Pathfinder Aircrew, their Friends, their Families, and the World they Knew
Author: RAF PATHFINDERS ARCHIVE
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.
The village of Warboys has a fine parish church called St Mary Magdalene. In it there is is a beautiful memorial window to the Pathfinders, commemorating the various PFF squadrons or training units which were based at Warboys and nearby Upwood. (See the first few items on our page: Training the Pathfinders)
Andrew Laing, who sent us the photograph of the Pathfinder window, writes:
Hidden behind Warboys village adjacent to the A141, lies RAF Warboys, an airfield that played a major part in the Second World War.
His Trail 17 – Aviation Trails leads through RAF Warboys and its environs, including the adjacent village where St Mary Magdalene and its remarkable window can be found. Information is also provided about RAF Upwood, with many atmospheric photographs.
Further to the previous post on the loss of the Emerson crew, there is also a new page containing biographical details of the two South Americans on the crew. All the crew were killed on 21 February 1944 after their aircrew broke up in the air at their home airfield.
In two days time it will be the 76th anniversary of the loss of the Emerson crew. The crew suffered a horrific accident on 21 February 1944. Their aircraft, which had been severely damaged over the target, broke up in mid-air on the edge of RAF Bourn and crashed, at twenty to eight in the morning, with the loss of the entire crew.
Our second IWM item this morning, also sent by IWM volunteer Richard Maddox, concerns Pathfinder aircrew and ground crew, and the provisions made for them once the war in Europe had been won and the RAF was beginning the process of equipping its surplus personnel for civilian life.
With its usual genius for publicity, the Air Ministry provided the Press with a series of photographs of this process in the Pathfinders, at least some of which appear to have been taken at Downham Market where 635 Squadron (Lancasters) and 608 Squadron (Mosquitoes) were based. The photographs have a long accompanying blurb which reads:
Within No.8 Group of R.A.F. Bomber Command – the Group which embraced the famous Pathfinder Force Squadrons – a different form of “pathfinding” is now being undertaken. No longer are the Pathfinders flying over enemy territory, pinpointing objectives with target indicators and markers; their targets are at home, on their own airfields, and with as much thoroughness as they carried out their wartime jobs the men and women who created and maintained Pathfinder Force are pinpointing targets indicated by the initial letters “E.V.T.” These three initials are already firmly established in the R.A.F’s own peculiar vocabulary, are an abbreviation of Educational and Vocational Training – a somewhat ponderous designation for a highly practical scheme, which, in Service language, would be well described as the “Civvy Street Course”. That is, in fact, what E.V.T. is – a course designed to equip every R.A.F. and W.A.A.F. man and woman as adequately as possible for return to civilian life. These particular photographs, which give an indication of the scope and variety of E.V.T. activities, were taken, appropriately enough, at Pathfinder stations, but E.V.T. is active throughout every branch of the R.A.F. There are mobile classrooms for small units where permanent E.V.T. centres are impracticable. Subjects taught cover an extraordinary range – from landscape gardening to cookery; from carpentry to music.
For the blurb and featured photograph in the IWM collection, click HERE.
The full range of 30 photographs in the IWM collection can be found HERE.
Two items from the IWM this morning, both from Richard Maddox who is a volunteer at the museum. The first concerns Bomber Command generally. It is a link to Richard’s post on the IWM Volunteer website about the man who is thought to be the oldest flyer in Bomber Command. This was Viscount Stansgate, who trained as a rear gunner and flew operationally in the last year of the war – at the astonishing age of 67.
A Facebook post by David Layne today reminded me of this page: Valentine Card It has been on our website a long time, having first been posted in 2009 and then updated in 2011. It relates to Robert Crowe, a 15 Squadron gunner, who died in July 1944.
In December we posted information about Bennett’s Mae West, preserved after he was shot down in Norway and now owned by the Australian War Memorial (AWM) at Canberra.
The Bennett Memorial at the small regional Toowoomba Airport in Queensland, close to Bennett’s place of birth, is believed to be the only memorial to Bennett in his native Australia. To say it is somewhat low-key for a man of his attainments would be an understatement. Part of the problem is that the plaque is mounted facing the runway, so that the memorial just looks like a block of granite from the street.
There is also a collection of Bennett material in Queensland which we are hoping to learn more about this year. However, it does appear that Bennett’s memory is not particularly revered in his own country, perhaps because he made his career with the RAF rather than the RAAF, and never returned to live in Australia. This paragraph on the AWM website on 50 Australians who were prominent in wartime, a list which incidentally does not include Bennett, perhaps betrays a historian’s bias against those who gave more allegiance to England than their mother country:
Air Vice Marshal Sir Hughie Idwal Edwards, VC, KCMG, CB, DSO, OBE, DFC (1914–1982)
Edwards joined the RAAF when he was 21. Following pilot training he transferred to the RAF in Britain under a pre-war arrangement. Another to do this was Air Vice Marshal Don Bennett, regarded as the founder of the Path-finder Force. “It was ironic that the two most successful Australian air commanders in Europe earned their reputations as members of the RAF,” noted an air force historian. (AWM: 50 Australians – Sir Hughie Edwards )
Photographs and additional information courtesy of Ian Campbell
Many aircrew were lost in crashes in England because of their determination to land a severely damaged aircraft. We will shortly be publishing important additions to the Emerson crew page, the crew all being lost in February 1944 when their shot-up Lancaster broke apart when coming into land. This crew, like others, might have lived if they had made the difficult decision to abandon their aircraft.
Two separate, highly dramatic incidents occurred on 20 December 1943, when Pathfinder aircrew from 35 Squadron and 7 Squadron baled out over England.
The first incident, which involved a Halifax crew of 35 Squadron, is an extraordinary story. The ORB description, though plain and fairly matter of fact, shows great admiration for the courage and coolness demonstrated by the pilot, Squadron Leader J Sale, who landed his aircraft because his mid-upper gunner did not have a parachute.
The injury of a fractured ankle suffered by the rear gunner, Warrant Officer G Carter, is a reminder that even baling out over England (as opposed to enemy territory) could be dangerous.
That same night another Pathfinder crew, this time from 7 Squadron and captained by Flying Officer Field, had to abandon their Lancaster which had been severely damaged by a German fighter. They had just made it across the Channel and crossed the English coastline. The rear gunner, Warrant Officer Richard Bradley Smith, DFM, hit the tail of the plane after baling out and, presumably having been knocked out or seriously injured, did not open his parachute and was killed.
Richard Smith was twenty-two and married. He was cremated at Cambridge Crematorium, Dry Drayton, and his name is on the brass memorial plaque there.
We receive a number of emails from people who are starting research about a relative who was in the RAF, possibly in the Pathfinders, but who have no information about dates or squadrons. By far the easiest place to start, if their relative died, is the Commonwealth War Graves Commission records. Prompted by an email enquiring about a death in an RAF plane crash in December 1949, a new page has been set up on our sister site, AFTERMATH, which gives details of which service people were included in the burial and commemorative programme run by the British (and who therefore can be found in the CWGC records). The page also explains why the date for inclusion ran up to 31 December 1947, two and half years after the war had ended in Europe. Inclusion in the National Commemorative Programme