A little about RAF Path Finder Force – and your chance to help them be remembered

Richard Maddox

MEASURING AROUND 2 INCHES (5 centimetres) ACROSS the metal badges (as in the image below) were a thing of great pride to their owners, a source of envy for others – and if found by Luftwaffe intelligence officers marked the wearer out for intensive questioning regarding their specialist techniques and equipment fitted to their aircraft. (1)

THE PATH FINDER FORCE Eagle. Only qualified crew members serving with the RAF Pathfinder Force were entitled to wear insignia. Image Copyright © IWM. IWM catalogue reference INS 7323. Original source https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/30076537

THE PATH FINDER FORCE Eagle. Only qualified crew members serving with the RAF Pathfinder Force were entitled to wear insignia. Image Copyright © IWM. IWM catalogue reference INS 7323. Original source https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/30076537

For this gold eagle was worn on the left breast tunic pocket (below any medal ribbons) by qualified members of the Path Finder Force (PFF), a unit formed in August 1942 to improve the accuracy of RAF Bomber Command attacks by flying at the head of the attackers and marking – with specially developed flares – the points were the Main Force bombers were to release their munitions over the target. (2)

Because it marked the wearer as from a specialist squadron it had to be removed before embarking on operations.

In addition there was always the possibility that Path Finder air crew – having guided the Main Force to the target – would be treated more harshly than their colleagues from regular bomber squadrons. (3)

The crews selected for the Path Finder Force were above average in terms of flying and navigation skills, but even so they had to qualify for the force. (4)

Their skills were highly sought after when the problem of making attacks on targets on blacked-out mainland Europe – often deep inland and without nearby physical landmarks to aid navigation – were weighing heavily in RAF Bomber Command.

In 1940 the Germans had introduced the idea of a specialist target marking force in November 1940 during Operation MONDSCHEINSONATE (Operation MOONLIGHT SONATA) when some 500 Luftwaffe bombers attacked the city of Coventry in the West Midlands in England. (5)

Leading the raid were specialist aircraft and crews from Kampfgeschwader 100 (Battle Wing 100). They used modified VHF radio signals (normally associated with blind landing apparatus) sent from Europe to position themselves over the target and drop their bombs. The resulting fires acted as a beacon to be used by the following aircraft on the raid. (6)

Although the British were aware of the signals and set about jamming them, they would not introduce a similar navigation and bombing system – GEE – until 1941. (7)

In the meantime they had a different idea, one that would rely on highly competent – and often experienced – individuals and crews to guide their colleagues onto the target.

In 1941 the Butt report shone a spotlight on something that was known in the high level but not widely elsewhere – attacks by RAF Bomber Command were highly inaccurate. (8) (9)

Something needed to be done. Something new was needed.

The idea of forming a specialist force of six squadrons, supplemented by forty of the Bomber Command’s most experienced crews was discussed at the higher levels of the Royal Air Force Bomber Command and the Air Ministry.

It was backed by the Deputy Director of Bomber Operations, Group Captain Sidney Bufton RAF.

But was initially opposed by the then newly-appointed Air Officer Commanding Bomber Command, Air Marshal Arthur Harris RAF as well as a number of more-junior officers within the Command. (10)

Harris feared such a specialist unit would be a source of division, rivalry and lead to morale problems within the aircrews.

In the end he was overruled by the Chief of the Air Staff Sir Charles Portal RAF, who was backed by Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

Path Finder Force was formed on 15 August 1942 and initially was managed as part of No. 3 Group with Headquarters at RAF Wyton in Cambridgeshire – still regarded as the spiritual home of the Path Finder Force. (11)

It was headed by Australian Group Captain Don Bennett. He had been chosen by Harris

In January 1943 No. 8 group was formed as a dedicated PFF group.

PFF were tested operationally for the first time on the night of 18 August.

The naval construction yards at Flensburg on the Baltic coast were to be attacked.

Thirty-one Path Finder Force aircraft guided 87 Main Force bombers to what was anticipated to be an easy target to find, as the town was on an inlet.

The mission was not a success.

Strong winds caused the force to deviate from their course and almost half of the Path Finder Force were found to have marked – and the following Main Force bombers attacked – the towns of Sønderborg and Abenra in Denmark and a large amount of the surrounding area. Flensburg 25 miles away from where the bombs fell was unscathed. (12)

From these inauspicious beginnings a dedicated and highly competent force emerged. The administration of the force was moved to a newly-formed and dedicated group No.8 Group RAF in January 1943.

