Gulf War Buccaneer Operations
By Grp Cpt Bill Cope, RAF
It is incredible to think that this time ten years ago we were all glued to our television screens, transfixed by the images of modern weapons used in the fight to free Kuwait following the Iraqi invasion. Gp Capt Bill Cope was the Buccaneer Force Commander in the war and tells his story.
Back in 1991, the RAF operated three Buccaneer squadrons, Nos 12 & 208 Squadrons and No 237 OCU (Operational Conversion Unit), all based at RAF Lossiemouth. The entire force consisted of about 30 airframes and the role was exclusively maritime attack, with the sole exception of No 237 OCU which also had a reserve war role involving overland Laser designation (target marking), from low level, for Jaguar aircraft. Therefore the then AOC 18 Group - Air Marshal Sir Michael Steer - foresaw a possible requirement for overland Laser designation and instructed the Buccaneers to commence the appropriate low-level overland training. Bill was told that, in the unlikely event there was to be a Buccaneer contribution, he would be the commander. However, all the indications were that there would not be such a detachment, simply because there were already too many aircraft for the limited facilities and hardstanding area which existed at the airfields used by the RAF in the Gulf area.
Of course, normal training continued and in mid January the two operational squadrons were on detachment, No 12 Squadron in Gibraltar and No 208 Squadron at RAF St Mawgan. About half-way through the planned No 208 Squadron detachment and after some two or three days of hostilities in the Gulf, St Michael Steer paid a visit to St Mawgan. He arrived in the same aircraft that was to take Bill Cope (then Wg Cdr OC 208 Squadron) home to Lossiemouth to go on leave. Sir Michael greeted Bill with the message that 'sadly, they (the Gulf War commanders) saw no need for Buccaneer involvement'. Bill climbed into the aircraft and returned to Lossiemouth, looking forward to his planned family holiday in Italy, knowing that a possible Gulf detachment was as distant as ever. The aircraft landed at Lossiemouth at 1900 hours, he bid farewell to the Station Commander and went home to pack. Needless to say, at 2230 hours he received a call to tell him the plans had changed and his Unit now had 72 hours to deploy to the Gulf.
Three days of frantic preparation ensued. Virtually all of the Station was involved in the preparation of the detachment's six aircraft and its personnel and work continued non-stop, day and night, to the extent that the Station Commander, Gp Cpt (now Air Cdre) Jon Ford hardly slept for three days. The engineers had to prepare the first batch of six aircraft, installing wartime fits and repainting them in desert camouflage. Crews received anti-chemical and bacteriological warfare jabs, wrote wills and collected extra NBC (Nuclear, Biological and Chemical) clothing. Bill says: 'the Station's response to the short-notice deployment was magnificent, we had every support that they could think of and prepare in the time available. That splendid quality of back-up was maintained throughout the war, until everyone returned home.
At 0400 hours on 26 January the first pair of Buccaneers, with Bill piloting one of them, departed Lossiemouth with the paint still wet on the aircraft. A nine hour direct flight with a Tristar tanker took the aircraft over Europe, Egypt and Saudi to the operating base at Bahrain. En route, Bill found himself, for the first time ever, piloting an aircraft carrying live-armed Sidewinder air-to-air missiles. The ground crew flew by Hercules, a 19 hour flight.
Arrival in the Gulf
No sooner had the aircraft arrived than training began in earnest. A one week intensive training programme commenced, flying close formation sorties with Tornado bombers and acclimatising to desert conditions, which were completely different to overflying the sea, to say the least! The standard operating package was four Tornadoes and two Buccaneers carried the bombs, which were precision targeted using the Buccaneer Laser pod. As the Buccaneer only carries one pod, Laser failure would render the mission unworkable so all aircraft would have to return to base. Thus Buccaneers flew in pairs, to ensure that missions would not be compromised by such an eventuality.
Only days after arriving in theatre, the Buccaneer Force flew its first mission, on 2 February.
Two Buccaneers, crewed by Wg Cdr Bill Cope (Pilot) and Flt Lt Carl Wilson (Nav) and Flt Lt Glen Mason (Pilot) with Sqn Ldr Norman Browne (Nav), flew with four Tornadoes. They flew a route that was to become very familiar, popularly called 'Olive Trail', where they took some fuel on board from a tanker before heading towards the As Suwaira road bridge, at a height of 18,000 feet. The route was in cloud all the way until the final 50 miles where, just as the met team had predicted, there were clear skies. Although the crews knew that their aircraft had been illuminated by Iraqi owned Russian Air Defence systems, there was no enemy attempt to engage and allied AWACS aircraft regularly confirmed that there were no Iraqi aircraft airborne. The bridge was easily identified and the attack successful.
