Harriers over Falklands

The Harrier will always be associated with the Falklands War. Several RAF Harriers and Royal Navy Sea Harriers brought the fight to the Argentinians over the Falklands, battling it out with their jet fighters and attacking ground targets in support of the British soldiers on the ground.

The Hawker Harrier, a product of the Cold War

The Harrier was originally meant for a completely different fight in a post-apocalyptic world devastated by nuclear weapons as part of the Third World War. The concept of a jet fighter with the ability to take off and land vertically came from the assumption that a nuclear war would destroy all the RAF stations and runways. A ‘jump jet’ would not need a runway but could theoretically operate from anywhere with minimal ground facilities.

Several British companies devoted tremendous resources into developing a practical jet fighter, capable of this performance. Hawker replied with the P.1127. This became the Hawker Siddeley Kestrel which made its first flight on 7 March 1964. The Kestrel proved the concept was feasible and a fully-fledged combat aircraft was developed. This became the Harrier GR1 which first entered service with No.1 Squadron at RAF Wittering in July 1969.

It instantly caught international attention when that year it took off from St Pancras railway station and, with mid-flight refuelling, flew to Manhattan in New York in just over six hours.

Harrier GR1 transatlantic flight 1969, coming in to land at St Pancras coal yard

The Harrier achieved vertical lift through its Pegasus jet engine. Unlike normal jet engines with a single exhaust, the Pegasus has four vectoring nozzles for directing the thrust. Small auxiliary exhaust nozzles are also fitted in the nose, tail and wingtips, to provide further balance during vertical flight.

Beside vertical lift, this engine configuration provided it with exceptional manoeuvrability. This made it suitable as a ground attack aircraft but also as a close-range dogfighter. However, the RAF used it solely for ground attack and reconnaissance as it was not equipped with radar or air-to-air missiles.

The flexibility of the Harrier led to a long-term heavy deployment in West Germany as a conventional deterrent and potential strike weapon against Soviet aggression. In time of war the Harrier was to be deployed away from established airfields, which were vulnerable to attack. Instead it was to be operated from short, rough strips of ground and hidden in camouflaged ‘hides’, from which it would attack the enemy’s approaching armoured formations.

Harrier GR1s of No. 1 Squadron during Exercise SNOWY OWL, a field deployment exercise held in March 1972. Following a sortie, the Harriers are positioned back in their hides and readied for another flight.

In the 1970s Harrier GR1s were converted into GR3s and fitted with improved attack sensors, electronic countermeasures, and a more powerful engine over the GR1. A Sea Harrier was also developed for the Royal Navy. Beyond the armament of the RAF Harrier, the ‘Shar’ was equipped with radar and Sidewinder missiles for air combat duties as part of fleet air defence.

Unprepared for the Falklands

When in 1982 the Task Force was being assembled to liberate the Falklands, only 28 Sea Harriers were available for use on the Royal Navy’s two aircraft carriers. It soon became apparent that this was a modest number, and the idea was hatched to include RAF Harriers. Because of the Harrier’s capability for bare base operations and the fact that No. 1(F) Squadron was the only Harrier squadron qualified in air refuelling, this Squadron was tasked to prepare for operations from a carrier as attrition replacements for Sea Harrier combat losses. However, its Harriers were not suited to operate from aircraft carriers, nor did their pilots have had any training operating from them.

The initial plan provided for just twelve aircraft to be modified but this soon rose to over twenty. Major elements comprised nosewheel steering, changes to the fuel control units, the introduction of a Sidewinder missile capability, specialist radio transponder, tie-down shackles, drain holes and anti-corrosion weatherproofing. To achieve this in the time available while working up the squadron required additional aircraft and an intensive round-the-clock effort over a seven-day week. The system was proved and tested less within three weeks. Further modifications, which were later incorporated to increase the aircraft’s capability, included the installation of a flare and chaff dispenser for self-protection, an active electronic jammer to counter enemy radars, and the ability to carry and fire American anti-radar missiles.

As said, the RAF Harrier pilots were not trained to operate from aircraft carriers nor did they have the expertise to operate the new weapons which were rapidly being fitted to the Harriers. The pilots of No. 1 Squadron were deployed to Royal Naval Air Station Yeovilton to practice deck landing and ski-jump take offs. They also conducted air combat training against French Mirage and Étendard aircraft, as well as trials with the new Sidewinder heat-seeking missiles and laser-guided bombs. Paradoxically, four of them had been BAC Lightning fighter pilots before transitioning to Harriers. Because of their previous air combat experience they were selected to fly Sea Harriers of the Royal Navy which did not have enough qualified Sea Harrier pilots.

