Falklands 30 – the Black Buck Vulcan raids

 Falkland Islands, Stanley Airport, Black Buck ...

Thirty years ago one of the RAF’s most incredible ever bombing raids took place over the South Atlantic. The Black Buck Vulcan raids were long-range operations against Argentine targets on the occupied Falkland Islands.

One of the problems facing any attacking force is that of gaining air superiority. Without it, the enemy can bomb and landing operations at will. Even so, when the task force did land at San Carlos it only had a minimum of air superiority, and still lost two ships sunk. Early on it was identified that the Argentines could attempt to operate fast, high performance jets such as the Mirage from Stanley airfield.

Without Stanley airfield, the Argentine Air Force had to operate from bases on the mainland. As such, aircraft patrolling over the Falklands or on missions were at the very limit of their range, had to be refuelled on their journey, and had limited potential for payloads and dogfighting. If, however, Stanley airfield could be used, their time on station could be improved considerably.

The RAF’s Vulcan fleet was on the verge of retirement. Designed and built by Avro as nuclear bombers during the early Cold War, although the Royal Navy had taken over the core nuclear deterrent role, hardly anyone in the Vulcan fleet had even practised conventional bombing. Immediately that the Stanley airfield problem became apparent, the Vulcan fleet began practising air-to-air refuelling (their likely operating base would be Ascension Island, still thousands of miles from the Falklands), conventional bombing and avoiding the Argentines known anti-aircraft missiles, particularly Roland and Tiger Cat, and Rheinmetal anti-aircraft cannons.

Beginning on the night of 30 April and 1 May 1982, Vulcan Bombers of 44 Squadron RAF launched ultra long range bombing raids on Argentine targets on the occupied Falkland Islands. After the first aircraft intended for the raid – XM598 piloted by Squadron Leader John Reeve -developed a fault with the rubber seal on its canopy window, XM607 piloted by Flight Lieutenant Martin Withers took over. Vulcan 607 was refulled an incredible SEVEN times during the southbound journey, from Victor Tankers flying out of Ascension Island.

21 1,000lb bombs were dropped, on a track bisecting the runway at an angle of 35 degrees – calculated to ensure that at least one, and possibly two bombs would crater the runway. Reconaissance photographs appear to suggest that at least one bomb did hole the runway, and the others fell in the vicinity of the airfield. It has been suggested by some that the Argentines created fake craters on the airfield, in order to mislead British intelligence. Whether the craters were fake or not, no fast jets attempted to fly out of Stanley – only lower performance types such as the C-130 Hercules. Of course, it may be that the Argentines had never intended to fly Mirages out of Stanley anyway. If that is the case, then they were making a grave error. Even so, British planners had no way of knowing this.

I’m really in two minds about the legacy of the Black Buck raids. That it was a remarkable feat is beyond question. As a morale boosting raid, it still sounds great today. The statistics speak for themselves – the longest bombing raid in history at the  time. It would have taken 11 Sea Harriers to deliver the same payload of bombs. But notably, it was also the RAF’s only real headline involvement in the Falklands War. Ever keen to promote itself, did the junior service push for the raids to avoid missing out on the party and the potential feel-good factor afterwards? Not to mention that a succesful, high profile role in any way is usually a good bargaining chip when it comes to the usual post-war rethinking of defence policy.

But, was it worth it? Well, to assess whether it was worth it, we have to substantiate what effect it had. This is where things get slightly tricky. I’m yet to be convinced, either way, whether the runway at Stanley airfield was damaged or not. And, if so, to what extent. The problem is that so much rides on the legact of Black Buck, that records – including aerial photographs and eyewitness reports – have been variously interpreted to fit whatever argument various parties have seen fit. Of course, it suits the RAF to argue that Black Buck was succesful. Any organisation that, reportedly, moved Australia on the map to suit its argument, is not going to be too bothered about misleading people. We also have to recognise the vast resources expended in the mission – in that sense, did the raids represent good value militarily? Were the Argentines going to operare Mirages out of Stanley? Even if they had, would it have made a big difference? A lot of interconnecting ifs and buts.

As much as I find Rowland White’s Vulcan 607 a ripping yarn, and a triumph of British ingenuity and application, in terms of the purely military value of Black Buck, I think the compelling case is yet to be made. Historically, do they deserve to stand up against the Dams raid, the Tirpitz raid or Peenemunde, for example? Whilst undoubtedly a heroic effort of stamina and skill, the Black Buck raids had a lot less flak flying at them for the duration of the journey compared to the average Lancaster pilot over the Ruhr in 1943 and much more modern technology at hand. And, it has to be said, something of a higher chance of survival too.

