For 19-year-old Gwen Thomas, it was love at first sight when she laid eyes on Bruce Smeaton, a handsome 23-year-old Lancaster pilot from Warrington.
The year was 1943. Britain’s strategic bombing campaign over Nazi-occupied Europe was in full force. In the spring and summer, RAF bombers had pounded the Ruhr Valley — Germany’s industrial heartland —with renewed vigour, before unleashing hell over Hamburg in July and August of that year. By November 1943, with fire in his belly, Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris, the commander in chief of Bomber Command, had one target in mind: Berlin.
Harris was convinced that destroying Berlin using his bombers could end the war. “We can wreck Berlin from end to end if the USAAF will come in on it. It will cost us between 400–500 aircraft. It will cost Germany the war,” he told Winston Churchill. But the Americans were no shape to target Berlin until its long-range Mustang fighters became available. So, for now, Bomber Command would take on the job itself. The Battle of Berlin was on.
The fact that Harris was even able to consider attacking Berlin was down a dramatic shift in Bomber Command’s ability to take the fight to the Germany. And much of that was thanks to 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.
Led by a no-nonsense Australian called Don Bennett, the Pathfinders had been established in August 1942 to help Bomber Command find targets in the dark. It was a force within a force — made of up the most experienced aircrews with the latest radar technology flying mainly Lancaster heavy bombers and more nimble Mosquitoes. Their job was to press ahead and ‘mark’ the targets using pioneering new flares made with the help of Britain’s fireworks industry, so th
e main force of bombers flying behind could bomb more efficiently.
Bruce Smeaton’s impressive crew had caught the eye of the Pathfinders’ head-hunters and they were soon poached to join 83 Squadron, which was based at RAF Wyton, just down the road from its headquarters in Huntington, where Gwen Thomas worked as a signals’ operator.
Gwen had volunteered for the WAAF in September 1942 when she was 18 years old. She didn’t want to go into the army but ‘liked the uniform’ of the WAAF, a view reflected by many young women who found the RAF blue was more flattering than the army khaki.
Her bright and enquiring personality would ensure that less than a year after joining up, she was at the very heart of the Pathfinders.
She and Bruce had met in the late summer of 1943, at one of the Pathfinder Group dances.
Life for both him and Gwen was hectic. But with Bruce based at Wyton and Gwen working just three miles away in Huntingdon, when they weren’t on duty the two would meet and enjoy long suppers at the local Bridge Hotel and countryside walks with Susan, his cocker spaniel.
Like many airmen with girlfriends or sweethearts, when he wasn’t flying Bruce would give his Wings to Gwen. “You used to wear the Wings of your boyfriend on your scarf. One night, after what must have been a pretty tough operation, we met up, and Bruce said to me, ‘Here are your Wings, darling. I don’t want to go on an op like that again,’” remembers Gwen. “He didn’t want to talk about it and he didn’t dwell on it because the next night they might be going again. They wanted to switch off if they could”.
If she couldn’t see him in person, Gwen rang Bruce at noon every day to steal a quick chat and tell him she loved him, before that evening’s operational briefing started and Wyton was locked down from the outside world.
Like all WAAFs working at Castle Hill House, Gwen was billeted in a Nissen hut in the Georgian building’s grounds. One night in November 1943, knowing she was on duty late and might oversleep, she asked a WAAF colleague to give her a shake the following morning to ensure she could make her telephone call to Wyton in time, in case Bruce was on operations that night and the base was locked down.
“I was supposed to ring him at 12. I’d been on night duty and I said to a girl in the hut, ‘Please wake me at 11.30.’ But she forgot and I didn’t ring him. I was praying all day they would not fly,” said Gwen. That night, Bruce took off for Berlin, Gwen, who had finished her shift at 11pm, went to bed thinking of her boyfriend somewhere over Germany, praying he’d return safely.
The following morning, after dressing, she walked into the signals’ office. “I knew by the faces of people that he hadn’t come back. I walked next door and it said ‘failed to return’ on the board”.
Everyone hoped he had been taken prisoner. But three months after he had gone missing, they received news that Bruce and his crew had all perished. Gwen was devastated – she had only known her beloved Bruce for nine weeks, but loved him with all her heart – and yet, like many other WAAFs who lost loved ones, she put on a brave face. “I wondered if they realised I felt let down by someone who hadn’t woken me so I could say goodbye to him . . . but you had to manage your sadness and carry on”.
Will Iredale is the author of The Pathfinders: The Elite RAF Force that Turned the Tide of WWII.
Aspects of History Issue Four is out now.