Conversation with Hamish Mahaddie


Conversation with Hamish Mahaddie
Interview with Hamish Mahaddie


Conversation recorded for the Nanton Lancaster Society.
Hamish Mahaddie, the recruiter for the Pathfinder Force recalls the life of Ian Willoughby Bazalgette VC who plagued him weekly for the opportunity to join the Pathfinders. He had been posted after his first tour with 115 Squadron to Operational Training Unit at Lossiemouth but Mahaddie assured him he would secure his transfer and he was true to his word. Bazagette was posted to 635 Squadron at RAF Downham Market where he began operational flying again. After speaking about Bazalgette Hamish Mahaddie begins to talk about the Pathfinders in general.


Temporal Coverage




01:04:17 audio recording


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MM: I am Milt Magee, with the Nanton Lancaster Society and I would like to welcome our very special guest Hamish Mahaddie, Group Captain Hamish Mahaddie, and he’s come all the way over from England to visit us and we’re going to have a little chat with him. Maybe a long chat.
HM: In darkest Alberta.
MM: In darkest Alberta. I’d like to talk first of all Hamish about Ian Bazalgette. Squadron Leader Bazalgette. He was twenty five years old we know and born in Calgary, raised later on in the UK. He went to school in Toronto. We know that he joined the Army in 1940 and transferred to the RAF in 1941 and the information we have on him is a bit scant. Ok. Ian Bazalgette was born in Calgary on the 19th of October 1918. He moved to Toronto with his family and went to school there until 1927. They moved from there to the United Kingdom to Rokeby in Wimbledon. He joined the Army in 1940 and transferred to the RAF in 1941. Now we know that he was a vet of one tour of ops with Number 115 Squadron at Mildenhall at East Wretham. With that Squadron he won a DFC for bravery in a low-level attack on Milan in July of ’43. And he completed that tour and as was RAF policy after you’ve expired a tour you were posted to an OTU. Was that correct?
HM: Quite correct. Yes. Yes. It was the normal after thirty sorties and I don’t know how many he did but some people did more than thirty. I did thirty three on my first tour but that was just fortuitous.
MM: We know that he went to Lossiemouth from there and that was 19 OTU in Scotland. Is that correct?
HM: Yes. It was. Yes.
MM: And he met his rear gunner there, Douglas Cameron when he knew he was going to go back on active duty. But for the nine months that he was there he pestered you, I don’t know if that’s the right word but he sent you letters.
HM: He plagued me. Just use the word plagued me weekly with letters and telephone calls.
MM: And telephone calls. In your book, “The memoirs of Group Captain Mahaddie, Hamish. The story of a Pathfinder,” you have in here a letter which I think I’ll take the liberty to read. “24th of August 1943. From Surrey. Sir, I understand from my telephone conversation yesterday with Flight Lieutenant Rogers that Air Commodore Kirkpatrick of Number 3 Group requested that the Pathfinder Force should not claim me as there was a special job for which I was required. Number 115 Squadron have informed me by letter that I am posted to Lossiemouth on a routine exchange for a flight commander from that station with effect from the 1st of September. The actual position as I see it and writing very unofficially is that Number 3 Group cannot obtain the particular replacement for me they require without offering me an exchange. The upshot is that my application for the Pathfinder Force is quietly squashed while I am on leave on the grounds of this special job. The only work I have heard of is either an OTU or a Stirling Conversion Unit. The real point is where I can be of greatest value and I am convinced that a Pathfinder Force tour does more good than a flight commander’s job at an OTU. My personal angle is that anyone missing on ops this autumn and winter has had it. I entreat you to rescue me before the 1st of September if I can be of use to the Pathfinder Force. Again, I must apologise for bothering you with my personal affairs but the incentive is very strong. I am, Sir, Yours Faithfully, Ian W Bazalgette.”
HM: Well, that was just one of many letters. That’s one that I got. I could produce several more. I got probably one a week including telephone calls. So my immediate reaction was you mustn’t kick against the pricks too much. He went to Lossiemouth and I told him, ‘You just stay there quietly and I will get you out.’ And I said, ‘This isn’t an idle promise because he was the sort of fellow we wanted as a flight commander in the Pathfinders. As simple as that. He was an outstanding operator and the sort of fellow that I wanted to be a Squadron commander eventually. And so he quietly did his job like a good little lad. I never knew how long. It might have been three months, it might have been six months but eventually I found a way to winkle him out and brought him to 635 Squadron, which by that time would be, it was an offshoot of 75 Squadron. Like one flight of 35 Squadron was hacked off and made into 635 Squadron and posted to Downham Market.
MM: Downham Market.
