On May 1, 1982, a British naval task force — having arrived in a 300-mile exclusion zone surround the Falkland Islands on April 30 — was attacked by Argentine aircraft while British planes mounted their first air raids on the airfield at the islands’ capital of Port Stanley. This was the first Operation Black Buck — a series of seven extremely long-range ground attack missions by Royal Air Force Vulcan bombers staged from RAF Ascension Island, close to the equator. Five of the seven missions completed attacks on the Falklands. The objectives of all missions were to attack Port Stanley airfield and its associated defenses. These British raids of the Falklands islands War of 1982, at almost 6,800 nautical miles (12,600 km) and 16 hours for the return journey, were the longest-ranged bombing raids in history at that times.
On Friday, April 2, 1982, Argentina invaded and occupied the Falkland Islands and, the following day, attacked South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands n an attempt to establish the sovereignty it had claimed over them. Neither Argentina nor the United Kingdom officially declared war, although both governments declared the Islands a war zone. Hostilities were almost exclusively limited to the territories under dispute and the area of the South Atlantic where they lie. The conflict lasted 74 days and ended with the Argentine surrender on June 14, 1982, returning the islands to British control. In total, 649 Argentine military personnel, 255 British military personnel, and three Falkland Islanders died during the hostilities.
The Falkland Islands (Islas Malvinas in Spanish) is an archipelago in the South Atlantic Ocean on the Patagonian Shelf. The principal islands are about 300 miles (483 kilometers) east of South America’s southern Patagonian coast, at a latitude of about 52°S. The archipelago comprises East Falkland, West Falkland and 776 smaller island with a total land area of 4,700 square miles (12,000 km²) and a coastline estimated at 800 miles (1,300 km). The islands are predominantly mountainous and hilly, with the major exception being the depressed plains of Lafonia (a peninsula forming the southern part of East Falkland).
The two main islands are separated by the Falkland Sound, and its deep coastal indentations form natural harbors. East Falkland houses Stanley — the capital and largest settlement and the archipelago’s highest point, Mount Usborne at 2,313 feet (705 m). Outside of Stanley is the area colloquially known as “Camp”, which is derived from the Spanish term for countryside (Campo).As a British overseas territory, the Falklands have internal self-governance, and the United Kingdom takes responsibility for their defense and foreign affairs.
The climate of the islands is cold, windy and humid maritime. Variability of daily weather is typical throughout the archipelago. Rainfall is common over half of the year, averaging 24 inches (610 millimeters) in Stanley, and sporadic light snowfall occurs nearly all year. The temperature has historically stayed between 70.0 and 12.0 °F (21.1 and −11.1 °C) in Stanley, with mean monthly temperatures varying from 48 °F (9 °C) early in the year to 30 °F (−1 °C) in July. Strong westerly winds and cloudy skies are common. Although numerous storms are recorded each month, conditions are normally calm.
Controversy exists over the Falklands’ discovery and subsequent colonization by Europeans. At various times, the islands have had French, British, Spanish, and Argentine settlements. Britain reasserted its rule in 1833, although Argentina maintains its claim to the islands. Most Falklanders favor the archipelago remaining a UK overseas territory, but its sovereignty status is part of an ongoing dispute between Argentina and the United Kingdom.
At the time of the Falklands War, South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands were governed as part of the Falkland Islands Dependencies. Since 1985, they have constituted a separate British Overseas Territory in the southern Atlantic Ocean. It is a remote and inhospitable collection of islands, consisting of South Georgia and a chain of smaller islands known as the South Sandwich Islands. South Georgia is 103 miles (165 km) long and 1 to 22 miles (1 to 35 km) wide. It is by far the largest island in the territory. The South Sandwich Islands lie about 430 miles (700 km) southeast of South Georgia. The territory’s total land area is 1,507 square miles (3,903 km²) The Falkland Islands are about 810 miles (1,300 km) north-west from its nearest point.
The United Kingdom claimed sovereignty over South Georgia in 1775 and the South Sandwich Islands in 1908. Argentina claimed South Georgia in 1927 and claimed the South Sandwich Islands in 1938. There is no permanent population on the islands. The present inhabitants are the British Government Officer, Deputy Postmaster, scientists, and support staff from the British Antarctic Survey who maintain scientific bases at Bird Island and at the capital, King Edward Point, as well as museum staff at nearby Grytviken.
Without aircraft able to cover the long distance, activities in the South Atlantic during the war would have to be carried out by the Royal Navy and the British Army. Plans were set in motion within the Royal Air Force to see if it could carry out any operations near the Falklands. The airfield nearest to the Falklands and usable for RAF operations was on Ascension Island, a British territory, with a single runway at Wideawake airfield, which was leased to the United States.
Long-range operations were entirely dependent upon the RAF’s tanker fleet and so fourteen Handley Page Victor tankers were transferred from RAF Marham to Ascension Island. The RAF tankers themselves were capable of being refuelled in flight, which meant that it was possible to set up relays of aircraft. At RAF Marham, the tanker force was set to planning refueling operations to take one or more bombers to the Falklands and back. Initial long range operations by the RAF involved the use of Victor aircraft for photo reconnaissance of the region surrounding South Georgia; these missions demonstrated the capability of the Victor tanker fleet, flying out of Ascension, to support operations in the South Atlantic.
