The Archive covers many aspects of life in RAF Bomber Command from 1942, the year in which the Path Finder Force (the PFF, later known as 8 Group) was formed. However, the Archive's specific focus is upon the Pathfinders as they were generally called. Historically, this Archive has always been centred around 97 Squadron, which belonged to the Pathfinders for one year. However, we are now looking to substantially increase the Archive to include all PFF squadrons, PFF HQ, and the wider Bomber Command and Home Front milieus. The aim of the Archive is to provide an in-depth illustration of what life - and death - were like for Pathfinder aircrew, their working comrades, their friends, and their families.
There must have been many quiet acts of courage at the scenes of the crashes on the night of 16/17 December 1943. Most would have gone unnoticed except by those present, and we are not aware of any other medals for bravery than the one described here. This was the British Empire Medal, awarded to a member of ground crew at RAF Station Bourn for the rescue of the wireless operator Joe Mack, who featured in our 11 December post
Numerically speaking, 97 Squadron was the Pathfinder squadron most seriously affected by the disaster of Black Thursday. However, 405 Squadron was also hit particularly hard. It was often called the Canadian squadron despite Bennett’s insistence that its aircrew were only 50% Canadian (see Bennett and the Canadians). A large number of the Pathfinder aircrew lost on Black Thursday were Canadian, 13 out of the total of 50 Pathfinder deaths and 10 of these being from 405 Squadron. 405 Squadron and Black Thursday.
Amongst those killed was one of two identical twins, Bob Bessent. The heart-breaking photographs of the funerals of Bob and his fellow Canadians at Cambridge City Cemetery on 22 December 1943 were preserved by Bob’s family, and in them can be seen his identical twin brother Bill attending Bob to his final resting place. In the photograph below, he can be seen marching at the rear of the group of mourners from 405 Squadron.
This tattered object is Bobby Bear. He can perhaps be seen as an emblem of the few who survived the crashes on Black Thursday but were seriously injured.
He was the childhood toy of Joe Mack, of the Thackway crew, 97 Squadron, and sometime in the late 40s or early 50s Joe’s devoted mother Kathleen made him an RAF uniform of sorts together with a row of Joe’s medal ribbons. The yellow stripe on Bobby Bear’s left sleeve is a wound stripe, reflecting the serious injuries suffered by Joe in the Thackway crash in the early hours of the morning of 17 December 1943.
Bobby Bear can currently be seen at the Pathfinder Collection at RAF Wyton as part of the Black Thursday display.
In 1944 the Mack family contributed a new font cover to their local church, Christ Church at Radlett, in gratitude for Joe’s survival. All that survives of this now is the handsome drawing in the Hertfordshire records office. In the sixties, the vicar took a dislike to it and had it removed to the lumber shed, where it was eaten by woodworm and eventually burnt.
Joe never fully recovered from the crash and in the last years of his life suffered serious problems from his badly healed leg as well as from traumatic memories.
He can be seen below as a very young man in the summer of 1944, recovering from the loss of all his crew and coming to terms with his own miraculous survival. The Pathfinder badge can be seen on his breast pocket.
Charles Owen kept an operations diary, and one of the most interesting pages is the one he wrote for Black Thursday.
This particular entry has often been quoted but there is nothing like seeing the actual handwriting. One of the critical phrases is ‘landed without permission in appalling conditions’. To read the full story of this unauthorised landing, see Tom Leak’s story on the Owen crew page.
For the next seven days we will be posting about aspects of the terrible night of 16/17 December 1943. There will be a commemoration at RAF Wyton next Sunday, details of which have already been given on this website, but also at Thorpe Camp, kindly organised by Mark Howard of the 97 Squadron Association. This will consist of a wreath-laying at 1pm at the propeller memorial at Thorpe Camp, as the 97 (Straits Settlements) Squadron memorial is in the process of refurbishment during the winter. 97 Squadron, of course, suffered the greatest losses of any squadron that night. For details of this event, please see the 97 Squadron Association website.
Purely by coincidence, this post also concerns the crew of a pilot named Baker. Valentine Baker and his crew were lost on 11 August 1943. Those who were killed are buried at Durnbach Cemetery in Bavaria (Bayern), see the beautiful image here which is copyright of the New Zealand War Graves Project.
The Valentine Baker crew have always been a memorable crew, firstly because of their pilot’s Christian name and the fact that he was only 20 years old, and secondly because Valentine’s sister, a Wren, went to RAF Station Bourn after he went missing to try to find out more news of her brother. The aircrew there felt desperately sorry for her but could add nothing to the information already given to the family by the Air Ministry. (Information courtesy of Arthur Spencer.)
Unfortunately we have never been able to obtain any other information about this crew. This year we have been looking for information about a specific member of the crew. His name was William Johnson Vaughan, and he was the Flight Engineer. He was a Halton brat in 1928, and and at Southern Rhodesian Air Force Station Cranborne from March 1940, one of the very first intake of officers, NCOs and ORs. He was at St Athans in 1942, both at the School of Technical Training and at 1654 Conversion Unit which was equipped with Manchesters and Lancasters. He joined 97 Squadron on 27 March 1943.
His son David would very much like a photograph of his father. If anyone can help, please let us know.
Hugh Baker was killed on 30 July 1944 when his aircraft was shot down over France. Of the unusually large crew of nine, only three survived, including Squadron Leader Peter Stevens, who was 97 Squadron’s Navigation Officer.
At this stage of the war, 97 Squadron was under the control of 5 Group although it still nominally belonged to 8 Group, the Pathfinders.
Squadron Leader Peter Stevens was probably flying with the crew to refresh his flying skills (it was not uncommon for the ‘leaders’ of the various trades to fly in order to keep their skills up to date) or was with them as an observer. READ MORE
We have added a page to clarify what is a frequently misunderstood situation, how some Pathfinder squadrons could continue to act as pathfinders even though they had been transferred to 5 Group. Pathfinder Squadrons in 5 Group
The decision by Harris, the Commander of Chief of Bomber Command, to transfer these squadrons was hugely contentious. Bennett was furious with what he considered a seriously flawed decision:
‘It left us with very seriously reduced heavy marking strength to carry on and do the same job as we had been doing in the past.’
From “PATHFINDER: Wartime Memories” by D C T Bennett
The decision was a reflection of the intense rivalry between Cochrane, the leader of 5 Group, and Bennett, which we will be covering in the next few days.
The featured image on this post is of battle damage to Y-York, Ernest Deverill’s aircraft on the Augsburg operation of 17 April 1942. Y-York took a terrible pounding. The laconic report on the aircraft’s battle damage given by Ernest and the crew once they had got safely back to base was:
Very heavy flak and light predicted flak and S.A. tracer. Aircraft caught fire on starboard side of fuselage and bomb bay but was extinguished by the efforts of the Wireless Operator and Mid Gunner. Both mid and rear turrets u/s from target. Port outer engine was u/s and feathered on leaving but was restarted before reaching coast.
This photograph and many others appear in our new publication: ERNEST DEVERILL – “A KNIGHT OF THE AIR”, which is a brief biography of the outstanding pilot who won the DFM, the DFC twice, and the Air Force Cross. This is a high-quality 28pp booklet with 18 photographs, almost all of which have never been published before.
To buy it or the companion booklet, THE MASS RAF FUNERALS AT CAMBRIDGE, 22 DECEMBER 1943, either use these links:
Postal price (UK) 8.75 – Purchase By Paypal
Postal price (Overseas) 10.25 – Purchase By Paypal