Celebrating Don Bennett on the 80th Anniversary of WWII Pathfinders

Boy Scout Don Bennett at a planning meeting.

Boy Scout Don Bennett at a planning meeting.

Australia was mired in the Great Depression and while the RAAF could train pilots, it could not afford to keep them. Consequently, Bennett and his fellow cadets had to agree to join the British Royal Air Force upon graduation. Don completed his flying course and began four years service with the RAF in the United Kingdom in August 1931.

Bennett excelled, flying a variety of aircraft and qualifying for navigator and radio operator licenses, three different ground engineer licenses, a commercial pilot license and a flight instructor certificate. A teetotaler who never knew how to swear was seen by some as an “arrogant fly-obsessed” who “didn’t like fools”. That was a bit harsh: Bennett held everyone, including himself, to the highest professional standards, but he could be warm and charming.

In April 1935 he met the Swiss Elsa Gubler. “Ly” was beautiful, intelligent, spoke seven languages ​​and excelled in sports. It was a classic romance: their eyes met and they were both in love. Four months later they were married at Winchester Register Office. It should be a close and rewarding union of equals.

On their honeymoon in Australia, Bennett asked Ly to help him with a book he was writing on air navigation. The complete air navigator became the standard text on the subject.

Bennett settled permanently in England, left the RAF and joined Imperial Airways in January 1936, where he played an important role in the development of international civil aviation. He pioneered long-haul flights to Africa, India and the United States; made the first commercial transatlantic flight; proven aerial refueling; and continually improved surgical techniques.

When World War II began, Bennett became Superintendent of the Atlantic Ferry Organization, flying American aircraft to Britain. He returned to the RAF in September 1941 and commanded a bomber squadron in December. Shot down by ground fire over Norway during a strike against the German battleship Tirpitz in April 1942, he evaded capture and fled back to Britain via neutral Sweden.

While the Allied armies were in retreat, Bomber Command (later supported by the US Army Air Forces) assumed responsibility for opening a second front in western Europe. But the campaign suffered from a severe lack of method. An official inquiry in August 1941 made the alarming finding that of those crews who had completed their mission, only one in three had been within five miles of their destination. This was massively ineffective and unsustainable.

The RAF decided to form an elite “Pathfinder” unit to lead the main bomber force and mark their targets.

The decision was vehemently opposed by Bomber Command Chief Air Marshal Arthur Harris, who argued that removing the best crews from his squadrons would be counterproductive. Perhaps more importantly, Harris rejected the strategy of attacking “precision targets” such as factories, oil, transportation, and power generation, instead clinging to his belief that his command’s primary objective should be to “dehouse” the workers who were there “. Activation of the Nazi war machine. Overruled by his superiors, Harris personally selected Bennett to head the PFF, describing him as “the most efficient flyer I’ve ever met.”

Initially, the Pathfinders were hampered by unsuitable aircraft, outdated technology, inadequate training, poor organization, and hindrance from the unruly Harris. Their first mission on August 18, 1942 was a fiasco.

Bennett became the necessary agent of change, using his unparalleled expertise, intellect, and strength of character at every level of Pathfinder activity. Uncompromising standards were set; obsolete planes were replaced by the war’s finest Lancaster and Mosquito bombers; and vastly improved navigation aids and a sophisticated system of target marker pyrotechnics were introduced. The best crews were dubbed “master bombers” and circled over targets to organize the main strike force. Contrary to regulations, Bennett frequently flew on missions.

The Pathfinder crest with motto: Guide To Strike.

The Pathfinder crest with motto: Guide To Strike.

By December 1943, the PFF had grown to 19 squadrons and at 33, Bennett was the youngest Air Vice-Marshal in RAF history.

Eighty percent of the tonnage of bombs dropped on the Nazi homeland fell between January 1944 and May 1945, with 95 percent of the missions meeting RAF accuracy parameters. Led by the Boy Scouts, the campaign “set a clear upper limit on German war production in 1944 and fatally undermined it in 1945.”

It was the biggest lost battle on the German side.

The danger was extreme, the cost unbearable. Around 3700 PFF crews were killed (including 500 from the RAAF), a casualty rate of around 44 percent.

Bennett was one of the main contributors to the Allied victory, but he was treated shabbily by the British establishment in post-war commemorations as he was the only senior RAF commander not to be knighted. His relationship with Harris was often troubled; while he personally felt that many of his RAF colleagues were prejudiced against Australians.

He left the RAF and resumed his career in commercial aviation with varying degrees of success. and he became increasingly involved in far-right politics, again with varying degrees of success. his autobiography, scoutwas published in 1958. He died in Slough on September 15, 1986, leaving behind his wife and two children.

Air Vice Marshal Donald Bennett’s life was marked by his unparalleled leadership of the Pathfinders. No other Australian has held such an important command for so long, or contributed more to victory in the most momentous war this country has waged. Given this compelling context, it is not unreasonable to claim that he is Australia’s greatest military leader.

Alan Stephens is a historian and vVisiting Researcher at UNSW Canberra.

https://www.smh.com.au/national/celebrating-don-bennett-on-80th-anniversary-of-ww2-pathfinders-20220825-p5bcpi.html?ref=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_source=rss_national Celebrating Don Bennett on the 80th Anniversary of WWII Pathfinders

Joel McCord

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