The cold war was a term given to the period immediately after WW2, whereby an atmosphere of distrust developed between the USA and Russia and their respective allies. Like any war, this gave many opportunities to develop military equipment. Even though Britain was financially on its knees following recent hostilities, it still had at that time the design and manufacturing infrastructure to develop several iconic defensive and offensive aircraft, just as we had been able to do during the war.
Defence of the realm: a move from the sea to the sky
One advantage we have always had is the fact that we are an island. Therefore, since the development of our navy following the Norman invasion, we have ensured that those upstarts from France, Spain and, later, Germany, were never able to invade us. And, with regard to the Norman invasion, one may say, with more than a little conviction, that while William the Conqueror was French, he wasn’t really – not really proper French. Although he was born in Falaise in France, he was from Viking stock, and I feel much happier to describe him as Scandinavian rather than French.
The navy proudly did a wonderful job for almost 900 years until the advent of aircraft which were quickly adapted for military use. During the cold war, Russia developed a fleet of heavy aircraft capable of dropping nuclear bombs anywhere in Britain. Therefore, we had to produce a defensive aircraft capable of stopping this particular Russian threat and, running alongside this, we had to develop our own offensive aircraft to dissuade any dastardly and sneaky attack from the east.
A new aircraft from the designer of the Lancaster bomber
At that time, several of the British aircraft manufacturers had become household names: Avro, Armstrong Whitworth, Bristol, de Havilland, Fairy, Gloster, Handley Page, Hawker, Short Brothers, Supermarine, Vickers and many more. They are now all merged into BAe Systems and the UK Aerospace Sector, who are together the second largest aerospace industry in the world, with a 90,500 strong highly skilled workforce.
In my humble opinion, one of the most impressive aircraft that Britain produced at that time was the Avro Vulcan bomber. It was designed by Roy Chadwick who had earlier shown his deft design skills by producing the iconic Lancaster bomber, first flown in January 1941. Within just a short 11 years in August 1952, he had designed a state-of-the-art delta wing jet aircraft that was, apart from the ability to fly, about as far removed from the Lancaster as could be imagined.
The Avro Vulcan comes into its own
As early as 1946, the British government invited companies to provide aircraft designs for a bomber to fly at 50.000 feet, carry a 10,000-pound nuclear bomb and fly at 500 knots or 575 mph. Vickers, Avro and Handley Page rose to the challenge and produced what became the V Bomber Force. The Vickers Valliant was eventually found to be susceptible to metal fatigue and was decommissioned in 1964. The Avro Vulcan and the Handley Page Victor carried on for many more years.
However, it was soon discovered that the Russian missile defence systems would have been able to shoot these aircraft down if used in their design format – these crafty Russians are like that ya know. The air ministry had to quickly change their tactics and came up with the revolutionary idea of flying low instead. This may have seemed on the face of it a backward step, as this technique had been widely tried and tested for many years. But the Avro Vulcan with its revolutionary highly manoeuvrable (for a big plane) delta wing then came into its own and the Handley Page Victor was converted into an ideal tanker aircraft.
A test of logistics in the Falklands War
One of the most famous bombing raids in recent history was ‘Black Buck’, the code name for the bombing of Argentinian held Stanley Airport, in 1982. This raid took two Vulcans and 11 air-refuelling Victors, all chock full of fuel cadged and scavenged from wherever they could, flying from Ascension Island in the mid-Atlantic the 3,500 miles to the Falklands. The cunning plan, if all went well after the first refuelling in the mid-Atlantic, was one of the Vulcans would return to Ascension and the rest would carry on.
However, the gods put a spanner in the spokes almost immediately. The Vulcan that was originally intended to go the whole way was found to have a cockpit leak and couldn’t be pressurised, so this was the one destined to return to base. The first refuelling went according to plan, so it was left to the reserve Vulcan XM 607 to complete the mission.
The Victors would be either refuelling another Victor and/or the Vulcan, all the time ensuring that there was enough fuel in the Vulcan to get it to The Falklands and part way back to rendezvous with a waiting Victor. The Victor itself had to have enough fuel to give the Vulcan and then also to rendezvous with other Victors waiting further north, some of which would have returned to Ascension to refuel and then set off back to meet up with the returning Victors and the Vulcan. None of the crews were certain that this would work; in fact some of the training missions had suggested that it wouldn’t – a logistical nightmare, but one that our RAF proved capable of handling.
