75th Anniversary of the Formation of the Pathfinder Force and Pathfinder Veterans Weekend

Over the weekend of 11 to 13 August, RAF Wyton was again honoured to host many of the surviving veterans of Number 8 Group (Pathfinder) Royal Air Force and their families and friends.

The Pathfinder Force came into existence on 15 August 1942, under the command of Group Captain, later Air
Vice-Marshal, Donald Bennett CB CBE DSO, making this year the 75th anniversary of the formation of the Pathfinder Force.

The Pathfinder Force only saw service between August 1942 and December 1945 but its immense contribution to the successful conclusion to the air war in Europe during the Second World War far outweighs the Force’s relatively small size. The Pathfinders’ mission was, using highly skilled navigational techniques and great gallantry, to locate and mark enemy targets for the following main bomber stream and to remain on target to adjust the target indication for the bombers. This in itself could involve remaining over the target significantly longer than other aircraft, with the inherent high risk from enemy night fighters and flak.

This year we were joined by Wg Cdr Jim Wright DFC, Sqn Ldr Harry Hughes DFC DFM, Flt Lt Colin Bell DFC, Flt Lt Don Briggs, Flt Lt Frances Leadon, Fg Off Kenneth Oatley, WO Roy Briggs, WO H Kirby, WO Rupert Noye DFC and WO Jack Watson DFM. The veterans were joined by their families and friends for all or part of the weekend and the planned commemoration events.

The weekend began with the traditional formal dinner in the RAF Wyton Officers’ Mess on the evening of 11 August for the veterans and mess members from both the Seniors and Officers’ Mess. During the meal the Station Commander, Wg Cdr Phil Owen, formally welcomed the Pathfinders to Royal Air Force Wyton for the last time as he will hand over the post in October. Flt Lt Colin Bell DFC then responded on behalf of the veterans. All who attended thoroughly enjoyed the evening and were fulsome in their praise for both the food provided and the efforts of Trish Fowler and her staff for making the evening the success it was. The veterans, in particular, greatly enjoyed the evening and belying their years made the most of the dinner and afterwards to catch up with each other, their families and Station personnel.

After the exertions of Friday, the programme of events restarted after lunch with the Pathfinder Flying Club providing the opportunity for the veterans to once again take to the skies above RAF Wyton. Flt Lt Leadon, in particular, was extremely keen to avail himself of this opportunity and was the first airborne with Wg Cdr Andy March (OC of the Pathfinder Flying) and how much he enjoyed the experience was clear once he returned from his 30 minute flight. The last minute addition of a flypast by one of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight’s Spitfires made the day all the more special for not only the Veterans and their families but also for the Royal Air Force Reserves from 600 Squadron and the other Station personnel up at the Hangars. The Pathfinder Flying Club also provided introduction flights to all the RAF junior personnel who assisted during the weekend. A thoroughly deserved and completely unexpected vote of thanks for the RAF juniors hard work on the day and indeed throughout the weekend. The weather was ideal for flying, with excellent views at altitude, making the experience all the more memorable for all concerned.

Sunday 13 August dawned warm and bright, ideal conditions for the programme of events planned for the day. The day started with coffee being served in the Officers’ Mess, for the anticipated large numbers attending the day’s events. The annual service of commemoration was again conducted in the Station Chapel by the Padre, Sqn Ldr Wynn. Attending the service were not only the veterans and their families, but also the relatives of Pathfinders killed during the war and those who have sadly passed away in the intervening years.

The Station Commander led the personnel from RAF Wyton, both RAF and Army, who were present.

This being the 75th anniversary of the formation of the Pathfinder Force added certain poignancy as all present remembered and honoured the memory of the over 3,700 Pathfinders  that made the supreme sacrifice between August 1942 and the end of the war. The service conducted by the Padre and the music provided by the RAF Wyton Area Voluntary Band fitted the mood perfectly and enhanced the occasion immensely.

Following the service, after a significant amount of work behind the scenes by John Clifford and the other Heritage Centre volunteers, a memorial stone was unveiled by WO Rupert Noye and WO Jack Watson.  The memorial stone will, in time, be placed in the National Arboretum in Staffordshire and it was decided that Sunday 13 Aug 2017 was the ideal occasion to unveil it. Once the memorial stone is transported and dedicated in the National Arboretum, it will act as a fitting memorial to the bravery, professionalism, dedication and sacrifice of all those who served in the Pathfinder Force for a great many years to come.

The final formal Pathfinder Veterans weekend event was a buffet lunch, once again wonderfully hosted by the Officers’ Mess. The lunch as attended by over one hundred people, including Mrs Cooper; the daughter of Air Vice-Marshal Bennett, who again travelled up for the service and the lunch.

Mrs Cooper attends most years to meet the veterans and to maintain the strong bond between the Station and her family dating back to the war.  After an excellent lunch and some fine speeches from Wg Cdr Phil Owen, Flt Lt Colin Bell and Mrs Cooper, the attendees adjourned for the group photograph and the weekend  concluded with a flypast by the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight Lancaster outside the Officers’ Mess in almost perfect weather.