Updated: Nov 16, 2020
An extraordinary mission, utilising pre cold war technology, in a bombing raid that saw warplanes ready for the scrapheap fly across the globe to strike at the heart of an invasion force. This is the story of Operation Black Buck
People are familiar with the stories of the dam buster raid & the bravery of the RAF fighter command during the Battle of Britain; but the extraordinary story of Operation Black Buck is overlooked in the RAF chronicles. A bombing raid that defied logic and sense to enable Britain to provide a first response to the Argentinian invasion of the Falkland Islands.
The Falklands conflict has a complicated history and genesis that could occupy an article of it's own, but on April 2nd 1982 Argentina mounted a swift invasion of the island territories in the South Atlantic and Britain mustered a Navy task force on April 5th to take back the islands.
In the meantime, there was a desire to provide a rapid retaliatory strike for moral and psychological purposes, let alone potential strategic impacts. The RAF were keen to provide options to the political leadership, especially in the light of devastating spending cuts. There was a proposal to launch a bombing raid from Ascension Isle in the Mid Atlantic on the runways and radar installations on the Falklands. What is so astonishing about the proposal is just how complex and improbable the plan was.
The Avro Vulcan was first conceived in 1947 by Avro design master, Roy Chadwick, the man responsible for the distinctive World War II Lancaster Bomber. The Vulcan was an example of living steam punk in action. A monster V wing bomber designed to deliver a nuclear payload. The technology was decidedly dated, by the 1980s, it was commented that when World War II veterans were given a tour of the Vulcan they pointed at cranks, pulleys and pistons exclaiming they had that over Berlin in '43.
Operation Black Buck was presented was to be the longest bombing sortie in history, almost 6,800 nautical miles (12,600 km) and 16 hours for the return journey, a record only overtaken by B-52 bombing raids on Iraq in the Gulf War in 1991. What is even more breathtaking is that the Vulcan bombers were scheduled for withdrawal from service in 1982. This raid would involve mid air refuelling using equipment and skills long since consigned to the scrapheap and a support fleet of 14 Victor refuelling craft were required to refuel each other and the Vulcan bomber in the logistical feat.
Tensions through the sorties was at times intense, engine failures and even scheduled refuelling through enormous electrical storms tested the pilots to the extreme.
The entire enterprise was fraught with complications and difficulty. It is of note that the V Wing bomber crews had never flown any missions in anger. An entire infrastructure designed for medium distance nuclear reprisal was only ever used for a conventional bombing raid at record breaking distances.
It is of little wonder that they celebrated with a beer upon return to base. Some of the flights were not so lucky, one Vulcan having to divert to Rio de Janeiro and landing with a pitiful amount of fuel that would have left the plane unable to make a second pass at landing. This event in itself was a major diplomatic incident, causing the aircraft to be impounded by the Brazilian government.
The strategic impact of the raids is hotly competed by historians. It is argued that the fact of the raids drew defensive changes from the Argentinians prior to the arrival of the Naval task force, others argue that the raids had minimal impact and that the Argentine forces created false craters to give the impression of success, but at least one raid took the Port Stanley runway out of commission and service personnel that occupied Port Stanley after the conflict testify to significant craters on the airfield.
The huge logistics operations that went into this series of epic flights are not to be underestimated. Just a glance at the schematic below to understand the mammoth task of getting one Vulcan to and from the Falklands out over the lonely expanses of the Atlantic is dizzying.
There are several excellent sources on the internet to learn more about Operation Black Buck. The Wikipedia article is very detailed and gives a full overview of the missions. The Vulcans to the sky website, home of Vulcan XH558 has an exclusive article written by Barry Masefield, former Air Electronics Officer on XH558, who shares his personal memories of his involvement in the operation. It is also his photograph above that shows the Black Buck fleet gathered on Ascension Isle. The TwitterVforce blog has gathered a series of photos and paintings of the Black Buck operation and reproduced them here but their website is an interesting place to visit in general, an organisation dedicated to the preservation of RAF Cold War V Force craft. Also worth a look is The Aviationist article by Richard Clements written on the thirtieth anniversary of the raid.
But for those of you who really want to get under the wings of of the story, the seminal source is the remarkable book Vulcan 607 by Rowland White which is available for purchase from the Vulcan to the Sky organisation and undoubtedly all good bookstores, but, buying it from the Vulcan to the Sky Trust supports the Trust.
The extraordinary Black Buck story is an example of delivering the impossible, using the improbable, crewed by the indomitable, and a powerful denouement to the service career of what is arguably one of the finest feats of British engineering ever produced. The monstrous, but oddly graceful V-wing bomber, the Vulcan.
XH558 was the last airworthy Vulcan and flew her last display flights in October 2015. It seems future generations will not have the pleasure of watching and hearing the power of a Vulcan take off, a distinctive howl followed by a death defying vertical climb that never fails to impress. XH558 was named "The Spirit of Great Britain" and on it's farewell tour performed flypasts across the country. The Vulcan holds a place in the British cultural psyche as powerful and resonant as the Concorde and Spitfire. An engineering marvel that only ever flew this one record breaking series of sorties in anger. A plane that brings emotional reactions from the men who flew them, and awe from those who witnessed it in flight.