By the autumn of 1943, Arthur Travers Harris had been supreme commander of Bomber Command for some eighteen months. During this period he had transformed a demoralised and largely ineffectual Command into the awesome striking force which was now targeting all the major industrial cities of Germany.
The bomber squadrons under Harris's command were organised into two main roles - there was Main Force, as the ordinary bomber squadrons were collectively known, and there was the Pathfinder Force, set up in August 1942. The commander of the latter was Donald Bennett, an outstandingly gifted Australian in his early thirties, twenty years younger than his fellow Group Commanders.
Bennett was one of the most brilliant technical airmen of his generation. A superb pilot, he also had a First Class Navigator's Licence and a Wireless Operator's Licence, being probably the only pilot in the world to possess both. He was perfectly capable of engineering jobs like stripping a wireless set or overhauling an engine. He had seen action in the most dramatic way - whilst commanding a Halifax squadron, he had been shot down close to a Norwegian fjord when attacking the Tirpitz, the pride of the German fleet, and had made a successful escape home through Norway and Sweden.
Bennett was very much a hands-on commander who kept in close touch with the men and stations under his command. He never allowed himself to become removed from the actualities his crews were facing, and even went to the extreme of flying surreptitiously on operations, something which had been categorically forbidden by Harris.
Bennett could be coldly ruthless towards those who did not achieve the high standards he demanded. Yet he was not a hard man, and his involvement was such that he was emotionally affected by the loss of his crews. As the pressures of the bombing campaign mounted, he lost many people whom he regarded as good friends. He got to know most of the senior pilots fairly well, and when they went missing it was a personal blow. Occasionally, when driving home from a squadron base in the early hours of the morning after learning of yet another tragic loss, he found it hard to avoid breaking down and shedding a few tears.
The Pathfinders' motto was "We Guide to Strike". Pathfinders were the leaders of Main Force, the Mosquitos and Lancasters flying at the head of the massive bombing stream which contained perhaps 400-700 aircraft when it swarmed out from Britain on a raid.
Such raids took place at night because it was suicidal to fly them in the day. In the darkness the huge force swamped the defences; safety lay in numbers and the bomber stream was meant to keep together as compactly as possible, but the extreme difficulties of navigation with comparatively primitive aids meant that mistakes of judgement were all too easily made.
The Pathfinders were the guides to Main Force, not only as route-markers on the long hazardous trip to the target but also over the target itself, where, with their better navigational techniques and technology, they had the task of pinpointing the areas where the bombs should be released.
The Pathfinders were critical to the success of the bombing raids, which were planned to the most minutely exact timetable. They had to reach the target despite all the difficulties of navigation - changing weather conditions, variable winds, German nightfighters and flak defences - within a tolerance of only one minute. They had to drop their target indicators on exactly the right spot even though the whole scene might be enveloped in dense cloud and high winds might shift the flares miles off target. When they failed, which they not infrequently did, the resulting confusion had a disastrous knock-on effect on Main Force.
Despite the critical nature of their role, Pathfinder crews were not a hand-picked elite. Crews reached 8 Group by different routes, about two-thirds coming with considerable experience from Main Force squadrons, the rest from Coastal Command, the Middle East, or any other place where good crews could be found, including directly from the training units with no operational experience.
The Pathfinders' general level of experience and competence seems to have been much lower than Bennett would have liked, and this trend became particularly marked during the Battle of Berlin when the appalling loss rate drained the Group. In one horrendous six week period between 16th December 1943 and the end of January 1944, 87 Pathfinder crews became casualties in missing or crashed aircraft.
The odds stacked against all bomber crews, Pathfinder or Main Force, were appalling. Being in Bomber Command was an extremely dangerous way of life. Of the 125,000 aircrew who served in Bomber Command during the Second World War, 56,000 would be killed.
When they volunteered for the PFF, crews would have been aware that, if accepted, they would be signing on for a tour of 45 operations without a break (Main Force flew a first tour of 30 and a second tour of 20). The compensation for this dangerously extended tour was being one step higher in rank than in Main Force, with attendant increase in pay, but a much more compelling motive was the exclusivity, honour and glamour of belonging to the Pathfinders. This privilege was symbolised by the Pathfinder badge. Though valueless in itself, the small hovering gold eagle was an emblem of very special status, and what it represented so secret that it was never worn on operations.