As the war continued a variety of marking techniques were developed not only to mark the target for the attackers but also the approach to and from it.

The use of a ‘Master of Ceremonies’ or ‘Master Bomber’ – an airborne mission commander who reacted to the changing situation in the air and on the ground and utilised to the attackers to deal with it – was pioneered in June 1943 with the De Havilland Mosquito-equipped Light Night Strike Force formed at about the same time. (13) (14) (15)

The rivalry anticipated by Harris no doubt occurred – not only among the aircrews but also between the commander of N0. 8 Group (Australian Air Vice Marshal Don Bennett) and his opposite number at No. 5 Group RAF Air Vice Marshal Alfred Cochrane, who had No. 617 Squadron – which undertook precision bombing missions – under his command. (16)

On 15 December 1945 PFF was disbanded. During the 40 months of its existence its crews had flown some 50, 490 sorties, marked around 3440 targets and lost at least 3727 individuals in the process. (17)

Sources

(1) https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/30076537 – retrieved 23 November 2019.

(2) https://ibccdigitalarchive.lincoln.ac.uk/omeka/collections/document/17490 – retrieved 23 November 2019.

(3) https://wingcotomjefferson.wordpress.com/pathfinder-jefferson/ – retrieved 23 November 2019.

(4) https://raf-pathfinders.com/the-pathfinders-overview/pathfinders-4-unique-conditions-of-pathfinder-service/ – retrieved 23 November 2019.

(5) https://www.coventry.gov.uk/info/217/coventry_blitz/2603/20_facts_you_might_not_know_about_the_coventry_blitz – retrieved 23 November 2019.

(6) https://www.ausairpower.net/SP/DT-MS-0207.pdf – retrieved 23 November 2019.

(7) http://www.pitstonemuseum.co.uk/myweb/gee.htm – retrieved 23 November 2019.

(8) https://etherwave.wordpress.com/2014/01/03/document-the-butt-report-1941/ – retrieved 23 November 2019.

(9) https://etherwave.files.wordpress.com/2014/01/butt-report-transcription-tna-pro-air-14-12182.pdf – retrieved 23 November 2019.

(10) http://www.rafweb.org/Biographies/Bufton.htm – retrieved 23 November 2019.

(11) http://www.letletlet-warplanes.com/2014/08/30/a-short-history-of-the-raf-pathfinder-force/ – retrieved 23 November 2019.

(12) https://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20070706055725/http://www.raf.mod.uk/bombercommand/aug42.html – retrieved 23 November 2019.

(13) https://masterbombercraig.wordpress.com/bomber-command-structure/no-8-pff-group-bomber-command/pathfinder-force-pff/20-2/ – retrieved 23 November 2019.

(14) https://www.flightglobal.com/FlightPDFArchive/1944/1944%20-%202663.PDF – retrieved 23 November 2019.

(15) http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_mosquito_pathfinders.html – retrieved 23 November 2019.

(16) http://www.dambusters.org.uk/war-personalities/leaders/sir-ralph-cochrane/ – retrieved 23 November 2019.

(17) https://masterbombercraig.wordpress.com/bomber-command-structure/no-8-pff-group-bomber-command/pathfinder-force-pff/pathfinder-methods/ – retrieved 23 November 2019.

Your chance to help the Path Finder Force be remembered

A dedicated Path Finder Force memorial has been designed, commissioned and sculpted for siting at the UK National Memorial Arboretum at Airewas, Staffordshire in England. (A) (B)

The only thing preventing it joining over 350 other memorials at the 150 acre site is the lack of transport to take the five ton black marble memorial from Peterborough to Airewas, a journey of 100 miles or so.

If you can help (serious offers only please – those involved have heard or read all the jokes possible already) please contact the RAF Pathfinders Archive who will be pleased to give further details.

(A) https://35squadron.wordpress.com/2018/06/12/no-8-group-path-finder-force-memorial/  – retrieved 23 November 2019.

(B) https://raf-pathfinders.com/2019/11/17/pathfinder-memorial-national-memorial-arboretum/ – retrieved 23 November 2019.

 

 

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