Pathfinder Force – (PFF)
In late 1939, 21 out of 36 bombers on 1 sortie failed to return. Many of the planes were flying so low that when they were hit there was no time to bale out. Daylight raids were abandoned. From then on, British bombers would fly mainly at night. Navigation in the dark was intensely difficult, particularly if there was cloud cover over the ground. At first, crews had to rely on dead reckoning – estimating position by speed, flying time and compass. Unpredictable winds could disrupt the finest calculations. The problems of navigating in the dark, finding a comparatively small target and hitting it accurately were dramatically illustrated in 1941, by a report commissioned into the efficacy of Bomber Command’s campaign against military and industrial objectives such as oil plants, railway yards, aircraft factories and docks.
The report counted a hit if the bomb fell within 5 miles of the target. Even using these absurdly generous criteria the results were dismal. Over Germany as a whole, only 1 in 4 planes had hit their targets. In the crucial Ruhr Valley, centre of German industrial production, that proportion fell to as low as 1 in 15. All this failure had been at the cost of some 700 British bombers and their crews of up to 7 men. On the other hand, German raids on Britain during the Blitz had been devastating and had killed many civilians. It was time for a rethink. Raids on Germany were halted after the Butt Report‘s shattering conclusion. When they resumed in 1942, they had a different objective. Gone was the need to hit precision targets, factories or military sites. Now German cities were the targets. The bomber crews had new planes. In 1942, the 4-engined Lancaster was introduced. It could carry much bigger bomb loads than the older machines, eventually up to 10 tons. It could cope with more punishment in the air and Pilots found it easier to fly, although getting the fully laden plane off the ground was still a challenge.
The redoubtable young Australian Commander, Group Captain (later Air Vice Marshal) Donald Bennett, was to mould the PFF into a force that led the way in bringing Bomber Command into the electronic age, and in developing target-marking techniques that enabled the PFF to literally for Bomber Command to achieve the accuracy and concentration that had previously eluded it. No 8 Pathfinder Group was the only officially recognized elite unit of Royal Air Force Bomber Command during World War II.
PATHFINDER FORCE NAVIGATION TRAINING UNIT – arrived at Upwood from Gransden Lodge west of Cambridge on the 17th June 1943. When the airfield 1st became operational, the units that were stationed there were involved in top-secret radar investigation and trials work, but within a year these units had moved away and the station became the base of No. 405 Squadron, the only Canadian squadron in the R.A.F.’s élite Pathfinder Force. Initially flying the Halifax, the squadron soon converted onto the famous Lancaster, and this aircraft became the workhorse of the squadron. The training unit moved to Warboys on the 5th March 1944. When Gransden Lodge first became operational in 1942, the 2 units that were initially assigned to the new station were both involved in top-secret work related to radar. The 1st of these, No. 1418 Flight (later the Bombing Development Unit), carried out trials of some of the inventions that were constantly being produced to assist the RAF, including new radar equipment that was to be vital to the success of the Allied bombing campaign.
Gransden Lodge was an airfield built to Class A standard during 1941-42. Located 7 miles south-east of St Neots, it was necessary to close the road between Great Gransden and Longstowe and another lane running from the latter to the north. Gransden Lodge, after which the airfield was named, lay on the northern boundary of the airfield.
The 3 concrete runways were 04-22 at 1,600 yards, 10-28 at 1,220 yards and 17-35 at 1,200 yards. However, it appears that the runways were lengthened before the airfield was brought into use, 04-22 out to 2,000 yards and the others to 1,400 yards each. Of the 36 pan hard standings, 2 were lost by hangar construction being replaced by 2 loops. A B1 and T2 hangar lay north of the technical site between runway heads 17 and 22, near Great Gransden village. A 2nd T2 stood on the south side of the airfield between runway heads 04 and 35 and the bomb stores were situated off the east side between runway heads 28 and 35. The dispersed camp lay in fields to the north-west around Great Gransden village and consisted of 2 communal, 2 WAAF, 6 domestic and sick quarters. Total accommodation allowed for 1,867 males and 252 females.
Recruitment & Training
The PFF crews thereafter found their way in the Force via varied routes; crews or individuals could volunteer at any time while serving with Main Force Squadrons, while aircrew who showed promise in their training could also find themselves seconded into the force. Some crews in mid-tour could also be transferred into PFF when numbers were needed to be made up to establishment where required.