Harrier GR3 refuelling from a Handley Page Victor tanker

The plan was to fly the Harriers over to Wideawake airfield on Ascension Island, the closest RAF station to the Falklands. To bridge these 4,000 miles, the Harriers were to be refuelled in mid-air. The nine-hour flight by a single-engined jet fighter was a new milestone for the RAF. Once on Ascension, they would be loaded on board a converted container ship, called the Atlantic Conveyor, and tightly parked in the ‘aircraft hide’ which had been built between the walls of containers. They were then ‘bagged’ to give added protection against salt water. With a total of fourteen Harriers and ten helicopters embarked this was a very valuable target and, during the passage south, one Sea Harrier was kept at a high state of readiness for air defence duties. The very use of a container ship as a carrier of aircraft, let alone the ability to mount limited operations from it, is a hallmark of the Harrier’s enormous flexibility.

MV Atlantic Conveyor looking forward, with Harriers, Sea Harriers, Chinooks and Wessex helicopters on deck.

The Harrier enters the fray

On 18 May the Harriers and Sea Harriers were transferred to the two carriers, ten to HMS Hermes and four to HMS Invincible. All the GR3s went to Hermes and, after one day of work-up training, the Squadron flew its first operational sortie on 20 May. The Sea Harriers had been in operation for a good two weeks during which time no Sea Harriers had been lost in air combat. So, instead of being replacements, the GR3s were used as reinforcements and dedicated to the attack role. In this capacity they carried out the full gamut of offensive support missions, ranging from close air support, armed reconnaissance to offensive counter-air. The aims of the latter missions were twofold; first, to deny the use of Stanley airfield and the various outlying strips and, secondly, to destroy aircraft in the open.

One such operation took place on 23 May. The Squadron’s Commanding Officer, Wg Cdr Peter Squire at the controls of our Harrier XZ997 led a four-aircraft formation to drop 1,000 lb bombs on Dunnose Head airstrip on the West Falklands. No enemy aircraft were found but the airstrip was bombed to ensure it was not to be used by the enemy in future. In the end, the Argentinians never used the airstrip. The unguided bombs fell off target and hit nearby buildings, injuring one local. After the war, Harrier pilot Mark Hare visited the settlement to apologise for the damage caused. Jimmy Forster, the farm manager, commented drily: ‘If you wanted the runway destroyed, why didn’t you tell us? We’d have ploughed it up for you!’

Harrier GR3 taking off from HMS Hermes

The GR3 could carry a reconnaissance pod with five cameras for 360-degree coverage. Using this capability, and the photo processing facilities within Hermes, they were able to find concentrations of enemy defensive positions and other lucrative targets, which could then be engaged. However, it required extensive photo interpretation. For instance, the Argentineans went to some lengths to deceive the British, both by making the Port Stanley runway appear to be extensively cratered and by placing fake aircraft decoys. For instance, they modified some of their training aircraft to look like Étendard fighter jets.

For its attack tasks, the GR3 carried and delivered a variety of weapons, including cluster bombs, 2-inch rockets, 1000 lb bombs and, in due course, the laser guided bomb. The cluster bomb had a marked effect against troops in defensive positions, both in terms of casualties and in the lowering of morale. This was particularly true in the battle for Goose Green where missions flown in close support of 2PARA had a significant effect on the outcome of that battle. 2PARA were stuck on a forward slope, in daylight, being engaged by Argentinian 35 mm gunfire at 2000 metres range, something to which they had absolutely no answer. Suddenly, like cavalry to the rescue out of the sky, came three Harriers which promptly took out those guns and turned the tide of the battle.

Harrier dropping bombs

It was also a highly effective weapon against storage areas, such as fuel, and against helicopters caught on the ground. The full potential of the laser-guided bombs could not be made use of until just one day before the ceasefire. It was not until then that the laser target markers were positioned at the right time and place. However, four bombs delivered from loft profiles that day achieved two direct hits on pin-point targets and made the Argentineans aware that the RAF now had a weapon of extreme accuracy. No doubt that only reinforced their decision to surrender shortly after. This was the first use in conflict of smart weapons by the RAF. Ever since their use has increased, and now in 2022 virtually all ordnance dropped is guided.

Shortly after the landings in Port San Carlos, an airstrip was built close to one of the settlements. The Harrier Forward Operating Base (FOB) had refuelling facilities and up to four aircraft could be parked on the strip at any one time. As a rule, two GR3s were detached each day to provide quick reaction support for ground forces, whilst the Sea Harriers used it extensively to lengthen their time on combat air patrol. To protect the FOB against Argentinian air attacks, eight Rapier missile systems were placed in defence of the Harrier strip. Six Rapiers had been airlifted by Wessex helicopters to sites on surrounding hills and two were positioned in the valley. Whether the presence of eight Rapiers acted as a deterrent, or because the Argentine Air Force had decided beforehand not to engage in counter-air operations, there were no enemy air attacks on the Harrier FOB.

