Wednesday, May 2nd 2007 - 21:00 UTC

Decisive Falklands War actions recalled. Vulcan bomber raid and Belgrano

Two of the most dramatic actions of the 1982 Falklands War have been recalled in a series of media reports in the United Kingdom 25 years after they took place - the sinking of the Argentine cruiser Belgrano with heavy loss of life and the attack on Stanley airport by a British Vulcan bomber in the longest air raid flight in history.

Harold Briley reported on both actions at the time as the BBC Latin America Correspondent in Buenos Aires and subsequently met the captains of both the Belgrano and Conqueror

Some of the Royal Sir Force air crew who carried out that raid have been to Stanley and given interviews about their historic flight. And the seaman on the British submarine Conqueror who fired the torpedoes which sank the Belgrano has recalled the moment he pressed the firing button and monitored the torpedoes striking the doomed cruiser. Both actions in the first few days of May signalled the inevitability of war when diplomacy had failed to find a peace formula. . Both hampered the effectiveness of the Argentine Navy and Air Force to strike heavier blows against the British Task Force. Both demonstrated the determination of Britain's political leaders and the professionalism of the British armed forces. Long-range bomber raid The Vulcan bomber raid on Stanley airport on May 1st was the most spectacular RAF exploit of the war with major impact on subsequent operations and morale on both sides, far beyond the damage inflicted on the runway. It demonstrated the undreamt of reach of RAF retaliation; and caused colossal psychological impact on Argentina with the realisation that mainland targets were within bombing reach. Code-named "Black Buck", it was the longest operational bombing mission ever attempted a 6,760 miles (nearly 11,000 kilometres) round-trip from Ascension Island, with no deviations, 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 was carried out at night, in radio silence, with no rehearsal. One of the two Vulcans had to abandon the mission through technical failure as did one of the 12 Victor refuelling tankers. Catastrophe was averted when four of the refuelling Victors arrived back at Ascension almost simultaneously, desperately short of fuel, narrowly avoiding 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. Boost for Islander morale As the Vulcan began its bombing run, it was detected by Argentine gun-control radar. But its twenty-one 1,000 bombs straddled the runway. The explosions woke the startled islanders from their sleep but boosted their morale. Islander 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 16-hour-long mission. Damage to the runway did not prevent its continued use. But the operational 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. Controversial Belgrano sinking The sinking of the Belgrano became the single most controversial action of the war. Argentine attempts to indict Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher as a war criminal were dismissed in Britain as ridiculous. Even Argentine naval commanders, including the Belgrano's Captain, conceded the cruiser was a threat on a war mission and sinking it was militarily justified. Conqueror's captain, Commander Christopher Wreford-Brown, was praised for his professional, efficient conduct. Under the Navy's rules of engagement he had no choice but to carry out the order to attack .or face court-martial. British warning The British Government warned the Argentine Government on April 23rd, nine days before the attack, that Argentine vessels, whether inside or outside the British â€"declared exclusion zone, might be attacked if perceived to constitute a threat to the Task Force. It is now known the Argentine fleet was engaged in a menacing pincer movement led by the aircraft carrier, Veintecinqo de Mayo, in the north and the Belgrano in the south. The aircraft carrier would also have been sunk if detected by British submarines. Argentine reports later indicated that all three of the Argentine fleet's battle groups had previously been advancing at full speed towards the battle zone. But after the fleet commander, Rear Admiral Gaulteri Allara, had analysed the risk of such an attack, the Commander of the South Atlantic Theatre, Admiral Juan Jose Lombardo, who had previously ordered the pincer movement, sent this intriguing signal in code: "Withdraw from Luis to Miguel". Translated into military language, this was an order to the Belgrano and her escorts to withdraw to rearward positions in shallower water to avoid nuclear submarines.. The Belgrano was torpedoed on Sunday, 2nd May, at 20000 London time, with the loss of 323 of her crew. The biggest single casualty figure of the war. While the British deeply regretted the heavy loss of life, British commanders argue that it may well have saved lives overall on both sides because the Argentine Navy withdrew its fleet and never gave battle to the Task Force as previously planned. Royal Navy commanders believe the casualties would have been far fewer if the Belgrano had not been such an old ship â€" a survivor as a former United States warship in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour â€" and if she had been kept at battle readiness as she withdrew, and her frigate escorts had not fled the scene, leaving some survivors in the rubber life rafts to freeze to death in the high wind chill factor The Chief of Defence Staff, Admiral of the Fleet Lord Lewin declared: "There was never any doubt that this was the right political and military thing to do". Argentine Admiral Agrees action justified The Belgrano was attached to Task Force 79 under the command of Rear Admiral Allara in the aircraft carrier Veintecinqo de Mayo, a former chief of Argentine intelligence. He says his mission was to attack the British task force. On May 2nd he gave the order for an air attack on eight British ships which had been detected, but bad light and bad weather prevented the heavily laden aircraft taking off from the aircraft carrier. Admiral Allara says: "The Belgrano was attacked and sunk outside the exclusion zone. Although in my country and abroad, many voices condemned that action, from a strictly professional point of view I cannot criticise that action. She was a ship carrying out a war mission. But the sinking diminished, the chance of success of negotiations for a (peaceful) solution". Harold Briley OBE, London

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