Pathfinder Collection

The Pathfinder Force


On the night of 18/19 August 1942, 118 Bomber Command aircraft attacked Flensberg, in northern Germany. In the lead were 31 bombers - Stirlings, Halifaxes, Lancasters and Wellingtons - from No. 7, 35, 83 and 156 squadrons of the Pathfinder Force (PFF). For the first time the target was to be marked by Pathfinders, for these were the initial four squadrons to operate with the newly formed force. The airfields from which they had come were Oakington, Gravely, Wyton and Warboys.

The target marking was a dismal failure that night - this was mainly due to very bad weather over the target area combined with the fact that although the crews were operationally experienced, this mission took place only 3 days after the formation of the PFF with no time available to develop tactics and marking methods. Contrary to popular belief, many senior officers who were originally opposed to the formation of the PFF did not take delight in the failure of this mission.

Undaunted, its redoubtable young Australian commander, Group Captain (later Air Vice Marshal) Donald Bennett, was to mould the PFF into a force that led the way in bringing Bomber Command into the electronic age, and in developing target-marking techniques that enabled the PFF to literally light the way for Bomber Command to achieve the accuracy and concentration that had previously eluded it.

No 8 Pathfinder Group was the only officially recognized elite unit of Royal Air Force Bomber Command during World War II.

The creation of the Pathfinder Force was a source of one of the bitterest arguments of the Second World War. Initially the brainchild of Group Captain S O Bufton (Deputy Director of Bombing Operations for whom Bomber Command's chief Arthur "Bomber" Harris had special contempt), Harris and many of his Group Commanders thought an elite force would breed rivalry and jealousy, and have an adverse effect on morale. Sir Henry Tizard, advisor and one of the chief scientists supporting the war effort, said, however, "I do not think the formation of a first XV at rugby makes little boys play any less enthusiastically."

In order to minimize any adverse effects, Harris decided that every Group would have its own pathfinder squadron, but again a bitter argument ensued, and eventually Harris was forced to accept the idea following the intervention of Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Portal and the Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Initially the Target Finding Force was developed before being renamed the Path Finder Force on 15 Aug 1942. In January 1943, No 8 Pathfinder Group was formed. At the inception of the PFF, its commander, newly promoted Group Captain Donald Bennett, a talented and pioneering young aviator born in Australia was personally appointed by Harris, however, Bennett was not the first choice - Harris opposed the primary choice of the Air Ministry, Basil Embry, the dashing young leader of 2 Group. At 33, Bennett was the youngest officer promoted to Air Vice Marshal (in 1943). His awards include Commander of the British Empire, CBE, and Distinguished Service Order, DSO. He was however, the only group commander in Bomber Command during WW II not to receive a knighthood

Recruitment & Training

The PFF crews thereafter found their way in the Force via varied routes; crews or individuals could volunteer at any time while serving with Main Force squadrons, while aircrew who showed promise in their training could also find themselves seconded into the force. Some crews in mid-tour could also be transferred into PFF when numbers were needed to be made up to establishment where required.

Recruits were given a two week course in marking techniques at Warboys before posting to a Squadron. Bennett addressed each intake personally and the crews came to have an intense sense of loyalty, pride and professionalism in their membership of 8 Group.

The PFF crews were also granted a step up in rank, and increase in pay, but had to do a 45 trip tour rather than the usual 30 trips, for as long as they were serving in PFF. In the end, Harris was proved wrong about PFF's effect on morale - the coveted PFF badge allowed to be worn on their uniforms was genuinely a sought-after achievement.


There were 3 main methods of target marking; the first was visual ground marking which had the codename NEWHAVEN. The second method was blind ground marking; predominately using H2S ground mapping radar to locate the target, this method had the codename PARRAMATTA. The third method was sky marking when the target indicator parachute flare slowly descended into and coloured the cloud; this method had the code name WANGANUI. If OBOE equipped Mosquitos undertook this method it had the coldename MUSICAL WANGANUI. These codenames were derived from the home town of 3 members of Bennett's HQ staff

PFF crews found themselves given ever increasingly sophisticated and complex jobs and tasks that were constantly modified and developed tactically during the bombing campaign from 1943 until the end of the war. Some of the more usual tasks were as: "Finders"; these were 8 Group aircraft tasked with dropping sticks of illuminating flares, firstly at critical points along the bombing route to aid navigation and keep the bomber stream compact, and then across the approximate target area. If conditions were cloudy then these were dropped using H2S navigational radar.

"Illuminators"; were PPF aircraft flying in front of the main force who would drop markers or Target indicators (TI's) onto the designated 'aiming point' already illuminated by the "Finders". Again, if conditions were cloudy H2S navigational radar was used. These TI's were designed to burn with various colours to prevent the German defences lighting decoy fires. Various TI's were dubbed 'Pink Pansies', 'Red Spots' , and 'Smoke Puffs'. "Illuminators" could include Mosquitos equipped with 'Oboe' if the target was within the range of the highly accurate Oboe bombing aid. "Markers"; would then drop incendiaries onto the TIs just prior to the Main Force arrival. Further "markers" called " Backers-Up" or "Supporters" would be distributed at points within the main bomber stream to remark the original TI's as required. As the war wore on, the highly dangerous role of "Master Bomber" was introduced as a sort of master of ceremonies, the appointed Pathfinder (usually a highly experienced senior Officer) circling the target and broadcasting instructions to both Pathfinders and Main Force aircraft, correcting aiming points and generally coordinating the attack.

The proportion of Pathfinder aircraft to Main Force bombers varied enormously according to the difficulty and location of the assigned target; 1 to 15 was common, though it could be as low as 1 to 3. By the start of 1944 the bulk of Bomber Command was now bombing within 3 miles of the PFF indicators; a huge improvement in accuracy. The success or failure of a raid now depended overwhelmingly on the Pathfinder's marker placement and how successfully further marking was corrected.

Rivalry in Bomber Command

There certainly was some rivalry, but this was mainly between 8 Group and 5 Group, and was driven by the personal rivalry between Bennett and the leader of 5 Group, Sir Ralph Cochrane. Cochrane was an advocate of precision low level marking, and lobbied heavily to be allowed to prove himself, and that 5 Group could attempt targets and techniques that 8 Group would not.

Cochrane's specialists 617 Squadron proved his point when they attacked the Ruhr dams (Operation Chastise) requiring bombing from a height of 60 feet (20 m), and later, at high altitude using the new Stabilised Automatic Bomb Sight, achieved an incredible and very necessary accuracy of only 94 yards (86 m) at the V Weapon launch site at Abbeville (16/17 December 1943). 5 Group invented various techniques, such as the '5 Group corkscrew' to evade enemy fighters, and the '5 Group quick landing system'.

No 8 Group PFF flew a total of 50,490 individual sorties against some 3,440 targets. The cost in human lives was grievous. At least 3,727 members were killed on operations.

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