Bravest of the brave: As RAF Bomber Command struggled to hit German cities, an elite band of Pathfinders risked their lives to light up their targets — but paid a devastating price
BOOK OF THE WEEK
by Will Iredale (WH Allen £20, 448 pp)
As they drained beer by the bucketful in the smoky pubs of East Anglia, an elite bunch of boys in RAF blue, all sporting a distinctive golden eagle badge on their uniforms, roared out their signature song.
‘There was flak, flak, bags of effing flak, in the Ruhr, in the Ruhr,’ they sang defiantly, to the tune of The Quartermaster’s Store.
Their raucousness disguised courage and fear, because they knew intimately the risks of bombing Germany’s industrial heartland. They were the Pathfinders, a special corps of highly skilled flyers whose responsibility, night after night, was to go some 15 minutes ahead of the 600 or so bombers attacking Germany that night and light up the target for them.
Will Iredale gives recognition to the Pathfinders in a new history book. Pictured: WWII Lancaster bomber and crew
First on the scene in their Lancasters and Mosquitoes, they dropped white flares hanging from parachutes that drifted down like sparkling Christmas trees, illuminating the whole area and causing panic on the ground. These were followed by bright yellow, red and green pyrotechnic markers — glorified fireworks to pinpoint the specific city or factory for a flotilla of planes to aim at.
The Pathfinders took the brunt of the enemy’s considerable defences before the pack arrived en masse to saturate the targets with their lethal loads.
They would then circle in the sky above the target, checking that the bombs were hitting correctly, dropping more markers if necessary, all the while in danger of being shot down.
They were the bravest of the brave, says Iredale, as he lights up — an appropriate metaphor — the achievements of a group whose contribution to the war effort has not always been recognised.
Their exploits became legends. Ernie Holmes was piloting his Lancaster home after a night raid on Dortmund when a Junkers night fighter spotted him and sped in for the kill. There was a loud bang as shells ripped into his port wing and the plane went into a dive.
As he unstrapped himself, a huge explosion knocked him unconscious. He came to a few seconds later to find himself lying outside the plane’s nose as it plummeted to earth, the cockpit canopy gone. He was being held in place by his left foot, which was snagged under the instrument panel.
With a superhuman effort, he dragged himself back into the cockpit, freed his foot and just in time pushed himself away from the burning fuselage. His parachute thankfully opened and he dropped into a muddy field, just yards from what remained of his Lancaster.
Apart from a broken nose, he was uninjured. Soon taken as a prisoner of war, he was also, by a miracle, a survivor. (He turned 100 last January.)
Ernie Holmes was piloting his Lancaster home after a night raid on Dortmund when a Junkers night fighter spotted him, apart from a broken nose, he was uninjured. Pictured fifth from left: Ernie Holmes, with other airmen
Iredale believes these 20,000 special men turned the tide of World War II — a big claim but one he argues persuasively in this absorbing history.
Bomber Command had been hitting Germany with night raids since the start of the war and, in the grim days since Dunkirk put Britain on the back foot, it was pretty well the only means of taking the battle to the enemy.
But the hit-rate was dismal. In only one mission in three were bombs dropped within five miles of the target. The simple problem was that, as one senior RAF figure put it, ‘we cannot see in the dark’.
In high places, the situation was seen as so catastrophic that there was serious talk of abandoning the whole project of bombing Germany, virtually handing victory to Hitler.
A radical change of tactics was needed, and it came with a plan to take the top pilots and navigators from all squadrons and mould them into an advanced strike force that, once equipped with the latest radar navigation aids, could sneak in and light up targets.
It was a controversial idea. Air Marshal Arthur Harris, the gritty, no-nonsense boss of Bomber Command, opposed it, partly because he hadn’t thought of it himself but mainly on the grounds that creaming off the best in this way would foment jealousy and rivalry.
But Winston Churchill — always an enthusiast for elite units (witness the commandos and SOE) — overruled him, and in 1942 the Pathfinders were created, under the command of tough-talking Australian air ace Group Captain Donald Bennett.
An individual Pathfinder would be lucky to still be alive after 12 sorties. Pictured: Aircraft in flight during World War II
Each man was specially selected, then trained to exacting standards way beyond anything else demanded in Bomber Command. ‘One mistake and you’re out,’ Bennett told them.
The terms they signed up to were tough. Each recruit agreed to 45 missions without a break, instead of the standard 30. Crews were expected to reach a target in Germany within a minute of their designated time, a margin of error of ten seconds for every 100 miles flown, despite enemy flak, night fighters and bad weather.
But they were well rewarded. Each man got an immediate promotion in rank and a pay rise — danger money. And they earned every penny of it. Over the next three years, 3,600 were killed in action. An individual Pathfinder would be lucky to still be alive after 12 sorties. The loss rate was so great that 50 new crews had to be recruited every month.
But almost from the start, the mark they made was indelible. The first Pathfinders-led attack left the giant Krupp arms factory in Essen smouldering in ruins, leaving Hitler agitated by the sudden accuracy of the British bombing.
Serious damage was at last being done to Germany, smashing its industry, tying up thousands of big guns on defensive duties when they could have been deployed on other fronts and undermining morale. Overall, the hit rate of Bomber Command soared, until by 1945 it was 95 per cent.
THE PATHFINDERS by Will Iredale (WH Allen £20, 448 pp)
Yet even so, the wily Harris kept sniping away, trying to undermine a project he had never approved of. As Iredale plots these machinations, we see yet again how winning the war was often hampered by rivalries among the very men running it, as much a threat to the survival of the Pathfinders as the Germans were.
By contrast, the Pathfinders themselves were united in a one-for-all, all-for-one camaraderie. This was exemplified by middle-aged Squadron Leader John MacGown, a Wimpole Street eye doctor who joined the Pathfinders as their medical officer. His job was to improve their eyesight, particularly their night vision, which he could have done without ever leaving the airfield, safe on terra firma.
But MacGown insisted on knowing first-hand what his ‘boys’ went through by joining them on sorties. How else could he treat them unless he knew the mental and physical anguish they endured?
‘The boys listen to what I say because they know I understand what they have to do,’ he told his wife. If one crew had a bad trip, he would make it his responsibility to go with them the next time as a gesture of solidarity. They felt reassured at having the Doc on board.
Their commander Donald Bennett sometimes did the same, despite direct orders from Harris not to in case he was shot down, captured and interrogated.
In a high-flying Mosquito, he would circle above the battle in the air, just to experience what his men went through and taking notes on how they could improve their performance. They loved him for it.