Leadership was a key quality in sustaining aircrew morale, and the commander of the Pathfinders, Don Bennett, was above all things an inspirational leader. He had immense courage and steadfastness of nerve. In his book Pathfinder, he tells the story of being shot down whilst attacking the Tirpitz, giving the details very plainly without any hint of ‘line-shooting’ (‘line-shooting’ was the RAF wartime term for bragging, any suggestion of which was deeply detested by aircrew).
At that time, Bennett was the commander of 10 Squadron stationed at Leeming. The attack on the Tirpitz took place on 27/28 April 1942. The crew of Bennett’s Halifax were:
W/C D C T Bennett, Sgt H Walmsley (2nd Pilot), F/Sgt J Colgan (F/E), Sgt T H A Eyles (Nav), Sgt C R S Forbes (W/op), Sgt J D Murray RCAF and F/Lt H G How (gunners)
As Bennett’s aircraft approached the ship, it was hit many times and the tail gunner wounded. In a masterpiece of understatement, Bennett summed this up as ‘things were far from peaceful’.
The Tirpitz was hidden by a defensive smoke screen, and was almost impossible to locate exactly. Bennett’s calibre is shown by the fact that even though his aircraft was on fire and badly damaged, he still went round to try a second run. He released the mines as best as possible, then turned east towards neutral Sweden. Things were so bad that he then gave the order ‘Prepare to abandon aircraft’.
I regret to say that one member of the crew became a little melodramatic. He said, ‘Cheerio, chaps; this is it, we’ve had it.’ I told him very peremptorily to shut up and not to be a fool, that we were perfectly all right but that we would have to parachute.
Because the tail gunner, Flight Lieutenant How, was badly wounded, Bennett kept the aircraft in the air as long as possible so that How could escape with the aid of the flight engineer, Flight Sergeant Colgan. Bennett finally jumped just as the aircraft began to break up.
After baling out, he chanced across his w/op Sergeant Forbes in the darkness. At first both of them thought that the other was a German.
Suddenly I realised that he was one of my own crew, and I said, ‘It’s all right. It’s your Wing-co, it’s your Wing-co.’
The story of the two men’s trek through deep snow is deeply engrossing. After many hardships, and the assistance of the Norwegian people, they made it through to neutral Sweden.
All the crew of seven survived. Four, including Bennett, made it back to England, the rest were captured. Bennett arrived back in England exactly one month after he had been shot down. He immediately hitched a ride in an Anson down to Leeming where his wife and children lived.
The Intelligence boys were furious that I had not reported immediately to London to be interrogated. I could not have cared less.
Only two months later, he was given command of the Pathfinders.