The British task force had been rapidly put together from whatever vessels were available following the invasion which began on April 2, 1982, when Argentine forces mounted amphibious landings off the Falkland Islands. The invasion was met with a nominal defense organized by the Falkland Islands’ Governor Sir Rex Hunt, giving command to Major Mike Norman of the Royal Marines. The events of the invasion included the landing of Lieutenant Commander Guillermo Sanchez-Sabarots’ Amphibious Commandos Group, the attack on Moody Brook barracks, the engagement between the troops of Hugo Santillan and Bill Trollope at Stanley, and the final engagement and surrender at Government House.
Word of the invasion first reached the UK from Argentine sources. A Ministry of Defence operative in London had a short telex conversation with Governor Hunt’s telex operator, who confirmed that Argentines were on the island and in control. Later that day, BBC journalist Laurie Margolis spoke with an islander at Goose Green via amateur radio, who confirmed the presence of a large Argentine fleet and that Argentine forces had taken control of the island.
Operation Corporate was the codename given to the British military operations in the Falklands War. The commander of task force operations was Admiral Sir John Fieldhouse. The British government had taken action prior to the April 2 invasion. On March 19, a group of Argentine scrap metal merchants (actually infiltrated by Argentine marines) raised the Argentine flag at South Georgia Island, an act that would later be seen as the first offensive action in the war. The Royal Navy ice patrol vessel HMS Endurance was dispatched from Port Stanley to South Georgia in response, subsequently leading to the invasion of South Georgia by Argentine forces on April 3. The submarines HMS Splendid and HMS Spartan were ordered to sail south on March 29, whereas the stores ship Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA) Fort Austin was dispatched from the Western Mediterranean to support HMS Endurance.
Lord Carrington had wished to send a third submarine, but the decision was deferred due to concerns about the impact on operational commitments. Coincidentally, on March 26, the submarine HMS Superb left Gibraltar and it was assumed in the press it was heading south. On April 1, the Chief of the Naval Staff, Admiral Sir Henry Leach — having been advised by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher during a recent crisis meeting that “Britain could and should send a task force if the islands are invaded” — sent orders to a Royal Navy force carrying out exercises in the Mediterranean to prepare to sail south.
Following the invasion on April 2, after an emergency meeting of the cabinet, approval was given to form a task force to retake the islands. This was backed in an emergency session of the House of Commons the next day. The nuclear-powered submarine Conqueror set sail from France on April 4, while the two aircraft carriers Invincible and Hermes, in the company of escort vessels, left Portsmouth only a day later. On its return to Southampton from a world cruise on April 7, the ocean liner SS Canberra was requisitioned and set sail two days later with 3 Commando Brigade aboard. The ocean liner Queen Elizabeth 2 was also requisitioned and left Southampton on May 12 with 5th Infantry Brigade on board. The whole task force eventually comprised 127 ships: 43 Royal Navy vessels, 22 Royal Fleet Auxiliary ships and 62 merchant ships.
On April 6, the British Government set up a War Cabinet to provide day-to-day political oversight of the campaign. This was the critical instrument of crisis management for the British with its remit being to “keep under review political and military developments relating to the South Atlantic, and to report as necessary to the Defence and Overseas Policy Committee”. Until it was dissolved on August 12, the War Cabinet met at least daily. Although Margaret Thatcher is described as dominating the War Cabinet, Lawrence Freedman notes in the Official History of the Falklands Campaign that she did not ignore opposition or fail to consult others. However, once a decision was reached she “did not look back”
The retaking of the Falkland Islands was considered extremely difficult. The U.S. Navy considered a successful counter-invasion by the British “…a military impossibility.” Firstly, the British were significantly constrained by the disparity in deployable air cover. The British had 42 aircraft (28 Sea Harriers and 14 Harrier GR.3s) available for air combat operations, against approximately 122 serviceable jet fighters, of which about 50 were used as air superiority fighters and the remainder as strike aircraft, in Argentina’s air forces during the war. Crucially, the British lacked airborne early warning and control (AEW) aircraft. Planning also considered the Argentine surface fleet and the threat posed by Exocet-equipped vessels or the two Type 209 submarines.
By mid-April, the Royal Air Force had set up the airbase of RAF Ascension Island, including a sizeable force of Avro Vulcan B Mk 2 bombers, Handley Page Victor K Mk 2 refueling aircraft, and McDonnell Douglas Phantom FGR Mk 2 fighters to protect them. At RAF Waddington, the retraining of crews in conventional bombing and in-flight refueling for the long-range Operation Black Buck missions was begun. Aircraft were selected based upon their engines; only those with the more powerful Bristol Olympus 301 engines were considered suitable. One of the most challenging tasks was re-instating the refueling system, which had been blocked off.
Three 22-year-old Vulcan B2s were selected — XM597, XM598 and XM607 — drawn from No. 44, 50 and No. 101 Squadron RAF. After an initial delay of one day, the Vulcans were deployed to Wideawake, arriving on April 28. Two further Vulcans, XM612 and XL391, were stationed at Wideawake as reserve aircraft in case of mechanical failures in the three primary aircraft. Squadron Leader Neil McDougall, Squadron Leader John Reeve, Squadron Leader Alastair ‘Monty’ Montgomery and Flight Lieutenant Martin Withers captained the Vulcans.
To give improved electronic countermeasures (ECM) against Argentine defenses, which were known to include Tigercat missile and radar-controlled anti-aircraft guns, Dash 10 pods from Blackburn Buccaneer aircraft at RAF Honington were fitted to the wings of the Vulcans on improvised pylons. Evaluation of the effectiveness of the Dash 10 pod and ECM training was undertaken at the RAF Spadeadam electronic warfare ranges in north-west England. To navigate across the featureless seas, inertial guidance systems were borrowed from VC-10s, and two installed in each Vulcan.
