In the south-western corner of Cambridgeshire, are a group of airfields that are synonymous with the Second World War’s target marking units, the Pathfinders. This is an area rich in aviation history, and an area that played a major part in not only the European Theatre of Operations of World War Two, but military operations long into the Cold war and beyond. Within a short distance of each other are the airfields at Wyton, Warboys, Upwood and Alconbury to name but a few, and it is two of these we visit in Trail 17.
Our first stop is the former RAF Warboys, once home to the Pathfinders.
Warboys village is an ancient village with records of inhabitants going back to 7,000BC, it also has links to the Bronze age, the Romans, Vikings and the Doomsday book. Even further back, some 350 million years, there was an active volcano in the area, not far from where we start today.
The airfield itself was initially constructed as a satellite for RAF Upwood, with a requirement for three 50 yards wide tarmac runways; one of 2,000 yards, another measuring 1,400 yards and the last 1,350 yards. There were initially twenty-four frying pan hardstands, two of which were then used as hangar bases, with a further eighteen loop style hardstands added after. This gave a total of forty dispersal points available for aircraft, and they would certainly be needed.
As with many airfields of this time there were two type ‘T2’ hangars, one each side of the airfield, supplemented with a ‘B1’ hangar. A well developed bomb store lay to the west of the airfield, and eleven domestic sites lay to the eastern side of the A141 to the south of the main airfield. These would accommodate up to 1,959 men and 291 women. Even before its completion, Warboys would undergo further development, an order coming through to extend two of the runways to 2,097 yards and 1,447 yards, its was a sign perhaps, of things to come. This extension work meant altering the perimeter track layout and diverting the main road around the airfield as it would be dissected by the new extension (the original road was reinstated post war, the end of the main runway being cut off as a result).
Construction began in 1940 with the airfield opening in September 1941, initially as a satellite bomber station. Whilst intended for Upwood, it was first of all used by Short Stirling’s from XV Squadron as an overflow from nearby RAF Wyton. As a satellite, Warboys was never far from the war when not long after the first Wyton aircraft landed, the Commanding officer of XV Squadron, Wing Commander P. Ogilvie, crashed the Stirling he was piloting (W7439) here in bad weather. Luckily he and his crew escaped major injury but unfortunately the aircraft was written off completely. This crash would signify a run of accidents occurring at the airfield whilst XV squadron used Warboys.
However, XV Sqn’s stay was short-lived, and they soon departed the site their vacant place being taken by the Blenheims of ‘D’ Flight, 17 OTU (Operational Training Unit).*1
The Training unit was expanding, and their base at RAF Upwood was becoming crowded. Their move over to Warboys on 15th December 1941, was a part of this expansion, and led to four flights being created, each with a range of aircraft including: Lysanders, Ansons, Blenheims and even the odd Hurricane and Spitfire.
In August 1942, the OTU would receive orders moving the unit elsewhere, whilst over at RAF Alconbury, a few miles to the south-west, instructions came through to 156 Squadron to relocate here to RAF Warboys. The instruction specified that the move was to take place on the 5th and be completed by the 7th, it would involve the ferrying of large numbers of crews and their aircraft. On the 5th the first aircraft was brought across, and then on the 6th a further six aircraft were transferred. This was followed by another seven on the 7th.
Following the move the squadron was put straight onto operations, but many of these were cancelled because of the poor autumn weather. One of the first, occurring on August 11th, saw ten aircraft detailed for operations, and whilst all of them managed to take off, three of them X37998 (Flt.Sgt. F. Harker); Z1595 (Sqn. Ldr. J. Beavis) and BJ603 (P/O. C. Taylor) would fail to return. All but three of the sixteen aircrew onboard would perish – the squadron’s first fatalities whilst at Warboys.
On the night of 15th August 1942, eight more Wellingtons took off from Warboys for Dusseldorf, of these, three returned early with a forth being lost. The Operational Record Book simply stating “This aircraft failed to return” – a rather unembellished statement that became so common in operational records. Reports about the raid later highlighted the poor visibility and scattered bombing, with little or no industrial damage being done as a result.
Whilst August 1942 was not proving to be in anyway remarkable for 156 Sqn, it would prove to be a very historic month for Bomber Command. On the same day as the Dusseldorf raid, the Pathfinders – an elite force designed to locate and mark targets for the main bomber stream – officially came into being. This idea had long been on the minds of the Air Ministry, causing a prolonged and difficult relationship between Sir Arthur Harris and Group Captain Sidney Bufton (Director of Bomber Operations at the Air Ministry). The fallout culminated in the intervention of the Chief of Air Staff, Sir Charles Portal, who came down on the side of Group Captain Bufton. He disagreed with Harris’s arguments, announcing that the Pathfinders were going to go ahead as planned.
This did not meet with Harris’s approval, he feared the Pathfinders would ‘skim off’ the cream of his bomber force, creating a corps d’elite, whilst Bufton was adamant it would vastly improve Bomber Commands accuracy, something that desperately needed to be done.
