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 most famous Bomber Command pet is Guy Gibson’s Labrador, Nigger. However, other dogs appear in photos of Bomber Command aircrew, some of whom traveled with their owners on bombing sorties.
Frank Smith was with 97 Squadron at the end of the war, flying as a rear gunner with a pilot named Harrison. The celebratory photograph below may either have been taken when they finished their tour or when the war ended.
Patch the dog appears with Frank (they seem to have been inseparable) in a number of photos. It is thought that Patch was brought back from Belgium after the war ended and that the crew hid him on the plane in order to get him back.
The photograph below is one of the best informal photos we have seen of the quiet life back at base. Patch appears on the far left, held safely by Frank.
1409 Met Flight’s primary duty was to ascertain the weather conditions over the targets before a bombing operation. They also checked weather conditions over the British Isles, which were critical to the safe take-off and landing of operational aircraft. This might seem like a dull routine job, but it was anything but. The dangers which the crews faced were extreme,
Ralph Cecil Saunders, a navigator with 97 Squadron, was one of only two survivors of the crew of Kenneth Painter, which was shot down on 20 October 1943. The other survivor was Tom Andrews, the wireless operator.
Saunders spent the rest of the war at Stalag IVB at Mülhberg, south-west of Berlin. This was liberated by the Red Army on 23 April 1945; however, the bulk of the prisoners were not released by the Russians until around 22 May. (See Footsteps on the Sands of Time, by Oliver Clutton-Brock.)
Although we have not yet traced official records, it appears that a number of Soviet prisoners were also kept at Mülhberg, one of them being Alex Polewoj. Generally speaking, Soviet prisoners were kept separately from British prisoners, and treated abysmally. Saunders made friends with Alex Polewoj through the wire, and in gratitude the Soviet soldier gave him the cigarette box.
Despite the appalling conditions in which the Soviet prisoners were held, Saunders would later recall potatoes (presumably cooked and therefore edible) being thrown through his window by them when he was in the “cooler”.
There will be more on Ralph Saunders and Tom Andrews on another post.
I am sure it will have escaped few people’s notice that it is the 100th anniversary of the RAF on 1 April. Whilst this is a momentous date historically speaking, the fabulous cake above says it all in a deliciously lighthearted and ingenious way.
On a bitterly cold day (the last day of February, when the weather really ought to know better and be acting vaguely like spring), here is a heart-warming story of two members of a 7 Squadron crew, John Ottewell and Charlie Sergeant, who met up again this January after a gap of over 70 years. It was written by John Ottewell’s son, Chris.
The PFF squadron pages are gradually being reorganised so that each squadron has its own page, or group of pages. 156 Squadron is one of the first to be set up, and of the two current pages one is on the Engineering Officer at Warboys and the other is a beautiful photograph of Lionel Williams and his daughter (click HERE for the full version).
Tales from the Archive this month is on Wally Layne’s wartime log. Wally was a member of a 97 Squadron crew which was shot down over Germany in September 1943, and he spent the rest of the war as a prisoner. His logbook is one of the best surviving examples of the many thousands of logbooks which were made by British prisoners of war.
There has been a bit of a delay in announcing the good news but the Charity Commission has now been updated with the details of our new trustee, and we are delighted to welcome on board John Clifford, Senior Curator at the Pathfinder Collection, RAF Wyton.
John has an immense fund of knowledge about the Pathfinders, and was the key man in setting up the Black Thursday display at RAF Wyton last December, just in time for the 74th anniversary, a massive achievement considering how short of time we all were to get the Deverill collection purchased and on display.