Pathfinder Pilot

This is the posthumously published memoir of a Bomber Command pilot (R.A. Wellington) who started his career with Main Force, moved to a Pathfinder Squadron and, upon being rested, to a staff job at Pathfinder headquarters. It is difficult to know exactly when the memoir was written; although the original copyright date is 1988, stylistically it has much in common with memoirs written years earlier. This may be attributable to problems getting the book published – about a third of it covers the author’s wartime lecture tour in Brazil and time spent as Air Attaché in Lisbon. These are topics I’ve not seen in print before, but they may have made publishers wary of taking the book on.

Wellington’s path into the RAF was slightly unusual – his parents ran a farm in Brazil and he had spent much of his life outside of the UK. Nevertheless, he volunteered for the RAF on the outbreak of war and, after due delays and travel to England joined the RAF in November 1940. After couple of years of flying training, he joined an operational squadron, No. 106, then commanded by Guy Gibson. Although Wellington admired Gibson as a commander, he was less complementary about Gibson the person.

His first operational flight (as a second pilot to gain operational experience) was not run of the mill – it was the ‘Thousand Plan’ raid to Cologne. Neither was the next; again, as a second pilot, Wellington went to Essen on the second of the ‘Thousand Plan’ raids. After that it was a series of training flights required by the squadron before taking his crew on their first operation – the final ‘Thousand Plan’ raid to Bremen.

The next few chapters cover a combination of operations and life on the various bases the author was posted to. By 1942, it had been recognised that that grass airfields were no longer suitable for heavy bombers and the various bomber stations were being progressively converted to concrete runways; the incumbent squadrons being moved to other airfields while this was done. Wellington's was no exception.

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The book also shines a light on the less pleasant aspects of Guy Gibson’s character. Having apparently taken a dislike to Wellington and another aircraft captain, Gibson made them fly four operations in five nights; something no other crews on the squadron were asked to do. It prompted Wellington to ask for a transfer to the Pathfinders shortly afterwards. This meant Wellington essentially flew a double tour of 60 operations before being stood down from further operational flying and posted to Pathfinder headquarters.

There is then a brief account of Wellington’s time working at Pathfinder HQ – after a short time there, he was offered the chance to go on a lecture tour to Brazil – something he grasped with alacrity. It is a pity this section of the book is not of greater length; accounts of the work at 8 Group Headquarters are rare indeed.

The final third of the book covers the lecture tour in South America and his subsequent posting as Air Attaché to Lisbon in neutral Portugal. This again shines a light on a seldom discussed part of the RAF’s wartime activities, but it palls beside the account of the author’s operational flying which is vividly told – and, I suspect, is the reason Wellington struggled to find a publisher in his lifetime.

As a result, the book is a little of a curate’s egg. The sections on this training and operations are rich in detail and interest; the section on his lecture tour and time as Air Attaché less so – although Wellington clearly enjoyed those activities.

Nevertheless, I’d recommend this book. The sections on training and operations do give a blunt and unvarnished account of the author’s time in Bomber Command, filled with much information not found in other memoirs of the time.

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