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19 responses to “Falklands 30 – the Black Buck Vulcan raids

  1. There is also a morale factor here. I don’t know what it was like in the UK at the time but sitting over here in the US, the RAF looked like the successors to Jimmie Doolittle for pulling this one off.

    Sure we practice for this but, to see the Brits do it for real was very heartening (I guess is as good a word as any).

    • James Daly

      One thing that really does impress me is the manner in which Black Buck was improvised. The Vulcans hadn’t done conventional bombing for years. They hadn’t air-to-air refuelled for years either, and their refuelling fittings had been decomissioned. One was being used as an ashtray in a Squadron mess. Other parts had to be robbed from museum pieces.

      Looking at the raid on a stand-alone level, without assessing it’s worth, it’s impossible not to be highly impressed by what was a marvellous feat of flying.

  2. x

    I have read that the one hit caused heave on the runway’s concrete base actually putting the strip out of action for FJ. The Argentine Air Force were actually stationed at Stanley Airfield in the guise of pilots and support staff for the FI-Argentine air bridge. One supposes that if the airfield had been viable for FJ they would have been in place on D-day or D+1 at the latest. I go with Ward on Black Buck. The fact that C130 and other ‘planes were still flying in and out of Stanley only a few hours before the end of the war just shows how thin are air cover was at the time.

    On certain British defence websites there has been some revisionist acts to actually validate the raids which sound hollow when those sites often push prudence as basis for UK defence thinking. As I often say the armed forces are composed of human beings and so those organisations reflect human strengths and weaknesses. The RAF wanted an in and this was the genesis of the missions. I unashamedly support the notion that post-WW2 the RAF’s most successful unit has been its PR section. You only have to look at Remembrance Weekend or (the soon to be upon us) Armed Forces Day to see the number of guards formed by personnel from the light blue service at sporting events and services up and down the country. The Army was just as bad giving into pressure from the Guards instead of sending their work-upped unit South. (I think it was one of the Highlanders..)

    • James Daly

      I have to agree x. If you want an example that is the complete antithesis of prudence, it is a raid such as Black Buck. Fleets of aircraft maintained just to deliver one airframe over a target thousands of miles way, using thousands of gallons of fuel. Thankfully, the RN has the ace of stand-off strike up its sleeve nowadays, in the guise of Tomahawk LAM. More reliable, less detectable, more accurate, cheaper in terms of long-term cost and manpower. And, crucially, not in the hands of the light blue. In fact, it is hard to see what role if any the RAF would have in a re-run of the Falklands War, especially if Stanley airfield was lost.

      As for the army, sending the guards down to reinforce 5 Brigade was undoubtedly a big error. The Welsh and Scots guards had just come off of public duties, and I cannot believe that there were not better-suited battalions ready to go south. If necessary, roulement the Guards in to backfill for units from BAOR or N Ireland, or battalions designated for either. The Guards would probably have been better off filling in in Belfast or Armagh, or Paderborn even.

      • x

        I think their stores situation was so bad they were buying extra rucksacks from the likes of Millet’s.

        I am sure that is was one of the Highland regiments that was up to go. And I am having vague recollections that they may have not been long back from Norway too.

        Saw this,

        http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/southamerica/falklandislands/9176779/Falklands-war-anniversary-Welsh-Guardsman-Tracy-Evans-speaks-of-entering-the-unknown.html

        • James Daly

          Not much has changed in that sense either then. Considering a not insignificant proportion of Britain’s mobile reserves were earmarked for NATO’s northern flank, the amount of cold weather kit that was available in 1982 seems to have been pretty derisory. It’s the same procurement policy as for Iraq in 2003 – buy just in time, rather than maintaining stockpiles. Of course, just in time is no good if a war kicks off with no warning, and you have 10,000 troops and 1,000 pairs of boot, and the lead time for boot production is three weeks, say. Bean Counters 1, Readiness 0.

          It’s always been the same with the Army, the Guards seem to have an untouchable place in the Army’s hierarchy. Whilst it does have its uses, mainly in terms of the ceremonial, I can’t help but think that in the modern Army that needs thinking men, that kind of rigid hierarchical culture is a little out of place. Of course I don’t know if it’s like it was in 1945, when the Guards Armoured Division wouldn’t so much as brew a cup of team on the road to Arnhem without asking a superior.

          • x

            Looking at the positive side it shows how good training must be if they can be pulled from public duties, get shipped 8000 miles, and still do the enemy considerable harm.