A mission requiring luck and ingenuity
Brilliant British ingenuity was called upon. First of all, the Vulcan was not designed to carry conventional bombs, such as the 1,000-pound bombs necessary for this particular attack on a runway – a tactic that had not been used for years. Then, the required number of bombs – 21 – were found stored in a dusty corner of an old weapons storage facility and the cradles were found in a scrap yard. The luckiest find of all was a part necessary to re-commission and test the refuelling nozzle on the Vulcan, sealed off many years earlier and not used since. It was found being used as an ashtray in the engineers’ mess.
Not only had the Vulcan not been used in this role but neither had the crew. One highly skilled pilot described trying to refuel the Vulcan as “trying to thread wet spaghetti up a cat’s arse”, and as we all know, cats don’t like that sort of thing.
Success against the odds
The sole Vulcan XM 607 flew in very low in its approach to Stanley, popped up for a few seconds to drop their bomb load from a safe height (safe for the bomb crew that is) and then immediately dropped down again and disappeared into the night. The Argentines were left shooting into the sky not knowing what had just happened.
However, the trouble wasn’t over yet, as they still had to rendezvous over potentially hostile waters with several Victor refuelling aircraft which had flown out to bring them home. After several episodes of this refuelling malarkey, they all returned from what turned out to be a successful mission.
Several similar raids were carried out with varying successes but considering that this was and still remains the longest bombing raids in history – a round trip of 7,000 miles and lasting 44 hours without a pause – there is a wonder that it had any success at all.
Air travel is my least favourite form of transport. I have only had to tolerate a maximum of five hours of uncomfortable misery, so I cannot imagine what 44 hours would feel like. They had no creature comforts, privacy for toilet issues was limited and there were no stewardesses to prepare their meat and two veg.
A near disaster
In all there were seven Black Buck raids planned on Argentine positions, with varying degrees of success – and one near disaster.
Black Buck Six was returning from an attack on radar installations when the refuelling nozzle was damaged, meaning that it would not be able to take on any more fuel. Their options were very limited: ditch into the Atlantic or try to make it to neutral Brazil. They chose the latter.
First, they had to jettison any sensitive documents and that meant opening the escape hatch. Unfortunately, the hatch refused to be closed again. With cabin pressure plummeting, limited fuel and the reluctance to admit who they were in case they were refused help by neutral Brazil, the message was sent to Rio de Janeiro air traffic control: “Mayday, mayday, mayday, we are a four-engine British aircraft with six souls on board, very low on fuel and no cabin pressure.”
“Tell them we’re from Huddersfield”
The message came back, “What is your call sign and destination?”. With continued limited information as to the identity and intentions of the Vulcan crew, the air traffic control refused them permission to enter Brazilian airspace. Similar radio messages continued, during which time navigator David Castle, who was from Huddersfield, kept struggling with the escape hatch. Eventually he shouted, “Tell them we’re from Huddersfield”. A similar mayday call was sent out but this time it included “Call sign Ascot 597 from Huddersfield”.
By the time Brazilian Air traffic control had worked out that “Ascot 597” was an RAF flight log number, and definitely not from Huddersfield, which only had a very small private runway, the Vulcan was preparing to land with virtually empty fuel tanks. The aircraft and crew were interned and only released after much wrangling and bartering.
It has been suggested that the Brazilians knew who they were all along, but in order not to upset their neighbours in Argentina, they thought it prudent to keep up the appearance of neutrality and not seem to be helping the British too much.
Raids that showed the enemy they were vulnerable
Strategically these raids were not all that important. But like the Doolittle raid, whereby the USAF launched 16 B25 Mitchell bombers from the aircraft carrier USS Hornet on a raid over Tokyo on the 18 of April 1942, and the RAF’s raid on the dams of the Ruhr Valley on the 16-17 May 1943, all these raids tested logistics, ingenuity, bravery and skill to the limit. They improved morale and also showed the enemy that they were vulnerable, and that we were coming.