About the Pathfinders

The Path Finder Force’s motto made its purpose clear: ‘We Guide To Strike’. It was a highly specialised force, dedicated to target-marking for the rest of Bomber Command which was known as Main Force. Its crews acted not only as target-markers, but as guides and leaders on the long routes to the targets. They were also on rare occasions reallocated to Main Force roles.

Path Finder Force (PFF) aircrew were both representative and unrepresentative of Bomber Command as a whole. They were drawn from the same backgrounds and training camps, and often served with Main Force squadrons before joining the Pathfinders.

Only the best crews were offered the chance of becoming Pathfinders. All PFF aircrew were volunteers and the offer could be refused. Crews did on occasion separate when some of their members did not want to transfer into the PFF.

Once a crew had joined the PFF, their performance was monitored. If they did not make the grade, they were out and back to an ordinary Bomber Command squadron.

Some Pathfinder squadrons were returned to Main Force in April 1944 as part of a reorganisation which was bitterly opposed by Bennett, the commander of the Pathfinders. The reallocated squadrons were two Lancaster squadrons, 83 and 97, and a Mosquito squadron, 627.

PFF aircrew were undoubtedly considered to be special.  But the important point to remember is that, although they were an elite, they were drawn from other parts of Bomber Command and occasionally went back to Main Force.

So, although the main focus of the Archive is on the Pathfinders, Bomber Command is the background to everything which the Pathfinders did. Consequently, information about it and Main Force crews forms a vital part of the picture.

 

PFF – Unique Conditions of Service

♦ 45 operation tour without a break – Main Force flew two tours, the first of 30 ops, the second of 20 ops (these tours were broken up by a posting to a non-operational unit such as a Heavy Conversion Unit, or HCU)

♦ the Pathfinder badge of a hovering gold eagle (above) awarded on a temporary basis after 6 operations

♦ the Pathfinder badge awarded permanently after the completion of a tour, or in exceptional circumstances such as an outstanding airman going missing on operations (see the award to Pilot Officer McEgan, below). A certificate was issued, signed by Bennett. 

♦ one step up in acting rank, for example a Pilot Officer would become a temporary Flying Officer – pay was increased accordingly. *

Frank McEgan PFF certificate
Path Finder Force Certificate signed by Donald Bennett. McEgan was an outstanding airman, and was awarded the PFF badge even though he was killed before he completed his tour. Courtesy of Julian Rice.

 

♦  By 1943, all operational aircrew in Bomber Command had at least Non-Commissioned Officer rank (NCO). RAF ranks for operational aircrew or squadron commanders were:

NCO
Sergeant
Flight Sergeant
Warrant Officer

OFFICER
Pilot Officer
Flying Officer
Flight Lieutenant
Squadron Leader
Wing Commander
Group Captain

 

 

PFF – List of Squadrons and Bases

INITIAL STRENGTH OF PFF

August 1942
7 Squadron
Base: Oakington
Aircraft: Stirling, converted to Lancaster from July 1943

35 Squadron
Base: Graveley
Aircraft: Halifax, converted to Lancaster from March 1944

83 Squadron
Base: Wyton
Aircraft: Lancaster
Transferred (‘loaned’) to 5 Group April 1944

109 Squadron
Base: Marham, then Little Staughton from April 1944
Aircraft: Mosquito (Wellingtons prior to August 1942)

156 Squadron
Base: Warboys, then Upwood from March 1944
Aircraft: Wellington, converted to Lancaster from January 1943

INCREASED STRENGTH OF PFF

April 1943
97 Squadron
Base: Bourn
Aircraft: Lancaster
Transferred (‘loaned’) to 5 Group April 1944

405 (RCAF) Squadron
Base: Gransden Lodge
Aircraft: Halifax, converted to Lancaster from August 1943

1409 Meteorological Flight
Base: Oakington, then Wyton from January 1944
Note: These were unarmed Mosquitos, light and very fast, whose prime duty was to ascertain the weather conditions over the targets before an operation.

June 1943
105 Squadron
Base: Marham, then Bourn from April 1944
Aircraft: Mosquito

139 Squadron
Base: Marham, then Wyton from July 1943, Upwood from February 1944
Aircraft: Mosquito

November 1943 (Formation Date)

571 Squadron
Base: Downham Market, to Graveley from April 1944
Aircraft: Mosquito

627 Squadron
Base: Oakington
Aircraft: Mosquito
Transferred (‘loaned’) to 5 Group April 1944

January 1944 (Formation Date)
692 Squadron
Base: Graveley
Aircraft: Mosquito

March 1944 (Formation Date)
635 Squadron
Base: Downham Market
Aircraft: Lancaster
Note: 97 Squadron was broken up in March 1944, C’ Flight going to 635 Squadron.

April 1944 (Formation Date)
582 Squadron
Base: Little Staughton
Aircraft: Lancaster

Other Mosquito Squadrons
128 Squadron – reformed September 1944, base: Wyton
142 Squadron – reformed October 1944, base: Gransden Lodge
162 Squadron – reformed December 1944, base: Bourn
608 Squadron – reformed August 1944, base: Downham Market
163 Squadron – reformed January1945, base: Wyton