The North Atlantic D+4 (13 July, 1987) Part III

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Later in the afternoon, fifteen Bear D reconnaissance aircraft came across Northern Norway, and  headed south over the Norwegian Sea. As the Bears approached within 200 miles of the Icelandic coast they descended to altitudes of between 300 and 500 feet. The five formations of three aircraft each separated as they neared the Iceland-Faroes gap and proceeded to their designated patrol boxes over the contested waters of the North Atlantic.

USAF E-3s detected just half of the Bears as they came south. Because of the damage caused at Keflavik in the earlier Badger raid, coupled with the punishing tempo of air operations  the 57th Fighter Interceptor Squadron was enduring, the number of F-15s available to conduct intercepts was limited for a period of time that afternoon. With that in mind, the AWACS controllers opted to send the fighters to intercept and kill the Bears that appeared to be heading towards areas where NATO convoys were located. A series of cat and mouse games developed through the late afternoon. Three Bears were shot down, and another damaged to the point where it had to head back towards the Kola Peninsula. Unfortunately, the AWACS controllers could not press the search harder. As additional US fighters became available, they were held for the defense of Iceland, or to go after any bombers coming up behind the Bears.

Sure enough, the second wave of Soviet Backfires appeared. Unlike the first, this group of twenty bombers had a target. Two of the Bears had stumbled across emissions of the type used on US Perry-class frigates. The reconnaissance aircraft spent the better part of the next hour accumulating data. Eventually, enough information came together to paint a clear enough picture. The raid commander believed the formation of ships was the missing NATO convoy from earlier in the day. Without a moment to waste, he unleashed the Backfires.

Convoy 28-1 consisted of six merchant ships loaded with supplies, ammunition, and equipment for the US Marine units in Norway. Two of the ships were tankers, one carrying aviation fuel, the other diesel fuel. Four NATO warships were charged with protecting these ships and their vital stores; two US Navy frigates, one US Navy destroyer, and a Royal Navy frigate that was attached to the convoy on the second day of the war by SACLANT. It was located 72 miles northeast of the Faroes, steaming east at sixteen knots towards Norway.

The Backfires struck swiftly. The first sign of trouble for the convoy was the detection of the Bearโ€™s Big Bulge radar tracking the formation. Multiple Downbeat radars were picked up next, and in less than two minutes the โ€˜Vampireโ€™ call rang out in the Combat Information Centers of the escorts. The Backfires launched twenty AS-6 Kingfish missiles at Convoy 28-1. Half were destroyed by SAMs and close-in guns. Four more were diverted by countermeasures and jamming. Six Kingfish managed to find targets though. Three merchantmen were struck, along with the destroyer USS Goldsborough and the British frigate HMS Ambuscade. Four of the five ships sank within minutes. Only Goldsborough remained alfoat for a brief time until fires caused by the Kingfish impact threatened her magazines. The wounded destroyer was abandoned and later erupted in a massive fireball.

The attack on Convoy 28-1 proved to be the highwater mark for the Backfires on D+4. As evening arrived, RAF Phantoms flying from bases in Scotland joined USAF F-15s in establishing barrier combat air patrols (BARCAP) along potential raid routes. The BARCAPs succeeded in breaking up two groups of downbound Backfires and forcing them to abort. Three Bears also fell victim to Sky Flash and Sparrow missiles. As the day came to an end, NATO  had, for the most part, regained control of the airspace above the North Atlantic shipping lanes. SACLANT recognized that more airpower would be needed to keep the skies friendly in the coming days.

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4 Replies to “The North Atlantic D+4 (13 July, 1987) Part III”

  1. Noting that you’re going back and revising some of your entries, Tornado ADVs (F3) didn’t enter squadron service until late ’87. So whilst it is possible that some may have been rushed into service early, they would more likely have been Phantom FGR2s at this time ๐Ÿ™‚

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I love the fact that readers like you are so well-informed ๐Ÿ™‚ Thanks for sharing that little tidbit. I’ll have to make the appropriate changes ๐Ÿ™‚

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  2. You’re welcome. The RAF had some F2s in service, but they only had the Blue Circle radar. That’s a joke on the fact that because the Fox Hunter radar wasn’t working properly they used cement counter-weights in the nose to replace the radar, and Blue Circle was a famous brand of cement in Britain at that time.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I remember Blue Circle from when I was over in England in the early 2000s. Never heard about the counter-weight story before though, and I know a few Tornado drivers. I’ll have to inquire. ๐Ÿ™‚ Thanks, Andy!

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