On the 18th August 1941, a report landed on the desk of Churchill’s scientific advisor, Professor Frederick Lindemann, ‘The Prof’. The report had been compiled by 24-year old David Bensusan-Butt who was Lindemann’s private secretary. The Butt Report bluntly stated that Bomber Command was failing in its mission, with only 1 in 5 of the RAF’s bombers dropping their deadly payload within 5 miles of their intended target.
Something needed to be done and the template for what was needed had been played out a year before when the Luftwaffe had bombed Coventry. In the Air Ministry, the deputy director of Bomber Operations, 33-year old Group Captain Sydney Bufton, had studied the tactics of the Luftwaffe over Coventry and was lobbying for a ‘Target Finding Force’. With Arthur Harris now in command of Bomber Command, the battles would be raged in Whitehall and High Wycombe as well in the night sky over Occupied Europe.
This is the scene that author Will Iredale sets for the birth of The Pathfinders. Iredale’s subject, Bomber Command’s Path Finder Force (PFF), the highly trained and first over the target force that revolutionised Bomber Command’s effectiveness, did not have an easy birth nor life through 1942-5. The conflicts at the top are equal to those fought out in the dark night skies. Harris’ single-mindedness would see his bombers play a vital role in winning the Second World War. That same determination would also see it resistant to change. Harris appointed the pioneering Australian pilot Don Bennett to build up the Path Finder Force, but he would find that the ‘free hand’ Harris had given him would be increasingly constrained as Harris had other ideas.
These conflicts at the top are played out against the increasing effectiveness of the young men flying pathfinder missions. With the boffins in a race to build better target markers, blind flying and radar navigation tools, and the German boffins working just as hard to counter them, Iredale’s narrative keeps the focus on the people involved, on both sides in the air and on the receiving end of their efforts. This decision is, to my mind, a masterstroke. Iredale details the machines, weapons and technology to just the right level to keep you aware of the tools the PFF and Luftwaffe were waging their war with, before deftly focusing on the people. This, while probably not what the avgeek techies want to hear, enhances the specific story Iredale is telling and creates a gripping narrative.
The men in the PFF, like West Indian Ulrich Cross who would playfully claim to be African Royalty, and the irrepressible Colin Bell, leap from the page as Iredale harnesses their memories to transport us to the freezing cockpits and fuselages of the RAF bombers trying to hide in the dark while lighting up their target for that night. On the ground, the effect of the precision that the PFF enabled was devastating. Iredale’s narrative also takes in the view of the German on the ground, with the firestorms of Hamburg and Kassel brought to terrifying life.
With the horrifying loss of life in Bomber Command and in Germany, any narrative of the bombing campaign needs to tread a fine line. Iredale walks this line as well as anyone I’ve read. Giving the target audience of this book is more popular than academic, each of the thrilling tales of daring-do is countered with the reality of war. The diaries of Iredale’s crews stop suddenly, families mourn and in Germany, people are incinerated, suffocated or vaporised in moments. There are passages that are not easy to read but elevate the narrative as Iredale is never gratuitous and strives to offer a balanced view.
The Pathfinders is a superb account of the creation and war of the Path Finder Force. Will Iredale balances his narrative well, never losing sight of the reality of the Bombing Campaign and the terrible odds the men of the Path Finder Force faced to win their gold wings and the destruction that followed in their wake. Iredale has crafted a superior narrative history that pays the respect that is due and also to the price that was paid.
The Pathfinders by Will Iredale is out now from WH Allen (who kindly provided this review copy) RRP £20.00. If you would like a copy of The Pathfinders might I suggest using the Bookshop.org link below? By using that link, 10% of each sale will go to supporting The Damcasters.