last gasp before the attack. Victor tanker refuels Victor tanker in an electrical storm. Vulcan 607, BLACK BUCK One stands off waiting her turn.

At 0400 Local on 1st May 1982, the population under curfew of a now filthy and stinking Port Stanley, were roused from their beds by the visceral thumps of just over nine tons of high explosives from the direction of the town’s airport. After the explosions came the roar of four Olympus turbojet engines, that shook the Capital’s wooden buildings and random gunfire was heard all over the town and surrounding area. To the occupied citizens of Port Stanley it meant one thing. The war to free them and oust the Argentine invaders had begun. To the Royal Air Force it was the culmination of an incredibly complex engineering and logistics plan. Thirteen Victor tanker aircraft had flown south with two Vulcan bombers, to attack the airfield at Port Stanley. To the aeronautical experts it meant that an aircraft designed in the 1940s, which had first entered service in 1956 and was due to be retired, had just carried out the longest bombing raid in history to that date.

It should have been no surprise to anyone about Argentine intentions towards the Falkland Islands. Bilateral talks between Britain and Argentina had been ongoing, although these had been inconclusive and more talks were planned. In was announced that in June 1981 Britain would withdraw HMS Endurance, the Antarctic Survey Ship and the islander’s only real link with the UK. It was Argentine stupidity that concocted the plan to forcibly invade the Falkland Islands by military means. If they had waited a few months they could have strolled in with a band, majorettes and a troop of Boy Scouts. And of course, they picked the wrong British Prime Minister.

Britain was already at war with Argentina, a month before the Victors and Vulcans dragged their overloaded air-frames off the runway at Ascension Island. On the 30th March 1982, the nuclear hunter killer submarine (SSN), HMS Splendid had in the middle of a patrol tracking a Soviet submarine, received a BLUE KEY message ordering it to return to Faslane to re-provision for a priority mission. British Special Forces had been flown south and dispatched by air and parachute on their undercover missions and a Task Force had been planned and put together over the Easter weekend. On the 10th April Task Group 317.9 set sail from Ascension Island to begin Operation PARAQUET to re-take South Georgia. The force included the destroyers HMS Antrim and HMS Plymouth and the tanker RFA Tidespring. On the 20th of April a Handley Page Victor tanker flew from Ascension on a reconnaissance flight, an unusual role for the converted bomber. Neither this flight nor the SSN HMS Conqueror that was now patrolling the South Atlantic detected any Argentine ships around the islands.

Air Chief Marshall Sir Michael Beetham was the Chief of the Air Staff and a great proponent of offensive action. He had served as a bomber pilot in the Second World War, cutting his teeth on the Berlin Raids in the winter of 1943/44. He was like the old V-bombers he commanded, facing retirement. The RAF was already heavily committed to Operation CORPORATE, flying long-range reconnaissance and ASW missions with Nimrod aircraft and air transport operations, but he wanted the RAF to conduct offensive air combat missions. Beetham approached the Assistant Chief of the Air Staff, Air Vice Marshall Hayr and they discussed potential targets and methods of attack. The Argentine mainland was ruled out at this time, so the most obvious target was the only paved airfield in the Falkland Islands, Port Stanley airport, its infrastructure and radar installations.

Satellite reconnaissance pictures provided by the Americans revealed that Port Stanley airfield had been reinforced with missile batteries, radar and was conducting C130 (Hercules) supply operations. The Argentines had based Pucara ground-attack aircraft there and were installing arrester gear on the runway for Skyhawk operations. The Argentine Mirage IIIs could have flown from the runway with a limited payload although the Dagger fighter bombers required a much larger runway. The planning team received ministerial approval for the target, they now needed an attack weapon.

The Buccaneer aircraft was a potent attack aircraft, but with its limited range, would require many tanker sorties to reach the Falkland Islands from Ascension. The only credible option was a raid by a single Vulcan bomber, supported by Victor tankers; a lot of them. The Air Staff now passed the mission to the front line squadrons to make it happen.