Harris gained the backing of his Group Commanders, explaining that removing individual crews from squadrons would be bad for morale within the groups and be divisive amongst the squadrons. He and his Commanders preferred a target marking unit within each Group, thus retaining these elite crews keeping the unity of the squadrons and the skills they possessed together. However, the long fight between Harris and Bufton came to a climax with the intervention of Sir Charles Portal, and an ultimatum was given to Harris, ‘accept the new Pathfinders or leave’.
The job of organising this new command fell to the then Group Captain Don Bennett D.S.O., an experienced pilot himself who advocated the use of target marking to improve bombing accuracy; something Bennett had indeed tried himself. However, it was not going to be an easy ride for the Group Captain, for the squadrons chosen all operated different aircraft types: Wellingtons, Stirlings, Halifaxes and Lancasters. The Wellingtons were becoming outdated and the Stirlings, whilst liked, had their own set of problems. Added to the mix the fact that German defences were improving and electronic counter measures (ECM) were on the increase, difficult times were definitely ahead.
As a new force, only four squadrons were initially used, although more were considered and earmarked: 7 (No. 3 Group), 35 (No. 4 Group), 83 (No. 5 Group) and 156 (No. 1 Group), but it would take time for the new crews to settle and for improvements in bombing accuracy to shine through. All the while Pathfinder crews were operating, the remainder of the squadrons continued in their normal duties, this would allow the Pathfinder force to steadily grow.
For the large part, target marking in the latter part of 1942 would be by visual means only – a ‘Finder‘ and an ‘Illuminator‘ using flares and incendiaries respectively. This would prove to be an unsatisfactory method, the markers often being ‘lost’ amongst the fires that followed, or they were simply too difficult to see. However, photos taken after these early bombing raids showed that the number of bombs falling within 3 miles of the aiming point, post August, had in fact risen to 37% from 32%; those falling within 3 miles of the centre of concentration rising to 50% from 35%.*2 Whilst these figures were quite small, and bombing was still relatively inaccurate, it was at least a step in the right direction, and a boost to those who supported both Bufton and Bennett.
So, on the 15th August 1942, Bomber Command operations changed for good, the four squadrons moved to their respective airfields and the Pathfinders began preparations for a new battle. 156 Sqn at Warboys, would be a major part of this. Being one of the four pioneering airfields, Warboys would be joined by Graveley, Oakington and Wyton, as initial homes for the new force.
On the night of the 18th -19th August 1942, the Pathfinders would be put to the test for the first time, and two Wellingtons from 156 squadron were to be a part of it. The raid to Flensburg would not be successful though, one aircraft having great difficulty in locating the target through the haze, and the second having to ditch its flares five miles from the airfield after one ignited inside the aircraft. Of those that did get to mark, it proved to be inaccurate, and one Pathfinder aircraft, from 35 Sqn, was lost.
The day after this, Group Captain Bennett visited Warboys to give a lecture on the Pathfinder Force and to promote its use; he must have made a good impression for after the lecture six Warboy’s crews volunteered for Pathfinder duties.
Further operations were carried out on the night of 27th – 28th August to Kassel. A good night for visual marking meant that bombing was accurate, and as a result all of the Henschel factories were damaged. However, the cost to the Pathfinders was very high. It was on this operation that the Pathfinders suffered one of their greatest losses. Thirty-one aircraft were missing of which fourteen were Wellingtons and three were from 156 Sqn. The next day, the mess hall was devoid of three crews, those from: ‘X3367’, ‘Z1613’ and ‘DF667’, and unbeknown to those sitting around the mess, there were no survivors. A fourth bomber (BJ883) returned to Warboys after the pilot, Sgt. E. Bowker, suffered severe head pains and was unable to carry on.
Not all operations were as bad. On the night of 19th – 20th September following action over Saarbrucken, a flare became lodged in the bomb bay of one of the 156 Sqn Wellingtons. Whilst sitting there it ignited causing a fire in the aircraft’s belly. The Pilot, New Zealander Sqn. Ldr. A. Ashworth, instructed his crew to bail out, after which the fire extinguished itself allowing him to fly the aircraft back single-handedly, landing at the fighter station RAF West Malling in Kent. The operation itself, undertaken by 118 aircraft, was otherwise uneventful, although haze proved to be an obstacle for the markers.
The last 156 Sqn Wellington raid for 1942 occurred on December 21st and took the squadron to Munich as part of a force of 137 aircraft. The loss of ‘BK386’ crewed entirely by Canadians brought 1942 to a close, and a loss of 15 aircraft this year. To add insult to injury, whilst the majority of the bombers claimed to have hit the city starting large fires, photographs showed that in fact most bombs had fallen outside of the city in open countryside, possibly as a result of a successful decoy employed by the Germans. It had not been the most auspicious of starts for the Pathfinders, nor 156 Squadron at Warboys.
However, by early January, a new aircraft type was starting to arrive at Warboys – Avro’s mighty four engined heavy, the Lancaster MK.I. Created out of the under-performing Manchester, the Lancaster would go on to be one of the most iconic aircraft of the Second World War. Perhaps now the tide of misery would turn and Warboys crews would begin a new era in aviation history.
The full trail appears in Trail 17