A routine was soon established with daily taskings of mixed Tornado/Buccaneer packages to destroy road bridges over the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, to break the Iraqi resupply lines to their army in Kuwait. Within a week of commencing operations, nine crews were operational and success led to increased tasking. Indeed, the only constraint was the number of aircraft and daylight hours for, unlike modern systems, the Buccaneer Laser pod had no night-time capability. Although the equipment was dated - the navigator had to target the bombs using a roller ball for the 40 seconds between release and impact - the Lasers achieved a 50% success rate which compares most favourably with modern equipment.
In all, the Buccaneer Force is accredited with guiding bombs which destroyed approximately 20 bridges, varying from suspension to double-span motorway bridges. Unknown at the time, the Iraqis had located their fibre optic cables along the same bridges, so every downed bridge also broke a communications line, resulting in disorder at the front line.
It has to be said that there was a lot of improvisation initially as the new aircraft packages were just that - new - and there was little experience on which to base operations. For example, although the squadron Qualified Weapons Instructors were adamant that the best aiming point for suspension bridges was the supporting towers, higher authority disagreed and instructed the crews to aim at the bridge abutments. However, almost immediately this decision was amended and the supporting towers targeted, to great effect. Another lesson quickly learnt was that the two sets of bombs had to detonate simultaneously, otherwise the second set of bombs would be blown off target by the first detonation.
One of the more upsetting aspects of the campaign was having to drop bombs onto bridges without any means of warning road traffic. Sadly, from time to time, there were casualties, though there were also happier moments. On one occasion the navigator was observing a vehicle crossing a bridge when bombs destroyed the first and last sections, leaving the driver marooned but safe in the still intact centre. Alas, not all drivers were so lucky.
It was after one week that Bill saw his first Surface to Air (SAM). This was not as frightening as it may sound, as a missile which is receiving guidance signals - which is a serious threat - kicks in its trajectory so is easy to recognise. On the other hand, non-guided missiles followed a straight path and are no longer a risk to the target aircraft. Given the presence of American Wild Weasel aircraft - who would shoot their anti-radar 'HARM' rockets straight into a guided missile radar unit; during the raids, the Iraqis were highly reticent to switch on the radar; if they had, they quickly switched it off, preferring to launch wildly their weapons. Thus, the allied aircrew could see when the SAMs were not guided and consequently very unlikely to hit.
Throughout the seven weeks of hostilities morale was very good. Of the eventual 18 aircrews in theatre, not one mission was cancelled due to illness or aircraft unserviceability, compared to the peacetime norm whereby an average of one sortie per week would have been lost to sickness alone. The aircrews had been specially selected, resulting in one senior officer for every aircraft, to maximise experience levels. Despite this and the fact that no aircraft were lost, of course walking to the aircraft prior to a mission was always a sobering time and you could not help but compare the contrast between those setting out and those returning.
The ground crew deserve a special mention. Under the sterling leadership of Sqd Ldrs David Tasker and George Baber, aircraft serviceability was indeed impressive and only bettered by the Jaguar Force. There was always at least one spare aircraft and usually two, not bad for an aircraft older than the majority of the personnel in theatre. Indeed, in its 30 years in operation, never had Buccaneer serviceability been better. In fairness, the ground crew had to put up with a lot, including highly stressed aircrew from time to time. Even Bill confesses to occasionally having been less than a perfect gentleman and was most grateful to Flight Sergeant (now Warrant Officer) 'Chalky' White for his good grace following one particular incident, details of which are best kept secret.
Once the land offensive commenced, the Buccaneer role switched from bridge bombing to airfield attacks, specifically against Hardened Aircraft Shelters, runways and any aircraft on the ground, to ensure the Iraqi Air Force stayed out of the battle. In fact, the Iraqi Air Force showed no inclination to engage and the Buccaneers actually stopped flying with air-to-air defence missiles and carried bombs instead. They still flew in packages with Tornado bombers and provided Laser guidance, but in addition would bomb opportunity targets afterwards. Such bombing would be done at steep dive angles of up to 40%, which necessitated applying airbrakes to prevent the aircraft going supersonic, which it was not cleared to do. It certainly raised the hairs on the back of the neck!
One notable successful opportunity target that presented itself was on 21 February at Shayka Mazar when several Russian built Cub transport aircraft were sighted on the aircraft pan. Both Buccaneers dive bombed the aircraft and were delighted to see two of the targets destroyed. The first enemy aircraft received a direct hit but the bombs failed to explode; none the less, the momentum of the bomb did the trick and the aircraft split in two. The second Buccaneer - under the guidance of navigator Flt Lt Carl Wilson - also scored direct hits and TV viewers back in the UK were treated that night to the spectacle of the fully fuelled aircraft exploding in a ball of fire.
Buccaneer crews were accommodated in a five star hotel with en suite facilities. They would work two days on and one day off. During the day off they were free to explore but, in reality, usually relaxed by the swimming pool. In some respects, it all seemed a little unreal. Crews would awake at 0300 hours, shower, put on civilian clothing - uniform was forbidden in the hotel - and drive in the hire car the five miles to Bahrain.