Falklands War 1982: Operation Black Buck
4 November 2020
Operation Black Buck was a series of seven ambitious long-distance ground-attack missions conducted by the Royal Air Force (RAF) during the Falklands War in 1982. It was the RAF’s most daring attack since Operation Chastise – the Dambusters raid in WWII.
The Vulcans and supporting Victor tankers were based at Wideawake airfield on Ascension Island in the mid-Atlantic where the missions would commence. After taking off from Ascension Island and making a journey of 3,900 miles across open water, the Vulcan would then move on to the target. In order for the Vulcan to reach the Falklands, eleven Victor tankers were assigned to a single Vulcan. They had to transfer fuel to the Vulcan and each other in a complex refuelling relay before each turned in sequence for home.
30 April – 1 May 1982: Vulcan XM607 made the first Black Buck sortie to the Falkland Islands to make an attack on Port Stanley airfield. XH558’s Chief Pilot, Flight Lieutenant Martin Withers, carried out that first raid. Martin and the crew of Vulcan XM607 flew the first and last of the missions.
XM598, piloted by Squadron Leader John Reeve, was chosen to be the primary Vulcan for Black Buck One, but shortly after take-off Reeve reported a failure. The cabin failed to pressurise due to a split in the rubber seal on the captain’s ‘direct vison’ side-window and the lead Vulcan was forced to return to Ascension Island. A radio call was made to Martin Withers to let him know of the situation and that he was now the primary bomber. Barry Masefield, who was Air Electronics Officer (AEO) in XM598, recalls:
“I hear that it went a bit quiet on his aircraft for a while, but being the professionals they were Martin just said ‘it looks like we’ve got a job of work to do’ and they proceeded southwards to complete their mission.”
However, more challenges lay ahead. An electrical storm interfered with the last refuelling stop, an issue that almost jeopardised the entire operation.
Victor XL189, flown by Squadron Leader Bob Tuxford, had refuelled Vulcan XM607 and the plan was to do the same for Victor XH669 then return home. As the two Victor tankers were preparing for the air-to-air refuelling they flew into the path of a raging electrical storm. They valiantly fought against the turbulence and dazzling white flashes of lightning to eventually connect. Closing up… contact!
The raging sky was too much to contend with though. The bouncing around of the tankers caused XH699’s refuelling probe to shear off under the strain. The Victor, flown by Flight Lieutenant Steve Biglands, could take no more fuel. XL189 and XH699 swapped places for the final refuel.
XL189 started to take back the fuel from the damaged Victor just as the storm eased. The process was much smoother in better weather conditions. XH699 turned for home and the Vulcan moved into position behind Victor XL189 to make contact and receive fuel to the tanks.
After over 20 minutes of intensive flying through the storm, the jets had burned more fuel than planned. Martin and his Vulcan crew flew in formation with the tankers during the storm, but as air-to-air refuelling was carried out in radio silence they were unaware of the full detail of the Victors’ problems. When they received a little over half the fuel they expected and the Victor signalled they had given all they could spare, the Vulcan crew were surprised. They had much lower levels than needed to complete the mission and return to Ascension. In reality XL189 had given more than they could spare.
As the commander of the Vulcan, it fell to Withers to decide how the operation should proceed. An extract from the book Vulcan 607, by Rowland White:
Martin said to his crew “We’re short of fuel, but we’ve come this far, I’m not turning back now.”
And while he invited their opinion on his decision, the edge in his voice precluded debate. He was determined to succeed. For all his easy affability and democratic approach to captaincy, Withers was displaying the steel that those back at Waddington knew he possessed. He never doubted that his close knit crew would back his decision. And not one of them had a moment’s hesitation in doing so.
Victor XL189 flew north, for the journey home to Wideawake airfield. Vulcan XM607 flew south to continue the mission. By now the other Victors had landed back at Ascension and one was quickly refuelled to return to XL189 and provide the desparately needed fuel to make it home.
The target for Black Buck One was the main runway at Port Stanley Airport and as planned, on the morning of 1 May 1982, one of the twenty-one 1,000lb bombs scored a direct hit in the centre of the runway. With huge relief Martin turned for home and signalled the code word ‘superfuse’ – successful attack.
Following the raid there was one last refuelling to take place, off Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Martin had never been airborne in a Vulcan carrying less fuel than he was as Vulcan XM607 closed in on the final refuelling rendezvous. He described his first glimpse of the Victor tanker as “the most beautiful sight in the world”.
XM607 was refuelled seven times on the outward journey and once on the return journey to make the 7,800 miles trip (3,900 each way). At the time, it was the longest bombing raid in history.
Martin was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) for his part in the action. Squadron Leader Bob Tuxford, who piloted Victor XL189 – the last Victor tanker to refuel the Vulcan prior to the raid, received the Air Force Cross.
Black Buck Missions Two to Seven, continued through May and into June 1982. The Argentine ground forces surrendered two days after the final Black Buck Seven mission, which took place on 12 June 1982.