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.
Charles Owen, who flew with 97 Squadron during the war and was one of the crews on Black Thursday, went on to have a distinguished career in the RAF. Here is some footage posted by AP Archive of when he was commanding a Victor squadron (10 Squadron at Cottesmore). He is wearing his Pathfinder badge on his immaculate uniform. At one point he says:
The Lanc was a wonderful airplane, but it was very cold, very noisy, and it was really quite hard work. Nowadays … we can really go to war in comfort …
And here is another little fact about Bennett which I have been sitting on for some months. It follows on our post on 26 August last year about how Bennett was shot down whilst trying to sink the Tirpitz. He made it safely home to England, was decorated, and given the all-important job of forming the Pathfinders. The Tirpitz lived on until 12 November 1944, when RAF Lancaster bombers finally sunk it. (United News Broadcast).
Wing Commander William Anderson who was stationed at PFF HQ wrote in 1946:
They gave the Wing Commander a DSO and a far more important job even than sinking a battleship. But he still felt a little sore about it. And it was a relief to us [at the Pathfinders] when the Tirpitz was sunk in Tromso Fjord. For a picture of her used to hang in his office, and if ever she had got loose on the high seas I doubt if anything would have stopped him having a crack at the one thing that has so far got the better of him.
Here are two curious little facts that I came across this afternoon whilst having a massive tidy-up in the office. Bennett, the AOC of the Pathfinders, was awarded the Order of Alexander Nevsky by the Russians, presumably just after the war had ended and before relations between the USSR and the western powers began to seriously deteriorate.
By 1948, the situation had become critical with the beginnings of the Cold War. And Bennett was one of the aircrew who flew on the Berlin Airlift after the Russians had blockaded the city. He flew a Tudor II, a large passenger liner, built as all you aircraft buffs doubtless know by Avro, the makers of the Lancaster. Apparently on one occasion he nearly died, taking off before the externally attached wing elevator locks had been removed.
Tonight is the 75th anniversary of the death of Leslie Laver, ‘Les’, who was my father’s rear gunner before the Thackway crew was broken up by death and injury. He died with most of the Steven crew on the Dutch island of Texel.
In remembering the aircrew who were lost in the war, we should also remember the immense cost to their families. Though she lived to be 89, Leslie’s mother never fully recovered from his death. She had six other children, but he had been the youngest and the pet of the family, and she missed him for the rest of her long life. LESLIE LAVER AND HIS MOTHER.
Ken Newman (second from right) who flew with the Steven crew and missed their fatal flight on 14 January 1944 due to a bad skin complaint, will be 98 years old this coming Sunday. Ironically, that is only four days off the 75th anniversary of the crash. If anyone would like to send a message to Ken via us, please send an email as soon as possible. He doesn’t do computers, so it will have to be printed out and posted to him.
Ken has always felt deeply grieved by the loss of the crew and of Leslie Laver who took his place on that last night.
He has a very clear memory of some of those old long-lost days. One very interesting little story he told me was about Ace’s girlfriend at the time (Ace is on the left of the photograph). She was an artist and she painted the Steven crew as the seven dwarves. Ken was Dopey and Steve ‘would have been Doc’, but he doesn’t remember the others at the moment. They were going to get it painted on the nose of their aircraft but it probably didn’t happen.
Please make sure that we receive any messages for Ken by Thursday morning at the latest. The usual email address, i.e.: email@example.com.
Here is a fascinating 2016 article on the use of Benzedrine, colloquially known as Wakey-Wakey pills, by the RAF. As most people who follow this website will know, operational bomber aircrew sometimes used such pills to keep themselves awake during their long and dangerous night operations.
In November 1942, Britain’s Royal Air Force (RAF) approved the use of amphetamine sulphate, known by its brand name, Benzedrine, for use on operations by its aircrews. The substance, a powerful stimulant with the ability to promote both wakefulness and well-being, had been subject to a strict policy of prohibition in the RAF since September 1939. The decision to reverse this policy was the culmination of a lengthy process within the Service, driven by laboratory and operational testing in conjunction with scientific, medical and military debate.
We were sent the link to this film by Philip Stevens a couple of days ago. Although it seems to have been released 5 years ago, none of us had seen it before. It is short (12 minutes) but very powerful. Don’t watch it if you don’t want to cry!
One criticism would be that all the crew have voices which are educated and posh whereas many crews came from working-class backgrounds, or indeed from overseas. But that is perhaps nit-picking when this is such a moving piece of film.
Illustration: a still of the navigator from the film
It has been a very successful first year for the RAF Pathfinders Archive, and we would like to thank everyone who has contributed in any way, from sending Pathfinder material to making donations to buying our publications to supporting us on Facebook. We have had an astonishing 59,000 views of this website this year, and more than 13,000 visitors. This is a truly great result and reflects the ever-growing interest in the Pathfinders and Bomber Command.
If there had been more time, I would have liked to have done a review of the exciting new material we have received this year, and compiled a list of best photographs. Oh, well, 2019 should be the year for that.
I will leave you with one of my favourite photographs received in 2018. It is of a Pathfinder Mosquito navigator with his Main Force Halifax crew. Alistair Wood is bottom right. After completing a first tour with 76 Squadron, he went on to do a second tour on Mosquitoes with 105 Squadron at Bourn, my all-time favourite Pathfinder station. We will be publishing some more information on Alistair soon.
SEE YOU ALL IN 2019 AND OUR VERY BEST WISHES FOR THE NEW YEAR
Here is one for the sleuths. Can any one identify where this wonderful illustration of a Lancaster with all its radar and wireless aids has come from? It was clearly in a magazine article because of the numbering on the picture. No 10. shows the way in which SBA operated, SBA having been one of the few landing aids available on Black Thursday. We would like to trace the original publication.
On 24 December in the late afternoon, volunteers from the Aeronautical and War Museum on Texel, the Netherlands, placed candles on all the war graves at Den Burg Cemetery. This enchanting and poignant ceremony of Remembrance was led by Bram van Dijk and Jan Nieuwenhuis. Their helpers included school children with their parents.
This was a very touching tribute to the war dead who are buried there, who include my father’s rear gunner, Leslie Laver, and four other members of the Steven crew, who had flown from 97 Squadron’s base at Bourn on 14 January 1944.