1. The Setting Up of the Pathfinder Force The Pathfinder Force officially came into being on 15th August 1942, after some weeks spent in behind the scenes manoeuvring. It was set up in direct response to the very poor accuracy being achieved on bombing raids, which was threatening the entire bomber offensive.
Harris, Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief of Bomber Command, had been strongly opposed to the setting up of a separate elite target-marking force, believing this would leave to rivalry and jealousy within the non-Pathfinder squadrons (hereafter referred to as Main Force) who would inevitably resent having their best crews taken away from them.
Harris wrote in his book, Bomber Offensive,
"I was over-ruled by the Air Ministry. In other circumstances I should not have accepted the position, but we were now faced with the fact that Gee had failed as a bombing aid and that the new radar aids, Oboe and H2S ... were not now to be forthcoming until the end of the year. For the time being it was essential to improve our methods of finding the target visually and marking it, and this seemed to require the whole time activities of a specialised force."
Though he had argued strongly against the need for such a specialised force, Harris was shrewd enough to know that once he had conceded the point to his superiors, he would be able to set up the new force as he chose. It was he who insisted on its name, and secured authority for the Pathfinder eagle, the small golden badge which was to mark the crews out from Main Force.
It was Harris, above all, who secured the appointment of Don Bennett as the force's new commander. At 32 years of age, Bennett was considerably younger than his fellow Group Commanders. He had spent part of his career outside the RAF in civil aviation, flying experience which was then very much looked down upon by many career officers as being inferior and second-rate. That Bennett was an Australian and so young, yet had won such a plum job, one which was central to the whole bombing offensive, must have added insult to injury.
Harris, however, never had the slightest doubt about Bennett's capabilities. He did not even consider any other candidate, having the highest opinion of Bennett; he was later to call him "the most efficient airman I have ever met".
2. Initial Make-up of the Pathfinder Force After some political manoeuvring, the initial squadrons were donated by the Group Commanders - those who had also opposed the setting up of the PFF, and did not want to lose their best and most experienced crews to this new and untested arrangement.
Some of the most promising new intakes at the OTUs were also to be allocated to the PFF.
The PFF initially consisted of 5 squadrons:
7 Squadron, from 3 Group, flying Stirlings;
35 Squadron, from 4 Group, flying Halifaxes;
83 Squadron, from 5 Group, the only Squadron flying Lancasters;
109 Squadron, from 2 Group, flying Wellingtons, but shortly to be re-equiped with Mosquitoes;
156, from 1 Grroup, flying Wellingtons.
The PFF would eventually be entirely equipped with Lancasters and Mosquitoes, the most suitable aircraft for its task.
3. The Pathfinder Force Becomes a Separate Group The PFF squadrons were located at adjacent airfields within No 3 Group - Oakington, Graveley, Wyton and Warboys, with the headquarters then being at Wyton. Initially the force was under the direct control of Harris, and relied on 3 Group only for administration, pay and rations.
On 8th January 1943, however, the PFF expanded into a completely new Group, No 8 (PFF). This was in recognition of the huge improvements achieved by Bennet. Bennett himself, hitherto only a Group Captain, was promoted to Air Commodore, a move which gave him equality of function, though not of rank, with the other group commanders.
In April 1943 the PFF gained two more heavy bomber squadrons, 405 (RCAF) Squadron and 97 Squadron, to be based respectively at Gransden Lodge and Bourn.
It also acquired the Mosquitoes of 1409 Meteorological Flight, which allowed Bennett to study weather conditions more closely, an absolutely key ingredient in the success of bombing raids and the safety of the crews returning home afterwards.
Continuing its expansion, in June 1943 the Mosquito Squadrons 105 and 109 were added to the PFF, both to be based at Marham. Later in that same month the PFF HQ was moved from Wyton to Castle Hill House in Huntingdon, where it remained for the rest of the war.
4. 97 and 83 Squadrons Move to 5 Group It was the huge cost in men and aircraft of the Berlin campaign, which ran over the winter of 1943-44, that first caused Harris to rethink the policy of large-scale unified attacks against the German cities. There was also the pressing factor of the forthcoming invasion of Europe, which would need maximum support and therefore necessitated cutting down on the enormous wastage of bomber crews.
Harris began to consider the possibility of better results being achieved by smaller and more easily controlled attacks, in particular those being pioneered by 5 Group, led by Ralph Cochrane. Cochrane had been a flight commander of a squadron commanded by Harris in Mesopotamia in the 1920s and was a very strong supporter of the C-in-C, and Harris probably found him easier to deal with than Bennett.
5 Group had an almost magical status because of Guy Gibson and the Dam Busters of 617 Squadron, now led by Leonard Cheshire. Cheshire was convinced of the superiority of low-level target marking and demonstrated this to spectacular effect in an attack at Limoges filmed by the RAF Film Production Unit. Cochrane was so impressed by this particular raid that he went to Harris to propose low-level marking techniques be used on Berlin. However, when Harris spoke to Bennett about this idea on the telephone, Bennett rejected it. He conceded that these tactics might be useful in some circumstances but not when flying over densely built-up areas at night. The conversation ended abruptly, and with no warning Harris suddenly set in motion the transfer of 83 and 97 Squadron to 5 Group, together with the Mosquitoes of 627 Squadron.
It was a massive personal blow to Bennett, and one which shook the morale of the Pathfinders.