The Vulcan fuel tanks could contain 9,200 gallons (41,823 liters). Based upon estimates of the Vulcan’s fuel need, eleven Victor tankers, including two reserve aircraft, were assigned to refuel the single Vulcan before and after its attack on the Falklands. The attacking Vulcan was refueled four times on the outward journey and once on the return journey, using over 220,000 gallons of aviation fuel during the mission. Two identically-armed Vulcans took off for each mission, the second returning to base, without refueling, if no problems arose with the first, or assuming its role if the first could not continue.
Each aircraft carried either twenty-one 1,000-pound (450 kg) bombs or four Shrike anti-radar missiles (Dash 10 pod) with three 1,000-gallon (4,546-liter) auxiliary fuel tanks in the bomb bay. The bombs were intended to cause damage to Argentine installations, especially Port Stanley Airport; it being hoped that the attacks would cause the defenders to switch on defensive radars, which would then be targeted by the missiles. The lighter Shrike-armed Vulcans could loiter in the area longer than the bomb-armed Vulcans. Fleet Air Arm officer and critic of the RAF, Nigel Ward, unfavorably compared the amount of fuel consumed by the raids to that used in Sea Harrier bombing missions.
Meanwhile, the main British naval task force arrived at Ascension to prepare for active service. Hermes reached Ascension on April 16, and Fearless, Stromness and five Round Table-class LSLs (landing ship logistics) the following day. Canberra (carrying 3rd Battalion Parachute Regiment and Royal Marines) and P&O ferry MS Elk (loaded with 100 vehicles, 2,000 tons of ammunition, and several hundred tons of stores) arrived on April 20, having refueled at Freetown. By this time, cargo planes were arriving at Wideawake Airfield at a rate of eight per day, and 1,500 long tons (1,500 t) of supplies had arrived, a third of which were earmarked for the 3rd Commando Brigade. Stores were difficult to identify, as many were poorly labelled, making it difficult to distinguish real ammunition from training ammunition. When cargo was not properly logged on arrival, it became difficult to know whether or not an item had been delivered. There was no security at the airfield, so goods were subject to pilferage. D Squadron, 22 Special Air Service Regiment, helped themselves to special ammunition and weapons belonging to the 3rd Commando Brigade, which they thought were just lying around.
A small force had already been sent south to recapture South Georgia. The task force, Operation Paraquet, under the command of Major Guy Sheridan RM, consisted of Marines from 42 Commando, a troop of the Special Air Service (SAS) and Special Boat Service (SBS) troops who were intended to land as reconnaissance forces for an invasion by the Royal Marines. All were embarked on RFA Tidespring (A75), a Tide-class replenishment oiler.
The United States was concerned by the prospect of Argentina turning to the Soviet Union for support, and initially tried to mediate an end to the conflict. However, when Argentina refused the U.S. peace overtures, U.S. Secretary of State Alexander Haig announced that the United States would prohibit arms sales to Argentina and provide material support for British operations. Both Houses of the U.S. Congress passed resolutions supporting the U.S. action siding with the United Kingdom.
The U.S. provided the United Kingdom with military equipment ranging from submarine detectors to the latest missiles. President Ronald Reagan approved the Royal Navy’s request to borrow the Sea Harrier-capable amphibious assault ship USS Iwo Jima (LPH-2) if the British lost an aircraft carrier. The United States Navy developed a plan to help the British man the ship with American military contractors, likely retired sailors with knowledge of Iwo Jima‘s systems.
France provided dissimilar aircraft training so Harrier pilots could train against the French aircraft used by Argentina. French and British intelligence also worked to prevent Argentina from obtaining more Exocet missiles on the international market, while at the same time Peru attempted to purchase 12 missiles for Argentina, in a failed secret operation. Chile gave support to the UK in the form of intelligence about the Argentine military and early warning intelligence on Argentine air movements. Throughout the war, Argentina was afraid of a Chilean military intervention in Patagonia and kept some of her best mountain regiments away from the Falklands near the Chilean border as a precaution.
At Ascension, the amphibious force took the opportunity to re-stow its equipment. This took eleven days. Having not yet refueled, Fearless rode too high in the water, and was unable to launch its LCUs, so the burden of the effort initially had to be carried by helicopters. Two Wessexes, three Sea Kings and a Boeing CH-47 Chinook supported the effort. Shortages of lifting gear and cargo nets hampered the effort, as did the haphazard original stowage of stores. In some cases, cargo had shifted during the voyage to Ascension. Some 138 Wessex, 40 Chinook and 40 Sea King sorties were flown on a single day. The LSLs Sir Galahad and Sir Percivale were stocked with two days’ supply of ammunition, fuel and rations. Four more days’ supply was stowed on Stromness, and sixteen on Elk. Units were issued with supplies and equipment they would require for an amphibious assault.
The five LSLs, carrying most of the Commando Logistic Regiment, weighed anchor and set out for the Falkland Islands on May 1, along with support tanker RFA Pearleaf and escorted by the frigate HMS Antelope. The roll=on/roll-off ferry MV Norland arrived at Ascension on the morning of May 7, and departed for the Falklands that evening. Canberra and Elk had left the previous day, and the last ship, the LPD Intrepid, departed Ascension on May 8.
