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The Falklands raid they called mission impossible
The Falklands conflict involved the longest bombing raid in history and took Argentina and the rest of the world by surprise. Thirty years on, MATT CLARK talks to the aircraft’s pilot, who lives near York.
MARTIN Withers checks his calendar. It’s going to be a busy summer, he says, displaying at air shows up and down the country at the controls of his beloved Vulcan bomber. But 30 years ago Martin’s diary was booked for a different series of flights.
The British Task Force had been dispatched to drive invading Argentine troops from the Falkland Islands.
Most of the initial military operation had been conducted by the Navy and Marines, but senior officers were worried about the threat from aircraft based at Port Stanley airfield.
So it was decided to launch a lone RAF bomber that would appear from nowhere to attack the runway. Flight Lieutenant Martin Withers was to be its pilot.
Mission impossible, some have called it. Only one airfield could sustain RAF operations: Ascension Island, eight degrees south of the equator. But it was still thousands of miles from the Falklands and the only aircraft that could reach them was the Vulcan.
To do so it would need to refuel in mid air and that posed two immediate problems. The Vulcan was Britain’s airborne nuclear deterrent, which meant neither conventional bombing nor air-to-air refuelling had been practised for years.
There wasn’t much time to brush up on those skills. Crews had a fortnight’s practice on bombing ranges, but refuelling was another matter.
Reinstating the pipework caused the first major headache; most parts had been discarded and engineers had to scour scrap yards and museums to find them. One vital piece was discovered being used as an ashtray.
The next problem was few of the pilots had ever taken fuel from a tanker and there was little time for them to learn.
“We had about three weeks,” says Martin, of Crayke. “It was a totally new skill and we had to be capable of doing it comfortably at day and night. I had three sessions with Dick Russell the Victor tanker instructor and a couple of solo practices; that was it really.”
However, this lack of experience threatened the whole success of the mission, so for each Black Buck sortie an experienced Victor tanker pilot would sit in the jump seat and take over when the Vulcan needed a top-up.
Then there was the small matter of finding Port Stanley’s runway. RAF navigators at the time were used to finding their way accurately with rudimentary equipment, but a 4,600-mile flight to find a narrow strip of concrete was another thing.
This was a precision raid, so inertial navigation systems were borrowed from RAF VC-10s and installed in each aircraft.
During peacetime, months of trial flights would have been required, but this was war and less than a month after the conflict began, three Vulcans were sent to the lonely, volcanic Ascension Island.
“We had trained hard for the mission, but even after all the practice we still didn’t really believe we would be doing it for real over Port Stanley,” says Martin.
That all changed on April 30 as the first Black Buck formation of Vulcans and Victors took off. Martin Withers’ aircraft was the reserve, but shortly into the mission the lead bomber developed a fault. It was down to Martin and his crew to make it a success.
“There was a deathly silence in the aircraft for about five minutes. Then I said in a sort of Boy’s Own way, ‘Sounds like we’ve got a job to do, guys’ and that was it.”
The mission was fraught from the outset. Subtropical storms hit, lightning flashed and if that wasn’t enough, Martin discovered his jet was burning more fuel than he expected.
Then there were problems with in-flight refuelling which forced two of the Victors to fly further than planned. On the final hook-up with the Vulcan, the last tanker crew selflessly elected to give away so much fuel to save the mission that they faced ditching in the South Atlantic with little hope of rescue.
The tanker’s refuelling probe had broken so it changed places with another to allow the mission to continue.
“At the time I was shocked and angry. I didn’t know any of this had happened and I thought, ‘No you give us the fuel and then sort yourself out mate’. I couldn’t understand why he was unable to give us more fuel.
“It wasn’t until much later that I realised they had saved the mission by swapping places and then went on to save the mission again by giving us more fuel than they could afford.”
Martin made his final approach to Stanley at 300 feet above the sea, to stay below radar coverage, before climbing to 10,000 feet, the optimum height for the bombs to have most impact.
But the navigators had a problem, one of the inertial navigation systems was playing up and they didn’t know their position to within five miles. There was only one thing for it; climb to height and take a fix.
But that meant switching on the radar which along with the aircraft’s height would signal its presence to the enemy.
As soon as the Vulcan passed 500 feet, search radars locked on to it, but the counter measures system swiftly broke them. Then Martin flew over the Task Force fleet. He hadn’t been told they were there; fortunately the crews knew he was coming and didn’t open fire.
“Suddenly there were all these bleeps; they locked on to us with every single weapon system.
“Well I just turned the volume down, because there was nothing we could do about it. It was like facing flak in the Second World War, you just had to keep going.”
Neither navigator had ever dropped a bomb in anger. As the Vulcan climbed the target appeared on the radar and the first of 21 bombs was released at about 4am local time.
As planned, one scored a direct hit in the centre of the runway.
With huge relief Martin turned for home and signalled the code word ‘superfuse’ – successful attack. At the time, it was the longest bombing raid in history and took the Argentines and the rest of the world by surprise.
“When they told us we were going to attack this heavily defended airfield I couldn’t see how we would survive, but I think we really did catch them napping; they weren’t expecting us at all.”
Reports of the raid were broadcast on the BBC World Service before the Vulcan arrived back at Ascension.
Martin also flew the seventh and final Black Buck mission against troop positions close to Stanley on June 12. The Argentine ground forces surrendered two days later and he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.
For Martin, the Victor crews remain the unsung heroes of the conflict.
“The only reason we succeeded was because the Victor pilots went the extra mile. It was only when they turned for home that they realised the fuel plan hadn’t been very accurate.”
The Black Buck mission has been described as the most remarkable British air attack since the last war and in the same league as the Dambusters raid for the way it was conceived, put together and carried out.
Martin feels proud of his part in it.
“I have since visited the Falklands and talked with some of the islanders. They are incredibly grateful for what we did.
“I strongly believe they should be allowed to determine their own future. It wasn’t negotiable in 1982 and it shouldn’t be now.”
Britain first claimed the Falklands in 1765 and although it withdrew in 1774, on economic grounds, Britain never relinquished its claim to sovereignty.
Spain next took control but abandoned its settlement in 1811 leaving the islands uninhabited apart from occasional visits from British and US fishing vessels.
In 1820, newly independent Argentina claimed sovereignty and later founded a settlement.
Britain re-established control over the islands in 1833 to support its own earlier claim and expelled the Argentine garrison. Most Argentine settlers left gradually. The Britons who then settled came to make up the islands’ first permanent population.
Britain rests its case on its long-term administration of the Falklands and on the principle of self-determination for the islanders, who are almost all of British descent.
Argentina continued to press its claim to the islands, which intensified in the 1960s. In 1965 the UN designated the territory as a “colonial problem” and called on both countries to negotiate a solution.
Talks were held on and off for more than 17 years but failed to resolve the issue and in April 1982, Argentine troops invaded.
Britain dispatched a military force to eject them and the Argentine garrison commander in Port Stanley surrendered on June 14.
The fighting cost the lives of 655 Argentine and 255 British servicemen.
London and Buenos Aires restored diplomatic relations in 1990, but the status of the Falklands remains a sore point, with disagreements over flights to the islands and fishing rights remaining.