After Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands on 2 April 1982, the British government resolved to recapture them. The ageing V-class bombers and particularly the Avro Vulcan was called upon to execute one of the most daring raids since the Dam Busters.
At the time, the British defence planning was focused on the Cold War with little thought given to conventional warfare. The nearest airfield to the Falklands and usable for RAF operations was on Ascension Island, a British territory, with a single 3,000 m runway at Wideawake airfield, which was leased to the US.
Ascension lay 3,700 nautical miles from the UK and 3,300 nautical miles from the Falklands. The Royal Air Force (RAF) had not envisaged carrying out operations in the South Atlantic. Without aircraft able to cover the long-distance, activities in the South Atlantic would be carried out by the Royal Navy and the British Army, and the RAF's role would be restricted to the Hawker Siddeley Nimrod maritime patrol aircraft and logistic support of the base at Ascension by Vickers VC10 and Lockheed C-130 Hercules transport aircraft.
In March plans were set in motion within the RAF to see if it could carry out operations with Avro Vulcan bombers using aerial refuelling. The first surprise attack on the islands, on 30 April/1 May, was aimed at the main runway at Port Stanley Airport. Carrying twenty-one 1,000-pound 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 so that at least one bomb would hit the runway.
The Vulcan's fuel tanks could carry 9,200 imperial gallons weighing 74,000 pounds in 14 pressurised bag tanks, five in each wing and four in the fuselage. 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.
Two Vulcans were assigned to the mission: XM598, commanded by Reeve, was the lead with XM607, captained by Withers, as the reserve, which would return to Ascension once XM598 had successfully completed its first aerial refuelling. The plan called for no less than 15 Victor sorties and 18 aerial refuelling’s, at the time it was the longest bombing mission ever attempted.
The eleven Victors and two Vulcans began taking off from Wideawake at 2350Z at one-minute intervals, with XM598 as the eleventh to lift off and XM607 the last. With a full load of bombs and fuel, a sixth crew member and a fresh coat of paint, the Vulcans were well over their rated maximum take-off weight of 204,000 pounds.
On the warm Ascension Island, the Bristol Olympus 301 engines had to be run at 103 per cent of their rated power in order to get the Vulcans airborne.
Shortly after take-off, XM598 suffered a failure. A rubber seal on the captain's "Direct Vision" side window had perished. Unable to close or seal the window and pressurise the crew cabin, Reeve was forced to return to Ascension. Lacking the ability to dump fuel, and far too heavy to land, the crew were forced to remain airborne in a cold and noisy cabin.
XM607 took over as the primary Vulcan. Twenty minutes later, Victor tanker XL163 returned to Ascension with a faulty refuelling hose system, and its place was taken by the reserve, XH669. In the 34 minutes between the first and second refuelling’s, XM607 had burned through 9,200 pounds of fuel, at the rate of 16,250 pounds per hour. All this time its weight never dropped below the theoretical maximum.
At the end of the second refuelling, two more tankers peeled off and returned, reducing the force to just three: XL189, flown by Squadron Leader Bob Tuxford, XH669 flown by Flight Lieutenant Steve Biglands, and Vulcan XM607. As a result of the fuel demand and problems in flight with refuelling, two of the Victors had to fly further south than planned, eating into their own reserves. At the Victor's final refuelling bracket, the sortie flew into a violent thunderstorm, during which XH669's refuelling probe failed. Tuxford was supposed to return after this refuelling with 64,000 pounds of fuel while Biglands flew on with the Vulcan, but Tuxford now took Biglands' place. A quick calculation showed that XL189 did not have enough fuel to make it back to Ascension. It fell to XL189 to conduct the final refuelling. XM607 received 7,000 pounds less than Withers expected. This meant that XM607 would be making the return fuelling rendezvous with 7,000 pounds in its tanks instead of 14,000 pounds. Now alone, XM607 flew on to the Falklands.
Withers made his approach at low level, dropping to 300 feet to evade enemy radar, climbing to 1,000 feet for the bomb run 40 miles from the target. Before climbing to attack height the H2S radar was successfully locked on to offset markers on the coast, and the automated bombing control system was engaged.