Encounters began in April; the British Task Force was shadowed by Boeing 707 aircraft of the Argentine Air Force during their travel to the south. Several of these flights were intercepted by Sea Harriers outside the British-imposed exclusion zone; the unarmed 707s were not attacked because diplomatic moves were still in progress and the UK had not yet decided to commit itself to armed force. On April 23, a Brazilian commercial Douglas DC-10 from VARIG Airlines en route to South Africa was intercepted by British Harriers who visually identified the civilian plane.
On April 19, the Churchill-class submarine HMS Conqueror was the first to arrive at South Georgia and the island was over-flown by a radar-mapping Handley Page Victor on April 20. The first landings of SAS troops took place on April 21, but — with the southern hemisphere autumn setting in — the weather was so bad that their landings and others made the next day were all withdrawn after two helicopters crashed in fog on Fortuna Glacier. On April 23, a submarine alert was sounded and operations were halted, with Tidespring being withdrawn to deeper water to avoid interception. On April 24, the British forces regrouped and headed in to attack.
On April 25, the submarine ARA Santa Fe (S-21) accomplished its mission to ferry a party of marines based at Puerto Belgrano and supplies to Grytviken on South Georgia Island. Members of the Argentine garrison had salvaged a crippled BAS launch, which was used to transfer the cargo. Some hours later, after leaving Grytviken, Santa Fe was detected on radar by Lieutenant Chris Parry, the observer of the Westland Wessex HAS.3 anti-submarine helicopter from HMS Antrim, which attacked the Argentine submarine with depth charges. This attack caused extensive internal damage, including the splitting of a ballast tank, the dismounting of electrical components and shocks to the machinery.
As the submarine struggled to return to Grytviken on the surface, HMS Plymouth launched a Westland Wasp HAS Mk 1 helicopter, and HMS Brilliant launched a Westland Lynx HAS.2. The Lynx dropped a Mk 46 torpedo, which failed to strike home, but strafed the submarine with its pintle-mounted 7.62 mm L7 General Purpose Machine Gun (GPMG). The Wessex also fired on Santa Fe with its GPMG. The Wasp from HMS Plymouth and two other Wasps launched from HMS Endurance fired AS-12 air-to-surface anti-ship missiles at the submarine, scoring hits. Santa Fe‘s men and the marines onshore attempted to fight off the attack by firing their rifles, machine guns, and an old Bantam anti-tank missile at the aircraft, but the Argentine boat was damaged badly enough to prevent her from submerging or even from sailing away. The crew abandoned the listing submarine at the jetty at King Edward Point on South Georgia.
With Tidespring now far out to sea, and the Argentine forces augmented by the submarine’s crew, Major Sheridan decided to gather the 76 men he had and make a direct assault that day. After a short forced march by the British troops and a naval bombardment demonstration by two Royal Navy vessels (Antrim and Plymouth), the Santa Fe crew and Argentine garrison surrendered without resistance. Brilliant‘s diving officer, Lt. Chris Sherman, went down to place a charge to disable the submarine further, and blew off its rudder.
The message sent from the naval force at South Georgia to London was,
“Be pleased to inform Her Majesty that the White Ensign flies alongside the Union Jack in South Georgia. God Save the Queen.”
The Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, broke the news to the media, telling them to “Just rejoice at that news, and congratulate our forces and the Marines!
On April 26, while under guard on the Santa Fe by a British Royal Marine, Argentine Navy Petty Officer Felix Artuso was mistakenly shot dead while a prisoner of war; his body was buried at Grytviken Cemetery. Artuso was shot because it was believed (wrongly) that he was trying to sabotage the vessel. According to some members of her crew, in the middle of the confusion that followed the incident, a number of valves and hatchways were left open, the submarine flooded and sank alongside the pier, with only her combat-damaged conning tower showing above the surface. After the conflict ended, Santa Fe was considered to be worthless as a war prize because she was non-standard, obsolete, badly damaged and too expensive to repair. As a result, the submarine was temporarily raised by the British, towed into deep water and scuttled on February 10, 1985.
On May 1, 1982, British operations on the Falkland Islands themselves opened with the Operation Black Buck One attack on the airfield just east of Port Stanley. The first surprise air raid was aimed at the main runway at Port Stanley Airport. Carrying twenty-one 1,000-pound (450-kg) general-purpose bombs, the bomber was to fly across the line of the runway at about 35 degrees. The bomb release system was timed to drop bombs sequentially from 10,000 feet (3,000 m), so that at least one bomb would hit the runway.
For the 8,000-nautical-mile (9,200-mile or 15,000-km) round-trip mission, two Vulcans took off from RAF Ascension Island on April 30; XM598 was the lead with XM607 as the reserve. Shortly after take off, XM598, commanded by Squadron Leader John Reeve, suffered a pressurization failure (a rubber seal on the “Direct Vision” side window had perished) and was forced to return to Ascension. XM607, captained by Flight Lieutenant Martin Withers, took over. As well as XM598, one of the Victor tankers returned to Ascension with a faulty refueling hose system, and its place was taken by a reserve.
The Vulcan was over its normal maximum take-off weight — each carried, as well as extra equipment like the DASH 10 and a chemical toilet, a highly experienced Air to Air Refueling Instructor (AARI) from the Victor tanker force who would fly the Vulcan during refueling — and fuel usage was higher than expected. As a result of the fuel demand and problems in flight with refueling, two of the Victors had to fly further south than planned, eating into their own reserves. At the Victor’s final refueling bracket, the sortie flew into a violent thunderstorm, during which the receiver aircraft’s refueling probe failed, forcing the provider aircraft to swap places and take back the fuel. XL189, the last Victor to refuel the Vulcan, was past the last refueling bracket before turning home. Tankers had to be sent south to refuel these Victors so that they could reach Ascension. A total of eleven Victors were used to support Black Buck One: XH669, XH672, XL162, XL163, XL188, XL189, XL192, XL232, XL511, XL512 and XM717.
