The Vulcan raids that helped win the war. . .
The war and its legacy
The Doncaster men who died
What were Black Buck operations?
AS a smiling Martin Withers sips a coffee in the sunshine in the shadow of the world’s last flying Vulcan bomber, its hard to imagine that in the spring of 1982, this is the man who clambered into the mighty delta wing’s cockpit and launched Britain’s first bombing raid in anger since the Second World War.
Back then, Martin, now in charge of the controls of Finningley’s XH558 Vulcan, was the lone pilot who showed the Brits meant business in their battle to win back the Falkands from Argentina with an attack so skillfully executed and with huge logistical planning that it has become the stuff of legend.
Books have been written about the mission, dubbed Black Buck, TV documentaries filmed and Martin himself is in constant demand to talk about his part in the daring raid which announced Britain’s arrival in the conflict in spectacular style.
“It was quite surreal,” he recalls. “A bit strange dropping bombs on people who weren’t really expecting you.”
But it almost never happened - and for a number of reasons.
In the early 80s, the ageing Vulcans were gradually being phased out by the Royal Air Force, used purely as Britain’s Cold War deterrent and on quick reaction alert to unleash nuclear missiles on the Soviets.
But when Argentina invaded the remote islands, it was decided by RAF top brass that the bombers could play a role - and with minimal training and preparation, the planes and crews were hurriedly dispatched to Ascension Island on the Equator, a volcanic crop base from which to carry out the attack.
However, the Vulcans didn’t have the range to fly the 8,000 mile journey to the Falklands - and so a huge back-up refuelling operation swung into action with 11 planes helping to guide the two Vulcans chosen to fly the mission south.
And it was shortly after take-off in Vulcan 607 late on April 30, 1982 that Martin’s fame was assured - when lead pilot John Reeve was forced to turn back when his cockpit failed to pressurise.
“We never thought it possible that we’d end up getting involved in the South Atlantic,” he said. “It just didn’t seem feasible to go that far.”
But as the Vulcan closed in on its target - the runway of Port Stanley airfield with its payload of 1,000lb bombs - Martin knew he was at the point of no return.
He said: “We very a very big target, going in at low level against a very modern airforce. We felt very vulnerable.”
But as the mountainous peaks of the islands honed into view through the broken cloud with glass like seas below, Martin and his crew announced the British arrival, awaking joyous residents and stunning the Argentine forces as a volley of bombs rained down.
“We powered up, relieved to still be alive and headed off - job done,” he added. “We’d opened the batting for England.”
On the way back to Ascension, Martin managed to get his head down for a snooze in the back of the cockpit - but was called back into action when it was realised the jet was running desperately low on fuel in its bid to find a tanker circling off the coast of Brazil to aid the so-called “tin triangle” back to base.
“It was a close run thing, but we made it just in time,” he said.
As dawn broke and news of the bombing raid was reported on the BBC World Service, the crew actually heard of the success of the attack before they’d even landed. “We didn’t know we’d hit anything for another 24 hours though,” added Martin. “But we were over the moon we’d completed an amazingly complex mission and got back in one piece.”
Only one bomb actually hit the runway - but the damage was done - and the message was pressed home to Argentina that if the Falklands could be bombed, the mainland could too, forcing the enemy to relocate some of its aircraft back to Buenos Aires.
“It could have gone either way,” he said. “Fortunately, what we did helped to change the course of the war. We were there to do a job and we did it.”
* Martin Withers is now chief pilot and operations manager of the Vulcan To The Sky project which last year brought the world’s only remaining flying Vulcan bomber back to her former home at Finningley. For more details on the Vulcan, tours, flying dates and donations to keep her in the air, visit www.vulcantothesky.org
IT was the short but bloody war fought out 8,000 miles from British soil for a remote set of islands inhabited by just a few thousand people. As the nation remembers the 30th anniversary of the Falklands War, in the first of two articles, features editor DARREN BURKE looks at the roles of Doncaster people in the heat of battle and remembers their sacrifice.
The conflict claimed the lives of three Doncaster men - here are their stories...
