RAF Pathfinders

The Friends of the Pathfinders

A new group, the Friends of the Pathfinders, has recently been established, not only with the aim of raising funds for both All Saints Church, Offord Cluny and the Pathfinder museum at RAF Wyton, but also to raise awareness of the Pathfinder history.  You can download their information leaflet here: Pathfinder flyer. You can also contact the group by email on info@pathfinderforce.com.

The Pathfinders and All Saints Church

All Saints is honoured to house the official memorial to the 35 Squadron: a stunning stained-glass window designed and installed by Gordon Monaghan.

Pathfinder memorial windowThis Memorial Window was unveiled on Sunday 15th November 1998 by Mrs Ly Bennett, wife of the late Air Vice Marshal Don Bennett.

Don Bennett had joined the RAF in 1930 but resigned in 1935 to return to his native Australia. In 1936 he joined Imperial Airways as a flying boat captain.

In 1941 Bennett returned to the RAF as an acting wing commander in command of an air navigation school; in December that year he was given command of Bomber Command’s 77 Squadron.  On 5 July 1942 Bennett, now an acting group captain, was given command of Bomber Command’s new Pathfinder Force – whose job was to find and mark targets for main force crews.   In January 1943 Bennett was again promoted, to air commodore, and placed in command of Bomber Command’s 8 Pathfinder Force Group.   After the war Bennett also designed and built several light aircraft and cars. He died on 15 September 1986.

 The story of the window

Pathfinder window RAF eagleFirst we have the eagle symbol of the RAF. This design was originally approved at an Air Council meeting on 1 August 1918, four months after the formation of the RAF on 1 April 1918.

Pathfinder window dove of peace
Below the eagle is the badge of 35 Squadron RAF.

Motto: “Uno animo agimus” (We act with one accord).
Badge: A horse’s head winged. The badge commemorates co-operation with the Cavalry during the First World War.
Authority: King Edward VIII, October 1936.

The dove is the symbol of Peace, reminding us that these airmen were fighting to defeat the evil that faced us in the world at that time.

This part of the window shows one of the Handley Page Halifax Mk III aircraft used by 35 Squadron at RAF Graveley from 1943 to 1944.

Pathfinder window aircraft

Though 35 Squadron served throughout the war they were only at Graveley from 1942 to 1946, being one of the founder squadrons of the Pathfinder Group.

Flames of FIDO

Pathfinder window flamesRAF Graveley was the first operational RAF airfield to use  a device known as FIDO (Fog Investigation and Dispersal Operation).  It had two pipelines along both sides of the runway and petrol was pumped along them and then out through burner jets positioned at intervals along the pipelines. The vapours were lit producing walls of flame which lifted the fog allowing aircraft to land safely.

Pathfinder window - the villagesThe churches represent the two villages set amid pleasant fields and woods reminding us that peace did return to the country after six years of conflict.

Though the airfield itself is called Graveley, which is where the main gate was located, most of it is within the parishes of Offord Darcy and Offord Cluny.

The bottom line of the window can be interpreted in two ways.  Perhaps as the river Great Ouse that links the two communities or the sky in various shades of blue to black, remembering that the aircraft flew by day and by night.

AN AIRMAN’S PRAYER
by Sgt. – Observer Hugh Rowell Brodie,
460 Sqn RAAF kia 2 June 1942 aged 30.

Almighty and all-present power,
Short is the prayer I make to thee,
I do not ask in battle hour
For any shield to cover me.
The vast unalterable way
From which the stars do not depart
May not be turned aside to stay
The bullet flying to my heart.
I ask no help to strike my foe,
I seek no petty victory here,
The enemy I hate, I know
To thee, O God, is also dear.
But this I pray: be at my side
When death is drawing through the sky,
Almighty God, who also died
Teach me the way that I should die.

A history of 35 Squadron

Bomber squadron crest

Uno Animo Agimus (We Act with One Accord)

Commanding Officers

W/Cdr R W P Collings 11/40
W/Cdr B V Robinson 08/41
W/Cdr J H Marks 03/42
W/Cdr D F E C Dean 05/43
W/Cdr S P Daniels11/43
G/Cpt D F E C Dean 07/44
W/Cdr H J Legood 02/45

During the Second World War, Bomber Command of the Royal Air Force was the only weapon capable of striking directly at the heart of Nazi Germany.  Despite this, its effectiveness was limited because its power could not be focussed precisely enough onto individual targets.  In 1941, the idea of a special force being established to lead the main bomber streams was conceived.  There were to be six Squadrons, based close to each other and with their aircrews enriched by 40 of the Command’s most experienced aircrew.  Thus, on August 15th, 1942, the Path Finder Force (PFF) was established, to be administered by 3 Group in Headquarters at RAF Wyton.