XM607 made the final approach at around 300 feet above the sea. Before climbing to attack height the H2S radar was successfully locked on to offset markers on the coast, and bombing handed over to the control system. The attack was delivered around 04;00 local time the morning of May 1.
XM607 then climbed away from the airfield and headed nearly due north to a planned rendezvous with a Victor some way off the coast of Rio de Janeiro. As it passed the British Task Force it signaled the code word “superfuse” indicating a successful attack. Its journey continued within range of the South American coast to its rendezvous with a tanker. After contacting control with an update, the tanker was sent further south. To help bring the two planes together, a Nimrod Maritime Reconnaissance aircraft was flown from Wideawake to the area. Without an in-flight refueling system it was unable to loiter long. XM607 made the link and was able to return to Ascension.
Northwood received the “superfuse” message by 08:30 and the Ministry of Defence shortly thereafter. The news of the bombing raid was reported on the BBC World Service before either the Vulcan or the last tanker arrived back at Ascension.
The stick of twenty-one 1000-pound bombs crossed the airfield, damaged the airport tower, scored a single direct hit in the center of the runway and killed two Argentine Air Force personnel. However, the runway still remained operational for the Argentine C-130 Hercules transports. The bombs falling on either side of the runway caused slight damage to tented installations in the airfield perimeter. This was due to the careful dispersal of equipment by the base commander.
With the Argentine radar at Port Stanley jammed by the Vulcan’s AN/ALQ-101D pod, the attack took the Argentines by surprise. Black Buck One was the first operation undertaken as part of the United Kingdom’s Task Force’s first strategic objective in pursuit of its overall objective of liberating the Falkland Islands, namely, attaining air superiority over the Falklands and surrounding airspace. The attack was aimed at degrading the Argentines’ capability to use the airfield at Port Stanley, and was followed on the same day by bombing attacks by Sea Harriers from HMS Hermes and by naval bombardment from HMS Glamorgan, HMS Alacrity, and HMS Arrow. This strategy also saw the airfield at Goose Green attacked the same day by Sea Harriers.
Flight Lieutenant Withers was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his part in the action and his crew were Mentioned in Dispatches. Squadron Leader Bob Tuxford, who had piloted Victor XL189, the last Victor to refuel XM607, received the Air Force Cross.
During the night of May 3-4, XM607 flown by Squadron Leader John Reeve and his crew of No 50 Squadron flew Operation Black Buck Two in a near-identical mission to the first, targeting the area at the western end of the runway. XM598 acted as flying reserve aircraft, piloted by Squadron Leader Alastair Montgomery. Two Argentine soldiers were wounded in this attack according to Argentine sources. Black Buck Three (scheduled for May 13) and Black Buck Four (May 28) were both scrubbed; the latter mission had been due to be the first using AGM-45A Shrike Anti-Radar missiles supplied by the United States. These were mounted on the Vulcans using improvised underwing pylons.
Black Buck Five, flown by Squadron Leader Neil McDougall and his crew from 50 Squadron in XM597, on May 31, was the first completed anti-radar mission equipped with the Shrike missiles. The main target was a Westinghouse AN/TPS-43 long-range 3D radar that the Argentine Air Force deployed during April to guard the airspace surrounding the Falklands. An attack could only succeed if the targeted radar continued transmitting until struck. At 08:45Z two Shrikes were launched at it. The first missile impacted 10 meters away from the target, causing minor blast damage to the waveguide assembly, but not disabling the radar. The Argentine operators then turned their radar off, preventing further damage. The AN/TPS-43 radar remained operational during the rest of the conflict. XM598 acted as flying reserve aircraft, again piloted by Squadron Leader Alastair Montgomery.
Black Box Six, again flown by Squadron Leader Neil McDougall in XM597, was now armed with four missiles instead of two. During the mission on June 3, the Vulcan loitered for 40 minutes in a vain effort to engage the unswitched AN/TPS-43. Finally they fired two Shrikes and destroyed a Skyguard fire-control radar of the army’s 601 Anti-aircraft battalion, killing four radar operators — an officer, a sergeant and two privates. On its return flight, the aircraft was forced to divert to Rio de Janeiro in Brazil after its in-flight refueling probe broke. One of the missiles it was carrying was ditched into the ocean to reduce drag, but the other remained stuck on the pylon and could not be released. Sensitive documents containing classified information were jettisoned into the sea via the crew hatch, and a “Mayday” signal was sent. Two Northrop F-5E Tiger II from 2° Esquadrão do 1° Grupo de Aviação de Caça of Brazilian Air Force scrambled from Santa Cruz Airfield and intercepted Vulcan XM597.The aircraft was cleared to land at Galeão Airport by Brazilian authorities with less than 2,000 pounds of fuel remaining, not enough to complete a circuit of the airport.
The aircraft was interned for nine days at Galeão Air Force Base, then the crew and aircraft were returned on June 11, having been treated well by the authorities. However, the remaining Shrike missile was confiscated and never returned, and the Brazilian authorities returned the aircraft on condition that it would take no further part in the Falklands War. XM598 acted as flying reserve aircraft, flown once again by Squadron Leader Alastair Montgomery.
