The Pathfinders were elite squadrons in RAF Bomber Command, during World War II. They located and marked targets with flares, which a main bomber force could aim at, increasing the accuracy of their bombing. While the majority of Pathfinder squadrons and personnel were from the Royal Air Force, the group also included many from the air forces of other Commonwealth countries.
At the start of the war Bomber command carried out several daylight raids but the losses incurred from lack of escorting fighters when operating over Europe led them to switch the majority of their later strategic bombing missions to night time. This reduced losses, but made identifying and then hitting a target accurately very difficult. To reduce this problem, Pathfinder squadrons were created.
The creation of the Pathfinder force was a source of one of the bitterest arguments of the Second World War. Initially the brainchild of Group Captain S. O. Bufton (a staff officer for whom Bomber Command's chief Arthur "Bomber" Harris had special contempt), Harris thought an elite would breed rivalry and jealousy, and have an adverse effect on morale. Sir Henry Tizard, advisor and one of the chief scientists supporting the war effort, said, however, "I do not think the formation of a first XV at rugby union makes little boys play any less enthusiastically."
Eventually, Harris was forced to accept the idea. In order to minimise any adverse effects, Harris decided that every Group would have its own pathfinders, but again a bitter argument ensued, and eventually Harris lost and a separate group was formed: 8 Group, commanded by an Australian officer, Don Bennett, who was very highly-regarded within the RAF. However, Bennett was not the first choice — Harris opposed the first choice of the Air Ministry, Basil Embry, the dashing young leader of 2 Group.
The Force was initially formed in August 1942 by creaming the best Squadrons from the existing Bomber Command Groups to make up the 'Pathfinder Force' (PFF), a tactic that understandably did not go down too well with the Group Commanders. Pathfinder Force (PFF) initially had no better tools than the rest of Bomber Command, flying its fair share of Stirlings, Halifaxes, Lancasters and Wellingtons. When new aircraft, such as the De Havilland Mosquito became available, PFF got the first ones, and then made good use of them by equipping them with ever more sophisticated electronic equipment, such as Oboe, a highly accurate radio navigation and bombing aid.
The United States Army Air Forces operated a similar force within the Eighth Air Force for "blind-bombing" through overcast on daylight missions using H2X radar-equipped bombers, for which it also used the terms "Pathfinder" and "PFF".
The PFF crews thereafter found their way in the Force via varied routes; crews or individuals could volunteer at any time while serving with Main Force squadrons, while aircrew who showed promise in their training could also find themselves seconded into the force. Some crews in mid-tour could also be transferred into PFF when numbers were needed to be made up to establishment where required.
Recruits were given a two week course in marking techniques at RAF Warboys before posting to a Squadron. Bennett addressed each intake personally and the crews came to have an intense sense of loyalty, pride and professionalism in their membership of 8 Group.
The PFF crews were also granted a step up in rank, and increase in pay, but had to do a 45 trip tour rather than the usual 30 trips, for as long as they were serving in PFF. In the end, Harris was proved wrong about PFF's effect on morale - the silver PFF badge allowed to be worn on their uniforms was genuinely a sought-after achievement.
"Finders"; these were 8 Group aircraft tasked with dropping sticks of illuminating flares, firstly at critical points along the bombing route to aid navigation and keep the bomber stream compact, and then across the approximate target area. If conditions were cloudy then these were dropped 'blind' using H2S navigational radar.
"Illuminators"; were PFF aircraft flying in front of the main force who would drop markers or Target indicators (TI's) onto the designated 'aiming point' already illuminated by the "Finders". Again, if conditions were cloudy H2S navigational radar was used. These TI's were designed to burn with various and varying colours to prevent the German defenses lighting decoy fires. Various TI's were dubbed 'Pink Pansies', 'Red Spots' , and 'Smoke Puffs'. "Illuminators" could include Mosquitoes equipped with 'Oboe' if the target was within the range of this highly accurate bombing aid.
"Markers"; would then drop incendiaries onto the TI's just prior to the Main Force arrival. Further "Markers" called " Backers-Up" or "Supporters" would be distributed at points within the main bomber stream to remark or reinforce the original TI's as required.
As the war wore on, the highly dangerous role of "Master Bomber" was introduced as a sort of Master of Ceremonies, the appointed Pathfinder (usually a highly experienced senior Officer) circling the target and broadcasting radio instructions to both Pathfinders and Main Force aircraft, correcting aiming points and generally co-ordinating the attack.
The proportion of Pathfinder aircraft to Main Force bombers varied enormously according to the difficulty and location of the assigned target; 1 to 15 was common, though it could be as low as 1 to 3. By the start of 1944 the bulk of Bomber Command was bombing within 3 miles of the PFF indicators; a huge improvement in accuracy. The success or failure of a raid now depended overwhelmingly on the Pathfinder's marker placement and how successfully further marking was corrected.
There certainly was some rivalry, but this was mainly between 8 Group and 5 Group, and was driven by the personal rivalry between Bennett and the leader of 5 Group, Sir Ralph Cochrane. Cochrane was an advocate of precision low level marking, and lobbied heavily to be allowed to prove himself, and that 5 Group could attempt targets and techniques that 8 Group would not.
Cochrane's specialists 617 Squadron proved his point when they attacked the Ruhr dams (Operation Chastise) requiring bombing from a height of 60 feet (20 m), and later, at high altitude using the new Stabilizing Automatic Bomb Sight, achieved an incredible and very necessary accuracy of only 94 yards (86 m) at the V Weapon launch site at Abbeville (16/17 December 1943). 5 Group invented various techniques, such as the '5 Group corkscrew' to evade enemy fighters, and the '5 Group quick landing system'.
The PFF flew a total of 50,490 individual sorties against some 3,440 targets. The cost in human lives was grievous. At least 3,727 members were killed on operations.