Master Bombers: The Experiences of a Pathfinder Squadron at War, 1944-1945
Sean Feast, Grubb Street, London, 2008, $36
Bomber Command aircrews were stout fellows by any standards. Guided by a single pilot, they flew their heavy bombers deep into German territory on every night the weather permitted. And they flew alone, not in the comforting—if still dangerous—formations of the Americans, but as individual aircraft, with the navigating, bombing and self-defense left to them alone. They launched from Great Britain into the night for long, dangerous journeys into Germany. If they survived the skies over Germany, they might very well face impossible weather or enemy night intruders at their home base. They flew in the bone-chilling cold of high altitude in a dark sky that concealed many forms of death. These could range from a collision with a comrade to a sudden burst of flak to the sawing Schräge Musik cannons of German night fighters.
Bomber Command was roundly criticized for its overoptimistic claims early in the war, and it was generally recognized that as a night bombing attack progressed, bombs tended to be released earlier and earlier, moving away from the target center. Although the idea of Pathfinder squadrons was long resisted by Sir Arthur Harris, who led Bomber Command, a definite need emerged. The Pathfinders were elite units that would do the primary marking of the target for subsequent waves of the attack. In time it was clear that a “master bomber” was required, a mission commander who would linger in the attack area, enduring for hours the hazards of flak and enemy fighters. The master bomber would watch the fall of bombs and direct incoming traffic for better bomb placement.
Sean Feast tells the story of one Pathfinder unit through the eyes of members of No. 582 Squadron from April 1944 through the end of the war. The master bombers led Bomber Command if not to victory, at least to a brilliant standoff in the air war.
Influenced by criticism after the raid on Dresden, the British government declined to award a campaign ribbon to Bomber Command. Feast’s book clearly demonstrates why that decision was so utterly shameless, revealing the courageous achievements of an outstanding military unit.
Originally published in the January 2009 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.