Operation BLACK BUCK 1 PART 2

The following is the conclusion of the Operation BLACK BUCK 1 story told in Summer 2018 Wycombe World Magazine. Op BLACK BUCK was mounted 37 years after the Second World War, it was the only time the Avro Vulcan was used in anger. Now 37 years on from the Falklands conflict the Royal Air Force retires the aircraft that replaced the Vulcan, the Tornado GR4.

At 290 miles from the target, and still outside the cover of the Argentinian search radar, the Nav Radar, Gordon Graham told the pilots to descend, he had plotted the Vulcans progress throughout the flight using a Northern Hemisphere Mercator chart turned upside down to replicated the Southern Hemisphere. Levelling out at 2,000 feet, Withers put the aircraft into a gentle descent to 300 feet over the sea; this enabled the Vulcan to remain beneath the lobes of the enemy radar, they were 200 miles from the target. Sixty miles from target Flt Lt Bob Wright the Nav Plotter switched on the H2S radar. The Radar took time to come into action, giving no ground return which was essential for fixing the aircrafts position. Withers climbed to increase the range of the HS2 radar, almost immediately the peak of Mount Usborne, the navigators’ first fix point, appeared one mile from the centre of the cross hairs of the H2S radar. Remarkably the navigation was accurate to within a mile, and the navigators corrected their equipment’s to remove the small error. At the same time, Flt Lt Hugh Prior, the air electronics officer, reported that they were being painted by search radar, Withers quickly went back down to 300 feet and below the radar lobes again.

Gordon Graham counted the distance down to the pull-up point where Withers increased his sped to 350 knots and pulled towards 10,000 feet; the crew decided to give themselves an extra 2,000 feet grace. As they climbed, the AEO Hugh Prior picked up sweeps of the search radar which by itself posed no threat to the bomber. XM607 levelled at 20 miles from the target, about 3 miles from bomb release. The three headlands which Bob Wright was using as offset aiming points showed clearly on his H2S screen, and he refined the aiming. At 10 miles to the target the bomb doors were opened and at the same time Hugh Prior picked up a Skyguard anti aircraft radar on his radar warning receiver. A fire control radar was a very significant threat, and it was coming from the left of the Vulcans nose. It was to late in the bombing run to take any avoiding action, and Hugh Prior switched on his Dash 10 POD. Ten seconds later the Skyguard radar disappeared; the pod had done its job.

As the Vulcan approached the airfield Withers was surprised to see its runway lights were on, 2 miles from the target the first bomb left the bomb bay, followed at quarter second intervals by the remaining 20 bombs. The time was 0724 GMT, 0424 local time on the 1st May. As soon as the last bomb was gone and the bomb doors closed Withers had decided against descending to low level on his exfiltration route, and initiated a full power climb to 10,000 feet. The attack woke up every enemy air defence in the area and the Argentinians opened fire. One of the Vulcans stick of bombs had hit the centre of the runway producing a crater measured by the Joint Air Reconnaissance Intelligence Centre as 115 feet deep and 84 feet wide.

Meanwhile as Sqn Ldr Tuxfords Victor flew North towards Ascension Island the atmosphere changed instantaneously when, 45 minutes after they had cast off the Vulcan, the code word ‘Superfuse’ was intercepted from the Vulcan post-strike. This signalled a successful attack. There was a suddenly a great deal of euphoria in Tuxfords aircraft. Knowing now that the mission could be compromised no longer, Tuxford desperately called for a tanker to rendezvous with them around 3 hours south of Ascension to enable their safe return. In addition, they relayed the Vulcan’s lower fuel state be passed to the inbound recovery wave that was flying towards the planned recovery rendezvous with the Vulcan.

Three hours later with barely one hour’s fuel remaining on board, Tuxford successfully rendezvoused with and refuelled from the scrambled tanker and recovered back to Ascension. Withers Vulcan was also at an extremely low fuel state and successfully rendezvoused with the Victor Tanker, following refuelling the crew were surprised to pick up a BBC World Service broadcast announcing their attack, they then safely recovered back to Ascension.

Immediately upon landing the large reception committee for the Vulcan included Air Vice Marshall George Chesworth, he warmly welcomed Dick Russell as he climbed down the steps, it was the first time they had met since their Short Sunderland Flying boat course in 1952, Russell as a Sgt Air Gunner and Chesworth as a junior pilot. A total of 18 sorties were launched during the night of 30 April and 1 May 1982, the participating Victor crews flew in excess of 109 hours, with five crews in excess of 10 hours. Some 23-individual air to air refuelling’s took place with a total of 635,000 lbs of fuel being transferred. The resulting action of BLACK BUCK 1 was that Port Stanley airfield was significantly damaged, and the useable runway denied to fighter aircraft for the rest of the war. More importantly, Britain and the Royal Air Force in particular had demonstrated not only that it had the capability to bomb the invasion forces at extreme distance, but also it had the will to do so.

Furthermore, this could be construed by the enemy that the Argentine mainland was a potential target too. The day following BLACK BUCK 1 the Argentinian Air Force’s only dedicated fighter interceptor squadron, Gruppo 8 equipped with Mirage III fighters, withdrew from Rio Gallegos in the south of the country where it was to have supported operations over the Falklands.

To meet the new potential threat the unit redeployed to Comodoro Rivadavia much further north. Apart from a single skirmish near the end of the conflict, Gruppo 8 would play no further part in the fighting. A further 6 BLACK BUCK raids were flown, with both conventional bombing and American AGM-45 Shrike anti-radar missile missions being undertaken. Following on from the conflict, the following BLACK BUCK mission members were formally recognised for their contributions. For Squadron Leader Tuxford’s courage and leadership he was awarded the Air Force Cross for gallantry, and his crew the Queens Commendation for Valuable Services in the Air. Squadron Leader Withers was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and his crew a Mention in Dispatches. Squadron Leader Dick Russell AFC of 232 Operational Conversion Unit RAF Marham was awarded a Mention in Dispatches for his role as the Air-to-Air Refuelling Instructor on Withers’ Vulcan, the evening of BLACK BUCK 1 being his 50th Birthday. Air Vice Marshall Chesworth summed up Operation BLACK BUCK by saying it was a very close run thing, and the Chief of the Air Staff Sir Michael Beetham made a simple entry into his diary when he was given he news ‘A fine day for the Air Force’. I would like to thank the following people who gave me their kind permission to use the contents of their works, Rowland White author of the acclaimed book ‘Vulcan XM607, Air Commodore Simon Baldwin MBE, and Group Captain John Laycock (former Station Commander RAF Waddington) authors of The Kings Thunderbolts are Righteous’, Group Captain Jeremy Price CBE former Station Commander RAF Marham, Sqn Ldr Bob Tuxford AFC author of ‘Contact!’, Group Captain ‘Monty’ Montgomery, Wing Commander Mel James OBE, Squadron Leader Dick Russel AFC, Squadron Leader Barry Masefield, assistance from the Air Historical Branch, and photos of XM655 Cockpit, courtesy of Lawrence Fowler, photos of XM571 Cockpit Courtesy of Sqn Ldr Bob Tuxford AFC and XM607 courtesy of Vince Hopper.