The final long-range air-raid mission — Black Buck Seven in XM607 flown by Flight Lieutenant Martin Withers — was against Argentine troop positions close to Stanley on June 12, cratering the eastern end of the airfield and causing widespread damage to airfield stores and facilities. The bombs were fused in error to explode on impact; the end of the war was in sight and the intention had been for them to explode in mid-air to destroy aircraft and stores without damaging the runway, which would be needed for RAF Phantom FGR.2 operations after the Falkland Islands were recaptured. The Argentine ground forces surrendered two days later. XM598 acted as flying reserve aircraft, piloted by Squadron Leader Alastair Montgomery.
The military effectiveness of Black Buck remains controversial with some independent sources describing it as minimal. The damage to the airfield and radars was quickly repaired, the runway continued to be used by Argentine C-130s until the end of the war and it was available for Aermacchi MB-339 jets and FMA Pucarás. Argentine sources claim that Black Buck was initially responsible for the withdrawal of a number of Mirage IIIEA from operations over the islands in order to protect the mainland.
Planning for the raids called for a bomb run in a 35° cut across the runway, with the aim of placing at least one bomb on the runway and possibly two. The main purpose in doing so was to prevent the use of the runway by fast jets; in this respect the raid was successful as the repair to the runway was botched and subsequently there were several near accidents. The fact that the British forces could penetrate Argentine air defenses and attack the airfield had the desired effect in relation to preventing fast jet usage of the Port Stanley airstrip as the Argentine military command could not risk stationing its fast jets and the infrastructure necessary to operate them on the Islands if they could be destroyed on the ground, irrespective of the operational status of the runway. It was realized at the time that the runway would likely remain open to use by C-130s; the RAF routinely practices rough field takeoffs in their C-130s.
In early April, the Argentine Naval Aviation had installed arrestor gear on the runway to enable short landings. A-4Q Skyhawks of 3 Escuadrilla and S-2 Trackers (2-AS-22, 2-AS-25) deployed to the airfield performing several reconnaissance missions until April 13 when they were redeployed to the continent to embark on ARA Veinticinco de Mayo. After the carrier returned to port, and due to the continuous naval bombardment of Port Stanley by that time, the aircraft operated from Rio Grande, Tierra del Fuego and Río Gallegos, Santa Cruz respectively. Engineers of the Argentine Air Force had added additional steel matting to extend the parking area for the Pucaras and Aermacchis that used the airfield, but the main equipment to extend the runway was still on the ELMA cargo ship Cordoba which could not cross to the island due to the British submarine threat.
To the British, the raids achieved a number of non-material objectives in addition to the physical damage caused. These included demonstrating their willingness to defend British territories from forceful invasion, signaling British intent to recapture the Falklands, showing Britain’s ability to attack Argentine forces on the islands, and showing that the British air power that could be deployed in support of the Task force was not limited to aircraft flying from Task Force ships. It also demonstrated the possibility of escalating the conflict in future by striking industrial and military targets on the Argentinian mainland. Regardless of whether or not the British actually intended to pursue these options and escalate the conflict, the Argentinian leadership would have been fully aware of the implications.
At the time, Operation Black Buck was the longest bombing raid in history, covering over 6,800 nautical miles (12,600 km), all of which were conducted over the open sea. This record was not broken until Operation Desert Storm in 1991 when an American B-52 flew from the United States, bombed positions in Iraq, and then returned to RAF Mildenhall in England, although a major difference between the two was that the B-52s used forward pre-positioned tankers for aerial refueling.
After the Argentine forces surrendered in mid-June, the 4,100-by-150-foot (1,250 by 46 m) runway at Stanley’s airfield was unusable because it had been cratered by the air raids. Priority was given to restoration of the port and airfield. In the interim, the Hercules transports continued to fly from Ascension, dropping high priority items. The postal unit moved from Ajax Bay into the Post Office at Port Stanley. At first, mail bags were airdropped but some fell into Argentine minefields. A method was then devised to allow the Hercules to deliver bags without having to land by trailing a grappling hook attached to the bags which snagged a wire strung between two poles.
The runway’s rehabilitation was undertaken by 11 and 59 Field Squadrons. The Argentinians had already repaired three craters. The others were filled in and topped with Argentine aluminum matting. A huge crater caused by a 1,000-pound (450 kg) bomb required over11,000 square feet (1,000 m²) of matting. “Scabs”, or scrapes in the runway surface, of which there were several hundred, were repaired with Bostik 276, a magnesium phosphate cement and aggregate mixture. There were 47 Hercules and several hundred Harrier landings before the airfield was closed for repairs on August 15.
The runway was too short for use by the RAF’s Phantoms, so 50 Field Squadron began extending it to 6,100 feet (1,900 m). Some 9,000 long tons (9,100 t) of airfield construction stores, plant and equipment were landed for this purpose. Aluminum matting was laid along the whole length of the runway. Some 25,000 long tons (25,000 t) of quartz granite rock fill was used, which was obtained by 3 and 60 Field Squadrons from a local quarry. The first Hercules landed on the new runway on August 28. The extension allowed the deployment of a detachment of Phantom FGR.2 fighters from No. 29 Squadron on October 17, 1982. RAF Mount Pleasant, a permanent RAF airbase, was subsequently built, and was opened by Prince Andrew on May 12, 1985.