HM: A Pathfinder station. So by and large that is the, the phase one of Bazalgette. The next phase can come up when to my great regret he’d been killed in the most amazing circumstances ending up with the VC and a citation which I believe you’ve got. I sent —
MM: Yes. Yes, we have the citation. He was recognised by some of his fellow crew as a first-class pilot and he was recognised to have had a daredevil streak.
HM: Yeah.
MM: And in your book you mention that a number of Pathfinder people were oddball or unique in that they had a certain special something that —
HM: Yes.
MM: You particularly looked for as a —
HM: Yes.
MM: As a recruiter and it sounds like Baz had that particular —
HM: Yes.
MM: Oddball streak.
HM: You could describe that they were characters.
MM: Characters.
HM: They weren’t just normal bomber aircrew. They were characters like some of the people we have been mentioning. Tommy Blair. Johnny [unclear] An outstanding character and men like that and that characterisation, they brought trade in their operations.
MM: They had to be of a unique cut to get in to the Pathfinders to start with.
HM: One might say they were oddballs but I believe in the old fashioned phrase they were characters.
MM: Characters.
HM: Outstanding. And what made them characters was something that I can’t put a finger on or I can’t put an assessment on but you knew when you were dealing with them that they weren’t the run of the mill of ordinary bomber crews.
MM: Press on types and then some maybe.
HM: And they were the best and only the best was just good enough for the Pathfinders.
MM: You were very particular in choosing your men.
HM: Well, I had I had the facility of being able to choose and I could choose them and don’t please as I get accused of from time to time only wanting the best. Only the best was good enough for the Pathfinders. Sometimes I didn’t get the best. They wouldn’t change for Squadron loyalties or some other reason. Some other simple reason. Aircrew have said to me, ‘I don’t like leaving the WAAF.’ They didn’t say the wife because they were all very young and few of them were married.
MM: Yes.
HM: Very few.
MM: So Baz was considered to be one of the best.
HM: He was one of the top rank. Top drawer in the old days. The old Edwardian days he was the very top drawer. Amongst the best.
MM: We know little about his other activities in 635 Squadron and I don’t know with any assuredness how many ops he flew.
HM: Neither do I I’m sorry to say. I only knew, I only know that he, he did over reach the Pathfinder tour which was sixty and I believe he did much more nearer three tours which must be in the order of ninety sorties. But I’m terribly sorry. I can’t, I can’t put a figure to it.
MM: Well, we might be able to find that puzzle —
HM: Someone.
MM: A crew member.
HM: Yeah.
MM: Doug Cameron, his rear gunner wrote us and told us a few items and he said that he had desire to impart his knowledge of operational experience to those in his charge when he was working at Lossiemouth.
HM: That was a hallmark of a good captain.
MM: Yeah.
HM: To know what the other guys were doing and appreciate the difficulties of what they were doing. That was a guinea stamp as Robert Burns, Rabbie Burns would say. A guinea stamp of a good captain. Not just being a good, a good pilot. He had to be a first-class outstanding captain to be the brilliant Pathfinder he was.
MM: Yes, and Cameron also goes on to mention that he earned the respect by carrying the offensive out to the enemy. He won the affection and gratitude of subordinates, I presume the erks and ground crew and associated personnel for the care and promotion of their welfare. He won the approval of his fellow officers and even the more senior ranks.
HM: Because this is a two way thing. It’s no good being just a good, you’ve got, you’ve got to, you’ve got to feel that you’re crew. There’s seven people in a bomber crew. Sometimes eight. We have two navigators and the second navigator is just the set operator. A radar man long before we had a radar officer in bomber crews and he operated the set and he did nothing else and the sanctity of a bomber crew was very similar to the sanctity of marriage. There were a homogeneous set.
MM: A unit.
HM: Absolutely clutched and interdependent on each other. The flight engineer for instance. He could go up in the astrodome and take Astro sets or every now and again take a sight of the astro compass which is bolted on the side near his position. The wireless operator also could get out of his seat and still have his earphones on and take in a sight and then relay it to the navigator. The navigator sat in there in his black tent. Saw nothing of what was going on outside and every time he came out he was so frightened he would dash back again in his black tent.
MM: He was maybe in some ways the most busiest man of the crew wasn’t he?
HM: He was the clerk of the course. He sat there and he took information. I may have told you on another occasion the bomb aimer might be taking a sight forward because there were, it would pick up something on the ground. You know, the edge of a lake, a river and he could take a drift and he would announce the navigator, ‘Navigator, check. We’re drifting nineteen or thirteen degrees to starboard.’ Now, immediately after that the rear gunner would pipe up and say, ‘That’s almost right.’ This is the way they played each other. ‘That’s almost right. I made that thirteen and a half degrees.’ Because he did. He took a sight that is his gunsight you see. And this is information passing in to the navigator all the time. Check and counter check.
