Will Iredale, welcome to Aspects of History. Many congratulations on the book.You have written before about the air war against Kamikazes (The Kamikaze Hunters) in the Pacific theatre, and now you’ve turned your attention to The Pathfinders, the elite squadrons forming part of Bomber Command. Can you tell us more about what they were?
Despite the bravery of its aircrews, by 1941 it had become clear that Bomber Command could not accurately find or bomb targets in the dark. So Winston Churchill’s scientific adviser Professor Lindemann decided to investigate bombing accuracy, to establish once and for all what on earth was going wrong. Over 650 photographs taken by Bomber Command night bombers were examined and the results were dynamite. Just one in five RAF bombers sent on operations to Germany and France got within five miles of their target. On moonless nights, this proportion fell to one fifteenth. Something needed to be done, and fast. The response was The Pathfinders — a secret air force of 20,000 young men and women which transformed Bomber Command from the brink of extinction in 1942 to a weapon capable of razing whole cities to the ground in a single night or hitting targets just a few hundred feet wide. By 1945, 95% of aircraft were reaching within three miles of their aiming point.
Pathfinder aircraft flew ahead of the main force of bombers, locating the target before dropping flares so the rest of the bomber stream following behind knew where to aim. Central to the Pathfinder’s success was pioneering technology created by a team of British boffins. The most accurate was a device called Oboe, which used radio waves to help guide aircraft to the target. However, Oboe only had a range of around 270 miles, so the Pathfinders also used H2S — a sort of airborne radar the aircraft which scanned the ground. The returning echoes created a shadowy map of the terrain below that appeared on a cathode-ray tube housed in a set in the fuselage meaning a navigator could – in theory – identify his aircraft’s location. Once they’d identified the target, Pathfinders dropped ‘target indicators’ — brightly coloured flares made with the help of the British fireworks industry. Firms including Aladdin Industries, the Crystal Palace Fireworks Co. and Standard Fireworks won lucrative contracts. A contract with Aladdin Industries alone was worth over £600,000 – the equivalent to an eye-watering £28 million today.
There are many enthralling stories within The Pathfinders, e.g. Ulric Cross and Kenrick Rawlins, the Trinidadian airmen, Gwen Thomas and her tragic love story and John Macgown, the doctor who flew missions to help pilots. Do you have a personal favourite?
I was very lucky to dig out some gems and I have number of favourites. One which stands out is the story of John Kelly, a young RAF air cadet who trained at an airfield in the Mojave Desert near Death Valley in California. And when he wasn’t training, he let off steam by hob-knobbing with some of the biggest stars from the Golden Age of Hollywood, including Bette Davis, Johnny Weissmuller and Greer Garson. In 1944 Kelly was headhunted to the Pathfinders flying Lancasters for 83 Squadron. On 6 August 1944, Kelly’s Lancaster had just bombed the V-1 rocket supply depot outside Paris, when his squadron was attacked by eighteen German fighters. Three German fighters sprayed machine gunfire into the four-engine bomber. But thanks to some deft flying, Kelly managed to shake off the fighters although the Lancaster was horribly damaged. Kelly refused to abandon the aircraft because his rear gunner was badly injured. Instead he skilfully nursed the plane back to England where it crash-landed one wheel at an airfield in Sussex. Three members of the crew including Kelly were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and bought a beer by Guy Gibson, the Dam Buster-hero VC winner who would be killed over Holland just a few weeks later.
Were there any fundamental difference or similarities between British and American airmen?
Well the Americans bombed by day while the RAF predominantly operated at night. The USAAF relied on the firepower of its bombers and fighter escorts to see off enemy fighters, and the RAF used the cloak of darkness. But I think for the airmen it was much the same…hours of often mundane, tiring work, punctuated by minutes of random, very intense violence.
Don Bennett seems to be a no-nonsense commander that we see many of during the war. Just how effective was he, and how was he viewed by those under his command?
I think Bennett has been given something of a bad press. Arthur Harris opined: ‘He could not suffer fools gladly, and by his own high standards, there were many fools.’ One post-war account described Bennett as a man ‘aloof and humourless in his demeanour, he made few friends’. Others thought him difficult to work with, one who had little time for people intellectually slower or whose opinions differed from his own. While there’s no smoke without fire, the reality was more nuanced. He did only expect the best from people – an element which would be essential in making the Pathfinders a success – and possessed a short manner that easily ruffled feathers. But Bennett was a brilliant technical navigator and airman who could also be warm and charming, possessing a more human side most people never saw. Remember he was only 32 to when he took command of the Pathfinders. He was responsible for a force of 20,000 men and women whose job it was — night after night — to lead Bomber Command’s bombers to success. The pressure was immense, and I think he coped brilliantly.
The Pathfinders were experts at bombing raids on Nazi Germany. Do you believe they helped to shorten the war?
I think that’s difficult to say for sure. In three years, the Pathfinders grew from five to twenty-one squadrons. At least 3,712 Pathfinder airmen were killed in 50,940 sorties between August 1942 and May 1945, the final loss rate only marginally less than for Bomber Command’s main force. Every one of the 55,573 Bomber Command deaths was tragic, but for the supporters of the air war, their sacrifice prevented many greater times the number of Allied casualties on the ground. There was no one means of winning the war, but the Pathfinders’ contribution to the air offensive ensured that Bomber Command – alongside the American air force – played a significant role in the eventual Allied victory.
The Lancaster and Mosquito are aircraft that have featured in novels and movies, and have become legendary. How did they stack up against German and American models?
Despite its legendary status, some aircrew felt the Lancaster was something of a death trap, as it was harder to escape from than other heavy bombers if attacked on operations. Despite this, however, overall the Lancaster was perfectly suited for the rough and tumble of operations over enemy territory — and certainly performed better than any other heavy bombers available to the RAF at the time. As for the Mosquito — it was one of the fastest aircraft of the Second World War — dubbed the ‘Wooden Wonder’ because of its mostly wooden construction, which could fly to Berlin and back twice in a single night and was considered such a prized scalp that German fighter pilots were allowed to claim two kills if they shot it down. Many ‘Mossies’ would return from missions shredded with flak holes. But its tiny losses said it all – from the beginning of 1943 to the end of the war, the Pathfinders would lose just 1.1 per cent of the Mosquito aircraft dispatched. Ironically, Harris hated the name, and wanted it banned from being talked about in public. He failed.
Are you working on a new project, and can you tell us about it?
I’ve a number of exciting ideas simmering away…watch this space!
Will Iredale is a bestselling author, journalist and media consultant. The Pathfinders: The Elite RAF Force that Turned the Tide of WWII, is his second book and is published by WH Allen. You can read his piece on Gwen Thomas and the tragic love story here.