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.
Many Pathfinder aircrew had experienced very dramatic times in their tours before they became members of the PFF. One of the most dramatic we have come across is the story of John Henry Allen’s crew, 83 Squadron, who on 12 February 1942 set off to attack the German battleships in the Channel Dash. See our sister site, PER ARDUA: The RAF & the Channel Dash
Before Wally Layne of the Fletcher crew became a Pathfinder, he served on 50 Squadron. His CO was the legendary Gus Walker, who would lose part of his arm in a bomb explosion whilst trying to ensure that nobody would be hurt.
When Walker left 50 Squadron for 106 Squadron, he sent the NCOs of 50 Squadron a Christmas Card. For the story of Gus Walker’s accident and the Christmas card, see our new page: Gus Walker, Wally Layne, and Christmas
Bill Phillips was stationed with 35 Squadron at Graveley, and amongst the wealth of material which is now preserved by his daughter is this menu from Christmas 1944. We will be featuring more on Bill next year, but in the meantime here is a reminder of the way things were 75 years ago.
The worst night in British aviation history for aircraft crashes occurred on this day, 76 years ago. On return from a bombing raid on Berlin, the RAF lost a large number of aircraft and men due to the thick fog blanketing their airfields.
Tonight we remember all the aircrew who lost their lives on 16/17 December 1943, but particularly those on the Path Finder Force.
The Pathfinders were badly affected: 97 Squadron lost 28 men, 405 Squadron lost 15, 156 Squadron lost 6, and 83 Squadron lost 1. In all, 50 Pathfinder aircrew were killed by the fog. Others were seriously wounded and grounded for a long time, or permanently taken off flying duties. There were also heavy losses on the Berlin raid, 7 Squadron suffering the worst of all with the loss of four crews.
This new page for Black Thursday contains the ORB entries for the PFF squadrons who were flying ‘the heavies’:
Ernest Deverill’s distinguished RAF career ended with a terrible crash at RAF Graveley in the early hours of 17 December 1943. All except one of the crew were killed.
Parts of his aircraft, which caught fire, can be seen here in their display box at the Heritage Centre, RAF Wyton, a poignant reminder of that dreadful night.
There are many demands on everyone’s money at this time of year, but with the anniversary of Deverill’s death fast approaching we are asking for contributions towards the financing of the Deverill Collection.
So please contribute what you can to help us settle the last debts for this tribute to an outstanding pilot and ‘Knight of the Air’.
Since the Archive acquired the Deverill Collection, it has been on loan to the Heritage Centre, RAF Wyton, where it can be seen by the public, by appointment.
Our previous appeal for funds to settle the outstanding loan to purchase the Deverill Collection has taken the amount still owed to £3,700, less that 10% of the purchase price. Clearing the balance will enable us to look to the future when we may be able to acquire other suitable Pathfinder items. These too will be loaned for display at the Pathfinder Collection at RAF Wyton, and will enhance the wonderful collection already there.
After a catastrophic accident in which a full load of bombs was dropped on his aircraft, Frank Lloyd somehow managed to save the Lancaster and get all the crew safely home. The only crew member who did not get back was David Mansell-Playdell. Immediately after the disaster, he baled out, on captain’s orders, which Frank revoked a few moments later but too late to stop David. See: Frank Lloyd, 582 Squadron
We are most grateful to Sean Feast for the photographs of Frank Lloyd and for the many other 582 Squadron photographs he has donated to the Archive. The full story of Frank Lloyd can be read in Sean’s book: Master Bombers, The Experiences of a Pathfinder Squadron at War, 1944-1945, published by Grub Street in 2008.
The tattered (but now somewhat rejuvenated thanks to the BBC programme “The Repair Shop”) teddy bear known as Bobby Bear has now achieved national fame. It is a great pleasure to see this as he belonged to Joe Mack of the Thackway crew who are the reason why this Archive originally began Today Bobby Bear is featured on the BBC website: BBC NEWS
When putting the photograph of Donald Margach with a Lancaster crew on the website (see Donald Margach and Guy Gibson) my eye was drawn to the fact that the gunners were wearing their flying boots. As four of the crew are wearing parachute harnesses, it is probable that this photograph was taken immediately before or after flying.
In fact, the wearing of flying boots now seems to be a fairly good indication of whether such photographs were taken very close to flying operations or practise flights. A whole new perspective on the wearing of flying boots is gained by reading a medical report written after the war about the physical dangers confronting aircrew (leaving aside, of course, the main threats – flak, fighters, and bad weather), one of which was frostbite of the feet. The medical report makes it obvious that aircrew were expected NOT to wear flying boots casually around the camp.
It is not only the gunners who wore flying boots, but in their case frostbite of the feet was a major peril, given their unheated turrets. This is what the medical report has to say:
A frequent source of trouble in this area was the tendency for all air crew to wear flying boots about the camp, from the messes, etc. The waiting before take off resulted in sweating, or alternatively the socks put on were not properly dry, which greatly increased liability to frostbite.
The writer says that ‘every effort was made’ to correct this, but Medical Officers had a very uphill job in getting aircrew to listen to them.
Another complaint in the same report is that there was ‘considerable laxity on the part of all aircrew’ in keeping their oxygen masks clean and in good condition.
JENNIE MACK GRAY
Medical report: Investigations and Observations Made during Operations by PFF at RAF Wyton from August 1943 to August 1945, by Wing Commander K G Bergin