A Short History of the RAF Pathfinder Force
RAF Bomber Command was Britain’s greatest and mightiest weapon during the Second World War. It was the only weapon capable of striking heavily and directly at the heart of Nazi Germany. Despite this, in the early years of the war, the effectiveness of Bomber Command was limited because of its inability to navigate accurately and deliver its destructive power precisely enough onto individual targets. It soon became apparent that the vast effort of Bomber Command would be wasted, unless an accurate means of guiding aircraft to their targets could be found.
In 1941, the idea of a special force, to lead the main bomber streams was endorsed by the then Deputy Director of Bomber Operations, Group Captain Syd Bufton. He suggested that six squadrons should be based close to each other, their aircrews enriched with 40 of the Command’s most highly experienced crews. The idea however was condemned by the new AOC-in-C, Air Marshal Arthur Harris, later to be called ‘Bomber Harris’, he believed it was likely to foster elitism and hence ruin morale. However, the Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Charles Portal, overruled Harris and with the support of Winston Churchill a separate force was created.
Thus, on the 15th August 1942, the Pathfinder Force (PFF) was formed. The force, initially administered by No.3 Group, moved into their new headquarters at RAF Wyton, which was chosen by Group Captain (later to become, Air Vice-Marshal), Don Bennett for its good landline communications and favourable weather record.
The Pathfinder Force initially comprised of five squadrons, one from each of the operational Bomber Command Groups. The squadrons were, Nos.7 (Stirlings), 35 (Halifaxes), 83 (Lancasters), 109 “special duties” (Wellingtons) and 156 (Wellingtons). These squadrons were located on adjacent airfields at Oakington, Graveley, Wyton and Warboys.
Promising Bennett his full support and having great respect for him, Harris was still opposed to the formation of the PFF. However, he would not give PFF any leeway, and insisted that it must begin operations on the same day that the Squadrons assembled, giving them no time for training or preparation. In the end, bad weather prevented any operations. The next night Bennett sent the force out to bomb the submarine base at Flensburg. More bad weather, which had not been forecast, couple with the lack of any navigational or radar aids at that stage meant that the raid, not surprisingly, failed. Undeterred by the enforced bad start, the PFF steadily worked up and developed their techniques; results soon began to show.
One of PFF Squadron’s, No.109, was tasked with the development and testing of the new OBOE radio equipment. OBOE was destined to be one of PFF’s greatest technical aids; used to pinpointing targets and guiding the Pathfinders to them using signals from pairs of UK based stations. Apart from OBOE, the force had another radio navigational aid called GEE. This was a slightly older system but still useful and always used in conjunction with OBOE. Both of these aids were only effective up to 300 miles, Berlin was another 250 miles beyond the reach of OBOE or GEE. Another notable achievement for the PFF was the introduction of the first airborne ground mapping radar system called H2S. Trialled by the Halifax’s of No.35 Sqn, on the 30th January 1943, H2S radar was used by RAF bombers for navigation for the first time and so became the first ground mapping radar to be used in combat. Other technical aids were the flares and Target Indicators (TIs), which showed the main bomber streams where to drop their bombs. Hooded flares were developed to illuminate the target without dazzling the bomb aimers, and TIs in a spectacular range of colours marked the exact position of the target either on the ground or in the air above. After all these aids were introduced into service the accuracy of the bombers increased steadily. OBOE’s first operational trials were on the 20th December 1943, when four Mosquitoes of No.109 Sqn dropped high explosives on a German coking plant.
On the 25th January 1943 the PFF became a separate group, No.8. By this time the Pathfinders had proved themselves and at long last Bomber Command was a fully effective force. Any aircrew that was posted to PFF was conditional on two things; firstly they had to volunteer and secondly, they had to accept that a tour duty with PFF was 45 operational sorties and not 30 as in the rest of Bomber Command. This ensured that PFF gained maximum valve from the highly experienced crews, it was not uncommon for aircrew to undertake more than 45 sorties.
In April 1943 a further two squadrons, both equipped with Lancasters, joined the PFF, No.405 of the Royal Canadian Air Force, which was based at Gransden and No.97 based a Bourn. Three months later PFF moved its headquarters from Wyton to Castle Hill house in the local town of Huntingdon and in the same month a further two squadrons joined PFF, Nos. 105 and 139 Sqns, both equipped with Mosquitoes and based at Marham. In the following year a further three more squadrons joined the group, Nos. 627 (Mosquitoes), 692 (Mosquitoes) and 635 (Lancasters).
