Today we are adding to the Library on our new website an article by Tim Willasey-Wilsey, Visiting Professor of War Studies at King’s College London. It concerns Hall Mettam, a member of the RAAF, whom Tim met in Beirut in 1974 just before the civil war which tore Lebanon apart. Hal was flying Boeing 707s for Middle East Airlines, but had once been a Pathfinder pilot. Hal and his wife Elizabeth eventually retired to England and Tim kept in touch with them until they died. It was only then that Tim saw Hal’s logbooks, and was able to paint the full picture of his career in the RAAF, including his time with the Pathfinders. An Australian Pathfinder Over Germany
Photograph shows Hal, left, and Keith Saladine, his bomb aimer, a fellow Australian. (Mettam family photograph)
The total wartime losses for the Path Finder Force were given by their commander, Donald Bennett, as being 3,618 men. It was a large figure for a small Force which only came into existence in the fourth year of the war.
Today we feature just one of those lost Pathfinders, Flying Officer Lewis Walter Castle Austin, who was killed by flak on the night of 7/8 March 1945 and brought home by his crew, that of Owen-Penny, flying with 582 Squadron. The crew were very fortunate to survive the severe damage to the aircraft.
In his letter of deeply-felt condolence to Lewis’s wife, his commanding officer Wing Commander John Clough wrote of how exceptionally popular Lewis has been, and of his ‘great charm of manner and his keen sense of humour’. He also wrote:
I am particularly to express the sincere regrets of his captain, Squadron Leader V G Owen-Jones, and of the of the crew who flew with him in his last sortie in the loss of a real colleague and friend.
Photograph and information courtesy of Helen Austin
 Bennett, Pathfinder, p.259.
The three Victoria Crosses awarded to Pathfinders were all gazetted in 1945, some time after the deaths of the recipients. The three men who performed extraordinary feats of heroism and self-sacrifice were Ian Willoughby Bazalgette, Robert Anthony Maurice Palmer, and Edwin Swales.
The Three Pathfinder Victoria Crosses
We always welcome corrections or additions to the information on these pages. Sometimes it is the smallest details which really count. Amongst other points, Clive Smith, who specialises in 106 Squadron on which Donald Margach served with Guy Gibson, has kindly pointed out that Donald Margach’s epitaph as recorded on the CWGC website, reads: DEAR HUSBAND OF GRETA, DADDY OF ALISON, LOVED SON OF MR. AND MRS. W. MARGACH – so this almost certainly clears up the identity of the unknown woman and baby in a touching informal portrait of Donald. See: Donald Margach and Guy Gibson
Sean has written an article for the Archive’s website about the costly operation against Cologne on 23 December 1944 in which Bob Palmer won the VC, one of only three VCs won by the Path Finder Force. It was a posthumous award, as Bob Palmer lost his life together with the crew he was flying with, the Milne crew of 582 Squadron pictured here. At that time, Bob Palmer was actually a Mosquito pilot with 109 Squadron, but the particular requirements of the operation meant that he was flying the aircraft at the time it was shot down. For the full article read here: Heroic Endeavour – Cologne, 23 December 1944
Today is the anniversary of the Dams Raid, the most famous Bomber Command raid of the war. Guy Gibson received the Victoria Cross for his leadership and the account in the London Gazette is still thrilling today, 77 years later.
Although the Pathfinders had no part in the Dams Raid, several of our aircrew had flown with Gibson earlier in the war. Amongst these was Donald Margach, a bomb aimer, who was to lose his life flying with 582 Squadron in July 1944. See: Donald Margach and Guy Gibson
Some Pathfinder aircrew worked with Gibson after the Dams Raid. This was at 54 Base, centred at Coningsby, which provided target-marking and illumination for 5 Group operations. It was ‘a place of tactical innovation’ (Richard Morris, Guy Gibson, Penguin 1995, p.252), and the place for the cream of RAF pilots. John Simpson had moved there from 97 Squadron (by then, of course, in 5 Group), as had Charles Owen, another 97 Squadron superstar.
Gus Walker, Wally Layne and Christmas
At the end of the war, many Pathfinder squadrons had photographs taken of their aircrew, occasionally including some of the ground crew as well. There are a number of these celebratory photographs on this site under different subject headings, but here in celebration of VE Day tomorrow are three of them grouped together. End of War Celebratory Squadron Photographs
What a difference six days made! Less than a week after the Pathfinder Mosquito attacks on Kiel, and on the airfields in the Kiel and Lubeck area, Pathfinder Lancasters were back using the airfield at Lubeck to collect and bring home prisoners of war. One of the crews flying on 9 May was that of Flying Officer Coombes and Bill Lapthorn, his flight engineer, See: POWs brought back from Lubeck, near Kiel, 9 May 1945
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’:
16/17 December 1943: The ORBs for the ‘Heavies’, PFF
These ORB entries paint a vivid picture of what happened on that disastrous night.
For other pages on Black Thursday, please see the main menu of the website, or here are some of the relevant links:
Black Thursday Overview
Black Thursday – 97 Squadron
97 Squadron Memorial Page (Losses on Black Thursday)
Pathfinder Funerals at Cambridge City Cemetery
For the RAF website page on Black Thursday, click here.
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.