RAF's Falklands Role in War and Peace

By Harold Briley 
Falkland Islands Newsletter No.85, November 2003

The Royal Air Force has played a vital role in conflicts around the world since its pilots earned undying fame in 1939-45. But its contribution to the 1982 Falklands War has been overshadowed by the greater numerical presence of the Royal Navy and the Army.

Falklands Veteran as Chief of Air Staff

Marking the recent retirement of the first Falklands veteran to reach the pinnacle of his profession, Air Chief Marshall Sir Peter Squire, a Harrier pilot in 1982, this article puts into perspective the RAF's crucial role in the war and its activities since 1982, providing continuous front-line defence of the Falkland Islands and its life-line air-bridge from Great Britain.

Air Chief Marshall Sir Peter Squire, GCB, DFC, AFC, ADC, D.Sc, was the first front-line officer of the Falklands War to become professional head of one of the three armed services, as Chief of Air Staff. He was one of the RAF's pilots who in 1982 joined their Royal Navy counterparts in the Harriers and helicopters in the vital protective shield for the Task Force, in dogfights with Argentine pilots, and in attacking Argentine ground forces.

RAF Harriers during the Falklands War

Wing Commander Squire was the commanding officer of the RAF's Number One (Fighter) Squadron of Harriers, hurriedly mobilised to become the first RAF aircraft to operate from an aircraft carrier, HMS Hermes, since the Second World War. His squadron of six Harriers flew a total of 151 sorties, often two a day for each pilot, mainly ground attack and battlefield air interdiction, in dangerous low-level flying. Three of the Harriers were brought down by enemy fire and one crash-landed at Port San Carlos but attrition replacements were flown down from the United Kingdom.

Wing Commander Squire flew his Harrier off the cargo vessel, Atlantic Conveyor, a few days before she was sunk by an Argentine Exocet missile. He was in action, day after day, with no respite, attacking Stanley Airport and other Argentine targets including Dunnose Head air strip in which an Islander, Tim Miller, was blinded in one eye by shrapnel. The two men later became friends. He became the first ever RAF pilot to launch a laser-guided 'smart' bomb - attacking the Argentine troops on Mount Longdon. He had narrow escapes when he crash landed at Port San Carlos airstrip, and again just days before the war ended when a Blowpipe missile exploded near his Harrier, and a bullet penetrated his cockpit. After the war, engine failure forced him to eject before his aircraft crashed into the sea off Cape Pembroke.

Wing Commander Squire kept a fascinating personal day-to-day diary of operations. His awards include a Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Force Cross. In his last year of nearly forty in the RAF, he visited Argentina and met Argentine Air Force Chief, General Walter Barbero, who flew Boeing reconnaissance aircraft in the Falklands War, which Wing Commander Squire was tasked to intercept. Commenting on the possibility he might have shot him down, Air Chief Marshall Squire remarked: "We had great respect for the Argentine Air Force. They flew with great courage and skill. Having now met General Barbero, I am delighted that in 1982 I was unable to locate him."

Air Chief Marshall Squire has occupied senior command during intense and challenging activity as the RAF has carried out missions over Bosnia, Afghanistan and Iraq. He has now joined the War Graves Commission.

The Harriers with deadly sidewinder missiles for air combat and bombs for ground attack were one of the great success stories of the Falklands War. And it was an RAF Harrier pilot, Flight Lieutenant Dave Morgan, who proved perhaps the most effective in destroying several Argentine aircraft. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.

The Black Buck Bombing Raid on Stanley Airport

The most spectacular RAF exploit was the Vulcan bomber raid on Stanley airport on May 1st, which had significant impact on the conduct of the war and on morale on both sides, far beyond the damage inflicted on the runway. It demonstrated the undreamed of reach of RAF retaliation, and caused colossal psychological repercussions in Argentina, with the realisation that mainland targets were within bombing reach.

Code-named 'Black Buck', this was an astonishing feat of arms by any standards. It was the longest operational bombing mission ever attempted, a 6,760 miles round-trip from Ascension Island for the ageing delta-winged bomber whose inadequate navigational system and long-abandoned flight-refuelling capability had to be restored. No fewer than 14 aircraft were deployed to get just one Vulcan to its target. With no intelligence on Argentine fighter and missile defence, the operation had to be carried out at night, in radio silence, with no rehearsal. As soon as the bomber/tanker force roared off the runway at Wideawake Airfield, one of the two Vulcans had to abandon the mission when its pressurisation failed, as did one of the 12 Victor refuelling tankers with a defective hose.

Catastrophe was averted when four of the refuelling Victors arrived back at Ascension almost simultaneously, desperately short of fuel. Only the skill of the pilots narrowly avoided a disastrous pile-up on the crowded runway which would have destroyed a quarter of the RAF's total South Atlantic tanker force. Another tanker had a fuel leak and one of the last two tankers broke its probe in a violent tropical storm, leaving only one Victor to press on with the Vulcan, both acutely short of fuel, and in danger of ditching. To maintain surprise, no radio SOS was possible.

As the Vulcan began its bombing run, it was detected by Argentine gun-control radar. But its twenty-one 1,000 pound bombs straddled the runway. The explosions woke the startled Islanders from their sleep, but it tremendously boosted their morale. Tony Chater recalls: "The whole house shook, as though there had been an earthquake. There was terrific jubilation. From then on, we felt confident the British forces would come to our rescue."

