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RAF remembers end of Falklands conflict

Aged image of helicopter surrounded by aviators on the ground.
Archive imagery courtesy of the RAF Museum and IWM.

The Royal Air Force is remembering the end of the Falklands conflict that took place 40 years ago.

On 14th June 1982, Argentine forces Argentine forces surrendered and returned the Falkland Islands to British control, ending the 74-day conflict.

Aged image of Aviators inside a cockpit.

Two and a half months earlier, Argentine forces invaded and occupied the Falklands as well as South Georgia.  The British government dispatched a naval task force to engage the Argentine Navy and Air Force on 5th April 1982 to retake the islands.  This task force eventually comprised 127 ships from the Royal Navy, Royal Fleet Auxiliary as well as 62 merchant ships.

Aged image of Ship with helicopter flying past.

British military operations in the Falklands conflict were given the codename Operation CORPORATE, with the Royal Navy and British Army being heavily involved on the ground and in the waters surrounding the islands.

Aged image of a helicopter carrying loaded sling to the deck of a warship.
A Chinook helicopter of 18 Squadron delivers supplies to the assault ship HMS Intrepid.

On 1st May 1982, a RAF Vulcan bomber successfully completed the first ‘Black Buck’ raid on the airfield at Stanley.  Operation BLACK BUCK was a series of long-range bombing missions that set off from Ascension Island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, approximately 4,000 miles away from the Falkland Islands.  The complex missions took around 16 hours and required air-to-air refuelling from 11 RAF Victor aircraft.

The Falklands conflict lasted 74 days with the Argentine forces surrendering on 14th June 1982.  A total of 907 lost their lives and over 2,000 were wounded.  Of the 907 that died, 255 were British servicemen, 649 were Argentine, and three were Falkland Island residents.

Aged image of Vulcan Bomber in flight.
A Vulcan Bomber, an aircraft used during the ‘Black Buck’ raids.

In 1985, RAF Mount Pleasant opened as part of British efforts to strengthen the defence of the Falkland Islands.  As part of British Forces South Atlantic Islands (BFSAI), Quick Reaction Alert aircraft are stationed there to defend the UK overseas territories 24/7.

Aged image of Vulcan bombers on airfield.
Victor tanker aircraft of 57 Squadron at Wideawake Airfield, Ascension Island.

Today, the UK Armed Forces paid tribute to veterans of the Falklands Conflict at a commemoration at the National Memorial Arboretum.

The Prime Minister, defence ministers, and Service Chiefs joined veterans of the conflict to say thank you for restoring the freedom of the communities of the British Overseas Territory and to remember all those who fell.

Hosted by The Royal British Legion, service personnel paid tribute to former colleagues in readings during the ceremony, before laying wreaths on behalf of the Royal Navy, British Army and Royal Air Force.

Music was provided by The Band of the Welsh Guards and a flypast made up of helicopters from across the Royal Navy, Royal Marines, British Army and the Royal Air Force, all with special links to the conflict, concluded the national event.

In Stanley, East Falkland, events were held by the Falkland Islands Government to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the conflict, during which three islanders also lost their lives.

Meet some retired RAF personnel that were involved in the conflict 40 years ago who talk about their roles and experiences.

Squadron Leader Mike Beech

Flight Lieutenant Mike Beech was tasked to be in the second wave of RAF Harrier pilots deployed to the Falklands.  Before leaving he underwent Laser Guided Bomb trials at a range in Scotland alongside the SAS troopers who would be the forward markers to guide the pilot’s bombing runs.

"It was only towards the end of the campaign when we started dropping the Laser Guided Bombs that we were making a difference by destroying artillery, did I think, yeah now we are really doing a job."

Mike flew his first mission with his boss, Wing Commander Peter Squire; a recce over Pebble and Kepple Islands.  They spotted Argentinian aircraft parked up which they attacked with rockets and machine guns.

"These initial bombing runs were so difficult. We had to try and assess the wind by the amount of bank we had on, to be able to track the thing. There was no weapon aiming kit. It was just a fixed sight. Trying to get a decent attack was really tough. Be that as it may, I felt very privileged to be part of the Falklands Campaign but I couldn’t escape the feeling that we could be doing more to help the troops out."

After returning from that first bombing run, Mike landed on HMS Hermes with four minutes of fuel left. Later missions included bombing Argentinian troops east of Sapper Hill and flying over Stanley airfield to take reconnaissance photographs. Mike remembers the anti-aircraft fire: "I couldn’t help but think, this is like the films about the war."

Once he was able to use Laser Guide Bombs things improved: "This time the weapons were going straight down the barrel. We were hitting the targets on the nose. We smashed them. We were making a real difference.

"At first, we didn’t have the kit to do the job. It was difficult, and we had to learn on the job. But we were successful. You had to have the belief that you were not going to be shot down or you couldn’t do the job effectively. Belief was everything."

Mike stands outside building.
Squadron Leader Mike Beech.