MM: Well, Doug Cameron also mentions that at the Operational Training Unit at Lossiemouth that Baz acquired a certain degree of professionalism and professionalism was something that was perhaps pioneered under the intense pressure of ops that showed up an exceptional man.
HM: And the know-how of Don Bennett, the Pathfinder chief. Please, and I’m sorry to remind you, Don Bennett was the very first professional the Air Force ever had and the reason that all our Commonwealth Air Forces today operate with such a high degree of professional stems from Don Bennett. World War Two Pathfinder chief.
MM: Can I stop the tape for a second there?
[recording paused]
I’d seen the light come on. Ok. So, Baz entered the Pathfinders in April of ’44 and maybe you could tell us what it would have been like for a Squadron leader coming out of an OTU. What it would have been like to enter the Pathfinders.
[recording paused]
MM: Ok, Hamish. We talked a little bit about him pestering you with telephone calls and letters and you mention in your book that a lot of good tour expired pilots languished away, rotting away I think is the word you used in OTUs begging you to come back on ops again and Bazalgette was a primary example.
HM: Absolutely.
MM: Now, there would have been a number of adjustments an operational pilot would have had to have made socially I would imagine when he went off ops and I’m sure that they regarded it as being put out to pasture in a way.
HM: Yes. Yes.
MM: Ending up on —
HM: You’re quite right.
HM: Yes.
MM: How would they have felt personally?
HM: Yeah.
MM: How do you think they would have felt if, if you were a Squadron leader and you had just been taken off ops after your tour and put out to an OTU? How would you feel?
HM: Most people accepted it. Now, probably wasn’t in the case of Bazalgette because he was quite prepared to carry on beyond his thirty but he wanted to get to the Pathfinders and I persuaded him just to, as we say in there [unclear]. It’s an Arabic expression meaning hold your horses you know. You know, calm down. A quiet word. I will get you out. Now, he accepted that because it was a promise from me and he knew, he was absolutely certain that he would get to the Pathfinders and I just and this fellow Jimmy Rogers was an ex-band manager and he was an absolute first class fellow at fiddling aircrew postings. He was P4 and that meant aircrew postings and once I made it clear that I wanted Bazalgette he never stopped looking for ways to get Bazalgette and he was the guy that originated the posting when Bazalgette came back and did nearly a tour. That’s why I’m not certain and I will for my own peace of mind find out how many sorties.
MM: So, a number of the Squadron leaders may have been semi-relieved to be off ops for a bit of a break.
HM: More than semi-relieved let me say. I was ready at the end of my first tour to go to an OTU because oddly enough as Bazalgette, in reverse to Bazalgette I believed I was much better at instructing at that time. Of giving my experience to young pilots and aircrew than I was on operations because I never believed I found a target because it was virtually impossible. Also, as I said earlier today we, we don’t hear how good the Germans were at stopping us finding targets and we found the spoof targets, that’s the phoney targets much, oh much much easier than we found proper targets.
MM: Yes, I’ve got some questions later on on that. Did the officers in the RAF adjust to transferring around fairly readily?
HM: I’m sorry?
MM: Did, did the officers adjust to transferring around in the RAF fairly readily?
HM: Well, if they were regular RAF yes certainly. You see as I was twelve years in the Air Force before the war started but we then became a citizen’s Air Force. You know, chaps coming in from banks, some coming in from accountants and all sorts of walks of life and like the Australians and a great deal of Canadians and that was the beginning of an argument. You see, you people don’t take kindly to orders. Give an order and it’s the beginning of an argument.
MM: With the —
HM: Not with me mind you.
MM: Number 6 Group was notorious for that weren’t they?
HM: Yes, indeed they were but it didn’t work with me because I was a dyed in the wool Trenchard airman and dyed in the wool Air Force officer and they didn’t, it didn’t, they didn’t get to first base with me.
MM: Well, you must have been very special.
HM: No. I wasn’t.
MM: To recruit.
HM: I was just a tough old whatever you’d like to call it.
MM: Recruiter.
HM: I wasn’t, I wasn’t letting some nineteen year old or twenty year old telling me, you know what the form was.
MM: Well, yeah.
HM: I mean, yes.
MM: Baz was twenty five years old when this occurred so he would have been regarded as —
HM: A very ancient gentleman.
MM: An ancient gentleman.
HM: Yeah.
MM: Because a lot of the crew were nineteen, twenty years old.
HM: Mostly. Most.
MM: And —
HM: But I had the slight advantage if I may so. I had completed not only my first tour but I’d completed a Pathfinder tour.