Recruits were given a 2 week course in marking techniques at RAF Warboys before posting to a Squadron. Bennett addressed each intake personally and the crews came to have an intense sense of loyalty, pride and professionalism in their membership of 8 Group. The PFF crews were also granted a step up in rank, and increase in pay, but had to do a 45 trip tour rather than the usual 30 trips, for as long as they were serving in PFF. By volunteering for the PFF airmen were initially committed to another 60 operations which was later reduced to 45 to encourage more to join. As your number of operations increased, your odds of surviving were radically reduced and without any doubt, regardless of their skills or professionalism, the key factor to surviving was simply luck.
In the end, Athur (Bomber) Harris was proved wrong about PFF’s effect on morale – the coveted PFF badge allowed to be worn on their uniforms was genuinely a sought-after achievement.
The PFF Initially Consisted of 5 Squadrons:
No.7 Squadron, from 3 Group, flying Stirlings;
No.35 Squadron, from 4 Group, flying Halifaxes;
No.83 Squadron, from 5 Group, the only Squadron flying Lancasters;
My father was 904882 Flight Sergeant John Henry Allen, DFM & Bar., PFF., 83 Squadron, Bomber Command – Corrine Mitchell
No.109 Squadron, from 2 Group, flying Wellingtons, but to be re-equipped with Mosquitoes;
No. 156 Squadron, from 1 Group, flying Wellingtons.
The PFF would eventually be entirely equipped with Lancasters and Mosquitoes, the most suitable aircraft for its task. The PFF squadrons were located at adjacent airfields within No 3 Group – Oakington, Graveley, Wyton and Warboys, with the Headquarters then being at Wyton. Initially the force was under the direct control of Harris, and relied on 3 Group for administration, pay and rations. On 8 January 1943, however, the PFF expanded into a completely new Group, No 8 (PFF). This was in recognition of the huge improvements achieved by Bennett. Bennett himself, hitherto only a Group Captain, was promoted to Air Commodore, a move which gave him equality of function, though not of rank, with the other Group Commanders.
The formation of 8 (PFF) Group was at the request of the Air Ministry, and initially was comprised of one squadron from each of the other Bomber Command Groups.The reason behind the formation of the Pathfinders, as 8 Group was commonly known, was as a direct result of the Butt Report, and the need highlighted in that report for a force to be able to mark a target accurately before the arrival of “Main Force.”
Everyone who flew with the Pathfinders volunteered to do so and joining them entailed flying extra operations. The normal Pathfinder “tour” was 45 missions opposed to the normal 30 flown by other squadrons. Those who joined these squadrons were the very best at their trade, whatever crew position they occupied. The Navigators in particular were well above average ability for men of their trade, and together with the blind-bombing aids that came into use by Bomber Command as the war lengthened, the Pathfinders were able to mature to became a crack force. At the outset of 8 Group, squadrons transferred in with whatever aircraft they were operating, but eventually only the Lancaster and the Mosquito were used by the Group, and by April of 1945 the Group consisted of no less than 20 operational squadrons.
Air Vice-Marshall Don Bennett commanded the Pathfinders for the entire duration of the war, and he oversaw their development. Post-war, after the defeat of Japan, the need for the Pathfinder Force passed, and in December 1945 they were disbanded, having flown 51,053 sorties during the war for the loss of 675 aircraft, and 3,700 members of aircrew. The Air Officer Commanding remained Air Vice-Marshall Don Bennett throughout the war, handing over to Air Vice-Marshall Whitley in May 1945.
The Pathfinder March is an annual 46-mile endurance event which follows a circular route taking in the 4 main airbases of the Pathfinder Force: RAF Wyton (the HQ), RAF Gravely, RAF Oakington and RAF Warboys (Training Base). The walk takes place on the Saturday as close to the 21st of June as possible to get the maximum amount of sunlight and is open to both military and civilians, individuals and relay teams. The March was inaugurated in 1997 by Sqn Ldr Gavin Sugden, to commemorate the Pathfinder Force which operated out of the RAF Stations at Wyton, Gravely, Oakington, Warboys (and their satellite bases) from 1942 to 1945. Flying Halifaxes, Lancasters, Mosquitos, Stirlings and Wellingtons (the latter 2 replaced by Lancasters and Mosquitos), the Force had 20 squadrons and flights in the 3 years of its existence. Of the Force, only 2 squadrons are still flying in operational service today; 7 Sqn, Royal Air Force (1 of the original 5 squadrons) and 405 Sqn, Canadian Forces Air Command. The event is organised and run by the Pathfinder March Committee with a volunteer cadre of staff to run March control, a Roving Patrol, the Checkpoints around the course, medical staff and physios. The fastest time achieved so far was in 2015 when the route was run by Simon Margot in 6 hours 37 minutes, but most walkers complete the course in about 12 hours or more.