The attack was delivered around 0700Z, Withers made the final approach at 10,000 feet, with an airspeed of 330 knots. The Vulcan's electronic countermeasures defeated the radar systems controlling the British made Skyguard anti-aircraft cannons.
The twenty-one bombs were dropped individually. Once all were away, Withers put the Vulcan into a steep 60° bank to the left, subjecting the crew to a 2g turn. Sea Harriers of 801 Naval Air Squadron (NAS) were held at readiness on board the aircraft carrier HMS Invincible to protect the Vulcan but were not required as no Argentine aircraft were in the area at the time of the attack.
The Sea Harriers went into action shortly after the Vulcan raid. Two of the aircraft flew over Port Stanley airport to photograph the damage caused by the Vulcan. XM607 climbed away from the airfield and headed nearly due north to a planned rendezvous with a Victor some way off the Brazilian coast near Rio de Janeiro. As it passed the British Task Force it signalled the code word "Superfuse" indicating a successful attack at 0746Z.
Its journey continued within range of the South American coast to its rendezvous with Victor XH672, flown by Sqn Ldr Barry Neal. After contacting control with an update, the tanker was sent further south. To help bring the two planes together, one of Ascension's two Nimrod Maritime Reconnaissance aircraft was flown from Wideawake to the area. Without an in-flight refuelling system, it was unable to loiter for long.
Tuxford, who had continued to maintain radio silence lest he compromises the mission, picked up the "superfuse" signal and radioed Ascension for help. Victor XL511, flown by his squadron commander, Wing Commander Colin Seymour, flew out to meet them, and refuelled XL189, enabling it to return to Ascension 14 hours and 5 minutes after it had left. Meanwhile, with the help of the Nimrod, XM607 made the rendezvous with XH672, and all three aircraft returned to Ascension safely, XM607 touched down at 1452Z.
Northwood Headquarters received the "Superfuse" message by 0830Z and the Ministry of Defence shortly thereafter. Beetham was informed by his deputy, Air Vice Marshal Kenneth Hayr an hour later. 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 bombardment is believed to have killed three Argentinean personnel at the airport and injured several more. One bomb exploded on the runway and caused a large crater which proved difficult to repair, and the other bombs caused minor damage to aircraft and equipment.
Later that morning twelve 800 Naval Air Squadron Sea Harriers were dispatched from the aircraft carrier HMS Hermes to attack targets on East Falkland. Nine of the aircraft struck Port Stanley Airport and dropped 27 bombs on the airfield and its defences. The bombs set a stockpile of fuel on fire and may have slightly damaged the runway. One of the Sea Harriers was struck by a 20mm anti-aircraft round which damaged its tailplane; the aircraft managed to return to Hermes and was quickly repaired.
The Argentine air defence headquarters incorrectly assessed British losses as three aircraft were destroyed. The other three 800 NAS Sea Harriers attacked the airfield at Goose Green with cluster bombs shortly after the raid on Port Stanley, resulting in the destruction of a Pucará and severe damage to another two. The pilot of the destroyed aircraft and five maintenance personnel were killed. Neither of the two damaged aircraft flew again. The three British aircraft did not encounter any opposition and safely returned to Hermes. After the aircraft were refuelled, 800 NAS began launching Sea Harriers on combat air patrol sorties. 801 NAS maintained a four aircraft combat air patrol to the east of Port Stanley throughout the operation.
Sqn Ldr Martin Withers was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his part in the action, and his crew—Flying Officer P. I. Taylor, Flight Lieutenant R. D. Wright, Flight Lieutenant G. C. Graham, Flight Lieutenant H. Prior and Flight Lieutenant R. J. Russell—were Mentioned in Dispatches.
Sqn Ldr Martin Withers Distinguished Flying Cross
Sqn Ldr Bob Tuxford was awarded the Air Force Cross, while his crew—Squadron Leader E. F. Wallis, Flight Lieutenant M. E. Beer, Flight Lieutenant J. N. Keable and Flight Lieutenant G. D. Rees—received the Queen's Commendation for Valuable Service in the Air.
Sqn Ldr Bob Tuxford Air Force Cross