MM: As well.
HM: And they looked at this old codger and they said, of twenty nine, thirty by this time maybe coming on for thirty one and said, ‘Well, if that old. If that old wreck could go through the lot and survive well we’ve got a pretty good chance. We’ll have a go at this.’ And I played on that.
MM: I think you did.
HM: Yeah. With great effect.
MM: We lost Baz on the night of August the 4th 1943. A year out. It was ’44. It was 1944 we lost, we lost Bazalgette on the night of the 4th of August 1944. He was not flying his usual aircraft and pilots like to be intimate with their aeroplane.
HM: True.
MM: They like to know every nuance.
HM: And disliked violently a phoney aircraft or not an aircraft not of their own.
MM: And he was using another aircraft on their flight and the memoirs of Douglas Cameron here cite that the aircraft T for Tommy had a history of incidents most of which could be termed a nuisance rather than dangerous but in retrospect the superstitious could enjoy the statistics while I’m sure —
HM: Aircrew were as superstitious as fishermen and they’re pretty superstitious.
MM: Superstitious. Yeah. So, on Friday, August the 4th sixty one Lancasters from Number 8 Group went out to bomb. To bomb a V-1 storage depot at Trossy St Maximin in France. Fourteen left from 635 Squadron. Eight were damaged, two were shot down and the story of the flight is roughly as follows. The flak was heavy around the target and it damaged the master bomber and the deputy bomber followed in to mark the target, I believe and Baz went to drop his markers and his aircraft was hit in several places. The bomb aimer Hibbert had his arm and part of his shoulder torn away. Both starboard engines were immobilised. The starboard wing inside the fuselage were badly damaged and set on fire and several inches of petrol slopped on to the floor inside the fuselage and smoke and fumes overcame the mid-upper gunner Leeder. Hibbert was given morphine and carried to his rest bed. Bazalgette struggled to control the aircraft as he continued his runup to drop his markers as he hadn’t done yet while the rest of the crew fought the flames and by the time they dropped their bombs the starboard wing was a burning skeleton. So despite Baz’s skill they continued to lose height. At a thousand feet with no hope of regaining any height without much damage done and Hibbert looking like he was mortally wounded and Leeder semi-suffocated Baz gave the order to bail out. The flight engineer Turner, the wireless operator Godfrey and the rear gunner Goddard baled out and Doug Cameron, Doug Cameron was the rear gunner. Well, Baz decided to try and put the plane down to help his mates. He almost, and he almost made it. He spiralled down in a wide circle and tried to avoid crashing into the village of Senantes, France. He managed to level the aircraft out and approach and the accounts vary but they say that he did manage to touch down and before the aircraft could come to a full stop he hit a ditch, the undercarriage snapped and the aircraft rolled over and exploded and killed them all.
HM: Did it actually say the undercarriage snapped in this?
MM: Not in there.
HM: I doubt if he was making a belly, if you’re making a belly landing with no, the undercarriage wouldn’t be down because he wasn’t landing on an airfield. He was landing in open country, wasn’t he?
MM: Yeah.
HM: I, I would question the undercarriage bit but it doesn’t matter. Douglas is telling that is he?
MM: Well, this is an account from several stories in here.
HM: Ah.
MM: Most of them originally from Douglas Cameron and it sounded as if they touched down with the undercarriage down on a field. Now, most pilots would have —
HM: The landing carriage down.
MM: It sounded like most pilots would have bellied in.
HM: Yeah. A better chance of survival I would think. However, go on. I’m sorry. I’m diverting.
MM: They got the aircraft down and it did hit a ditch and exploded and killed him. We know that. And that was the tragedy of Squadron Leader Ian Willoughby Bazalgette. He received a Victoria Cross posthumously awarded. Gazetted on the 17th of August 1945. His mother collected the Cross and declarations of investiture in December 1945 and his sister Ethel Broderick attended the formal dedication of his remains that were interred near Senantes. And that is about all we know about Bazalgette. Hamish, is there anything you can —
HM: Not really. I’m on the, from the from that period I’m only relying on the testimony of people like Douglas Cameron and I accept wholly what Douglas said although you know I think it’s most doubtful that Ian would put the wheels down.
MM: Well, I may be incorrect on that point.
HM: No. No. And I’m not going to debate that because it’s not the sort of thing that a man of his calibre would do but it’s not something that I would have done in these circumstances because with the wheels down you can roll and roll and roll. Once you go down, you know belly land you come to a grinding halt very quickly.
MM: Maybe that’s what he wanted. To get his mates out.
HM: Right. Shall we press on?
