The Pathfinders

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.

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, other than the standard one week’s leave every six weeks awarded to aircrew, or the 48-hour survivors’ leave awarded to those who had had a sea ditching, baled out or crashed in the UK.


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).

Initially the PFF requirement was set as 60 operations without a break, but better judgement prevailed on the impossibility of this task. 

♦ the Pathfinder badge of a hovering gold eagle (above) awarded on a temporary basis after a number of operations, during which the required standard of proficiency was reached. This number of operations appears to have varied, perhaps at the discretion of the squadron CO, but seems to have generally been around 6-10 operations.

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

♦ 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; this award was made within one week of his being registered as ‘Missing’ – he had in fact been killed).

♦ An official certificate was issued, signed by the Air Officer Commanding, Donald Bennett. 

Frank McEgan PFF certificate
Path Finder Force Certificate signed by AOC Donald Bennett. McEgan was an outstanding airman, and was permanently 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 (who sometimes flew on operations) were:

Flight Sergeant
Warrant Officer

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