CAPTAIN IAN NORTH
Hatfield-born Capt North, 57, was the skipper of the Merchant Navy cargo ship Atlantic Conveyor which was hit by two Exocet missiles on May 25, 1982. Bachelor Capt North, a Second World War veteran and respected seaman of more than 40 years, was one of 12 men who died when the Cunard owned ship was blasted, causing a major blaze which led to its eventual abandonment and sinking while under tow on May 28. Affectionately dubbed Captain Birdseye by his crew for his resemblance to the TV advert character, Capt North, of Rose Hill Rise, Bessacarr, was later posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. As the last resting place of those who died, the wreck of the Atlantic Conveyor is a designated protected war grave. A memorial to him was later erected in Doncaster Minster while another memorial, in the shape of a ship’s propeller, was unveiled in the Falklands by Prince Edward.
PRIVATE STEPHEN ILLINGSWORTH
Edlington Para Stephen was just 20 years old when he died during the recapture of Goose Green on May 28. Pte Illinsgworth, a member of the Second Battallion of the Parachute Regiment rescued an injured colleague but then died after being shot by an Argentine sniper as he strove to retrieve abandoned enemy munitions to help the British supplies, running desperately low after a fierce firefight. The two day battle to take Goose Green and Darwin cost the lives of 17 British personnel and 47 Argentines. Shortly before his death, Stephen had written to his father Gordon of Granby Road, Edlington saying: “Don’t worry about me dad, I’m trained to do this job.” He is buried at the Aldershot Military Cemetery in Hampshire and was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal, although secret documents released years after his death revealed he had actually been recommended for the Victoria Cross. His name lives on in the Falklands where a street was named Illingsworth Road in his honour.
LEADING COOK TONY SILLENCE
Wheatley sailor Anthony Sillence died just a few days before the Argentine surrender on June 14 when his ship, HMS Glamorgan was hit by an Exocet missile fired from the shore. Anthony, 26, was one of 13 men killed early in the morning of June 12 when the ship was blasted, causing a huge fire which spread through the decks. However, the Glamorgan survived the attack and continued in service until 1986 before being sold to the Chilean Navy where she served for a further 12 years before sinking while under tow to be broken up. Anthony, of Clifton Crescent, Wheatley Hills and a former Armthorpe High School pupil with a three-year-old daughter, had joined the Navy as a chef to follow his two main interests - cooking and travel. He is buried at the San Carlos War Cemetery in the Falkland Islands. In 2011, a memorial to Glamorgan and her crew was unveiled at Hookers Point outside Port Stanley.
* Operations Black Buck 1 to Black Buck 7 were a series of extremely long-range ground attack missions by RAF Vulcan bombers of 44 Squadron against Argentine positions in the Falkland Islands, of which five were actually flown.
* The raids were staged from RAF Ascension Island, close to the equator. The aircraft carried either twenty-one 1,000 lb bombs internally or two or four Shrike anti-radar missiles externally.
* The Vulcan lacked the range to fly to the Falklands without refuelling several times. The RAF’s tanker planes were mostly converted Handley Page Victor bombers with similar range, so they too had to be refuelled in the air. A total of 11 tankers were required for two Vulcans.
* The raids, at almost 8,000 nautical miles (15,000 km) and 16 hours for the return journey, were the longest-ranged bombing raids in history at that time
* Black Buck One, led by Martin Withers in Vulcan XM607, carried out its attack on 30 April-1 May 1982 on the main runway at Port Stanley Airport, creating a single crater, rendering it impossible for the airfield to be used by fast jets.
* Withers was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his part in the action.
* The war began on April 2, 1982 when Argentina invaded the Falklands and South Georgia in a long standing dispute with Britain about the islands’ sovereignty.
* Britain responded immediately with then PM Margaret Thatcher sending a Task Force to retake the Islands. The conflict lasted 74 days and was fought on land, sea and in the air with Argentina eventually surrendering on June 14, 1982.
* Britain suffered 258 casulaties with 649 Argentines killed in the fighting.
* Key events in the conflict included the sinking of Argentine cruiser the General Belgrano with the loss of 323 lives and the sinking of British vessels including HMS Sheffield, HMS Coventry and HMS Antelope among others.
* The legacy of the war lives on to this day with dozens of live minefields, war graves and battle debris a permanent reminder of the events of 30 years ago.
Part 2 - Why our town never forgets those who did country proud - log on to Doncaster Free Press