The Vulcan

Designed in the 1940s to carry Britain’s nuclear deterrent, only the Vulcans and Victors of the old V-bomber force were still flying. The strains of having to operate at low-level had fatigued the Valiants’ air-frames and they had been withdrawn from service. These Cold-War relics were built in an almost hand-made era of engineering brilliance, but not modular mass production. There were subtle differences between aircraft and they were frankly clapped-out. Only the skills of their engineers were keeping them airborne. The huge, sinister sweep of the Vulcan’s delta wing supported a vast bomb bay, four Olympus turbojets and the wing was basically a fuel tank. Projecting beyond the delta was the cockpit and avionics suite at the front and more avionics projected to the rear. The extremely cramped cockpit held five aircrew, two pilots above in the bulge of the canopy and below, behind and facing the rear were the two navigators’ and air electronics operator’s positions. Only the pilots had ejector seats.

Blown Periphery, Going Postal
The cramped front office, captain on the left, co-pilot on the right
Blown Periphery, Going Postal
The rear office, Nav bombing, Nav plotter, Air Electronics

Three Vulcan bombers, XM597, XM598 and XM607 were selected for the series of bombing missions because at 22 years old, they were the newest, or the least clapped out. The crews were drawn from Nos 44, 50 and 101 Squadrons. Additionally, fourteen Victor tankers flew from RAF Marham to Ascension Island. The first problem that had to be overcome was to reactivate the Vulcans’ air-to-air refuelling capability, which had been deactivated throughout the fleet. The engineers had to scour the old V-bomber bases to find the necessary valves and piping for the fuel probes and one vital component was found in a crew room, being used as an ash tray. DASH 10 ECM pods from Buccaneers were fitted to the Vulcans to counteract the Tigercat missiles and radar controlled anti-aircraft guns. Inertial Guidance Systems were borrowed from the VC10 fleet and fitted to the Vulcans, and finally, the Olympus engines were upgraded to 301 standard. Two further Vulcans, XM612 and XL391 flew to Ascension as back-up.

The range would be 6,800 nautical miles with sixteen hours airborne. Engineers estimated that it would require eleven Victor Tankers plus two reserves in order to get the single Vulcan down to the Falkland Islands. The attacking bomber was refuelled four times on the outbound journey and once on the return, requiring 220,000 gallons of fuel. Two identically armed Vulcans took off on each mission and the standby Vulcan would return without refuelling if all was well with the lead aircraft.

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The refuelling plan

BLACK BUCK One was to attack and damage the runway of Port Stanley. The runway would be needed by the British forces once the Islands had been recaptured, and probably this was just as well. On 30th April 1982, the aircraft began their staged take-offs and moved into the complex positions for the long, aerial ballet south. Both Vulcans were carrying twenty-one 1,000lb un-retarded conventional bombs. As it climbed out for altitude, the lead Vulcan XM598 commanded by Squadron Leader John Reeve, suffered a pressurisation failure to a side cockpit window, forcing it to abort. XM607 commanded by Flight Lieutenant Martin Withers was now the only Vulcan on the mission. Withers with a masterpiece of understatement told his crew: “Looks like we’ve got a job of work.”

The Vulcan crew were relatively inexperienced at air-to-air refuelling, but all went well until the final fuelling before the attack. Nine depleted Victors had returned to Ascension leaving the last two Victors to refuel each other, but the receiver’s probe was damaged in the turbulence of an electrical storm. The two tankers swapped roles and Victor XL189 commanded by Squadron Leader Tuxford successfully topped-up the Vulcan before the attack run. The refuelling “cluster” had eaten into Tuxford’s fuel reserves, but because of radio silence, he couldn’t call for a tanker to replenish his fuel until the code word POLO which denoted a successful attack and that the Vulcan was still in business. The South Atlantic was a vast and lonely place for those little dots of humanity encased in their alloy and aluminium tubes.

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The interior of the Victor Tanker. Similar lay-out to the Vulcan but slightly more roomy

The Vulcan approached the Falkland Islands and descended to 300 feet to go in below the radar. Forty miles from the target it climbed to 10,000 feet for the bomb run. The Vulcan was exactly on track after traversing the southern ocean and it turned onto 235 degrees and switched on the H2S radar for the attack. The radar locked on to two offset markers off the coast and the bombing run handed over to the autonomous control system. Enemy radar was detected and jammed before the twenty-one bombs were released in train, taking five seconds to leave the bomb bay To allow for the bombs’ fall and trajectory, they were released three miles out from the runway. No effective anti-aircraft fire was directed at the Vulcan, which now dropped to 300 feet to avoid the defences.

