The Pathfinders: the elite RAF force that turned the tide of WWII

This well-written book tells the remarkable story of an extraordinary team of aviators and their support personnel, from a wide range of backgrounds and nationalities, who – to quote from the book’s sub-title – turned the tide of the RAF’s bombing campaign over occupied Europe.

Established aviation author Will Iredale recounts how Bomber Command was achieving poor results for maximum effort in the early years of the war, with just 25% of bombers bombing within three miles of the aiming point. This book tells us in detail how the formation of the Pathfinder Force (PFF), flying mainly Lancasters and Mosquitoes and occasionally Halifaxes, led to the accuracy figure rising to 95% by 1945.

Surprisingly, the book starts off by talking not of raids on Germany but of the attack on Coventry on 14 November 1940. It delves into the electronic wizardry of X-Verfahren that guided the Luftwaffe bombers to the Midlands city, whilst comparing it to the very basic sextant and map reading of RAF ‘navigators’ at this time (the official aircrew category of navigator was not introduced until 1942).

From looking at X-Verfahren, Iredale goes on to explain the British response and tells us of the Oboe and the H2S radar systems, which were gradually becoming available to the RAF. He explains the ‘cat and mouse’ electronic guidance system of Oboe (which is depicted on the book’s cover) and the use of the airborne radar H2S, which was especially effective against targets on the coast, where contrast between the radar returns from land and sea showed up particularly well.

Later in the book, he also goes into great detail about the various pyrotechnic target markers – the bread and butter of the PFF – used by the force (of which, later on, the Germans produced their own versions as target decoys).

The formation of the PFF in August 1942, proposed and then led by Australian Air Commodore (later Air Vice-Marshal) Don Bennet, was in a position to utilise these aids to the full – although it has to be said that the Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief of Bomber Command, Air Chief Marshal Harris, only grudgingly supported the formation of the PFF, that the relationship between the two men was never an easy one, and that only after hostilities were over did Harris pour upon Bennet the praises that he richly deserved.

To add to Harris’s frustration, the early Pathfinder raids were not as accurate as Bennet had forecast. But with the passage of time, the gaining of experience, and the posting to the force of battle-experienced aircrew, this was certainly to change.

LEFT A British plan for Operation Hydra, the critical Pathfinder raid on the rocket facilities at Peenemünde, which took place in August 1943.
A British plan for Operation Hydra, the critical Pathfinder raid on the rocket facilities at Peenemünde, which took place in August 1943. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Increasing tempo

The main body of the book deals, as would be expected, with the various raids led by the PFF and of the increasing tempo as the war years passed by. Ireland reports honestly on the failures as well as the much more numerous successes, and really brings the action alive in the heart of the reader. We have vivid descriptions of the horrors of aircraft falling from the skies ablaze, with little chance of the crew escaping; of tired and battle-weary crews facing poor weather at home airfields; and of the bravery of the Master Bombers circling above the target for extended periods of time to coordinate the attacks.

Skilled aviators that they were, the PFF losses were high, with over 3,700 aircrew killed in over 50,000 raids on almost 3,500 targets. The critical Pathfinder-led attacks on the rocket facilities at Peenemünde, including Operation Hydra in August 1943, are especially well chronicled.

An offshoot of the PFF were the squadrons of the Light Night Striking Force of long-range Mosquitoes, which carried out diversionary raids to lure the German night fighters away from the main target area and at the same time carried a bomb load of up to 4,000 pounds to inflict damage on the enemy.

None of the activities of the PFF could have been carried out without the heroic aircrew who flew the sorties, and Iredale gives much in the way of evocative depiction of the lives of these men, both when airborne on a mission and off duty on base or on leave.

A wide-ranging mix of flyers – pilots, air engineers, navigators, bomb aimers, wireless operators, and gunners – tell their individual stories (either in person or from their diaries and letters home), from backgrounds as diverse as a university lecturer, a firework manufacturer, a cowboy from the Australian outback, and a clairvoyant scientist from Scotland.

Iredale tells these personal stories in a truly evocative manner, recounting their love lives – often ending in ill-fated tragedies – the loss of great friends, and their personal exhaustion. Equally, though, we read of great parties, leaves away from their bases, and other times of cheerfulness, deep friendships, and celebration.

Parts of the book tell equally of the activities of the main bomber force and of Harris’s disagreements with his Group Commanders and the Chief of the Air Staff, and of how Harris only as a result of a direct order gave up overall control of his command in the lead up to D-Day to allow attacks on tactical and transport-related targets, skillfully led by the PFF.

Only some while after Overlord could Harris return to his area bombing campaign, including the controversial bombing of Dresden in February 1945, which Iredale describes in the same superlative manner that the other pages of his book are written.

As a newspaper article published in July 1944 stated: ‘The Pathfinders are the aces of Bomber Command. Without them Bomber Command could never be the devastating force it is today.’ The passage of time has shown this to be so very true. To use modern military terminology, the PFF was the force multiplier of its day and as important from 1943 onwards as Fighter Command was in the summer of 1940.

An interesting, informative, and compelling book, which I highly recommend.

Review by Colin Pomeroy.
The Pathfinders: the elite RAF force that turned the tide of WWII, Will Iredale, Ebury Publishing, £20 (hbk), ISBN 978-0753557808.