Pathfinder Force

In August 1942 Arthur Harris, head of Bomber Command, asked Donald Bennett to establish the Pathfinder Force, an elite night-bombing squadron. The strategy was for the Pathfinder pilots to be the first over a target and to drop flares and incendiaries in order to assist the aim of the main bombing force.

Primary Sources

(1) Arthur Harris, Bomber Command (1947)

The Pathfinder Force, as I christened it, was formed on August 15th, under the command of then Air Commodore Don Bennett. The basis of Pathfinder tactics at this time was visual marking of the aiming point, either in the light of flares-these were still of an unsatisfactory type - or occasionally in moonlight. Flares were dropped with the help of Gee in the few instances where a target still remained within range of Gee, but the usual method was to make a timed run from a visually identified landmark.

In September a new technique was used and proved effective. The flare dropping aircraft were divided into two groups, one of which, called the finders, dropped long sticks of-flares right across the target area, and the other, called the illuminators, were detailed to search for the aiming point itself and, when they had found it to illuminate it with much shorter sticks of flares; the visual markers then marked this aiming point with incendiary bombs, in default of target indicators. Because of the difficulty of distinguishing incendiaries, salvoes of 30 Ib. and 250 Ib. incendiaries were dropped on the aiming point or as near to it as could be managed.

(2) Guy Gibson, Enemy Coast Ahead (1944)

At that time there were rumours that a Pathfinder Squadron: was to be formed, composed of the best bombing crews from all squadrons.

Dim said: 'It seems i good idea to me, but I can see many snags.'

''What are they going to do?" someone asked.

"Go in low and light up the targets for us with flares. We stay high and safe and bomb accurately,' said Johnny

"That's good."

"That's fine."

'Yes, but here are the snags,' said Dim. 'First it is hard form a new squadron quickly, and if you form it quictly it is hard to form it well, and speed is what they want I think it would be better to take the best squadron in the Command and call it the "First Pathfinder Squadron."

'That means us,' said Taffy.

'No, we are about fifth now. I think 97 Squadron."

A short argument followed in which it was generally agreed that 97 Squadron should be chosen.

(3) Donald Bennett was appointed commander of Pathfinders on 5th July 1942. In his autobiography, Pathfinder, he recorded how Arthur Harris was against the creation of this new force.

At that time Bert Harris was getting a little fat, but his bluff, genial personality kept him young in general impression. His golden hair gave an indication of his character, for like most "copper knots" he had a fairly short temper, and was very outspoken and indeed rude when he so chose. On the other hand, as most people knew, he was very often right, and his emphatic expression of disapproval for those who were wrong was generally well justified. Unfortunately, his outspoken ways, particularly with regard to the Army and Navy, were so famous that he was fairly unpopular with both those Services - which I regard as a compliment to him. Unfortunately he was also a little unpopular with some other senior Air Force officers on whose toes he had trodden on various occasions. Nevertheless, as a wartime C-in-C. of Bomber Command, I do not know of any other Air Force officer anywhere nearly so suitable.

Harris was blunt, honest and to the point, as always. Roughly, the gist of his conversation with me was that he had opposed the idea of a separate Path Finder Force tooth and nail - that he did not believe it was right to weaken the Command by taking its best crews in order to form a corps d'elite as a leading body. He thought it was unfair to the other Groups, and he had, therefore, done everything he could to stop the idea of a Path Finder Force. However, he had been given a direct order from the Prime Minister through the Chief of the Air Staff, and since it was forced upon him he insisted that I should command it, in spite of my relatively junior rank. I was to be promoted to acting group-captain immediately, and as a group-captain could not command such a force, I should do so in his name as a Staff Officer of Headquarters Bomber Command, and I should therefore have a subordinate headquarters to handle the Pathfinders at a station of my choosing convenient to the aerodromes which I also had to choose for the establishment of the Force. He categorically refused to allow it to be called a Target Finding Force, because that was the name which had been put forward by the Directorate of Bomber Operations, and which he, therefore, automatically opposed. He did not put it in quite those words, but that was obviously the implication. He told me that whilst he was opposed to the Path Finder Force and would waste no effort on it, he would support me personally in every way.

My appointment to command Pathfinders was on 5th July 1942, and I immediately began work on every aspect of the problem. My ideas had already been fairly well formed by my constant discussions with various individuals in contact with the bomber operations, and as the result of my experience as a squadron commander. The divisions of the problems were fairly clear. The human element was undoubtedly the most important, and the selection and training of crews was my most vital consideration. Second was the development and production of the very best navigational equipment available. Third, I had to provide the means of illuminating and/or marking the target in such a way that the main force crews could identify it in spite of all the decoys and dummies and the diversions that the enemy might provide.

Of these problems, the one on which I got moving most quickly related to the equipment. Navigational facilities in R.A.F. bombers in those days consisted roughly of a compass, a sextant, an astro compass and a few other minor instruments. The standard of navigation was elementary in the extreme. Just before I had left 10 Squadron, a new device known as Gee had been introduced. This was very hush-hush at the time, but details of it have since been published. It consisted of a pulse phasing radar system with receiving equipment in the aircraft, displaying signals on a cathode ray tube which could be aligned and measured. The resultant figures gave the position on a hyperbolic grid with reasonable accuracy. It had been hoped that this system would give sufficient accuracy in navigation to make blind bombing of the Ruhr practical. Unfortunately this was not quite so, but its value as a navigational aid was tremendous. In particular its use in coming back directly to home aerodromes was a tremendous help, and saved many stupid flying accidents such as had occurred in the earlier days. Gee was the first radar device used on bombers, and was most valuable. The hope for Pathfinders, however, lay in two other devices. The first of these was an airborne radar ground reflection system known as H2S. The second was subsequently given the code name Oboe.

(4) Air Vice-Marshal Donald Bennett wrote a letter Pathfinder Force at the end of the Second World War (April, 1945)

Great Britain and the Commonwealth have made a contribution to the civilised world so magnificent that history alone will be able to appreciate it fully. Through disaster and triumph, sometimes supported and sometimes alone, the British races have steadfastly and energetically over many long years flung their forces against the international criminals. They have fought the war from end to end without a moment's respite, in all theatres, and with all arms - land, sea and air.

Bomber Command's share in this great effort has been a major one. You, each one of you, have made that possible. The, Path Finder Force has shouldered a grave responsibility. It has led Bomber Command, the greatest striking force ever known. That we have been successful can be seen in the far-reaching results which the Bomber offensive has achieved. That is the greatest reward the Path Finder Force ever hopes to receive, for those results have benefited all law-abiding peoples.

Whilst you have been hard at work through these vital years, I have not interrupted you, as I would like to have done, with messages of praise and congratulation. You were too busy; but now that your great contribution to the world has been made, I want to thank you each man and woman of you personally and to congratulate you on your unrelenting spirit and energy and on the results you have achieved.