The founder Squadrons were:
7 Sqn with Stirlings, based at Oakington
35 Sqn with Halifaxes, based at Gravely
83 Sqn with Lancasters, based at Wyton
109 Sqn with Mosquitos, based at Wyton
156 Sqn with Wellingtons, based at Warboys

109 Sqn was to develop and test Oboe, a radar aid to pinpointing targets and guiding aircraft to the spot.  The force also had a radio navigation aid, H2S.  Flares were developed which, when dropped, would mark a target for some time whilst not dazzling bomb aimers.

In 1943, the PFF became a separate Group, No 8, and was recognised as a highly effective force.  An aircrew posting to the PFF was conditional on two things; first, you had to volunteer.  Secondly, you had to accept a tour of duty of 45 sorties – half as long again as a normal bomber tour.

By April, 1943, the PFF was augmented by two Lancaster Sqns, 405 Sqn Royal Canadian Air Force, based at Gransden Lodge and 97 at Bourn.  Later that year, Group Captain Don Bennett, the force commander, moved his HQ to Castle Hill House in Huntingdon and the number of PFF Sqns was increased.

By the end of the European War in May 1945, the PFF had flown a total of 50,490 sorties against 3,440 targets.  The men who flew the missions knew the risks were very great and that they would be in danger much longer than regular crews.  They would mark a target and then circle the area, now wide awake to the attack, to guide in the main force.  In some compensation, the crew members were given advancement of one rank for the time they flew with PFF and, on successful completion of missions, a simple, small, brass eagle in flight, to be worn above the left breast pocket.  Many of the uniforms, some preserved in the PFF Museum in RAF Wyton, have hastily added rank braid, always looking newer than those which had already been worn on the previous 30 “regular” missions.

The number of PFF aircrew killed on operations, en-route, over the target, even trying to find a base able to accept landing on return where fog had closed off so many and fuel was low, totalled 3,727, including 3 PFF pilots, Bazalgette, Palmer and Swales.

Thousands of men from all nations flew with bravery and dedication on operations with RAF Bomber Command during WWII, 8953 aircraft were lost and 55,573 young men made the ultimate sacrifice.

Graveley Airfield

Construction started in 1941 and when complete consisted of two T2 hangars on the technical site between runway heads 15 and 21 and a Bl and T2 in the south-east corner of the airfield between runway heads 27 and 33. The bomb store was located in open country to the south-west. Dispersed camp sites lay to the north of the airfield, consisting of nine domestic, one communal and sick quarters with maximum accommodation for 2,300 males and 299 females. Graveley Airfield map The station came into use in the spring of 1942 as part of the Tempsford clutch of airfields where `special duties’ units were concentrated in No. 3 Group. No. 161 Squadron with Lysanders and Wellingtons arrived from Newmarket in March and was moved on to Tempsford the following month.

At the beginning of August, Graveley was re-allocated to the Pathfinder Force which brought in No. 35 Squadron and its Halifaxes from No. 4 Group at Linton-on-Ouse. On New Year’s Day 1944, No. 692 Squadron formed at Graveley to fly Mosquitoes for No. 8 Group, undertaking its first sorties exactly a month later, the squadron becoming part of what was known as the Light Night Striking Force. In March 1944, No. 35 Squadron exchanged its Halifaxes for Lancasters, which it operated until its final sorties on April 25, 1945. No. 692 Squadron Mosquitoes carried out their last raid on May 2/3, 1945 with an attack on Kiel.

 Graveley Airfield Memorial

In 310 operations from Graveley the squadron lost 17 Mosquitoes and a total of 150 Bomber Command aircraft were missing or crashed in the UK in operations flown from this station: 83 Halifaxes, 32 Lancasters and 35 Mosquitoes.

After the war Graveley was put on care and maintenance in September 1945, and no more RAF units were based there, this wartime airfield was kept as a reserve for the next 12 years. During this time the main runway was maintained in good condition and regularly used by DH Vampire training aircraft from Oakington for `circuits and bumps’.

Graveley was closed at the end of 1968 and was eventually reclaimed by Cotton Farm. The eastern end of the main runway still survived in the late `nineties and a reduced perimeter track is used as a farm road.

6 thoughts on “RAF Pathfinders

  1. My uncle Geoffrey “johnny” North was a rear gunner at Graveley from 17/09/44 to 21/02/45. He was awarded the DFC during September ’44.
    He died on 07/05/14, aged 95, on the anniversary of Germany’s capitulation.

  2. My father was the last Commanding Officer of 35 Squadron in 1945 W/CD-R Hugh Le Good DSO DFC AFC. Does anyone remember flying with him?
    Susan Carter ( née Le Good)

  3. Does anyone know of information about my old MTO Fl Lt McNicolas, or where I can find information. He wore an observers badge, a pathfinder badge and a DFC. Pity I did not ask him at the time, early nineteen seventies.

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