Over the period of the 30th & 31st March 1944 PFF and Bomber Command set out to bomb Nuremburg. Of the 795 Bomber Command aircraft, 95 failed to return. The reason for this disastrous loss rate (11.9%) was that the route devised by PFF which involved several doglegs, to avoid heavy defences and disguise the real objective was overruled by Bomber Command and changed to a more direct route. This lead the force straight into the German defences and the bombers were consequently picked off by night fighters. Bad luck was again to hit PFF the following month when No.582 Sqn (Lancasters) joined the Group but immediately afterwards Nos.83, 97 and 627 Sqns were transferred to No.5 Group to undertake Pathfinder trials. Throughout the rest of the war there was a growing trend for other Bomber Command Groups to do their own advanced navigation, with their crews being trained in techniques evolved by PFF during the vital earlier years. However, after this drain on its strength, PFF began to recover and to obtain new units. These were mostly Mosquitoes and these became the Light Night Striking Force (LNSF). Many of the LNSF Mosquitoes carried the 4,000lb “Cookie” bomb as far as Berlin. They also flew diversionary raids to distract attention away from the main bomber streams.
In April 1945 the PFF reached its peak strength with eight Lancaster and eleven Mosquito units, this included three that had been detached to No.5 Group. By the end of the war in Europe in May 1945, the PFF had flown a total of 50,490 sorties against 3,440 targets. The number of PFF aircrew killed on operations totalled 3,618. Of the 32 Victoria Crosses awarded to Bomber Command during World War 2, three went to PFF pilots, Bazalgette, Palmer and Swales, all posthumously.
Extract from the London Gazette of Friday 20th April 1945
The King has been pleased to confer the Victoria Cross on the under mentioned officer in recognition of his most conspicuous bravery:
Captain Edwin Swales DFC
South African Air Force, No.582 Squadron
Captain Swales was “Master Bomber” of a force of aircraft, which attacked Pforzheim on the night of February 23rd, 1945. As “Master Bomber”, he had the task of locating the target area with precision and giving aiming instructions to the main force of bombers following in this wake.
Soon after he had reached the target area he was engaged by an enemy fighter, and one of this engines was put out of action. His rear guns failed and his crippled aircraft was an easy prey to further attacks. Unperturbed, he carried on with his allotted task; clearly and precisely he issued aiming instructions to the main force. Captain Swales’ aircraft was put out of action, almost defenceless, he stayed over the target area issuing this instructions until he was satisfied that the attack had achieved its purpose.
Captain Swales did not, however, regard his mission as completed. His aircraft was damaged, such that, its speed was so much reduced it could only be kept in the air with great difficulty. The blind-flying instruments were no longer working; he was determined at all costs to prevent this aircraft and crew from falling into enemy hands, he set course for home. After an hour he flew into thin-layered cloud, he kept his course by skilful lying between the layers, but later heavy cloud and turbulent air conditions were met. The aircraft, by now over friendly territory, became more and more difficult to control; it was losing height steadily. Realizing that the situation was desperate Captain Swales ordered this crew to bale out. Time was very short and it required all this exertions to keep the aircraft steady while each of this crew moved in turn to the escape hatch and parachuted to safety. Hardly had the last crewmember jumped when the aircraft plunged to earth, Captain Swales was found dead at the controls.
Intrepid in the attack, courageous in the face of danger, he did his duty to the last, giving his life so that his comrades might live.
On the 12th May 1945, Air Vice-Marshal J R Whitley succeeded Bennett as AOC Pathfinders, and on the 15th December No.8 (PFF) Group was disbanded.
Listed below are the squadrons that formed No.8 (Pathfinder Force) Group.
Station and aircraft details are for when the Units were part of the Pathfinder Force.
Station – Oakington from Oct 1940 onwards.
Aircraft – Short Stirling I & III Aug 1940 – Aug 1943, Avro Lancaster B.I & III Jul 1943 onwards.
Station – Graveley from Aug 1942 onwards
Aircraft – Handley Page Halifax B.I, B.II & B.III Nov 1940 – Mar 1944, Avro Lancaster B.I, B.III Mar 1944 onwards.
Station – Wyton Aug 1942 – Apr 1944, Coningsby Apr 1944 onwards.
