Fleet Air Arm
The Buccaneer entered service with the Fleet Air Arm on 17 July 1962 when 801 NAS was commissioned at RNAS Lossiemouth in Scotland. The Buccaneer quickly replaced the FAA's Supermarine Scimitar, which had previously been performing the naval attack flight duties. In addition to conventional ordnance, the Buccaneer was type-approved for nuclear weapons delivery in 1965; weapons deployed included Red Beard and WE.177 drop-bombs, which were carried internally in a rotating bomb-bay. Two Fleet Air Arm operational squadrons and a training unit were equipped with the Buccaneer S.1. The aircraft was well liked by Navy aircrew for its strength and flying qualities, and the BLC system gave them slower landing speeds than they were accustomed to. The Buccaneers were painted dark sea grey on top and anti-flash white on the undersides.
The Buccaneer S.1's Gyron Junior engines were not powerful enough, and they led to the type's career coming to an abrupt end in December 1970. On 1 December, an S.1 was making a landing approach when an engine surge disrupted the approach and forced the two crewmen to eject. On 8 December, an S.1 on a training flight suffered a turbine failure. The pilot successfully ejected, but due to a mechanical failure the navigator was killed. Subsequent inspections concluded that the Gyron Junior engine was not to a standard now considered to be suited for operations. All surviving S.1s were grounded immediately, and permanently.
By April 1965, intensive trials of the new Buccaneer S.2 had begun, with the type enter operational service with the FAA later that year. The improved S.2 type proved its value when it became the first FAA aircraft to make a non-stop, unrefuelled crossing of the Atlantic Ocean. On 28 March 1967, Buccaneers from RNAS Lossiemouth bombed the shipwrecked supertanker Torrey Canyon off the western coast of Cornwall to make the oil burn in order to avoid an environmental disaster. In 1972, Buccaneers of 809 Naval Air Squadron operating from HMS Ark Royal took part in a 1,500 mile mission to show a military presence over British Honduras (modern day Belize) shortly before its independence, to deter a possible Guatemalan invasion in pursuit of their territorial claims over the country.
The Buccaneer also participated in regular patrols and exercises in the North Sea, practicing the type's role if war had broken out with the Soviet Union. During the 1960s and 1970s, the Royal Navy standardised the air wings operating from their carriers around the Phantom, Buccaneer, and the Fairey Gannet aircraft. A total of six FAA squadrons were equipped with the Buccaneer: 700B/700Z (Intensive Flying Trials Unit), 736 (training), 800, 801, 803 and 809 Naval Air Squadrons. Buccaneers were embarked on HMS Victorious, Eagle, Ark Royal and Hermes.
The Buccaneer was retired from Fleet Air Arm service with the decommissioning in 1978 of the Ark Royal, the last of the navy's fleet carriers. Their retirement was part of a larger foreign policy agenda that was implemented throughout the 1970s. Measures such as the withdrawal of most British military forces stationed East of Suez were viewed as reducing the need for aircraft carriers and fixed-wing naval aviation in general. The decision was highly controversial, particularly to those within the Fleet Air Arm. The Royal Navy would replace the naval strike capability of the Buccaneer with the smaller V/STOL-capable British Aerospace Sea Harrier, which were operated from their Invincible class aircraft carriers.
Royal Air Force
After the F-111K was cancelled in early 1968, due to the programme suffering serious cost escalation and delays, the RAF was forced to look for a replacement that was available and affordable, and reluctantly selected the Buccaneer. The first RAF unit to receive the Buccaneer was 12 Squadron at RAF Honington in October 1969, in the maritime strike role, at first equipped with ex-Royal Navy Buccaneers S.2As. This was to remain a key station for the type as 15 Squadron equipped with the Buccaneer the following year, before moving to RAF Laarbruch in 1971, and the RAF Buccaneer conversion unit, 237 OCU, forming at Honington in March 1971. The Buccaneer was seen as an interim solution, but delays in the Panavia Tornado programme would ensure that the "interim" period would stretch out, and the Buccaneer would remain in RAF service for over two decades, long after the FAA had given up the type.
