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Operation Black Buck: The UK’s Mega Bombing Runs in the Falklands War

It began at 10.30 pm on 30th April 1982. Two Vulcan bombers roared into the night sky above the small Atlantic island of Ascension, slightly ahead of them were eleven Victor refuelling tankers. The aircrafts formed into their designated flight pattern and began heading southwest. What was then the longest bombing raid in history, was underway. 

Operation Black Buck may not be a name familiar to many, but it was an extraordinary military strike carried about by the United Kingdom against Argentine forces who, just under a month before, had invaded the British Falkland Islands. But what stands out about this particular mission, and the 6 subsequent planned missions that mirrored it, is that Ascension and the Falkland Islands are a mammoth 12,200km (6,600 miles) apart. This was a raid that would require a single bomber to be refuelled 7 times on the outbound journey, then once again on the inbound trip. To make matters even more complicated, some of the refuelling tankers also needed to be refuelled while in the air. 

It was a dizzyingly complex operation that came with a catalogue of potential problems along the way. As the planes disappeared into the darkness at the end of April 1982, RAF commanders, and no doubt some members of the British government held their breath and waited. It would be roughly sixteen hours until the last aircraft was scheduled to return.  

For those of you already reaching for the phone to find out where exactly the Falkland Islands are, let me be of help – they lie roughly 296 km (184 miles) off the coast of Argentina and 4,123 km (2,561 miles) from the great white continent of Antarctica. As of 2016, they had a population of 3,398 and not a whole lot else. Its landscape is barren, wind-swept and hardly seems worth fighting over. 

War Begins  

But fighting is exactly what began on 2nd April 1982 with the landing of Argentine forces who quickly overwhelmed the small garrison of Royal Marines, which at the time numbered just 57. The military junta which had had a strangled hold over Argentina since 1976 assumed that being 12,874 km (8,000 miles) from Britain, the likelihood of a major offensive to retake the Falklands Islands (which Argentina calls Islas Malvinas) was slim. 

Operation Black Buck on the map
Operation Black Buck on the map by Createaccount is licensed under CC-BY-SA

Before we continue, it’s probably worth giving a little back story at this point. It’s thought that natives from Patagonia may have visited the Falkland Islands in prehistoric times, but this is by now means clear. The first visitor we are sure of was an Englishman by the name of John Strong in 1690 but the first settlements didn’t appear until nearly seventy-five years later, first with the French Port Louis on East Falkland, and then the British Port Egmont on Saunders Island. 

The French later withdrew their claim over the Falklands and in doing so handed the islands to Spain, who were in turn later forced out by the British – who have remained ever since. The question over who rightly owns the Falkland Islands appeared to have been settled but reared its head during the second half of the 20th Century and talks between the two governments took place during the 60s and 70s over the possibility of the islands becoming Argentine. But with the islanders firmly against the idea, it appeared that any potential ceding of land was dead in the water. 

Now, that is a brief overview of the situation but even to this day, it remains highly controversial. For the sake of brevity, we’re going to leave it there, but if you want to dive into it, it is a fascinating topic. No doubt as Argentine forces raised their flag above Port Stanley, there was a sense of triumph, of national honour restored.   

The Task Force

Few around the world expected much of a response from the British government. The islands were after all a staggering distance from the British mainland and it seemed utterly implausible that any kind of invasion forces would sail the full length of the Atlantic Ocean to retake a scrap of land that most in Britain would have had a hard time pointing out on a map. 

However, as it turned out, Argentina has horribly underestimated Britain’s resolve and in particular the determination of the Iron Lady – British Prime Minister Margret Thatcher. On the very same day as the invasion, approval was given to begin forming a mighty task force that would soon steam southwest. 

The collection of ships hastily assembled may have resembled a bit rag-tag flotilla, but with 123 vessels eventually amassed, 43 Royal Navy vessels, 22 Royal Fleet Auxiliary ships and 62 merchant ships, it was a sizable contingent. 

By mid-April, the RAF had established an airbase at RAF Ascension and around the same time, ships began arriving at the island, where they would make their final rendezvous before heading to the Falkland Islands.  

Black Buck

And that brings us nicely back to the main focus of our video, Operation Black Buck. As the task force began sailing southwest, British military planners were eying the possibility of a preemptive attack before the bulk of the invasion force arrived. If bombing raids were able to damage or destroy parts of the airport and radar systems, it would no doubt make the mission of retaking the Falkland Islands that much easier. But as we now know, the distance between Britain and the Falklands is immense. Ascension was seen as a viable launchpad, but even then, it would be a round trip of 16 hours.  

Logistics   

The logistics behind this operation were mind-boggling and extremely costly. Operation Black Buck called for pairs of Vulcan bombers to fly southwest from Ascension to the Falklands over a period of weeks and potentially months. While seven missions were planned, two were cancelled; one at the last minute due to weather conditions and the other 5 hours into the mission because of a refuelling problem.

