Harrier 809 – Book Review
£15.39 (Hardback) £9.99 (Kindle)
This month Harrier 809, by respected aviation author Rowland White, is published by Bantam Press. Written in his trademark gripping narrative style, White illuminates some of the lesser-known aspects of the air war during the Falklands conflict.
Make no mistake, this is a great read for anyone but would not be the ideal choice for a newcomer to the history of the Falklands war. White has successfully gathered up many of the stories that have been overlooked and were peripheral to the main narrative. The book is primarily about the third, hastily formed Sea Harrier Squadron (809), the third ‘aircraft carrier’ (SS Atlantic Conveyor), clandestine RAF efforts to support the task force from Chile and the Argentinian aviators perspective.
The story of 809 Squadron has elements of the “Dirty Dozen” about it, being formed in just three weeks from a miscellaneous collection of Harrier pilots that included instructors new trainees and people recalled from exchange postings. Led by the central character in the book, Cdr Tim Gedge, what would normally have been a nine-month operational training course was condensed into three weeks. The squadron eventually comprised 9 Sea Harriers cobbled together from training and trails units and some straight from the factory. Their journey south to Ascension Island was something of epic in itself and they were eventually transported into the war zone onboard the second main character in the book, SS Atlantic Conveyor.
Atlantic Conveyor was a successful aircraft transporter but should not be confused with an aircraft carrier. There are still misguided advocates of the cheap “merchant ship aircraft carrier” concept today. A refined version of the ARAPAHO concept was trialled by RFA Reliant after the war and was not a success (more details in this article by Think Defence). Harriers were able to launch and land on the ship but this was a very limited operational capability. Despite eventually being sunk by missiles against which she had no defence, the vessel achieved her most important task of delivering jets to reinforce the air groups aboard HMS Hermes and Invincible.
Although primarily a naval triumph, the RAF contribution to victory in the Falklands has been misunderstood and underplayed in some quarters. While the epic airmanship of the Vulcan Black Buck raids are best known (covered in White’s previous work Vulcan 607), perhaps of far greater significance were the Harrier GR3 aircraft and RAF pilots that helped reinforce the slim Sea Harrier force. The ground-attack aircraft of 1(F) Squadron played an important part and their exploits are detailed in the book. What is also covered in-depth for the first time are the RAF’s effort to provide intelligence to the task force about the Argentinian aircraft movements.
A spectacular attempt to provide photo reconnaissance imagery of the Falklands using Canberra PR9s (Operation Folklore) involved flying aircraft men and logistic support vast distances across the US, into the Pacific and then onto Chilean bases. Although PR9s did make it to Chile, it is unclear whether operations took place. Inaccurate press leaks about “RAF Phantoms in Chile” may have limited the plan due to Chilean political sensitivity and much of the UK activity in South America at the time remains classified. Operation Fingent did, however definitely succeed by ‘gifting’ the Chileans an S-259 radar which was used to monitor Argentine airspace and provide some warning to the task force of impending attacks, using satellite phones supplied by the US. RN submarines operating off the Argentine coast were also employed in this role. Air-to-air refuelling and logistic support to Ascension island by RAF aircraft was also an important enabler that is sometimes overlooked.
Despite covering events of over 38 years ago, many of the themes, actions and experiences related in the book still have strong resonance today, especially as the RN and RAF are currently regenerating fixed-wing naval aviation again. Appropriately, 809 will once again be stood up to become the second frontline F-35 Squadron in 2023.
Besides the bravery and good humour of all involved, if there is one big takeaway from the book, it is to emphasise how quickly things can get done when bureaucracy is by-passed and everyone pulls in the same direction. The glacial procurement projects of today stand in stark contrast to the wonders of improvisation and action in 1982. Other points to note are that when the Argentinian Tracker and Neptune ISR aircraft broke down, they could not accurately locate the carrier group and the final air-launched Exocet attack was a failure. The book also emphasises how the VSTOL Harrier kept flying in weather that would have grounded conventional carrier aircraft.
Once again Rowland White has crafted a history book that reads like a novel. His passion for aviation shines through, while the willingness of participants in the conflict to offer him first-hand testimony makes for a compelling read.
For a complete picture of the fixed-wing aviation aspects of the Falklands conflict, these titles are also recommended reading: One Hundred Days (Sandy Woodward), Sea Harrier over the Falklands (Sharkey Ward), Hostile Skies (Dave Morgan), RAF Harrier Ground Attack – Falklands (Jerry Pook) and Falklands: The Air War (Burden, Draper, Rough, Smith & Wilton)