November 1940. The Battle of Britain has barely ended, when wave after wave of Luftwaffe bombers discharge their deadly load on the city of Coventry, with unerring precision and devastating effect. In The Pathfinders, Will Iredale charts the RAF’s response to this raid, which stunned the British population and authorities. How far the RAF had fallen behind was brought home starkly when early attempts to retaliate were revealed to be disquietingly ineffective. The RAF needed a means of hitting the German war effort hard, and most importantly, in total darkness. Its bombers could not survive against fighters by day, and could barely find the target by night.
The Pathfinders fleshes out how this response progressed in human terms, painting the struggle to create and maintain an effective bombing force in the experiences of those involved. This is set out with just the right amount of technical detail to satisfy the dedicated enthusiast while not blinding the casual reader with science.
If The Pathfinders has a ‘main character,’ it is Don Bennett, the daredevil pilot given the job of creating the Pathfinder Force. Bennett sought to assemble an elite force of bomber crews to find and mark targets with coloured flares so the ‘main force’ could see to bomb, whatever the visibility or weather. It was a simple idea, fraught with difficulties, technical, political and tactical.
Using interviews, letters, diaries and other material, published and unpublished, Will Iredale introduces us to the personalities who lived through the Pathfinder campaign (in some cases, not all the way through), taking in both sides of the conflict, and at every level from lowly ground-based WAAFs to the head of Bomber Command.
The narrative deftly weaves a number of strands together to build both an overall history of the Pathfinder Force and a window into its day-to-day existence. Looming large is Air Marshal Arthur Harris (variously ‘Bert’, ‘Bomber’ or ‘Butcher’). Iredale does his best to be even-handed, but it is difficult to warm to the Harris presented here, petty, political and underhanded. And that’s without considering his obsession with bombing urban centres, even at the cost of sidelining genuinely strategic targets and in contravention of instructions from the top.
Even with hindsight as to how things ended, the author ramps up the tension. The Pathfinders faced more than just the difficulty of navigating. German defences – flak, radar-guided searchlights that could catch a bomber like a moth in a flame, and the deadly night-fighters – drove Pathfinder losses distressingly high.
It’s impossible not to admire the skill, courage and ingenuity of the Pathfinders even while being horrified by the carnage their work enabled. The narrative walks a delicate line but the author never loses sight of the humanity of those involved in whatever capacity. The human stories are where The Pathfinders really hits home, particularly the young men and women carving out small spaces to love one another amongst the carnage and uncertainty. Those whose relationships were able to blossom, and those that were cut down, their tales are hauntingly affecting, all the way to the moving last words of the epilogue.
The Pathfinders: The Elite RAF Force That Turned the Tide of WWII, by Will Iredale, is published by WH Allen and is out now. You can read his piece on a doomed love affair here, and his interview here. Matthew Willis is the author of Fortress of Malta and Fleet Air Arm Legends: Supermarine Seafire.