AAccording to Rowland White, the author of Vulcan 607, Vice Admiral Juan José Lombardo — commander-in-chief of the Teatro de Operaciones del Atlántico sur (TOAS, South Atlantic Theatre of Operations) — was led to believe that Black Buck One was the prelude to a full-scale landing by the British. As a consequence, he ordered Rear Admiral Allara — commander of the Argentine Sea Fleet — to immediately attack the British fleet. This attack took the form of a pincer movement, the Second World War–vintage light cruiser ARA General Belgrano (which as the USS Phoenix (CL-46) had survived the Japanese attacks at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941) to the south and aircraft carrier ARA Veinticinco de Mayo to the north.
The first major Argentine strike force against the British task force comprised 36 aircraft (A-4 Skyhawks, IAI Daggers, English Electric Canberras, and Mirage III escorts). It was sent from mainland bases on May 1, 1982, in the belief that the British invasion was imminent or landings had already taken place. Only a section of Grupo 6 (flying IAI Dagger aircraft) found ships, which were firing at Argentine defenses near the islands. The Daggers managed to attack the ships and return safely. This greatly boosted morale of the Argentine pilots who now knew they could survive an attack against modern warships, protected by radar ground clutter from the Falklands and by using a late pop up profile. Meanwhile, other Argentine aircraft were intercepted by BAE Sea Harriers operating from HMS Invincible. A Dagger and a Canberra were shot down.
Combat broke out between Sea Harrier FRS Mk 1 fighters of No. 801 Naval Air Squadron and Mirage III fighters of Grupo 8. Both sides refused to fight at the other’s best altitude, until two Mirages finally descended to engage. One was shot down by an AIM-9L Sidewinder air-to-air missile (AAM), while the other escaped but was damaged and without enough fuel to return to its mainland air base. The plane made for Port Stanley, where it fell victim to friendly fire from the Argentine defenders.
Two British naval task forces (one of surface vessels and one of submarines) and the Argentine fleet were operating in the neighborhood of the Falklands at the beginning of May and soon came into conflict. On April 2, Britain had declared a maritime exclusion zone of 200 nautical miles around the Falkland Islands within which any Argentine warship or naval auxiliary entering the MEZ might be attacked by British nuclear-powered submarines. On April 23, the British Government clarified in a message that was passed via the Swiss Embassy in Buenos Aires to the Argentine government that any Argentine ship or aircraft that was considered to pose a threat to British forces would be attacked.
On April 30, this was upgraded to the total exclusion zone, within which any sea vessel or aircraft from any country entering the zone might be fired upon without further warning. The zone was stated to be “…without prejudice to the right of the United Kingdom to take whatever additional measures may be needed in exercise of its right of self-defense, under Article 51 of the United Nations Charter.” The concept of a total exclusion zone was a novelty in maritime law; the Law of the Sea Convention had no provision for such an instrument. The purpose of it seems to have been to reduce the amount of time needed to ascertain whether any vessel in the zone was hostile or not. The zone was widely respected by the shipping of neutral nations, possibly more out of prudence than respect for the United Kingdom’s legal position.
The Argentine military junta began to reinforce the islands in late April when it was realized that the British Task Force was heading south. As part of these movements, Argentine Naval units were ordered to take positions around the islands. Two Task Groups, designated 79.1 which included Veinticinco de Mayo plus two Type 42 destroyers, and 79.2 which included three Exocet missile-armed Drummond class corvettes. Both sailed to the north. General Belgrano had left Ushuaia in Tierra del Fuego on April 26. Two destroyers, ARA Piedra Buena and ARA Hipólito Bouchard (also ex-United States Navy vessels) were detached from Task Group 79.2 and together with the tanker, YPF Puerto Rosales joined General Belgrano to form Task Group 79.3.
By April 29,, the ships were patrolling the Burdwood Bank, south of the islands. On April 30, General Belgrano was detected by the British nuclear-powered hunter-killer submarine HMS Conqueror. The submarine approached over the following day. On May 1, Admiral Juan Lombardo ordered all Argentine naval units to seek out the British task force around the Falklands and launch a “massive attack” the following day. General Belgrano, which was outside and to the south-west of the exclusion zone, was ordered south-east.
Lombardo’s signal was intercepted by British Intelligence. As a result, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her War Cabinet, meeting at Chequers the following day, agreed to a request from Admiral Sir Terence Lewin, the Chief of the Defence Staff, to alter the rules of engagement and allow an attack on General Belgrano outside the exclusion zone. Although the group was outside the British-declared total exclusion zone of 200 nautical miles (370 km) radius from the islands, the British decided that it was a threat. After consultation at Cabinet level, Thatcher agreed that Commander Chris Wreford-Brown should attack General Belgrano.
At 15:57 Falkland Islands Time on May 2, Conqueror fired three 21 inch Mk 8 mod 4 torpedoes (conventional, non-guided, torpedoes), each with an 805-pound (363 kg) Torpex warhead. While Conqueror was also equipped with the newer Mark 24 Tigerfish homing torpedo, there were doubts about its reliability. Initial reports from Argentina claimed that Conqueror fired two Tigerfish torpedoes on General Belgrano. Two of the three torpedoes hit the Argentine ship. According to the Argentine government, General Belgrano‘s position was 55°24′S 61°32′W.
One of the torpedoes struck 33 to 40 feet (10 to 15 meters) aft of the bow, outside the area protected by either the ship’s side armor or the internal anti-torpedo bulge. This blew off the ship’s bow, but the internal torpedo bulkheads held and the forward powder magazine for the 40 mm gun did not detonate. It is believed that none of the ship’s company were in that part of the ship at the time of the explosion.