Bob Iveson

Bob Iveson and his wingman were returning to HMS Hermes after bombing dug-in ground troops when the Air Liaison Officer radioed to say he had more targets for them.

"We had dropped all our bombs but did have 30mm cannon and he asked us to go back and use those. You can’t use guns from very low level when flying straight because they actually point very slightly upwards, so you have to do it in a slightly diving attack which leaves you a bit more exposed."

He had strafed one of the Argentine positions and almost emptied his guns but was hit as he pulled out of the run.

"There were a couple of huge explosions, one after the other, which rocked the aeroplane sideways with enough force that I hit my head on the side of the cockpit and cracked my visor. Everything went wrong in the cockpit straight away. I got a full house on the warning panel and I could smell burning."

Bob knew he had to eject and tried to put as much distance between himself and the troops he had just attacked when flames shot up the windscreen in front of him.

"I saw the flame and pulled the eject handle instantly. I blacked out and when I came round I was looking between my thighs travelling very close to the ground horizontally. The drag chute opened and the seat fell away. There was a big jerk as the main chute opened and I landed almost immediately, fortunately on a down slope."

Aged image of aircraft lined up on an airfield.

With his visor damaged and a blast of air into his eyes, he could not focus. As he started to unclip his emergency pack with his survival kit he looked up to see a bunch of blurry dots in a line which seemed to be walking towards him.

"I thought they might be troops so I just legged it over the next rise as far as I could. I’m quite sure now that had they been troops, with me wearing an immersion suit, with all that kit and not that fit anyway, I wouldn’t have lasted two minutes. I’m fairly certain what I actually did was run away from a line of sheep."

At twilight the Argentinians sent a helicopter with a searchlight to look for him. Bob stayed hidden in the heather and after about half an hour it left. The next day he found a farmhouse called Paragon House and watched it for about five or six hours before he was confident no one else was there. Inside there were sleeping bags and a fully stocked larder.

"I didn’t really sleep. I was sitting up watching the war. I could see all the night tracer and the Navy were firing over the top of me with 4.5 inch guns. You can see the shells in the air at night. When things quietened down I broke radio silence and transmitted my position in code. Eventually I got the peat-fired Rayburn stove going and by the time the helicopter came to pick me up I was cooking myself a full English breakfast."

Bob sits for picture.
Bob Iveson.

Murdo Macleod

Flight Lieutenant Murdo Macleod heard he had became a father for the first time between sorties flying his Harrier against Argentinian ground troops.

"What struck me was the paradox of the situation. A life is born, my son, and yet here I was flying missions that would ultimately kill the sons of so many Argentinian mothers and fathers. It was a very difficult day for so many reasons."

Hours later, his Harrier was hit as he streaked low and fast over enemy positions on Sapper Hill.  He was unaware of the strike until he was returning to HMS Hermes when his instrumentation showed his fuel was about to run out.  Murdo was confused - he thought he had enough fuel for the return journey.

Aged image of helicopter carries sling load to deck of HMS ship, with aircraft on the taxi way..

"The control tower began asking me if I was dumping fuel."  Smoke also began appearing from the Harrier.  He was still carrying munitions that if ignited could potentially damage the Hermes.  Then the control tower informed him that bits of his aircraft were falling off.

"I cracked the nozzles to start the process of dumping the Harrier in the water and abandoning the aircraft, but suddenly I had this strong instinct that I could make it. I whipped it across the ship and landed it on the deck. The Harrier was a mess."

That close call was not his first during the conflict.  He had previously lost power in the aircraft’s hydraulics after an earlier mission when, on returning to Hermes, there was a failure in the system.  Murdo’s flaps were no longer working and he was unable to slow down.  Murdo flew a circuit of the carrier until he could activate his undercarriage using his emergency system.  It was only upon exiting the Harrier that he saw hydraulic oil leaking from the undercarriage.

On another occasion, during a mission to attack enemy positions west of Stanley, Murdo and his number two were experiencing heavy flack.  Murdo was flying low and fast and looking out towards his left side.  As he rolled off to climb up above the approaching hill, Murdo turned to look ahead and saw that he had been hit in the windscreen.

"The windscreen immediately began to break up. I now needed to gain maximum height to not only avoid the further flack that I was sustaining around my aircraft, but to also save fuel. However, none of us had ever received instruction on what to do if our windscreen was compromised before having to head towards high altitude."

As Murdo began his ascent, the windscreen began disintegrating further.  He now made a decision to stay below twenty thousand feet, as opposed to the required thirty thousand feet in order to save fuel.  By the time he reached HMS Hermes, the fuel was extremely low and only fumes were keeping the Harrier airborne.

Murdo stands outside building.
Murdo Macleod.

If you have been affected by the Falklands conflict and want to know more about improving your mental health, the RAF’s Health and Wellbeing page has a selection of tools and resources available.

Health and Wellbeing

Aged image of helicopter carries sling load.