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.
From: Air Vice-Marshal D C T Bennett, CB, CBE, DSO.
Great Britain and the Commonwealth have made a contribution to the civilised world so magnificent that history alone will be able to appreciate it fully. Through disaster and triumph, sometimes supported and sometimes alone, the British races have steadfastly and energetically over many long years flung their forces against the international criminals. VE Day, 1945 – Victory at the Pathfinders
At the end of the war, many Pathfinder squadrons had photographs taken of their aircrew, occasionally including some of the ground crew as well. There are a number of these celebratory photographs on this site under different subject headings, but here in celebration of VE Day tomorrow are three of them grouped together. End of War Celebratory Squadron Photographs
Once aircrew could fly safely over Germany in daylight, many were absolutely amazed by the devastation which had been wrought by Allied bombing. Crews sometimes took photographs of the apocalyptic scenes. Horace Bennett, a gunner on 635 Squadron, had a small collection of these photographs, presumably taken during his crew’s trips over Germany. Horace Bennett’s Photos of Germany, May 1945
Probably at no time in its existence has the prestige of the RAF stood higher than at the end of the Second World War. The huge part that the RAF had played in the Allied victory was emphasised at that time by the fact that it was Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder who was the Deputy Supreme Allied Commander, second only to General Eisenhower himself. The RAF’s Sir Arthur Tedder & the German Surrender
What a difference six days made! Less than a week after the Pathfinder Mosquito attacks on Kiel, and on the airfields in the Kiel and Lubeck area, Pathfinder Lancasters were back using the airfield at Lubeck to collect and bring home prisoners of war. One of the crews flying on 9 May was that of Flying Officer Coombes and Bill Lapthorn, his flight engineer, See: POWs brought back from Lubeck, near Kiel, 9 May 1945
The last Bomber Command attack of the war took place on the night of 2/3 May, when Pathfinder Mosquitoes, in two forces of 16 and 126 respectively, together with 37 Mosquitoes of 100 Group. bombed Kiel and nearby airfields.
This attack was in support of Montgomery’s troops, who by now were closing in on Lubeck and Kiel. The Germans in the area were preparing to flee to Norway from either one of the two harbours.
The Pathfinder Mosquito squadrons went out in two separate raids, the Kiel attack being in two waves one hour apart. Although the Luftwaffe no longer had any aircraft in the air, the Kiel flak guns and the German warships in the harbour were still a considerable danger but no Pathfinder aircraft were shot down.
The only Mosquito crew lost was that of Flying Officer Catterall and Flight Sergeant Beadle of 169 Squadron, 100 Group, who were shot down by flak. They and 13 members of the Halifax crews of Flight Lieutenant Brooks and Flight Lieutenant Currell of 199 Squadron (who were on Bomber Support duties and whose aircraft unfortunately collided) were the last Bomber Command operational casualties of the war.
This would be the last ever Pathfinder offensive operation. After reallocation of personnel and resources, the Pathfinders would finally be disbanded on 15 December 1945, seven months later.
The Pathfinders flew two operations on 25 April 1945, the last major bombing operations which it undertook. One of these was to Wangerooge, the other to Berchtesgaden, a command centre and favourite resort of Adolf Hitler. In all the time that this site has been running (close on 20 years), it has never displayed a photograph of Hitler, whose war machine Bomber Command toiled so long, and with such heavy losses, to dismantle. It seems appropriate to use one here for the Berchtesgaden operation, part of the final destruction of Hitler’s empire.
As the end of the war approached, the number of bombing sorties dropped off precipitously. The last major strategic operation in which the Pathfinders took part was on 25 April against the German island of Wangerooge, the most easterly of the Frisian islands, home to large German military installations. Wangerooge Operation
On the same day, the Pathfinders and other Bomber Command aircraft also attacked Berchtesgaden in the Bavarian Alps, a command centre and the favourite resort of Nazi grandees including Hitler, whose Eagle’s Nest redoubt was targeted.
These were the last major bombing operations which the Pathfinders flew.
As the end of the war approached, Bomber Command Lancasters began flying to Brussels and other Continental airfields to collect the liberated prisoners of war. Pathfinder squadrons’ ORBs contain many entries for what was known as Operation Exodus.
One of the most famous photographs of Operation Exodus shows a 97 Squadron aircraft, Lancaster PB422, after it has landed safely in England. Jack Beesley of the Fletcher crew is shaking hands with the pilot and everyone is making V-Victory signs and grinning their heads off. The aircraft has many joking messages chalked around the fuselage door, including ‘This is the only free thing you will get’. Repatriation
Not only liberated POWs were on board the Exodus Lancasters. See this heart-warming story in two parts: