Bless her heart, Margaret Still does like to provide us with things to do on these reunion events……..
This morning we drive in convoy to the Pathfinder Museum at RAF Wyton – home of Number 8 Group, Path Finder Force.
From the museum website;
The creation of the Pathfinder force was a source of one of the bitterest arguments of the Second World War. Initially the brainchild of Group Captain S O Bufton (a staff officer for whom Bomber Command’s chief Arthur “Bomber” Harris had special contempt), Harris thought an elite would breed rivalry and jealousy, and have an adverse effect on morale. Sir Henry Tizard, advisor and one of the chief scientists supporting the war effort, said, however, “I do not think the formation of a first XV at rugby makes little boys play any less enthusiastically.”
Harris, however was forced to accept the idea. In order to minimise any adverse effects, Harris decided that every Group would have its own pathfinder, but again a bitter argument ensued, and eventually Harris lost and a separate group was formed: 8 Group, commanded by Donald Bennett, a talented and pioneering young aviator born in Australia. At 33, Bennett was the youngest officer promoted to Air Vice Marshal (in 1943). His awards include Commander of the British Empire, CBE, and Distinguished Service Order, DSO. However, Bennett was not the first choice – Harris opposed the primary choice of the Air Ministry, Basil Embry, the dashing young leader of 2 Group.
The PFF crews thereafter found their way in the Force via varied routes; crews or individuals could volunteer at any time while serving with Main Force squadrons, while aircrew who showed promise in their training could also find themselves seconded into the force. Some crews in mid-tour could also be transferred into PFF when numbers were needed to be made up to establishment where required.
Recruits were given a two week course in marking techniques at Warboys before posting to a Squadron. Bennett addressed each intake personally and the crews came to have an intense sense of loyalty, pride and professionalism in their membership of 8 Group.
The PFF crews were also granted a step up in rank, and increase in pay, but had to do a 45 trip tour rather than the usual 30 trips, for as long as they were serving in PFF. In the end, Harris was proved wrong about PFF’s effect on morale – the silver PFF badge allowed to be worn on their uniforms was genuinely a sought-after achievement.
PFF crews found themselves given ever increasingly sophisticated and complex jobs and tasks that were constantly modified and developed tactically during the bombing campaign from 1943 until the end of the war. Some of the more usual tasks were as: “Finders”; these were 8 Group aircraft tasked with dropping sticks of illuminating flares, firstly at critical points along the bombing route to aid navigation and keep the bomber stream compact, and then across the approximate target area. If conditions were cloudy then these were dropped using H2S navigational radar.
“Illuminators”; were PPF aircraft flying in front of the main force who would drop markers or Target indicators ( TI’s) onto the designated ‘aiming point’ already illuminated by the “Finders”. Again, if conditions were cloudy H2S navigational radar was used. These TI’s were designed to burn with various colours to prevent the German defenses lighting decoy fires. Various TI’s were dubbed ‘Pink Pansies’, ‘Red Spots’ , and ‘Smoke Puffs’. “Illuminators” could include Mosquitoes equipped with ‘Oboe’ if the target was within the range of the highly accurate Oboe bombing aid. “Markers”; would then drop incendiaries onto the TIs just prior to the Main Force arrival. Further “markers” called ” Backers-Up” or “Supporters” would be distributed at points within the main bomber stream to remark the original TI’s as required. As the war wore on, the highly dangerous role of “Master Bomber” was introduced as a sort of master of ceremonies, the appointed Pathfinder (usually a highly experienced senior Officer) circling the target and broadcasting instructions to both Pathfinders and Main Force aircraft, correcting aiming points and generally coordinating the attack.
The proportion of Pathfinder aircraft to Main Force bombers varied enormously according to the difficulty and location of the assigned target; 1 to 15 was common, though it could be as low as 1 to 3. By the start of 1944 the bulk of Bomber Command was now bombing within 3 miles of the PFF indicators; a huge improvement in accuracy. The success or failure of a raid now depended overwhelmingly on the Pathfinder’s marker placement and how successfully further marking was corrected.
The PFF flew a total of 50,490 individual sorties against some 3,440 targets. The cost in human lives was grievous. At least 3,727 members were killed on operations.
The museum is staffed by volunteers as are most – I have the utmost respect for people like these. Its not the same as researching a relative or individual of interest. These people give of their time for the information of others and I think they deserve more support. The museum is currently undergoing somewhat of a rebuild and will be soon moved into new facilities on the airbase. I hope they get the space and expertise to allow them to tell the story of No. 8 Group, Path Finder Force in the way that it deserves.
As the presentation continues, it dawns on me that Allan would have been here for his second tour. He flew Mosquitoes in 1945 with 128 Squadron Light Night Strike Force – responsible for flying diversionary and ‘harrying’ missions deep into Germany. Once again I found myself musing on the way I seem to discover these coincidences on my journey……..
Information about the Path Finder Museum can be found here.