2022 is the 40th Anniversary of The Falklands Conflict and the audacious Black Buck missions carried out by the Royal Air Force.
On 2 April 1982, Argentina invaded and occupied the Falkland Islands. Britain began to assemble a task force. The RAF had been researching the possibility of carrying out a long-range bombing campaign with Vulcans using aerial refuelling. Operation Black Buck was the result of the research, it was a series of seven ambitious long-distance ground-attack missions conducted during the conflict.
On 30 April, Black Buck One began. The mission was flown by Flt. Lt. Martin Withers and the crew of Vulcan XM607. The target was the main runway at Port Stanley airfield and on the morning of 1 May the code word was signalled, ‘superfuse’ – a successful attack.
Just a few days after the successful Black Buck One mission, Black Buck Two was carried out. During the night of 3–4 May 1982, Vulcan XM607 was called into action again, this time flown by Sqn. Ldr. John Reeve and his crew.
Black Buck Two was a near-identical bombing mission to the first. The approach over the final 200 nautical miles to Port Stanley was made at low altitude, but to avoid the now alert Argentine anti-aircraft defences there was a final “pop-up” to a higher altitude of 16,000 feet for the bomb run. The bombs missed the runway, landing to the western side of the landing strip. Although the runway remained in use by Hercules and light transport aircraft, allowing the Argentinians to fly in critical supplies and evacuate wounded personnel, the cratering at the western-end prevented the Argentines from extending it and making it capable of accommodating high-performance combat aircraft.
In interviews reflecting on the events from 40 years ago, Martin Withers, who flew Black Buck One, said:
“It was so important to put Port Stanley runway out of action. If aircraft such as the Skyhawks could have refuelled at Stanley they could have used it as a forward operating base to fly out and hit our ships.”
The craters caused by the 1,000lb bombs dropped in Black Buck missions one and two can still be seen today. These photos were taken on 30 April 2022, the 40th anniversary of the start of Operation Black Buck.
Photos © Sam Scrimshaw
Black Buck missions 3-7 were planned to continue through May and into June 1982.
Black Buck Three was scheduled for 13 May, but just three hours before take-off the mission was cancelled due to strong headwinds.
Black Buck Four was also cancelled. On 28 May, Vulcan XM597, flown by Sqn. Ldr. Neil McDougal and his crew, was 5 hours into flight when one of the supporting Victor tankers suffered a failure of their hose-and-drogue refuelling unit. The flight was recalled.
Black Buck Five was flown on 31 May by McDougal and the crew of Vulcan XM597, with Sqn. Ldr. Alastair Montgomery and his crew flying XM598 as the reserve aircraft for the mission. It was the first anti-radar attack to be completed and was carried out with Shrike anti-radar missiles mounted under the wing of the Vulcan.
Black Buck Six was another anti-radar mission. McDougall and his crew flew Vulcan XM597 on the raid and on 3 June fired two of their four Shrike missiles, destroying the Argentine’s Skyguard fire-control radar. The mission was a very eventful one for the aircraft and crew as they were forced into a diversion to Rio de Janeiro after the aircraft’s in-flight refuelling probe broke.
Black Buck Seven: On 12 June, the missions ended as they had begun, with Martin Withers and his crew carrying out the seventh and final Black Buck raid flying Vulcan XM607.
Much debate has been had over Operation Black Buck and how the missions affected the war. The Royal Air Force Historical Society held a seminar on ‘The RAF in the Falklands Campaign’, at the RAF Museum Hendon, on 8 April 2003. During the seminar Air Marshal Sir John Curtiss talked about the Black Buck Operations during the conflict.
Sir John joined the RAF in 1942 and, following wartime operations with Bomber Command, he flew 263 round trips to Berlin during the Airlift. His long list of career achievements includes being Deputy Commander-in-Chief (deputy to Admiral Sir John Fieldhouse) during the Falklands campaign. Sir John was also the Air Commander, so was most senior airman in the operational chain of command. He controlled all of the RAF aircraft assigned to the conflict other than those embarked.
“So were the raids worth it? I have absolutely no doubt that they were, especially the first one, which sent a very stark message to Argentina – if we could reach the Falklands, then we could reach Buenos Aires. As a result they moved a number of their Mirage fighters north to protect the capital which significantly reduced their ability to escort offensive missions against the Task Force.”
Sir John believed that:
“the BLACK BUCK operations delivered a crucial message and a message that was clearly understood in Argentina. They were, therefore, an essential undertaking and they did play their part in supporting the operations of the Task Force.”
The Argentine ground forces surrendered two days after the final Black Buck mission. Monday 14 June 1982, was the end of the ten-week conflict and the islands returned back to British control.