The second torpedo struck about three-quarters of the way along the ship, just outside the rear limit of the side armor plating. The torpedo punched through the side of the ship before exploding in the aft machine room. The explosion tore upward through two messes and a relaxation area called “the Soda Fountain” before finally ripping a 20-metre-long hole in the main deck. Later reports put the number of deaths in the area around the explosion at 275 men. After the explosion, the ship rapidly filled with smoke. The explosion also damaged General Belgrano‘s electrical power system, preventing her from putting out a radio distress call. Though the forward bulkheads held, water was rushing in through the hole created by the second torpedo and could not be pumped out because of the electrical power failure. In addition, although the ship should have been “at action stations”, she was sailing with the watertight doors open.
The ship began to list to port and to sink towards the bow. Twenty minutes after the attack, at 16:24, Captain Bonzo ordered the crew to abandon ship. Inflatable life rafts were deployed, and the evacuation began without panic.
The two escort ships were unaware of what was happening to General Belgrano, as they were out of touch with her in the gloom and had not seen the distress rockets or lamp signals. Adding to the confusion, the crew of Bouchard felt an impact that was possibly the third torpedo striking at the end of its run (an examination of the ship later showed an impact mark consistent with a torpedo). The two ships continued on their course westward and began dropping depth charges. By the time the ships realized that something had happened to General Belgrano, it was already dark and the weather had worsened, scattering the life rafts.
Argentine and Chilean ships rescued 772 men from the open ocean between May 3 and 5, despite cold seas and stormy weather. In total, 323 were killed in the attack: 321 members of the crew and two civilians who were on board at the time. The losses from General Belgrano amounted to nearly half of the Argentine deaths in the Falklands conflict and the loss of the ship hardened the stance of the Argentine government.
Following the loss of General Belgrano, the Argentinian fleet returned to its bases and played no major role in the rest of the conflict. British nuclear submarines continued to operate in the sea areas between Argentina and the Falkland Islands, gathering intelligence, providing early warning of air raids and effectively imposing Sea denial. A further effect was that the Argentinian Navy’s carrier-borne aircraft had to operate from land bases at the limit of their range, rather than from an aircraft carrier at sea. The minimal role of the Navy in the rest of the campaign led to a considerable loss of credibility and influence within the Junta. The entire Argentine fleet, with the exception of the conventional submarine ARA San Luis, returned to port and did not leave again during the fighting. The two escorting destroyers and the battle group centered on the aircraft carrier ARA Veinticinco de Mayo both withdrew from the area, ending the direct threat to the British fleet that their pincer movement had represented.
In a separate incident later that night, British forces engaged an Argentine patrol gunboat, the ARA Alferez Sobral, that was searching for the crew of an Argentine Air Force Canberra light bomber shot down on May 1. Two Royal Navy Lynx helicopters fired four Sea Skua missiles at her. Badly damaged and with eight crew dead, Alferez Sobral managed to return to Puerto Deseado two days later. The Canberra’s crew were never found.
On May 4, two days after the sinking of General Belgrano, the British lost the Type 42 destroyer HMS Sheffield to fire following an Exocet missile strike from the Argentine 2nd Naval Air Fighter/Attack Squadron. Sheffield had been ordered forward with two other Type 42s to provide a long-range radar and medium-high altitude missile picket far from the British carriers. She was struck amidships, with devastating effect, ultimately killing 20 crew members and severely injuring 24 others. The ship was abandoned several hours later, gutted and deformed by the fires that continued to burn for six more days. She finally sank outside the Maritime Exclusion Zone on May 10.
The destruction of Sheffield — the first Royal Navy ship sunk in action since the Second World War— had a profound impact on the British public, bringing home the fact that the “Falklands Crisis”, as the BBC News put it, was now an actual “shooting war”.
The tempo of operations increased throughout the first half of May as the United Nations’ attempts to mediate a peace were rejected by the Argentinians. The final British negotiating position was presented to Argentina by UN Secretary General Pérez de Cuéllar on May 18, 1982. In it, the British abandoned their previous “red-line” that British administration of the islands should be restored on the withdrawal of Argentinian forces, as supported by United Nations Security Council Resolution 502. Instead, it proposed a UN administrator should supervise the mutual withdrawal of both Argentinian and British forces, then govern the islands in consultation with the representative institutions of the islands, including Argentines, although no Argentines lived there. Reference to “self determination” of the islanders was dropped and the British proposed that future negotiations over the sovereignty of the islands should be conducted by the UN.
On April 22, 1982, the Argentine Post and Telegraph National Company (Empresa Nacional de Correos y Telégrafos, ENCoTel) overprinted stock of Scott #1218, 1 1700-peso green and blue definitive stamp issued earlier in the year, with the inscription LAS / MALVINAS / SON / ARGENTINAS (“the Malvinas are Argentine”). The photogravure stamp, perforated 13½, is assigned the catalogue number Scott #1338. The Scott catalogue gives the date of issue as April 17 but the postmarks on first day covers bear a date of April 22. The is fairly easy to find on covers sent both to and from the Falkland Islands during the conflict as well as with numerous cancellations from the mainland.
On June 12, just before the war ended at Port Stanley, Argentina issued a pair of stamps marking 153rd anniversary of the creation of the Malvinas Political and Military Command District one of which pictured a large-sized map of Las Islas de las Malvinas (Scott #1365-1366).