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 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:
By 29 April 1945 the end of the war was in sight. Lancaster bombers were diverted from their accustomed bombing operations to humanitarian missions. One of these was Operation Manna, which began today 75 years ago. See our new page: Operation Manna
Vernon Smith of the McCollah crew was awarded the DFM in May 1945. Vernon was a gunner, part of a highly regarded Marker crew, most of whom also received decorations at that time. The paperwork for the medal recommendation is very interesting, as is the faint trace of Bennett’s signature giving final authorisation for the award.
The last of our topical posts for the time being on the type of restrictions and shortages which people put up with during the war. The three items all appeared in the same edition of the Manchester Evening News on 3 November 1943.
The main interest is in the marriage of Cyril Tate – he and three of his fellow pilots managed to get special leave for his wedding, a very unusual dispensation given that all four pilots would be away from duty at the same time. This is a particularly nice photograph of a wartime wedding, with everyone looking very happy.
Then we have the rather feisty Joyce Daisy Munro , who was summoned for going into a restricted area ‘for the purposes of pleasure’:
Lastly, for anyone grumbling because they can’t get any eggs from the supermarket (dried eggs were proverbially disgusting):
We have solved the mystery of the Bullimore ration coupon on the last post and where it came from (an anonymous donor). Looking through the Bullimore folder, we came across this other document about RAF restrictions on movement in 1943. ‘Within the bounds of this Unit’ meant those towns which an airman based at RAF Lichfield and carrying this pass was allowed to visit. This brought a wry smile given the current situation of lock-down in the UK and other countries.
According to the website History of RAF Lichfield, 51 MU moved into RAF Lichfield on 1st August 1940. Their job was to receive aircraft from the various manufacturers and carry out the modifications required before delivery to the individual squadrons. After the war, they took on a more destructive role and broke up large numbers of suddenly obsolescent aircraft.
In the current Covid-19 situation, there have been various mutterings about rationing becoming necessary, so now seems a good time to take a quick look at rationing in the Second World War …
It is perhaps a little-known fact that aircrew, whose food was provided by their station, still sometimes needed ration cards. These were for their periods of leave or duty, and lasted either seven days or fourteen days.
These temporary ration cards very rarely survived. They were used and then discarded. However, one such ration book belonging to Leslie Jones, a member of 97 Squadron, has survived until the present day. The square which has been cut out of the side would have contained a printed coupon.
Leslie, one of the heroes of the Augsburg raid in April 1942, died before 97 Squadron joined the Pathfinders. He has no known grave, his name being remembered at Runnymede.
With many thanks to War and Son for permission to photograph these items.
Here is a different sort of ration document, one belonging to AC2 Leslie Leonard Bullimore. It is a coupon for ‘Cigs’ and ‘Choc’. Again this is a very rare survival.
This has turned up in a ‘Sort This Out’ file, one of those rag-bags of everything waiting for a proper home, and we are not currently sure of where it came from.
Amongst the tens of thousands of items in the care of the Imperial War Museum is an exceptional art collection ranging from the First World War to contemporary conflicts.
Many of the Second World War items were commissioned by the British War Artists Advisory Committee (WAAC). Part of the Ministry of Information, it was headed by Sir Kenneth Clarke who was the director of the National Gallery at the start of conflict. Clarke deliberately sought a wide variety of styles, techniques and experience to show both the civilian and military experiences of war to audiences at home and abroad.
Thirty seven artists worked full-time with 100 more commissioned on a part-time basis by the WAAC.
Amongst these artists was John Leslie Berry. He volunteered for the RAF and initially served as a radar operator in Middle East Command before becoming a war artist – the only one drawn from the ranks.
Four of his paintings are in the IWM’s art collection, one of which is entitled ‘A Pathfinder’ (see detail from the painting above), but although it is referenced to No. 8 Group RAF on the IWM’s online web page IWM: Pathfinder this connection seems unlikely. But there is a Path Finder Force connection of sorts elsewhere in Berry’s body of work.
In the 1960s he illustrated a number of the British ‘Ladybird’ children books including ‘The Airman in the Royal Air Force’ which was first published in 1967.
In one of the illustrations for the book Berry depicts an initial interview scene at the Air Crew Selection Centre which was then at RAF Biggin Hill.
One of the interview panel is a highly decorated senior officer. He is wearing the Pathfinder badge and – as spotted by the sharp eyes of Dr Jennie Mack Gray – the Aircrew Europe Star and the DFC amongst his other decorations. We are both wondering who this officer was and which Pathfinder squadron he served with – it seems very likely that Berry portrayed a real person.
Note by Jennie Mack Gray: What is also very striking is that the officer is still wearing his Pathfinder badge 20 years or more after the war ended. Flicking back over past posts on this website, we find the ace pilot Charles Owen still wearing his in the late 1950s.
As for the Pathfinder painting at the IWM, we are inclined to think that the sitter is a pathfinder with a small ‘p’ rather than a Pathfinder – he is probably a navigator as tools of a navigator’s trade are around him. The painting looks allegorical and the fact that he is muffled up in a leather flying jacket with no insignia on show seems to mitigate against the Pathfinder attribute – if being a Pathfinder was so important that it became the title, why omit the PFF badge?