MM: Ok. That summarily is the account of Ian Bazalgette and how he won the Victoria Cross. I’d like to talk a little bit about 635 Squadron. We know it was formed from the B-Flight of 35 Squadron.
HM: Yes.
MM: As you mentioned earlier and C-Flight of 97 Squadron and 635 Squadron operated from March 1944 to April 1945 and was disbanded in September of 1945. After the war they dropped food for the Dutch, repatriated British prisoners of war and ferried British troops back from Italy which I imagine was very common work for post-war Squadrons. Is that correct?
HM: Yes. That is a period I know very little about. You know, by that time I was away from and the Pathfinders themselves had been disbanded by that time.
MM: Well, let’s move into an area that you’re fairly familiar with. Let’s back paddle into the history of Pathfinder Force of 8 Group. We know that it was officially begun on the 15th of August 1942 with the headquarters at Wyton.
HM: That’s quite right.
MM: And Sid Bufton, a Group captain early in 1942 was the deputy director of bombing operations. Is that correct?
HM: And probably one of the main factors in the setting up of the Pathfinder Force.
MM: Right.
HM: As the deputy director of bomber ops but he hasn’t published a book yet and we’ll have to wait. But we’ll, I don’t think we’ll have to wait much longer.
MM: He’s working on one. Great. I have the, I have the story that Sid Bufton, Willie Tait and Jimmy Marks and Charles Whitworth wanted a separate target finding force for precision bombing and Arthur Harris, the commander in chief of Bomber Command initially opposed this. He did not want an elite —
HM: He didn’t.
MM: Corps of airmen. Now —
HM: Can I put in a quote there.
MM: Yeah.
HM: I quote from his own dispatches, “I do not require a corps elite. This is yet another example —” and he’s talking about Sid Bufton, “This is yet another example of a commander in the field being overruled by junior staff officers at the Air Ministry.” Quote from his dispatches.
MM: My my. He had a way of being curt didn’t he Well, perhaps you can tell us why there was a need for a separate target finding force.
HM: I can quite easily. It was obvious in the first two, two and a half years of the war that there was, there was a desperate need for scientific devices. Radar to make, to help us navigate into Germany in the face of all the flak and fighters and all the other things that the Germans did so well. And the professionals at Cherwell had a man called Butt and he was an analyst in the Air Ministry examining, he examined and studied about six hundred aiming point pictures and he came to the conclusion that it was doubtful whether three percent of the [unclear] got within five miles of the aiming point or five percent got within three miles. It was you had a choice. I believe that Butt was very very generous to the aircrew at the time. But it certainly was no more than that flimsy amount. Three or five percent getting within three or five miles of there. Now, that was the case when Harris came to command Bomber Command in February 1943.
MM: Right. His predecessor.
HM: I’m sorry.
MM: Bomber Harris’ predecessor was Sir Richard Peirse.
HM: Yes.
MM: From 1940 to 1942.
HM: Quite right.
MM: And Richard Peirse was not particularly in favour of bombing Germany, was he?
HM: No. I can’t answer that because what he wasn’t particularly, he wasn’t a bit enamoured with and he would not believe the Butt Report. He pooh poohed the idea that only three or five percent was of his [unclear] was getting to the target. Overruled it completely. So he was, he was cheek by jowl with the, with the commander in chief because at that time Harris was the deputy commander of the Royal Air Force and he knew perfectly well where our bombs were going. As soon as the Butt Report came out I mean it would go straight to him before it reached the CAS and so he was hand in glove with the commander in chief when he was posted to Bomber Command. They didn’t believe that a corps elite was necessary.
MM: Well, the bombing tactics of the day and no doubt the weather and perhaps the navigation techniques were the best that they could have been in the initial years of the war and still there was —
HM: There was no means of them getting better. There was no means until we got, until we got radar devices and the bombers got some. Gee was a help to start with if you, if I could have shown you my video but there are no means. I’ve brought it with me. There was no means of getting Gee was a help halfway across the North Sea but the moment you struck land the Germans jammed it. So it was useless. Just in the same way H2S was useless over Germany if you put it on for any time. But then we learned just to put it on, get a fix, switch it off because the fighters homed on your transmission.
MM: Well, 8th Group needed, well the 8th Group was not called the 8th Group early on. The separate target finding force I think was approximately the rough title of a group that was needed.
HM: The original.
MM: And Harris finally accepted the inevitable via statistics that —
HM: He was forced to accept. Use that. He was forced by the CAS, the Chief of Air Staff. Portal.
MM: And Harris then in August of ’42 directed to proceed with the formation of the Pathfinder Force and he began with selecting a very special person. The man we know as Donald Bennett and he was an expert navigation man. He started, he was reinstated in the RAF. He had been in the RAF before the war. He was reinstated in the RAF and he began with ten thousand hours of flying time to his credit amongst a number of other special feats you mentioned in your book. We shall talk about Don Bennett later.
