A secret force of 20,000 servicemen, often teenagers or in their early twenties, the Pathfinders was the corps d’elite of Britain’s air bombing campaign that elevated Bomber Command from an impotent force on the cusp of disintegration in 1942 to one capable of razing whole German cities to the ground in a single night, striking with devastating accuracy, inspiring fear and loathing in Hitler's senior command.
At the very heart of the Pathfinders’ formation, evolution and ongoing survival lay a battle of alpha-male personalities, giant egos and entrenched rivalries. This book reveals the fascinating story of how the Pathfinder force was created and how it became a pawn in a bitter power struggle between senior commanders which threatened to tear Bomber Command apart.
With exclusive interviews with remaining survivors, personal diaries, previously classified records and never-before seen photographs, The Pathfinders brings to life the characters of the young airmen and women who took to the skies in legendary British aircraft such as the Lancaster and the Mosquito, facing almost unimaginable levels of violence from enemy fighter planes to strike at the heart of the Nazi war machine.
The secret of this elite squadron’s success was an unlikely combination of characters, including a humble university chemistry lecturer and fireworks boffin, a clairvoyant Scottish scientist who invented the world’s first bombing device that could see in the dark, and an abrasive Australian cowboy considered to be one of the most talented airmen of the war.
This riveting book also tells the tales of the exceptionally brave effort made by thousands of ordinary young men thrust into extraordinary circumstances as Pathfinders, who didn’t know or really care about the political machinations of their bosses. Their fight was for survival and their job was clear: to fly over enemy territory to locate and ‘mark’ targets in the dark so that the main force of Bomber Command’s aircraft following behind could bomb as accurately as possible.
We meet Ulric Cross, from Trinidad, a Mosquito Navigator flying in the Night Light Striking Force, who became the most decorated West Indian of the Second World War. Dubbed ‘The Black Hornet’, he flew dozens of dangerous missions over enemy territory, avoiding being killed and helping prevent up to 200 bombers being shot down in a daring mission over Berlin in 1943. We are also introduced to one of the last Pathfinders still alive today - Geordie Lancaster pilot Ernie Holmes, who reveals the astonishing story of how he was blown out of his Lancaster bomber at 17,000 feet and spent a month on the run before being betrayed to the Gestapo. And Colin Bell, one of the last surviving Second World War Mosquito pilots, and now aged 100, who flew fifty operations over Nazi Germany and who reveals how he cheated death at the hands of a German Luftwaffe jet fighter almost 80 years ago.
Thanks almost exclusively to the Pathfinders, the numbers of Bomber Command crews reaching their targets rose from as low as 25 per cent in August 1942 to 95 per cent in some operations in April 1945. This increasing accuracy played a critical role in the precision bombing ahead of the Allied D-Day invasion in June 1944 and the advance across Europe.
The huge impact made by the Pathfinders force, and its contribution towards the overall war effort, is perhaps best summed up by a newspaper article published July 1944 in which the journalist wrote:
“The Pathfinders are the aces of Bomber Command. Without them Bomber Command could never be the devastating force it is today. Without them the strategic long‐range hammering of German cities could never have taken place during the last two years. Without them the softening‐up of the enemy’s communication lines, the smashing of railway centres in the occupied countries to produce the chaos that prepared the way for our invasion, could never have happened.”