Cologne

The Golden Eagles – RAAF Pathfinders

On May 30, 1942, the people of the German city of Cologne heard the wail of the air-raid sirens.  Cologne had been raided before, many times, and its people were as accustomed as anyone to the terrors of air raids – but this night was different. Above the din of the flak batteries came an awe-inspiring, terrifying engine roar. For the first time in history a thousand bombers were airborne with a single purpose: the obliteration of Cologne.

Handley Page Halifax, a Pathfinder Force B.II Srs IA from No 35 Sqn at RAF Graveley in 1943

RAF Handley Page Halifax, a Pathfinder Force aircraft of No. 35 Sqn at RAF Graveley in 1943 [image via aviation-news.co.uk]

An extraordinary, unprecedented fireworks display was the first introduction the people of Cologne had to a new era in a form of war the Luftwaffe itself had developed – saturation or ‘blitz’ bombing. Brilliant white flares cascaded down, red floating in the clouds above, yellow penetrating glares from where they settled on the ground. RAF and RAAF Pathfinders were at work in strength for the first time, marking the target for the stream of heavy bombers which followed close behind.

The Pathfinding technique was one of the great Allied triumphs of the war, and many Australians took an important part in its development. During the war the Pathfinder squadrons were designated No. 8 Group RAF and their work was so secret that no member of a Pathfinder crew could be named as such. Below their aircrew badges the men wore the covetedf Golden Eagle, the sign of the Pathfinder, however it was never worn on operations. The intrepid pilot chosen to command the first Pathfinders was an Australian, Air Vice Marshal Donald Bennett, CB, CBE, DSO.

This pre-war airliner pilot, who hailed from Toowoomba, Queensland, was also famous Australian aviation pioneer. In July 1938 he piloted the Mercury part of the Short Mayo Composite flying-boat across the Atlantic and was later co-founder of the Atlantic Ferry Organization, an important wartime delivery service.

In December 1941 Bennett was made wing commander of No. 77 Squadron based at Leeming in the United Kingdom, flying Armstrong Whitleys (the first allied military aircraft to fly over Berlin) as part of the No. 4 Group RAF Bomber Command, in December 1941. Then in April 1942, No. 77 Squadron was transferred to Coastal Command where Bennett was given command of No. 10 Squadron (Handley Page Halifax) and shortly afterwards led a raid on the German battleship Tirpitz. Shot down during that raid, he evaded capture and escaped to Sweden, from where he was able to return to Britain. Bennett and his copilot were awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) in 16 June 1942.

Air Vice Marshal Donald Clifford Tyndall Bennett, CB, CBE, DSO

Air Vice Marshal Donald Clifford Tyndall Bennett, CB, CBE, DSO [© IWM CH13645]

Regarded as a superb navigator  – he authored two books on air navigation – it was Bennett who first suggested that a team of expert navigators should be formed into a force that could go to Germany in any weather, pinpoint a particular target, even through unbroken cloud or fog, and mark it for the bombers with special coloured flares and markers.

A top-secret report issued by German Air Force Intelligence Operations (Luftwaffenführungsstab Ic.) in March 1944 refers to the Cologne raid and the importance of the Pathfinders. “The success of a large-scale night raid by the RAF is in increasing measure dependent on the conscientious flying of the Pathfinder crews,” the report states. It also goes on to mention Bennett by name. “This 35 year old Australian – known as one of the most resourceful officers of the RAF – had distinguished himself as long ago as 1938 by a record long-range flight to South Africa in a four-engined seaplane launched in the air from a Sunderland flying boat.”

The Pathfinder Force (PFF) used fast-flying Mosquitoes and specially equipped Lancasters and Halifaxes; Australians flew in all types. As Commander Bennett never suggested more than he would do himself, he was, therefore, the first Pathfinder to fly. The Pathfinder technique enabled the greatest possible tonnage of bombs to be dropped in the shortest possible time. With the target clearly and exactly marked in advance the swarm of heavy bombers could now fly directly to the aiming point and cascade their loads.

Pathfinders were specially chosen from the most experienced bomber crews. They were chosen chiefly for their skill in navigation, the most important requirement in successful Pathfinding, and for tenacity and determination. They would be first at the target and at exactly the time decided before takeoff. Saturation raids, in which  hundreds of heavy bombers dropped their loads in a few minutes, hinged on accurate timing and no timing must be more accurate than that of Pathfinders.

The nature of night bombing raid would be changed, as well. The Pathfinders would find a target and mark it in conditions which helped the bombers evade not only night fighters but also searchlights and anti-aircraft guns by using cloud cover. On normal nights the markers were dropped on the ground with a few flares in the sky, but when cloud obscured the target entirely the markers were hung in the cloud blanket and the target area marked just as accurately as ground flares. In this way the Pathfinders made possible the first successful attack on the vital Krupp steel works in Essen. Before this it had been impossible to make an accurate and concentrated attack on the Ruhr because of the industrial haze in the valley, but when the Pathfinders went to work no smoke could hide the targets.

Group portrait of the Blind Marker crew of 35 Squadron, RAF, No 8 Pathfinder Group, based near Graveley, England.

Group portrait of the Blind Marker crew of 35 Squadron, RAF, No 8 Pathfinder Group, based near Graveley, England. [AWM P08504.001]

The use of flares as markers was by no means new, but the way the Pathfinders used them was unique. Pyrotechnic experts provided a remarkable variety of markers and, by continually changing the colours and the patterns of the flares which mark the targets, they were able to confuse enemy defences. British scientists also provided markers which could be dropped accurately, had exceptional ballistic qualities and exact fusings.

Soon after D-day, June 6th, 1944, when night bombers were turned into day bombers, Pathfinders were ready with a method for marking targets by day just as successfully as by night. Weather made no difference to the accuracy of the technique and when targets began to burn, obscuring the aiming points with heavy smoke, the Pathfinders sent down more indicators and kept the target accurately marked throughout the attack.

Strong criticism from British Air Force heirarchy and from amongst their own units was at first levelled against the Pathfinder Force operations, but they were able to prevail because of the successes achieved during the years 1943 and 1944. The efforts of the PFF crews increasingly helped to sharpen the edge of Allied air supremacy in the skies above Europe as the tide of the war turned.

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