Aircraft – Avro Lancaster B.I & B.III May 1942 onwards.
Station – Bourn Apr 1943 – Apr 1944,
“A”, “B” & “C” Flights detached to Gransden Lodge, Graveley and Oakington respectively during Aug/Sep 1943,Coningsby – Apr 1944 onwards.
Aircraft – Avro Lancaster B.I & B.III Jan 1942 onwards.
No.105 Squadron (joined PPF in 1943)
Station – Marham Sep 1942 – Mar 1944, Bourn Mar 1944 onwards.
Aircraft – De Havilland Mosquito B.IV, B.IX & B.XVI Nov 1941 onwards.
Station – Wyton Aug 1942 – Jul 1943, Marham Jul 1943 – Apr 1944, Little Staughton Apr 1944 onwards.
Aircraft – De Havilland Mosquito B.IV, B.IX & B.XVI Dec 1941 onwards.
Station – Wyton Sep 1944
Aircraft – De Havilland Mosquito B.XVI, B.XX & B.XXV Sep 1944 onwards.
Station – Gransden Lodge Oct 1944 onwards.
Aircraft – De Havilland Mosquito B.XXV Oct 1944 onwards.
Station – Warboys Aug 1942 – Mar 1944, Upwood Mar 1944 onwards.
Aircraft – Vickers Wellington IC & III Feb 1942 – Jan 1943, Avro Lancaster B.I & B.III Jan 1943 onwards.
Station – Bourn Dec 1944 onwards.
Aircraft – De Havilland Mosquito B.XX & B.XXV Dec 1944 – July 1945.
Station – Wyton Jan 1945 onwards.
Aircraft – De Havilland Mosquito B.XVI & B.XXV Jan 1945 onwards.
No.405 Squadron, Royal Canadian Air Force
Station – Gransden Lodge Apr 1943 onwards.
Aircraft – Handley Page Halifax B.II Apr 1942 – Sep 1943, Avro Lancaster B.I, B.III & B.X Aug 1943 onwards.
Station – Downham Market Apr 1944, Oakington 24th Apr 1944 onwards.
Aircraft – De Havilland Mosquito B.XVI Apr 1944 onwards.
Station – Little Staughton Apr 1944 onwards.
Aircraft – Avro Lancaster B.I, B.III Apr 1944 onwards.
Station – Downham Market Aug 1944 onwards.
Aircraft – De Havilland Mosquito B.XX, B.XXV & B.XVI Aug 1944 onwards.
Station – Oakington Nov 1943 – Apr 1944, Woodhall Spa Apr 1944 onwards,
Aircraft – De Havilland Mosquito B.IV, B.IX, B.XVI, B.XX, B.XXV Nov 1943 onwards.
Station – Downham Market Mar 1944 onwards.
Aircraft – Avro Lancaster B.I, B.III & B.VI Mar 1944 onwards.
Station – Graveley Jan 1944 onwards.
Aircraft – De Havilland Mosquito B.IV, B.XVI Jan 1944 onwards.
1409 (Meteorological) Flight
Station – Oakington 1st Apr 1943 – Jan 1944, Wyton Jan 1944 onwards.
Aircraft – De Havilland Mosquito
Forming a part of the RAF Wyton Heritage Centre, the RAF Pathfinder Collection proudly displays one of the largest unpublished collections of PFF imagery in existence. Accompanying this photographic collection are many artefacts associated with PFF, including items recovered from World War II crashed Pathfinder aircraft.
The idea for a Pathfinder Collection goes back to the summer of 1995, when it was suggested that a temporary display should be set up in anticipation of that year’s Pathfinder Sunday (an annual event held each August) for the benefit of the Pathfinder’s and their families. It generated an overwhelming interest and a request from those present for a more permanent museum.
Thus, the PFF collection was born and continues to grow with the full support of successive Station Commanders and sections around RAF Wyton. Other areas within the Heritage Centre are the Imagery Intelligence Collection (an area in which I have a main interest), looking at the history of Photographic Reconnaissance and the Wyton History Timeline, this a large display showing the wide range of activities that have happen at RAF Wyton from 1912 to the present day.
The Heritage Centre is manned by a small number of volunteers like myself, who wish to ensure that the memories of the brave members of the Pathfinder Force, the role of RAF Wyton and the history of Photographic Reconnaissance is not forgotten.
Wyton Heritage Centre Volunteer