HM: Every, every engineering qualification which most of our engineers did not possess.
MM: He had engine tickets.
HM: Yes.
MM: And wireless tickets.
HM: Yes. He was wireless, a post office, a WT operator. He could have been the wireless, the wireless officer on the Queen Mary. These are just aside.
MM: He was, he was well chosen.
HM: Yes.
MM: Well chosen by Harris.
HM: Yes.
MM: Who —
HM: Well, Harris didn’t choose him because don’t forget he was in Harris’ Squadron in 1932 when he was in Flying Boats.
MM: Yeah. In Australia.
HM: The Earl of Mountbatten I believe.
MM: Yes. Don Bennett was an Australian and he had just come off of setting up the trans-Atlantic ferry and he had delivered, delivered I believe a small Squadron of Hudsons—
HM: Well, that was —
MM: Flown.
HM: That was later when he was in the Ferry Command and he was commanding the Ferry because he persuaded Beaverbrook not to create these aircraft and put them on a ship and the ship ended up on the bottom of the Atlantic. He said, ‘Why don’t you fly them over?’ And the Air Ministry were horrified. Fly these in winter. And he said, ‘I’ll show you how to do it.’ And he flew the first gaggle over and every one reached Northern Ireland.
MM: No problems.
HM: No bother.
MM: Sounds like [unclear] So he then choose the first four units. The first four Squadrons of Pathfinders.
HM: No. They were, they were chosen, I believe by Command but he had a say. He was allowed to choose the airfields he wanted, you know around Huntingdon and there was no, there was no let or hindrance in that. But I believe each I think and I’m guessing now, I think each Group commander was asked give me a Squadron or give Bennett a Squadron. So 3 Group produced 7 Squadron.
MM: Right.
HM: And all the crews were, all the crews that were near tour expired and then fresh good crews were put into the Squadron and I was one of the flight commanders. That’s where I came in. 4 Group produced 35 Squadron and selected crews. 83 Squadron were produced by 5 Group and 156 from 1 Group. There wasn’t a 6 Group at this stage. That came later.
MM: Right. So there was a mixed bag of Stirlings, Halifaxes, Lancs and 156 Squadron came in with Wellingtons.
HM: Wellingtons. That’s right.
MM: And they attached 109 Squadron of Mossies to start with.
HM: Yes.
MM: I believe they were testing Oboe.
HM: Yes.
MM: Under Bufton’s direction.
HM: Right.
MM: And that was the start of the famous Pathfinder Squadron.
HM: That was the Pathfinder per se at that stage. At the 15th of August 1942.
MM: And they were initially under the aegis of Number 3 Group. Right?
HM: We were larger unit with [unclear] for administration. You see Bennett wasn’t made an AVM for some months later. That was in to, it was into ’43 before he was made an AVM.
MM: The next Group that joined were the 405 Squadron from Vancouver Squadron.
HM: Yeah.
MM: In June. And 97 Squadron of Lancs came in. Two Squadrons of Mossies were added. 105 and 139.
HM: Yeah.
MM: November ’43, 627 Squadron were Mossies. Right?
HM: Yes.
MM: And 692 Squadron. Were they Mosquitoes as well?
HM: Yeah, but they became the Light 9th Striking Force.
MM: Force. Yes, indeed. Tell us a little bit about the light thing. Striking force.
HM: Well, they were phoney Pathfinders in a sense. They were sent out with all the paraphernalia of a main bombing force with a master bomber and with target indicators that bombed the wrong target each time.
MM: A decoy.
HM: A decoy. Exactly. Spoof. We called them spoof attacks. Spoofing is an Air Force word for pretending and so they would drop markers and the master bomber would say, ‘Back up on the greens,’ or, ‘Cancel the greens. They’re off centre. Put reds a mile ahead.’ And so forth and pretend it was a raid to split the defences. I don’t think it was in the early days it was much good. It was very much better later on.
MM: Yes.
HM: Like everything else.
MM: Now, the Pathfinders acquired two more Squadrons of Mossies I believe. There was a 635 Squadron came into the picture and they started off with Halifaxes. Or did they start off with Lancasters?
HM: I thought they had the Lanc. I’m not, I’m not sure. What does it say? Does it tell you? No, I can’t remember.
MM: I believe they started off with Lancaster Mark 1 and 3s and 582 Squadron were they also Lancasters?
HM: Which Squadron?
MM: 582.
HM: I thought they had Lancs. You see there came a stage when all the, all the Pathfinder Squadrons except 35 this Handley Page who was a great political figure in the background he didn’t want to lose his valuable contracts for Halifaxes and I believe that, that 35 finished the war with the Halifax 3.
