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Operation Black Buck One

The 16-hour Bombing Raids that Rewrote Military History

IN the 40 years that have passed since the Falklands War, much has been written about the various operations that brought about a successful conclusion to the Argentinean’s 74-day occupation.

One of the most high-profile still brings about much debate, with Operation Black Buck likely to cause a lively exchange of views depending on which arm of the military you’re attached to.

A fact that even the most ardent critic can’t ignore is that it was both daring and historic – 8,000-mile flights aiming to put out of action the Falklands only airstrip and attack the occupiers’ air defence radar.

The control of Port Stanley runway was crucial to the war effort: left in fully working order it was a launch point for Argentinean fighter jets to attack the Task Force; take it out of commission and the effectiveness of the military Junta’s air capability would be greatly diminished.

The problem was the location of the Falkland Islands. With no countries in the vicinity either willing or capable of offering a base for RAF aircraft, there was only one launch point for any potential attack – Ascension Island.

Before 1982, few people outside the military had even heard of the volcanic island let alone knew where it was; effectively equidistant between the coasts of Angola and Brazil.

Operation Black Buck Map

(Operation Black Buck Map) 

Despite being ‘in the vicinity’ of South America, it was, however, still around 3,900 miles from the Falkland Islands. The aircraft that carried out the bombing raid on Port Stanley were the iconic Vulcans, which had been in operation for in excess of 20 years and in 1982 were coming towards the end of their service.

The Vulcans’ primary role was as a nuclear bomber, carrying Britain’s first nuclear weapon, and the aircraft were on standby to be airborne within four minutes – the timescale determined when a nuclear missile launched from Russia could reach the UK. They were at their highest alert level during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.

Shortly after the Argentinean invasion of the Falklands, personnel at RAF Waddington, where the Vulcans were stationed, were told to reinstate the aircraft’s in-flight refuelling systems. Around ten aircraft from 44 and 50 Squadrons were restored to full operational status with five selected for conversion to non-nuclear roles, able to carry 1,000lb conventional bombs.

Training began on April 14 and while it would normally take several months, crews were given less than two weeks to perfect the refuelling process with problems encountered including refuelling probes failing to lock-in correctly, and fuel spillage hitting the aircraft’s windscreen, affecting the pilot’s view from the cockpit. 

Modifications were made with night refuelling practice starting on April 15, 1982, two weeks before bombing commenced. Two aircraft, Vulcans XM598 and XM607 departed from Waddington on April 29 on the 4,100-mile journey to Wideawake Air Base on Ascension Islands, supported by Victor tankers.

Vulcan XM607

(Vulcan XM607) 

It was around midnight on April 30 that the two Vulcans took off from Wideawake, XM598 as primary aircraft, XM607 as reserve accompanied by four Victor tankers; soon after a further seven Victor tankers took off in support. Shortly into the operation XM598 reported problems with cabin pressurisation and returned to base with XM607 taking over as primary aircraft.

On the 4,000-mile journey to Port Stanley, the route bended towards the African coastline in case of any issues developing with the aircraft and after refuelling, the Victors returned back to Ascension. Added to the logistical problems the weather deteriorated, with high winds causing severe problems with the final refuelling processes.

With just two Victor tankers remaining, the second, XL189, refuelled the Vulcan before preparing to refuel the final Victor, XH669, before returning to Ascension. Unfortunately, – an understatement if ever there was one – heavy winds during the Victor-to-Victor refuelling saw the probe break meaning the process was not completed. It is worth noting that all air-to-air refuelling during the operation occurred in radio silence with only traffic light signalling: red for not ready or emergency, amber meaning tanker ready, and green for fuel flow. 

It seemed likely now that the operation would have to be aborted with a real danger that at least one of the aircraft would fail to make it back to Ascension. However, Squadron Leader Bob Tuxford in XL189 made the decision to switch roles with XH669, the latter transferring what fuel they could spare to XL189 to complete the final Vulcan refuel and retain enough to return to Wideawake – XH669 now being unable to be refuelled due to the broken probe.

The last refuelling of the Vulcan took place ahead of the bombing with XL189 turning back to Ascension but now carrying insufficient fuel to reach Wideawake. However, a Victor had been refuelled on Ascension and was airborne heading back towards XL189 as Tuxford made his way back. With 30 minutes of fuel left and 600 miles still to travel, Tuxford was greeted by the sight of a Victor ready to replenish his supply.   

Flight Lieutenant Martin Withers in XM607 continued on with the operation, descending to 300 feet as he approached the Falklands to avoid radar before climbing to 8000 feet to complete the Vulcan’s bombing run – 21 bombs were dispatched with one cutting the runway in half making it unsuitable for fast jets. Sea Harriers from HMS Hermes followed up the raid with dawn attacks on the airfield.

Aerial reconnaissance photo of Port Stanley Airport. The craters from Black Buck One's bombs are visible in the middle.

(Aerial reconnaissance photo of Port Stanley Airport. The craters from Black Buck One's bombs are visible in the middle.) 

Victors had been dispatched from Ascension to support the return of XM607 – this time skirting the South American coast in case of an emergency – with a combined total of 17 refuels of the Vulcan taking place; XM607 flew for almost 16 hours completing what was, at the time, the longest bombing mission on record.

There were several more raids made by Vulcans with varying levels of success, but they had the desired effect of sending a clear message to the occupying forces that they could be reached by British bombers. On one subsequent Vulcan raid, XM597 suffered damage to its refuelling probe and was forced to divert to Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, with the aircraft impounded and the crew held for a week.

Whilst much has been written about the level of success of Operation Black Buck, there can be no question about the skill and determination of all the crews involved in pulling off such daring raids.

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