Sir Arthur Harris & the Appointment of Bennett

Bennett was Harris’s personal choice for the command of the PFF.

At 32 years of age, Bennett was considerably younger than his fellow Group Commanders. He had spent part of his career outside the RAF in civil aviation, the type of flying experience which was very much looked down upon by many RAF career officers as being inferior and second-rate.

BENNETT on PFF airfield 2

That Bennett was an Australian and so young, yet had won such a plum job, must have added insult to injury to the very senior officers who had wanted the job for themselves. Harris, however, never had the slightest doubt about Bennett’s capabilities. He did not even consider any other candidate, having the highest opinion of Bennett; he was later to call him ‘the most efficient airman I have ever met’.

Harris gave a detailed assessment of Bennett’s capabilities in his book Bomber Offensive, first published in 1947. In the following passage he gave a vivid portrait of  Bennett’s character as he described why he rated Bennett so highly.

Don Bennett, whom I had known since 1931, was the obvious man at that time available for the job of head of the Path Finder Force. He was in his early thirties, very young indeed to become a Group Commander, but his technical knowledge and his personal operational experience were altogether exceptional. […] He was a profound student of navigation, and in the early part of the war he took the major part in opening the transatlantic ferry. I then got him back into the Air Force as a Wing Commander.

He commanded a Halifax squadron and in 1942 was shot down in flames over Norway when attacking the Tirpitz in his usual gallant manner; he escaped to Sweden after many adventures and was returned to England. His courage, both moral and physical, is outstanding, and as a technician he is unrivalled.

He will forgive me if I say that his consciousness of his own intellectual powers sometimes made him impatient with slower or differently constituted minds, so that some people found him difficult to work with. He could not suffer fools gladly, and by his own high standards there were many fools.

From my point of view the essential thing was that he tackled the complex and technical problems of our intricate bombing tactics with as much energy as ability. He has a most unusual memory and can pick up a book on some highly technical subject and in a very short time get the whole thing off by heart; he is, in fact, very much an intellectual and, being still a young man, had at times the young intellectual’s habit of underrating experience and overrating knowledge.

All this is, of course, rather unusual in a fighting man and we were lucky to get a man of such attainments to lead and form the Pathfinders.

Sir Arthur Harris, Bomber Offensive (Greenhill Books, London, 1998), pp. 129-130.