MM: Three. Which was a vast improvement on the first and the second marks.
HM: And that’s a guess.
MM: Now, Number 5 Group comes into the picture here briefly in 1943 when Sir Ralph Cochrane or Ralph Cochrane as he was known as, AOC Number 5 Group —
HM: Yes.
MM: Stole three squadrons much to the chagrin of Don Bennett.
HM: Yes.
MM: He took 83 Squadron of Lancs.
HM: Yeah.
MM: Which were the ones in the initial corps. 97 Squadron and 67, Mossies.
HM: Yes.
MM: And he had his own target marking ideas.
HM: Yes.
MM: And rumour has it that Harris’ favoured Number 5 Group over Number 8 Group.
HM: Oh yeah. All the time.
MM: And there was —
HM: It was a question of and if you, if you introduce the word Nuremberg shortly I’ll give you a typical example of that. Yes. Anything Cochy wanted he got at once and Bennett was denied.
MM: And there was naturally some rivalry and a little bit of conflict —
HM: Yes.
MM: Between the two.
HM: Yes. But nothing like the ghastly rivalry which was quite frightful. It was worthy of court martial between Keith Park and Leigh-Mallory in the Battle of Britain where 11 Group and 12 Group were like that. Fighting each other as well as fighting the Battle of Britain. No, there was nothing like. I was a great, I was Cochy Cochrane’s blue eyed boy when we were in 3 Group and he was a very fine officer but Bennett wasn’t, wasn’t the same calibre of officer because Bennett and to my great shame I say wasn’t an officer per se. He was an Australian and I say that with all the conviction I have of being very close to both these fellows.
MM: Was Cochrane favourable with you going to Pathfinders and lending your expertise with Number 8 Group then?
HM: You see, the two methods, the Cheshire method of marking which was called the Cheshire low level technique was an excellent, excellent way of marking a target if the target was undefended or very lightly defended but it took a tremendous toll. That’s what killed Guy Gibson. Guy Gibson should never have been permitted to have done that low level technique with, and he had no experience although he was a super leader on the Dams raid. But to do the Cheshire low level marking he had no experience at all and he should never. He went off that night and he only had twenty minutes flying time on a Mosquito and he did two landings in the afternoon. Now, Cochy had talked, Cochy agreed that Guy Gibson could go back on operations. He said, ‘Go and see Mahaddie at Warboys and spend a week with him down there.’ And he and I couldn’t. He wouldn’t even speak to me. He was a very difficult fellow was Guy Gibson. He was a Douglas Bader and Douglas Bader was an absolute bastard. Utterly, you know. The trouble he has with all the things he’s trying to [unclear] half the people would spit in his beer and half the people think he was wonderful.
MM: He must have been a tough son of a bitch to get back into a fighter with tin legs and and get at it again. That takes a special kind of a guy. Has to have been.
HM: He was a special type of person but he was also an arch bastard and they could hardly, and he was responsible for persuading his Group Commander Leigh-Mallory to go in hook, line and sinker for the Big Wing which as you would hear if I could have shown you my video you would hear the other guy Keith Park telling him what a [heifer] the big wing was whilst the Germans were bombing the 11 Group airfields. It takes time to establish covering. More of that later.
MM: Yes. We can probably also look at your video.
HM: Its English lines. You can’t do that can you?
MM: There’s nobody around that’s got a tape deck that [pause] blast.
HM: All my videos are English lines and they’re very much better than any stuff you’ve got I can tell you that.
MM: Sure. Rivalry between Number 5 and Number 8 Group may have gone beyond the individual persons of Ralph Cochrane and Don Bennett as has been mentioned that they had their own target marking ideas.
HM: Yes.
MM: And what —
HM: I don’t think it did. I was running between these two fellows. You see, I was, I was one who didn’t spend an hour a day in my office. My, Jimmy Rogers was the guy that did everything I told him to do you see and I was jumping into Bennett’s Spitfire or Hurricane and I was in oh once or twice a week in 5 Group and Cochy said, ‘If Hamish Mahaddie comes to my headquarters bring him to me at once.’ And him and me, we’d sit there with a coffee and chat about this and he would say go and tell your master I think so and so, so and so. Well, I couldn’t go back and tell him I’d been having a chat with Cochy. I wrapped it up in my own way. But please believe and I’ll say this, I’ve said it three times. I’ll say it no more that the two techniques were incompatible. A low-level technique on a heavily defended target. Out of the question. One or two. The Renault factory at Paris was a superb attack but they then there was no, there was no serious defences. They never dreamed we would bomb Paris for Christ’s sake you see. And Cheshire, one of the best. Best raids probably of the war when you could see the target indicators bursting on the roof of the Renault factory.
