Publicity and the Pathfinders


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Esprit de corps

The esprit de corps which developed early in the Path Finder Force was a product of excellent leadership and the ceaseless search for perfection. Constantly improving procedures and cutting-edge technology intensified the pride of belonging to an elite. However, there was one lesser factor which also helped to create the unique Pathfinder identity, and this was the deep secrecy which enveloped the Force during its first sixteen months.

Harris noted in his 1947 book, Bomber Offensive, that while it would have been desirable for recruitment for the Pathfinders to be given publicity by the Press and BBC, this could not be allowed because of the security aspect. Pathfinders were experts in the latest equipment and tactics, and it was feared that ‘the enemy would go to particular pains to interrogate the Pathfinder crews who fell into their hands’.[1] Pathfinder aircrew were therefore forbidden to wear their eagle badge on operations in case they were shot down and the Germans realised that they were dealing with a member of an elite force.

Publicity Blitz, November 1943

It was not until November 1943 that the existence of the Force was made known. Probably the major reason for embarking on a programme of publicity at that point was that the Battle of Berlin was about to start, its first operation being flown on 17 November. It would have been expected by Harris and others in high command that the losses would be very heavy and that this would necessitate the recruitment of fresh crews. It had also possibly been realised by now that the Germans were in possession of an immense amount of intelligence about the Pathfinders, including precise details of their techniques including the actual code names.[2]

Images from a wartime scrapbook, held in the Archive.

On 7 November, Bennett’s role as leader of the Path Finder Force was revealed. Photographs of him and other outstanding Pathfinders appeared in the newspapers, wearing on their uniforms the Pathfinder eagle, a symbol which fascinated the newspapers whose generous page layouts often specifically pointed out the badge. The journalists writing the articles or making the radio broadcasts were evidently star-struck by this elite Force and its dynamic leader. Bennett is referred to in various places as ‘young, slim and handsome’, ‘one of the most remarkable figures in the Royal Air Force’, ‘one of the world’s most brilliant navigators’, and ‘a bundle of energy, versatile, vehement — a terrific individualist with a remarkably strong will’. A column on Bennett in the Daily Telegraph told the public:

Few RAF personalities make a greater impression on first acquaintance than Air Commodore Donald Bennett, the chief of the Path Finder Force. […] The Air Commodore is spare, good-looking, and has that quiet manner that goes with great self-control.[3]

[1] Sir Arthur Harris, Bomber Offensive (Collins, London, 1947), p.129.

[2] RPA/German sources, copy of German intelligence report on the Pathfinders from Russian archives, courtesy of Sven Holste.

[3] RPA/wartime scrapbook with Pathfinder information, several items having no date and/or name of newspaper.