With the phased withdrawal of the Royal Navy's carrier fleet during the 1970s, the Fleet Air Arm's Buccaneers were transferred to the RAF, which had taken over the maritime strike role. 62 of the 84 S.2 aircraft were eventually transferred, redesignated S.2A; some of these were later upgraded to S.2B standard. Ex-FAA aircraft equipped 16 Squadron, joining 15 Squadron at RAF Laarbruch, and 208 Squadron at Honington; the last ex-FAA aircraft went to 216 Squadron.
From 1970, with 12 Squadron initially, followed by 15 Squadron, 16 Squadron, No. 237 OCU, 208 Squadron and 216 Squadron, the RAF Buccaneer force re-equipped with WE.177 nuclear weapons. At peak strength Buccaneers equipped six RAF squadrons, although for one year only. A more sustained strength of five squadrons was made up of three squadrons (15 Squadron, 16 Squadron, 208 Squadron) plus No. 237 OCU (a war reserve or Shadow squadron) all assigned to Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) for land strike duties in support of land forces opposing Warsaw Pact land forces on the Continent, plus one squadron (12 Squadron) assigned to SACLANT for maritime strike duties.
Opportunities for Buccaneer squadrons to engage in realistic training were limited, and so when the US began their Red Flag military exercises at Nellis Air Force Base in 1975, the RAF became keenly interested. The first Red Flag in which RAF aircraft were involved was in 1977, with 10 Buccaneers and two Avro Vulcan bombers participating. Buccaneers would be involved in later Red Flags through to 1983, and in 1979 also participated in the similar Maple Flag exercise over Canada. The Buccaneer proved impressive with its fast low-level attacks, which were highly accurate despite the aircraft's lack of terrain-following radar and other modern avionics. They were able to penetrate adversary defences, and were credited with "kills" on defending fighters using AIM-9 Sidewinder air-to-air missiles.
During the 1980 Red Flag exercises, one of the participating Buccaneers lost a wing in mid-flight due to a fatigue-induced crack and crashed, killing its crew. The entire RAF Buccaneer fleet was grounded in February 1980, subsequent investigation discovered serious metal fatigue problems to be present on numerous aircraft. A total of 60 aircraft were selected to receive new spar rings while others were scrapped; the nascent 216 Squadron was subsequently disbanded due to a resulting reduction in aircraft numbers. Later the same year, the UK-based Buccaneer squadrons moved to RAF Lossiemouth.
In 1983, six Buccaneer S.2s were sent to Cyprus to support British peacekeepers in Lebanon as a part of Operation Pulsator. On 11 September 1983, two of these aircraft flew low over Beirut, their presence intended to intimidate insurgents rather than inflict damage directly. After 1983, the land strike duties were mostly reassigned to the Tornado aircraft then entering service, and two Buccaneer squadrons remaining (12 Squadron, and 208 Squadron) were then assigned to SACLANT for maritime strike duties. Only the 'Shadow Squadron', No. 237 OCU, remained assigned to the role of land strike on long term assignment to SACEUR, No. 237 was also to operate as a designator for Jaguar ground strike aircraft in the event of conflict. The Buccaneer stood down from its reserve nuclear delivery duties in 1991.
The Buccaneer took part in combat operations during the 1991 Gulf War. It had been anticipated that Buccaneers might need to perform in the target designation role, although early on this had been thought to be "unlikely". Following a short-notice decision to deploy, the first batch of six aircraft were readied to deploy in under 72 hours, including the adoption of desert camouflage and additional equipment, and departed from Lossiemouth for the Middle Eastern theatre early on 26 January 1991. In theatre, it became common for each attack formation to comprise four Tornados and two Buccaneers; each Buccaneer carried a single laser designator pod and acted as backup to the other in the event of an equipment malfunction. The first combat mission took place on 2 February, operating at a medium altitude of roughly 18,000 feet, and successfully attacked the As Suwaira Road Bridge.