MM: Now, I’ve seen the damage.
HM: You’ve probably seen a picture of that. Excellent. But there were very few of those. Very few.
MM: So more Squadrons were added. More Mosquito Squadrons as ‘43 and ‘44 ran through and you ended up with a lot of Mossies.
HM: Yes.
MM: So you must have used and relied heavily on Mosquitoes.
HM: Well, you see the Mossie, there were masses of Mossies being produced by this time.
MM: Yeah.
HM: Every, every furniture factory in England was producing a part. A bit of a Mosquito which went off to Hatfield or somewhere and was put together like a jigsaw puzzle. Nobody made a Mossie per se. Somebody made a fuselage, people made tail planes, people made wings and bits and somebody else made cowlings and so on.
MM: And they just went to an assembly plant.
HM: Well, yes.
MM: And put together I guess.
HM: Yes. As the Germans did with their submarines and that is why we were able to contracept as I told you early which is a lovely word.
MM: Yes.
HM: But that’s Harris’ word.
MM: In the three years that the Pathfinder force exists the tally was fifty thousand four hundred and ninety sorties. Was that for a Group, Hamish? Was that an average figure? A high figure?
HM: I’m sorry. You’re quoting. Tell me again.
MM: Fifty thousand four hundred and ninety sorties for the Pathfinder Force over the years to come.
HM: Over the full period. I can’t. I don’t know. If you picked that from where?
MM: I picked that up from a Pathfinder book.
HM: Well, [unclear] is very careful and you said forty. Forty thousand.
MM: Fifty thousand.
HM: Fifty thousand.
MM: Yeah. Almost fifty thousand five hundred sorties.
HM: Yes, well I [pause] no, I can’t comment on that. I’m surprised it’s so little.
MM: And —
HM: I wish I’d brought Harris’ dispatches with me. A few days after or a week after the war finished a despatch rider arrived at Warboys and my [agent] came and he said, ‘You’ve got to sign this personally.’ And it was a chit and inside there was a big envelope and it was Harris’ despatches and I had to sign for them. And that same despatch rider came back later in the day and had another chit which he asked me to sign that I destroyed Harris’ despatches. And I thought I’m not going to destroy this and I just signed the chit. Nobody was going to check up on me. You see you could do that sort of thing because I knew I was going to be posted any minute so I just signed it and I’ve got those dispatches today while most other station commanders did destroy them.
MM: And burned them.
HM: Because the Air Ministry were not a bit pleased with Harris’ despatches and I think in the main he did not and sadly did not give more kudos to Cochy Cochrane than he gave to Bennett.
MM: Well, you mention in your book, “On no uncertain terms there is a blight on all of us.” And you’re referring to the surviving Pathfinders that Don Bennett was not knighted as a result of his efforts along with the other commanders within the force.
HM: Well, there’s a story about that too. When, when Bennett went to to say goodbye only a few days after the end of the war because by this time he was the, he’d been nominated as the managing director of British South American Airways flying Tudor aircraft to South America from Gatwick, from London Airport and the CAS gave him a very big chit, or said, ‘Bennett, history will prove that you probably did more for the winning of the war by assisting Bomber Command to thrash Germany than anybody else.’ And then he said, ‘What are you going to do about this booklet?’ He’d published a booklet about, being a liberal he wanted a League of Nations was a bad thing when you’re a little, a little country like Gambia or, it wasn’t Gambia then but whatever it was and you’re in Moscow and the same representation. One person in the League of Nations. One person for the Russians or one person for America and one person for Gambia, or Switzerland which could influence nothing. They were never in the war. And he said, he said, ‘Are you going to publish this?’ And like a fool which is very much Bennett he said, ‘I’ve already published it, sir.’ And then Portal picked up his citation for a knighthood, tore it up and put it in the ash bin. That was the reason he was never knighted.
MM: Amazing.
[recording paused]
HM: And Bennett, Bennett told me that himself. Well, it was a confidence as long as he was living but he’s been dead some years now so I don’t mind at all relating that. Not as a confidence to you but just a simple fact of life.
MM: Well, the Pathfinder Force was just broken up. In May 1945 Bennett left to go fly Tudors to South America.
HM: British South America.
MM: And he was succeeded by AVM John Whitley and 8 Group was officially disbanded in December. On December 15th.
HM: Yes.
MM: Oh 1945.
HM: And I left the same time as Bennett.
MM: And that’s a brief history of Pathfinder Force. Take a break for a minute.


Milt Magee, “Conversation with Hamish Mahaddie,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed July 19, 2024,

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