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.
Pilot Officer Prune was a fictional character, hapless and inefficient, who mainly starred in TEE EMM, the technical memorandum which was circulated in the Air Force.
It is the dog who is being called Pilot Officer Prune in the magazine cover below, not the chap. This copy of the cover is at RAF Wyton, and the chap is thought to have been in the Pathfinders, but we are checking up on this.
When the war in Europe ended on 8 May 1945, the aircrew had far too much spare time on their hands. As Joan Beech writes in ONE WAAF’S WAR:
After the cessation of hostilities, there were hundreds of aircrew cooling their heels in airfields up and down the country with nothing much to do. […] Something had to be found for the men to with their time, so someone had the bright idea of introducing ‘Cook’s Tours’ – trips over France and Germany in a Lancaster for any of the non-flying staff who cared to take advantage of it.
She then gives an account of her own Cook’s Tour which she found deeply uncomfortable and terrifying. The crew of the Lancaster who had done the trip many times at night were very blase until they came to Cologne (see the featured photograph).
At Cologne we turned for home, circling the great cathedral at what felt like an angle of forty five degrees. The massive stone structure stood out bravely amidst the miles of destruction, and the crew became interested as they hadn’t seen it in daylight before.
Joan began to feel that her troubles were over, but then they met up with another Lancaster returning from a Cook’s Tour, and ‘to my horror the two aircraft then flew wing-tip to wing-tip all the way home’. She eventually got back safely, vowing never to get in an aircraft again.
An excellent book. See pp.124-128 for the above account.
A page from 635 Squadron’s ORB, giving details of the squadron flying Cook’s Tours from Downham Market.
Like everyone with any respect for our war dead, we were horrified by the attack on the Bomber Command Memorial in London on 21 January. We hope the police catch whoever was responsible as soon as possible.
The RAF Benevolent Fund are the guardians of the memorial and their Chief Executive made this comment:
This is the worst example of vandalism we have seen at the Memorial and it is utterly heart-breaking to see the memory of all those brave airmen disrespected in this way. This despicable act took just moments but will take considerable time and resources to put right. But like the remarkable men who the Memorial commemorates, we will not rest until we have finished the job.
The full cost of repair work is yet to be determined but is likely to run into thousands of pounds. The RAF Benevolent Fund’s latest press release details the public response to the attack.
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.: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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