Rapier Air Surface Missile System On Falkland Islands (P032443)

Losses by ground fire

The greatest threat to the Harriers came was the gun fire and missiles fired from the ground. They varied from small arms fire to surface-to-air missiles (SAM). The two major SAM systems were Roland and Tigercat and the Harrier pilots were instructed to stay away from them. Although a substantial number of both types of missiles were launched, none was successful. The remaining SAM threat came from the shoulder-launched variety, British Blowpipe and the Soviet SAM-7, both of which were in plentiful supply. Flying very low and fast largely negated this threat and only one Harrier was claimed by the Argentinians using Blowpipe. The Argentineans were also equipped with a large quantity of AAA guns, ranging from 20mm to 35mm, some of which were linked to fire control radars. Although these tended to be sited in known areas, they posed a high threat to our aircraft, and a second Harrier was lost during the attack on Goose Green. However, most hits on the Harriers came from small arms fire which did little damage and could easily be repaired. In the later stages of the campaign, of every four aircraft launched one would return with holes in it. In total, four out of fourteen Harrier GR3s were lost during the campaign.

One of the pilots shot down was Jerry J Pook who also flew the Harrier GR3 XZ997 on display at our Midlands site. On 30 May, Harrier pilots Jerry Pook and John Rochfort were searching for enemy helicopters on the ground over Port Stanley, when Pook’s Harrier was hit by small arms fire from the ground. Pook felt the impact of the small arms but everything felt alright and the pair pressed on. They spotted Argentinian heavy artillery and attacked them with 2-inch rockets. On the way back to HMS Hermes aircraft carrier, it became clear that Pook’s Harrier’s fuel tanks had been hit and his fuel was decreasing rapidly. Pook jettisoned his empty fuel tanks and rocket pods to reduce drag but soon the engine flamed out. With no way to get back safely, he continued in an unpowered glide towards the ship but at 56 km (35 miles) from the ship, he ejected. Luckily, a search and rescue helicopter had been scrambled on time and Pook was picked up from the water within ten minutes. His only injuries were a stiff neck and some minor burns to his face from the ejection.

At the same time as Pook was in a helicopter back to Hermes, another helicopter was bringing back another shot-down Harrier pilot. Bob Iveson’s Harrier had been hit by ground fire three days earlier during an attack on enemy troops in support of 2 Para’s advance at Goose Green. He ejected from his aircraft and evaded capture before being rescued. In an interview with us he said ‘It was pretty hairy, because I’d never seen that much tracer and flak going off in the air. They had a lot of guns at Goose Green including some pretty sophisticated radar laid ones which I found out to my cost later.’ His Harrier was hit and the controls became unresponsive after which Bob knew he had to jump out. However, It was just… I’d rather get a little further away from a bunch of troops that I had just dropped cluster bombs on or near. So, ’cause I thought they might not be best pleased to see me.’ he decided to keep the Harrier flying as far as he could. “I’d just dropped cluster bombs on them, so they might not be best pleased to see me”, he later said. He ejected at very low altitude, but landed “on the softest, mushiest grass and heather you could imagine”. He avoided capture until picked up by soldiers of 2 Para. His immersion suit is on display in the Age of Uncertainty exhibition in Hangar 6 at the RAF Museum London. As Harriers pilots had to fly over water, they had to wear immersion suits in case they were shot down. Bob evaded the Argentinians for three days until he was picked up by friendlies and returned to HMS Hermes.

Group of RAF Harrier aircrew on deck of container ship 'Atlantic Conveyer' (P032429)

Following the ceasefire on 14 June, a full site was built ashore at Port Stanley and on 4 July the GR3 Detachment went ashore, armed with Sidewinders in the air defence role. No. 1435 Flight, famous from the defence of Malta during the Second World War, was reformed on the Falklands with Harriers, later with McDonnell Douglas Phantoms. No. 1435 Flight is still operational on the Falklands today, flying the Eurofighter Typhoon FGR4.

Meanwhile, the Harrier continued its service with the RAF in Germany. The Harrier was redesigned with a new wing, stronger engine and digital avionics. The Harrier GR5 entered service with the RAF in the mid-1980s and served over Iraq and Bosnia. A further improved GR7 and GR9 did so over Kosovo and Afghanistan. A Harrier GR9A is on display at the RAF Museum London. Due to budget cuts, the Harrier was withdrawn from service in 2010, although the Harrier II is still in use on board Italian, Spanish and American aircraft carriers where it will be replaced by the F-35 Lightning II.

A Harrier GR9A is on display at our London site, while Harrier GR3 XZ997, a genuine Falklands veteran, is waiting for you at our Midlands site. Book your free ticket via our website to see them up close, together with other aircraft and artefacts of the Falklands.

About the Author

Kris Hendrix: Researcher

As researcher at the RAF Museum I feel privileged to be allowed to explore the Museum’s archives and find information for public and media enquiries, exhibitions, blogs and vlogs. I love the stories of a 100 years of RAF history and I am passionate about sharing these inspiring stories to a wider audience.