The aircraft broke radio silence with the code-word 'Superfuse' indicating the raid had succeeded. Despite more refuelling problems, the Vulcan managed to get back to Ascension and complete its sixteen-hour mission. Its pilot, Martin Withers, was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and Victor pilot, Box Tuxford, the Air Force Cross. The effort expended was out of all proportion to the damage to the runway which the Argentines continued to use. But the psychological impact was enormous. The Argentine Air Force removed its only dedicated fighter interceptor squadron, the Mirage fighters of Gruppo 8, from Rio Gallegos and Falklands operations, to re-deploy further north at Comodoro Rivadavia for mainland defence. The Argentines had conceded defeat in the crucial battle for air superiority over the battered Task Force. Harriers could hunt down and destroy attacking aircraft without interference from enemy fighters.

What the British did not know is that, according to the Argentines, President Galtieri had decided on April 30th to withdraw his forces to comply with the United Nations resolution and to seek negotiations on sovereignty. He reportedly changed his mind as a result of the Vulcan and Harrier attacks on Stanley Airport on May 1st.

The Sole Chinook

Of the many different types of RAF and Royal Navy aircraft, the busiest of all was probably the lone Chinook helicopter (code-sign ZA 718) which survived the sinking of the Atlantic Conveyor, in which three other Chinooks were lost. In seventeen days of non-stop support of the land forces, the Chinook made an unrivalled contribution to the campaign. It flew for 109 hours, carried 2,150 troops, including 95 casualties and 550 prisoners of war, and moved 550 tons of supplies. Its chief pilot, Squadron Leader Dick Langsworth, was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.

The Falklands Air Bridge

Since 1982 the RAF has maintained the lifeline air bridge from Brize Norton to the Falkland Islands, the only direct UK link providing a unique passenger service for the 2,400 Islanders as well as the military. Its aircraft have transported many thousands of troops to maintain the garrison. RAF personnel man Mount Pleasant Airfield; the three radar stations - at Byron Heights and Mount Alice in West Falkland and Mount Kent in East Falkland - keeping constant watch for marauders; rapier missiles; the front-line fighter defence of Tornadoes; maritime reconnaissance and freighter Hercules; and VC-10 refuelling tankers, to keep aircraft airborne over vast areas of ocean in tempestuous weather.

The air bridge - code-named 'Cannonball' - was operated first by Hercules transport aircraft which had to refuel at Dakar in West Africa, at Ascension Island, then twice in the air to the Falklands, landing on the short Stanley Airport runway. Now passengers, military and civilian, Islanders and tourists, travel in comparative comfort in former commercial Tristars, refuelling only once, at Ascension Island. These 250-seater airliners and a fleet of VC-10 tanker refuelling aircraft are operated by 216 Squadron at Brize Norton. It originated from a Royal Naval Air Squadron in the First World War. Its motto, 'Dona Ferens', meaning 'Bearing Gifts', refers to its deadly initial unit as a bomber unit, not to its more benign peaceful Falklands role today. Its indefatigable pilots have flown more than 100 million miles, on the 16,000 mile return flight, burning 140 tons of fuel each way. They also maintain tanker aircraft on permanent quick reaction alert (QRA) in the Falklands to refuel the Tornado fighters for combat.

The Sound of Freedom

The four Tornadoes of 1435 flight are affectionately known as 'Faith', 'Hope' and 'Charity' - as were that flight's three Gladiators which defended Malta in the early days of World War Two - and 'Desperation'. The forces welcome the unique Falklands facilities for tri-service training including low-flying. The Islanders call the RAF fighters 'the sound of freedom'.

Aeromedical Evacuation

The RAF in co-operation with military and civilian medical teams from the hospital in Stanley have saved the lives of several Islanders with severe heart problems and even a baby born dangerously ill and also the lives of foreign seamen on the fishing fleets rescued by RAF helicopters.

Reconnaissance

Maritime radar reconnaissance Hercules patrol the vast two-million square miles of ocean of the South Atlantic Overseas Territories to keep a check on illegal fishing vessels and maintain a military presence as far south as the South Sandwich Islands and Southern Thule. The RAF's worst enemy now is the weather - treacherous cross-winds when landing, howling gales in the air, often poor visibility, and snow on the ground. The nearest diversion airfields are a thousand miles away on the South American mainland.

Phantoms: Gone but not Forgotten

After the War, the Falklands were defended by Phantom fighters, led by Wing Commander Ian Macfadyen, one of the RAF's top aerobatics display flyers. In one of the longest and most challenging flights of his forty year RAF career, he flew the first of eight Phantoms to the Falklands to replace the Task Force Harriers. Accompanied by 19 tanker aircraft, he had to refuel in flight 35 times as well as at Ascension. Air Marshal Ian Macfadyen, CB, OBE, later commanded British forces in the first Gulf War as Chief of Staff, then successor to General Sir Peter de la Biliere. He is now Lieutenant Governor of the Isle of Man. In a reunion there exactly twenty years since Harold Briley watched him land at Stanley, Air Marshal Macfadyen said his one regret is that professional duties in 1982 were so hectic with no time off that he met so few Islanders, who, he said, were utterly friendly and welcoming. RAF pilots say it is much the same now!

This article appeared in the Falkland Islands Newsletter, Edition 85, November 2003. The Falkland Islands Association is an independent organisation which brings together those who support the continuing freedom of the people of the Falkland Islands. Its Constitution states that its objectives are to assist the people of the Falkland Islands to decide their own future for themselves without being subjected to pressure direct or indirect from any quarter.

 

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