Musings on the worlds of aviation, military and international affairs.
With reviews of books that cover these topics
The Pathfinders were the best of a very brave breed – handpicked as the most skilful of Bomber Command by Don Bennett, the single-minded Australian selected by Sir Arthur Harris to create and lead this force. They went ahead of the main bomber force on each mission and “marked” the target with TI’s (target indicators).
Sean Feast’s book is clearly a labour of love and some scholarship. It catalogues the Pathfinders’ contribution to the bomber offensive from their foundation to VE Day. The core of the book is the chronicle of seemingly every mission, the details no doubt extracted from squadrons’ Operational Record Books. This provides a narrative which, although thorough, becomes a little tedious. The book is enlivened by vignettes of the contribution of individual pilots, navs, engineers, and gunners, (typically less than a page apiece). Feast has done historians, descendants and readers a great service by interviewing many of such airmen and recording their thoughts of this terrifying yet rewarding part of their lives.
The courage of such men is very uplifting. Typically they had already completed and survived a full tour with Bomber Command (30 missions). They could have retired to a training role, but instead volunteered for the more dangerous job of target marking. The Pathfinders (usually in Mosquitoes) also took the role of weather reconnaissance ahead of each mission.
Witness for example the story of Trinidadian Philip Cross, DSO, DFC (typical in valour, but unusual in his background):
“I was educated at St. Mary’s, Port of Spain, and worked for a time for the Trinidadian Government on the railways, before enlisting in 1941. A troopship took twelve days for us to reach Greenock from where I was sent to Cranwell and trained in wireless, meteorology, bomb aiming, navigation and morse code. Commissioned as a pilot officer, I was posted to 139 ‘Jamaica’ Squadron although, perhaps ironically, I was the only West Indian in the squadron. After completing my first thirty operations, I was given a chance of a rest, but opted instead to complete a Pathfinder tour of fifty. Once I hit that, I again decided to continue, bringing my final tally to eighty, before the war ended, including twenty-two trips to Berlin.
My most harrowing mission was when one of the engines of our Mosquito was shot up over Germany and we came down to 7,000 ft from 35,000 ft. We struggled back to England and crash landed in a quarry. It was a narrow escape but made it out alive. “
The book relates the great help that the primary inventions of radio navigation - Oboe and Gee – made to the precision of hitherto inaccurate marking and bombing. These became less accurate at extreme range, and it is difficult to conceive of the strain of seven hour operations to the more distant targets in Eastern Germany, for example.
Perhaps only the keenest students of Bomber Command will read this from cover to cover, but everyone will find interest in, and be moved by, the many testimonies of these great airmen.
The Pathfinder Companion
Sean Feast, Grub Street, 10 September 2012
ISBN: 9787 1908117342