Operations continued on practically every available day; missions did not take place at night as the laser pod lacked night-time functionality. Approximately 20 road bridges were destroyed by Buccaneer-supported missions, restricting the Iraqi Army's mobility and communications. In conjunction with the advance of Coalition ground forces into Iraq, the Buccaneers switched to airfield bombing missions, targeting bunkers, runways and any aircraft sighted; following the guidance of the Tornado's laser-guided ordnance, the Buccaneers would commonly conduct dive-bombing runs upon remaining targets of opportunity in the vicinity. In one incident on the 21 February 1991, a pair of Buccaneers destroyed two Iraqi transport aircraft on the ground at Shayka Mazhar airfield. The Buccaneers flew 218 missions during the Gulf War, in which they designated targets for other aircraft and dropped 48 laser-guided bombs.
It had originally been planned for the Buccaneer to remain in service until the end of the 1990s, having been extensively modernized in a process lasting up to 1989; the end of the Cold War stimulated major changes in British defence policy, many aircraft being deemed to be surplus to requirements. It was decided that a number of Panavia Tornado GR1s would be modified for compatibility with the Sea Eagle missile and take over the RAF's maritime strike mission, and the Buccaneer would be retired early. Squadrons operating the Buccaneer were quickly run down and re-equipped with the Tornado; by mid-1993, 208 Squadron was the sole remaining operator of the type. The last Buccaneers were withdrawn in March 1994 when 208 Squadron disbanded.
South African Air Force
South Africa was the only country other than the UK to operate the Buccaneer, where it was in service with the South African Air Force (SAAF) from 1965 to 1991. In January 1963, even before the S.2 entered squadron service, South Africa had purchased 16 Spey-powered Buccaneers. The order was part of the Simonstown Agreement, in which the UK obtained use of the Simonstown naval base in South Africa in exchange for maritime weapons. An order for a further 20 Buccaneers was blocked by British Prime Minister Harold Wilson's government.
In the maritime strike role, SAAF Buccaneers were armed with the French radio-guided AS-30 missile. In March 1971, Buccaneers fired 12 AS-30s at a stricken tanker, the Wafra, but failed to sink it. The AS-30 missile was also used in ground attacks for effective precision strikes, one example being in 1981 when multiple missiles were used to strike a number of radar stations in southern Angola. For overland attack, the SAAF Buccaneers carried up to four 450 kg (1,000 lb) bombs in the rotary bomb bay, and four bombs, flares, or SNEB rocket packs on the underwing stores pylons. During the 1990s, it was revealed that South Africa had manufactured six air-deliverable tactical nuclear weapons between 1978 and 1993. These nuclear weapons, containing highly enriched uranium with an estimated explosion yield of 10-18 kilotons, were designed for delivery by either the Buccaneer or the English Electric Canberra bomber.
SAAF Buccaneers saw active service during the South Africa Border War, frequently flying over Angola and Namibia and launching attacks upon SWAPO guerilla camps in the 1970s and 1980s. During a ground offensive, Buccaneers would often fly close air support (CAS) missions armed with anti-personnel rockets, as well as performing bombardment operations. Buccaneers played a major role in the Battle of Cassinga in 1978, being employed in repeated strikes upon armoured vehicles, including enemy tanks, and to cover the withdrawal of friendly ground forces from the combat zone. The Buccaneer was capable of carrying heavy load outs over a long range and could remain in theatre for longer than other aircraft, making it attractive for the CAS role. Only five aircraft remained by the time the Buccaneer was retired from service in 1991.
Early in the Buccaneer programme, the US Navy had expressed mild interest in the aircraft, but quickly moved on to the development of their comparable Grumman A-6 Intruder. The West German Navy showed a greater interest and considered replacing their Hawker Sea Hawks with the type, although they eventually decided on the Lockheed F-104G for their maritime strike requirement following the bribing of West German government officials in the Lockheed bribery scandals.