Harris and the Pathfinders

The Pathfinder Force officially came into being on 15 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 Opposition to Pathfinder Concept

Sir Arthur 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 (known 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.”

Sir Arthur Harris, Bomber Offensive (Collins, London, 1947).

Although 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 also he who personally chose Donald Bennett as the Force’s new commander.

Sir Ralph Cochrane, IWM CH 14564

Transfer of Pathfinder Resources to 5 Group, April 1944

Harris would give the Path Finder Force only qualified support throughout its existence, and this would eventually lead, in 1944, to him ‘loaning’ some of its valuable resources to 5 Group. Ralph Cochrane, 5 Group’s Air Officer Commanding, had long been a highly valued colleague of Harris’s.[1]

Bennett, who had a low opinion of Cochrane, was incandescent. “It left us with very seriously reduced heavy marking strength to carry on and do the same job as we had been doing in the past.” In his memoirs he referred to the transfers as ‘a tremendous slap in the face’ for the Pathfinders, who had transformed Bomber Command from a wasteful and ineffective force into a mighty power to be reckoned with.[2]

Yet, perhaps, he should have expected that something like this would happen. Right at the very beginning of the Pathfinders, Harris had told him face to face that he was opposed to the whole idea of the Path Finder Force ‘and would waste no effort on it’, but would support Bennett himself in every way. Bennett commented:

This assurance was carried out to the letter and in the spirit from then on to the end of the war. He never really gave the Pathfinders a fair chance relative to other special units.[3]

[1] Cochrane and Harris had a long history, and Bennett gives Saundby’s view of it in Pathfinder. (Saundby was Harris’s Deputy at Bomber Command, and had once served with him and Cochrane in the Middle East.) D C T Bennett, Pathfinder: Wartime Memoirs (Frederick Muller, London, 1958), pp.215-216.

[2] Bennett, Pathfinder, ‘slap in the face’, p.214.

[3] Bennett, Pathfinder, pp.162-163.