While each mission would have two Vulcan bombers involved, only one would take part in the attack, with the other held in reserve that would return to Ascension once the first refuelling had been completed. The 11 Victors (9 active and 2 reserves) would act as refuelling tankers to accompany the bombers across the ocean. Now, here’s where things get a little complicated. As I mentioned earlier, the Vulcans would be refuelled seven times on the way to the Falklands and once on the way back, but there would also be 9 Victor to Victor refuels which would enable two or three Victors to reach close to the Falklands and still be able to make it back to the Ascension. 

The Vulcans

The Avro Vulcans used in Operation Black Buck were on the verge of retirement before they were hastily bundled into action in the build-up to the Falklands War. These aircrafts had been introduced in 1956 to act as a part of the UK’s airborne nuclear deterrent and were high-altitude strategic bombers purposely built to carry nuclear bombs, but thankfully they were never actually needed. In fact, quite extraordinarily, the fleet of Avro Vulcans had never even taken part in real combat until the call came in April 1982. 

But there was a mountain of work to do before these aged aircraft would be ready to take part in their mammoth bombing raid. The decommissioning process was so far along that the Vulcans no longer possessed their air to air fueling capabilities, with engineers and mechanics working around the clock to install an internal refuelling system. Another issue – less major but far from simple – was that the aircraft’s bomb bay had been specifically configured to carry nuclear weapons which had to be quickly refitted to accommodate conventional weapons. 

Thanks to a whole lot of hard work and no doubt a little traditional British bloody-mindedness, the Vulcans were ready to go as the end of April loomed.  

The Victors

Accompanying the Vulcans across the Atlantic would be a small fleet of Handley Page Victor K2 tankers. First built as conventional bombers and introduced in 1958, the majority had since been converted into fuel tankers. With only 23 Victors available and 11 needed per mission, the margins for the entire operation were thin. 

Victor K.2 of No. 55 Squadron RAF in 1985
Victor K.2 of No. 55 Squadron RAF in 1985 by RuthASis licensed under CC-BY

These were by no means new to long-distance journeys, but Operation Black Buck would provide an entirely different set of circumstances in an area of the world that few pilots had any flight experience in. The Victors also needed an upgrade before they were ready and the Delco Carousel inertial navigation system and the Omega navigation system were both added, the second of which was the world’s first global-range radio system. 

The first Victors began arriving at Ascension on 18th April 1982 and by the end of the month, 15 had gathered on the small Atlantic island. A few were used in reconnaissance flights which took place between 20th and 25th April. These involved a single Victor which carried out reconnaissance, with four further aircraft to refuel it on the outward journey and four more for its return. It was a complicated relay system that was certainly not ideal, but their success paved the way for Black Buck 1.    

Black Buck 1

Things didn’t begin well for Black Buck 1. Eleven Victors and two Vulcans took off from Ascension a minute apart and turned southwest but almost immediately the lead Vulcan ran into difficulties. The rubber seal on the captain’s window had failed, leading to cold air rushing into the cabin and destabilising the entire aircraft. Had this been a short journey, it’s quite possible they would have just pushed on, but with 16 hours ahead of them the decision was made to turn back. 

The second Vulcan, which had been the back-up aircraft, now assumed the lead. As the contingent of aircraft made their way slowly towards the Falklands Islands, the Victors began their complex refuelling pattern. Essentially the idea was to keep the Vulcan as close to fully fueled as possible throughout the trip. Obviously, with it burning through 4,200 kg (9,200 pounds) of fuel in just 34 minutes before its first refuelling, it was difficult to keep up.

In total, the lone Vulcan was refuelled seven times on the journey southwest, with a further seven Victor to Victor refuels. Slowly the Victors began peeling away to return to Ascension and eventually just three aircraft remained – the Vulcan and two Victors – for the final leg of the journey. 

As if things were not difficult enough, the trio flew into a violent thunderstorm which damaged the refuelling probe of one of the Victors. Emerging from the storm, the damaged aircraft turned for home as the final Victor began to the final refuelling – but even here things didn’t go according to plan. As a result of the storm and problems with earlier refuellings, the fuel transferred to the Vulcan was around 7,000 pounds (3,200 kg) less than had been planned for, meaning the margins for the refuelling stop on the return trip were now considerably tight. 

With refuelling complete, the final Victor turned for home, leaving the lone Vulcan to continue through the night sky. As it approached the Falklands it dipped down to just 91 metres (300 ft) above sea level to stay under the enemy radar before climbing steeply as it neared its target, Port Stanley Airport. Twenty-one 1,000 pounds (453kg) bombs rained down from a height of 3,000 metres (10,000 ft) with the Vulcan banking sharply the moment the last bomb dropped.  

Sea Harriers based on HMS Invincible which was heading southwest readied themselves to assist the Vulcan if enemy fighters attempted to intercept it – but nothing happened. The Vulcan roared away from the Falkland Islands and was refuelled by a returning Victor before continuing and landing back at Ascension at 14.52 – 16 hours and 22 minutes after it had left. 

