War Artist John Berry and the Pathfinders

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.

john berry book

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.

Ladybird - senior officer

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.

RICHARD MADDOX


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?

Pathfinders in Civvie Street

Our second IWM item this morning, also sent by IWM volunteer Richard Maddox, concerns Pathfinder aircrew and ground crew, and the provisions made for them once the war in Europe had been won and the RAF was beginning the process of equipping its surplus personnel for civilian life.

With its usual genius for publicity, the Air Ministry provided the Press with a series of photographs of this process in the Pathfinders, at least some of which appear to have been taken at Downham Market where 635 Squadron (Lancasters) and 608 Squadron (Mosquitoes) were based. The photographs have a long accompanying blurb which reads:

Within No.8 Group of R.A.F. Bomber Command – the Group which embraced the famous Pathfinder Force Squadrons – a different form of “pathfinding” is now being undertaken. No longer are the Pathfinders flying over enemy territory, pinpointing objectives with target indicators and markers; their targets are at home, on their own airfields, and with as much thoroughness as they carried out their wartime jobs the men and women who created and maintained Pathfinder Force are pinpointing targets indicated by the initial letters “E.V.T.” These three initials are already firmly established in the R.A.F’s own peculiar vocabulary, are an abbreviation of Educational and Vocational Training – a somewhat ponderous designation for a highly practical scheme, which, in Service language, would be well described as the “Civvy Street Course”. That is, in fact, what E.V.T. is – a course designed to equip every R.A.F. and W.A.A.F. man and woman as adequately as possible for return to civilian life. These particular photographs, which give an indication of the scope and variety of E.V.T. activities, were taken, appropriately enough, at Pathfinder stations, but E.V.T. is active throughout every branch of the R.A.F. There are mobile classrooms for small units where permanent E.V.T. centres are impracticable. Subjects taught cover an extraordinary range – from landscape gardening to cookery; from carpentry to music.

For the blurb and featured photograph in the IWM collection, click HERE.

The full range of 30 photographs in the IWM collection can be found HERE.

Baling Out over England, 20 December 1943

Many aircrew were lost in crashes in England because of their determination to land a severely damaged aircraft. We will shortly be publishing important additions to the Emerson crew page, the crew all being lost in February 1944 when their shot-up Lancaster broke apart when coming into land. This crew, like others, might have lived if they had made the difficult decision to abandon their aircraft.

Two separate, highly dramatic incidents occurred on 20 December 1943,  when Pathfinder aircrew from 35 Squadron and 7 Squadron baled out over England.

The first incident, which involved a Halifax crew of 35 Squadron, is an extraordinary story. The ORB description, though plain and fairly matter of fact, shows great admiration for the courage and coolness demonstrated by the pilot, Squadron Leader J Sale, who landed his aircraft because his mid-upper gunner did not have a parachute.

graveley, 35 squadron, TI expolodes mid-air

The injury of a fractured ankle suffered by the rear gunner, Warrant Officer G Carter, is a reminder that even baling out over England (as opposed to enemy territory) could be dangerous.

That same night another Pathfinder crew, this time from 7 Squadron and captained by Flying Officer Field, had to abandon their Lancaster which had been severely damaged by a German fighter. They had just made it across the Channel and crossed the English coastline. The rear gunner, Warrant Officer Richard Bradley Smith, DFM, hit the tail of the plane after baling out and, presumably having been knocked out or seriously injured, did not open his parachute and was killed.

December 1943, 7 Squadron, bale-out

Richard Smith was twenty-two and married. He was cremated at Cambridge Crematorium, Dry Drayton, and his name is on the brass memorial plaque there.

cambridge crematorium
Cambridge Crematorium, CWGC photograph

Bennett & the Tirpitz – Bennett’s Mae West

The information about the Channel Dash in April 1942 has reminded some readers of the attacks on the Tirpitz in 1942, in which aircrew who would one day become Pathfinders also took part. We have posted before about Donald Bennett’s involvement in these attacks. He was shot down on the night of 27/28 April 1942, and made a successful escape through Norway, reaching England exactly one month later. Two months later he was given command of the Pathfinders. See:

Bennett and the Tirpitz

Bennett and the Sinking of the Tirpitz

Ian Campbell in Australia sent us yesterday a link to the Australian War Memorial at Canberra which now owns the Mae West which Bennett was wearing when he was shot down. Bennett had buried this Mae West and his parachute under snow once he was safely on the ground.

bennett's mae west

 

See AWM Item: REL34487

bennett's mae west 2

The museum’s website tells us that a local villager named Fordal preserved the Mae West faithfully (the museum’s text includes three variants of the Norwegian’s Christian name):

Within hours, both were safely recovered and hidden by local villager, Redier Fordal. Most of the parachute materials were salvaged and used by the village, but Reidel kept the Mae West hidden from the Germans until the end of the war. […]

Don Bennett died in 1986. In 1992, Bennett’s widow, Mrs Ly Bennett, visited Trondheim on the 50th Anniversary of the raid and was presented with this Mae West by Reider Fordal, who had kept it safe for 50 years in the hope he could present it personally to Don Bennett. The Mae West was then donated to the Pathfinder Force Association (Queensland) upon Ly Bennett’s death in 2000, before being offered to the Australian War Memorial in 2006.

 

A Family’s Pride: George Granger’s DFM

Surviving congratulatory telegrams about a medal award, sent by one’s old Commanding Officer, seem to be somewhat rare. George Granger’s family must have been enormously proud of the high honour which George had received when he was awarded the DFM because they carefully preserved the telegram, together with the invitation to the investiture and one of the tickets to Buckingham Palace.

A Family’s Pride: George Granger’s DFM

105 Squadron Mosquito Navigator, Alistair Wood

Alistair McKenzie Wood was a Pathfinder navigator who had first completed a somewhat dramatic tour on Halifaxes with 76 Squadron of Main Force before retraining for Pathfinder duties in a Mosquito. See the first of several pages linked to our very interesting archive of material related to Alistair’s two tours: Alistair McKenzie Wood & 105 Squadron, Bourn

Dixie Dean, CO of PFF NTU

Wing Commander Dixie Dean, the commanding officer of the Pathfinders Navigation Training Unit, was so well thought of that in February 1944 he received a letter of the highest praise from Air Commodore Donald Bennett, AOC of the Path Finder Force. Bennett was not a man given to praise or hyperbole, which makes the letter all the more striking. See our new page: WingCo Dixie Dean, CO of the Pathfinders NTU

Barr Crew, 7 Squadron

In January this year we featured a magazine cover with a lovely picture of a bulldog posing as ‘Pilot Officer Prune’ and his unknown human friend, a pilot.  We later discovered that the pilot was Flight Lieutenant Leslie Barr.

A very interesting article appeared in The Telegraph two days ago about Barr’s crew, who were shot down on 10 September 1942 near Echt in Holland, west of Dusseldorf, the target of that night’s operation. Only two men out of the crew of eight survived. Barr and another crew member are buried at Jonkerbos War Cemetery, but the bodies of the four remaining crew members had sunk deep into the marshy ground, and they are remembered at Runnymede. The article in The Telegraph concerns these last four crew members and one Dutch family’s long crusade to have the bodies recovered from the mud and honourably buried.