          • As for your comments on how much the Raf did they did a lot more than what is revealed and as for photo recon i was based at the unit which dealt with that so it wasnt just the vulcans which get credit others were there aswell just they werent advertised i remember them coming back all there markings blacked out and remember when they went ..we must meet for a drink sometime iam intrigued as to where you get your information from .from kevin in pompey my advice my friend is dont believe everything you read in the media about kit and other things .a lot of good people went down there and lot never returned and casualties would have been smaller and a great deal less if a certain person was aloud to do the job the way he had planned it and not be told bye ministers to go another route.

  3. x

    Were stationed at Stanley before the war…….

  4. well to the gentlemen from usa my former group captain organised the black buck mission and i knew of Martin withers and i think they did a remarkable job and to the gentlemen who blog this is thanks for track back link i like your blog

    • I certainly can’t speak for any but myself on Black Buck, but especially with the explanation provided above,it certainly was a very remarkable job. I have absolutely no fault to find, my point was that from over here, it looked like an incredible feat for anybody but USAF to pull of. There were lots of drinks raised to the RAF in my Air Force Association chapter meeting that May.

      • x

        Nobody doubts it was some feat of airmanship in terms of organisation. But that doesn’t make it a military success in its own right.

        • James Daly

          I don’t think many people would argue nowadays that Black Buck was launched just as much with the post-war carve up in mind as it was winning the war. Hence you could argue that in terms of scale of economy, the various costs were way out of proportion to the results achieved.

          I find it ironic that nowadays, in a similar situation it would simply be a case of loosing off a few TLAM’s from a Trafalgar or an Astute. Actually, in a re-possession type scenario, I’m not sure how the RAF would even manage to find themselves a significant role beyond lending a few helos here and there.

          • x

            Over at Think Defence I occasionally get into a TLAM/Storm Shadow rabbit hole with military professionals from both of the blue services. To simple me I look at the USN with TLAM everywhere and think what a good idea. I get countered with all sorts of arguments; They are for different targets. There is no need for RN to launch that many; we will only launch these things as part of a coalition (read the Americans have loads). SS reduces the chances of collateral damage. SS are cheaper; even though they require a launch platform costing 10s of millions which has to be supported by a tanker costing 100s of millions.

            • James Daly

              If you look at the Black Buck, TLAM and Storm Shadow issues in comparison, one trend emerges – light blue looking after their own. It’s difficult to come to any other conclusion sadly. Does Storm Shadow really reduce the chances of collateral damage that much? I think any thoughts that collateral damage can be eradicated are just a panacea – of course theres always a risk. I hardly think you could call TLAM an inaccurate weapon…

      • i know usaf quite well i spent 6 weeks attached in to RAF Marham to look after B52s from afb dyass and afb march back in 1981 had great time with them i beleive one of them went on to become brigadier general in usaf

  5. Was BLACK BUCK worth it? Yes. Its strategic effect on the Argentinian was significant. Of course they were well aware that any escalation could have seen the use of nucelar weapons (notice I use the word ‘could’) but to have physically seen a strategic bomber, and of course this was their original use, flying that far down had impact. The Argentinians became concerned that if this could be done to Port Stanley then what could happen to mainland Argentina became a question of paramount importance to them. It led to to redloy significant air defence assets to the north of the country that were never used down south. The key importance of the raid, despite what certain retired naval officers suggest, was in its coercive effect. It convinced the Argentinians not to escalate the war in the same way that the sinking of the Belgrano did. That has been confimred by several high ranking Argenitine officers.

    As to the RAF trying to promote itself, of course it did. However, that should not overide the issue of capability and effect. Playing devils advocate here but did the navy not do exactly the same thing when Leach told the PM that the RN could do it. The RN budget was under severe pressure and he clearly saw this as an oppurtunity top put the RN in the public eye. Similar arguments could be made over the decision to sen 5 Brigade to. It happens. The military has always tried to play each other against each other. It is not a good things but we must seperate peacetime parochialism from wartime capabitlity. BLACK BUCK had a clear effect on the war but the reasons for it are more complicated.

    • James Daly

      Leach definitely seized his moment in the House of Commons, thats for sure. But I think of it in terms of the pursuit of the objective – recapture of the Falkland Islands. Whilst they islands could never have been retaken without a naval task force, could they have been retaken without Black Buck? Probably, albeit in a slightly different and possibly more trying scenario. I think the problem is that assessing Black Buck’s effectiveness is by no means a black and white issue. It depends on how you interpret sources or which points of view you subscribe too. A lot of the analysis of Black Buck is very polarised and partisan – both light blue and navy blue.

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