Only one bomb hit the runway at its mid-point, cratering the concrete. The others caused significant damage to airfield instillation, aircraft and stores. Clear of the Islands the Vulcan climbed to rendezvous with the Victor and radioed POLO and then SUPERFUSE to Northwood Headquarters, denoting a successful attack. The return trip went exactly as planned, the rendezvous with the Nimrod overwatch flight and the additional tanker support were straightforward after the events of the long night. XM607 touched down at Ascension at the end of a then astonishing 15 hours and 50 minutes in the air, which included 18 air-to-air refuellings. For this extraordinary, record-breaking mission and their superb airmanship throughout, Flight Lieutenant Withers and Squadron Leader Tuxford were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Force Cross respectively.

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Battle damage assessment following BLACK BUCK One

There were a total of seven BLACK BUCK missions flown during the Falklands War and of these, two were scrubbed due to serviceability issues. At least two carried anti-radar missiles in an attempt to knock out Argentine radar installations and despite their crews turning them off, one Skyguard system was destroyed. The last mission was flown against troop concentrations around Port Stanley and the Argentine garrison surrendered two days later.

It was inevitable given the British propensity to carp and criticise almost every military endeavour, that the BLACK BUCK raids would have their detractors.

Port Stanley airfield was never long enough to operate fast jets

It could have operated Skyhawk jets and that was the planning intention of the excellent Argentine Air Force. If a Skyhawk can operate from the deck of a carrier, it can operate from an airfield from which the RAF successfully operated Phantoms after the cease fire. I know carriers have steam catapults. Port Stanley runway was 3,013 feet. The A4 Skyhawk’s take off run with a 2x500kg bombload is 2,560 feet unasisted.

Port Stanley airfield operated C130 missions almost right up to the surrender

True, but it never operated fast jets capable of attacking British ships. The Argentine bombers had to operate from the mainland at the limit of their endurance.

It could never have effectively been a signal of intention because the Argentinians knew we would never bomb the mainland

Possibly, but a Special Forces raid on mainland Argentine airfields was planned and a British helicopter force-landed in Chile. A government that is prepared to arrest, torture and disappear tens of thousands of its own citizens doesn’t operate within the norms of diplomatic niceties and doesn’t expect anyone else to.

It was just an excuse for the RAF to be seen to do something because it was mainly the Navy and Army that did all the fighting

Well apart from conducting extremely long range anti-submarine operations, reconnaissance, air transport, dispatching Special Forces and operating the 55% of the Harriers on the Task Force, you mean. What kind of military leaders would sit on their arses while the other Services were conducting offensive operations?

As well as the swan song of the V-bomber, the Falklands War was the last time Britain was capable of mounting an independent military endeavour of any significance. Successive governments and most shamefully, the so-called Conservative party have ensured that our military is a pathetic, shadow of what it was. The MoD is infested with Common-Purpose lightweights who prioritise diversity targets over the Military Covenant. The MoD provides money to shyster lawyer firms, to hound and prosecute our Service personnel on vexatious war crime investigations. Assemble a Task Force? We can’t even man our Armed Forces now and who can blame youngsters for not wanting to put themselves in harm’s way, for our current political effluent?

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The crew of Vulcan 607. From the past and from a different country

Notes on the Vulcan’s role as the Nuclear Deterrent

During the Cuban Missile Crisis and other times of tension, the Vulcans and Victors were deployed to remote operating bases, both in the UK and abroad. That’s why some of the remote airfields in Scotland have such surprisingly long runways. The crews and their accompanying ground crews would have said goodbye to their families, knowing that they would probably never see them again. Each aircraft and crew had information and target data. The aircraft carried the Blue Steel, stand-off missile, an early and quite sophisticated cruise missile. The Blue Steel had a range of 575 miles and mounted the Red Snow hydrogen bomb of 1.1 Megatons.

In the event of a nuclear attack on the UK. The aircraft would take off and head towards their designated targets at very low level. The crews would have worked out their routes from the latest intelligence, avoiding known well-defended areas. The pilot flew with an eyepatch, the co-pilot with a blindfold. These would protect their eyesight if they flew close enough to exploding nuclear weapons. Blind in one eye, the pilot used his good eye until that became blinded. He was now useless and gave the eyepatch to the co-pilot, who repeated the process.

They would drop the Blue Steel at the designated release point and head south. There was no point returning to the UK as it probably no longer existed. There were designated refuelling points in Africa and Asia. They would try to head for South Africa or Australia, in the hope that thermonuclear war would be confined to the northern hemisphere. What happened after that was anybody’s guess.

© Blown Periphery 2018