While the mission had been a success in that no aircraft had been lost and bombs had indeed been dropped on Port Stanley Airport, it’s difficult to argue that it caused damage worthy of the herculean effort of those involved. One bomb created a large crater on the runway, which was later botched on repair, providing a minor headache for the Argentine forces, but it was hardly significant damage.  

Black Buck 2-7

We’re not going to go into a huge amount of detail regarding Black Bucks 2  through 7. Not because they weren’t extraordinary feats of military aviation, but because they followed roughly the same pattern as the first. 

Black Buck 2 was conducted a week after the first sortie with the bombs completing missing the runway. However, damage to the western section of the airstrip did mean that it couldn’t be extended to accommodate high-performance combat aircraft. 

Black Buck 3 was cancelled shortly before take-off due to strong headwinds, while Black Buck 4 was cancelled five hours after take-off because of damage to one of the Victors. This was set to be the first mission to carry the American Shrike anti-radar missiles, and as you can probably guess, the target was the island’s radar station.  

Black Buck 5 also targeted the island’s radar defences, but for this mission, a decoy was needed. The Shrike missiles being used would latch onto the radar transmission and in theory, as long as the radar continued transmitting throughout the attack, the missile could home in on it. With this in mind, a decoy Sea Harrier was dissipated to buzz noisily around the island. One Shrike missile landed a short distance from the radar causing only minor damage, while the other missed by a considerable margin. 

Black Buck 6 began on 3rd June and failed to make any meaningful impact against the radar stations once again. In fact, all the drama occurred on the way home. Damage to the Vulcan’s refuelling pod meant that it couldn’t take on any fuel on the return trip and so diverted to Brazil where a mayday signal was sent. Brazilian fighter jets intercepted the bomber and escorted it to Rio de Janeiro where it landed with just 910 kg  (2,000 pounds) left onboard. In aviation terms, that’s empty. 

The incident caused a real headache because it revealed for the first time that the Americans had begun supplying the British with the Shrike missiles, while in public they remained relatively neutral. This was conveniently hushed up at the time with the help of the Americans and only fully came to light after the conflict had ended.  

Black Buck 7 occurred on 12th June with the focus switching back to the airport, though this time it was aircraft, ammunition stores and infantry facilities that were the targets. The plan had been to fuse the bombs so that they would air burst (explode before hitting the ground) to destroy buildings but not the runway, but a human error meant that the exact opposite had been done.  In the end, it didn’t really matter. Almost all of the bombs missed their targets, and as you would have it, Argentine forces surrendered two days later. 

The War

I’m well aware that we’ve completely skipped over the actual war so let’s fill you in quickly on what happened after the task force arrived. 

The first engagements between Argentine and British forces came in the sky and at sea. The task force was attacked on numerous occasions with the sinking of four British ships, HMS Ardent, HMS Antelope and HMS Coventry and HMS Sheffield, as well as other smaller crafts, but it was the sinking of the Argentine ARA General Belgrano, and the death of 300 of her crew that hit the headlines. Initially, Argentina claimed that the ship had been moving back to port and away from the exclusion zone set up by the British, but an Argentine commander has since stated that this was not true and the Belgrano had orders to sink any British ship it encountered. However, it was a shocking loss of life that accounted for half of all Argentine deaths during the conflict and led to the entire Argentine fleet returning to port, where it remained until the end of the war.   

British forces began landing on East Falkland on 21st May with the number swelling over the next two weeks. Despite their brave resistance the Argentine forces couldn’t hope to match the well trained British army and a series of defeats put the British forces at the edge of Port Stanley, the Falklands’ capital, on 11th June. Three days later, it was all over. 

The entire war had lasted just short of six weeks but had cost the lives of 649 Argentine soldiers, and 255 British. While British prestige may have been reestablished, it’s difficult not to view the entire conflict as an absurd waste of life.    

A Long Way for Very Little

The impact that Operation Black Buck had on the Falklands War has long been debated. At best, it forced the Argentine military to withdraw a large number of its aircraft back to the mainland in anticipation of a strike against Buenos Aires. This of course never happened, and in fact, British commanders even stated that no attacks would be carried out against the mainland – no doubt attempting to shore up shaky international support. 

If you look at the cost, risk and sheer complexities of the Black Buck raids measured against the damage they caused, the attacks look like a ridiculous venture. The hard truth is that the British Army, Navy and Air Force were superior to the Argentine’s in almost every way and their success owed much more to that simple fact than any long-distance bombing raids.   

But let’s throw logic aside. When Black Buck 1 was successfully completed, it became the longest successful bombing raid in history (a record that stood until 2001 when U.S B-2 bombers flew for a staggering 44 hours to strike targets in Afghanistan before returning home). But this was an age of hi-tech computers and automated systems. Back in 1982, things were much more rudimentary. The Black Bucks raids may not have inflicted considerable damage, but their planning and execution were nothing short of extraordinary.  

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