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 Thackway crew crash, referred to in our post just now (28 May 2019), has a tiny echo in the uniform of the moth-eaten bear, known as Bobby Bear, who until recently was on display in the Black Thursday cabinet at the Heritage Centre, RAF Wyton (see the end of this post). The RAF uniform which the bear wears has a wound stripe – see the little flash of yellow on the sleeve in the image below.
The wound stripe, which was an unusual emblem on RAF uniforms, reflects the serious injuries suffered by the owner of the bear, Joe Mack of the Thackway crew, on the night of the crash, 17 December 1943. The uniform, which is a toy approximation of Joe’s uniform, was made for the bear by Joe’s mother, Kathleen, some time before 1948.
WOUND STRIPES ON RAF UNIFORMS
Flight Sergeant W C Higgs’s uniform with wound stripes – on display at the Pathfinder Collection, Heritage Centre, RAF Wyton
In the online Auckland Museum, there is a photograph of George Cotton-Stapleton, RNZAF, with two wound stripes on his sleeve (Auckland Museum ref: WWI 4/213A AWMM)
Bobby Bear has now left the Pathfinder Collection at RAF Wyton for the time being as he has been selected for the BBC programme The Repair Shop, on which expert craftsmen pool their talents and resources to restore heirlooms and treasured antiques. Filming on Bobby Bear’s rejuvenation starts this week.
Hopefully he will be back at the Pathfinder Collection at RAF Wyton early next year. We will keep you up to date with what happens with Bobby Bear and the programme.
We have been very interested to find out that there is a Millennium Walk which allows walkers to get close to the site of the Thackway crew’s crash (on what was known as The Hay) on 17 December 1943. http://www.hardwick-cambs.org.uk/footpaths-walks/ This is significant because the crash site is on private land, well away from other public footpaths. See this description on the link:
Turn left and follow the public bridleway east to Hardwick Wood, then north to the junction at TL 357 583. From this point an optional diversion may be taken along a pleasant path to TL 361 591 (this point is close to the site of the plane crash on The Hay, on the night 16th/17th December 1943.), but it is necessary to return the same way, as there is no right of way past here.
18 years ago, the Thackway crew were the original inspiration for a website about 97 Squadron and the Pathfinders, which website eventually grew into the one you are looking at today.
A number of key pieces of the aircraft wreckage are now on display at the Pathfinder Collection at Wyton, including the piece of metal with the Lancaster’s engine number, proving beyond all doubt that this was the Thackway aircraft.
Wyton also houses other display cabinets of Lancaster wreckage from that night, including the aircraft of Scott and Deverill.
The beautiful church at Great Gransden, which was the local church for 405 Squadron at Gransden Lodge, contains a splendid window to the memory of the bomber boys, many of whom were Canadians. The window was dedicated thirty years ago, and on 19 May 2019, at 9.30, there will be a service of re-dedication. All are very welcome to attend. There will be a small display of archive material from the Gransdens Society, showing the day of the dedication, the war years, and the continuing association with 405 Squadron. It is hoped that the Pathfinder Collection at Wyton will also have a display at the church, and that someone from Wyton will be attending to represent the Pathfinders.
John was buried in a suitably dramatic coffin. We were privileged to have been sent a preview of the design some days beforehand, but these photographs show show the dramatic reality of the actual coffin, enhanced by the visual impact of the medals on the velvet cushion and the beautiful flowers. John was certainly given a very splendid send-off, with around 100 people in attendance. His Excellency Derick Ally, the Seychelles High Commissioner, attended and spoke in his native French and Seychelloise Creole dialect, as a touching mark of respect for one of their most highly decorated and distinguished sons.
John’s funeral took place yesterday, on 29 April 2019, and we have asked permission from the family to publish this very touching, and sometimes very funny, EULOGY of John, written by his son Paul. It tells a great deal about this extraordinary man who flew for the Pathfinders in 1943.
Further to the previous post and the Bryan de Grineau drawings in The Illustrated London News, 26 February 1944, it has suddenly become clear that the drawings are closely related to the Press photograph of Harris using a stereopticon which was on the link included in the post. See this further link Harris’s Office, Bomber Command HQ, which quite apart from the fascination of looking at Harris’s office shows once again how adroit the RAF were at PR.
In February we featured Captain Bryan de Grineau’s drawing of Lancaster gunners ‘Hotting-up‘ which was published in The Illustrated London News in December 1943. Now here is another fascinating Bryan de Grineau drawing, also from The Illustrated London News, of the underground room at Bomber Command which housed the Photographic Interpretation Section of the Intelligence Department. This drawing was published on 26 February 1944.
Sir Arthur Harris, the C-in-C, is shown examining a mosaic of the latest reconnaissance photographs taken over Berlin. In the bottom right of the drawing is an officer using a stereopticon. More about Harris and stereopticons.
The text tells us that ‘The Chief’ was on one of his visits from his office. Deputy C-in-C, Sir Robert Saundby, is the figure standing with his back to the artist, just to the right of Harris.
The WAAF officer in the foreground of the left side of the picture (below) is working on an enlarged photograph, outlining a forthcoming target for the Operations Room. It is perhaps her artistry which leads to The Illustrated London News to comment that the Photographic Interpretation Section ‘has more of the atmosphere of a studio than is usual in a command headquarters’.
John’s funeral will be on Monday 29th April 2019 at 3.00 pm. This will be held at Harwood Park Crematorium, Watton Road, Stevenage SG2 8XT. The family have issued an open invitation and all are welcome to attend.
Although this will in many ways be a deeply sad occasion, it will also be a celebration of an extraordinary man, a highly decorated Pathfinder, and a great character whose children remember his terrifying high-speed car driving which went hand in hand with his favourite saying:
Life consists of the quick or the dead, particularly when you have a Messerschmitt 109 up your arse.
Here is a message from John Clifford, one of our Trustees and Senior Curator at the Pathfinder Collection at Wyton:
It is with deep regret that due to circumstances outside my control or influence, the dedication for the Pathfinder Memorial planned to be held at The National Memorial Arboretum on Saturday 13th April 2019 at 13:00 hrs has to be postponed. This mainly due to the fact that the Memorial stone is still not in place!
Plan B is being hatched at present and once details are known, an update will be posted in the first instance.