Over the course of one night in 1942, the crew members of Wellington bomber ‘P for Pathfinder’ each reflect on the paths of their own lives, as they embark on a fateful mission deep into the heart of Nazi Germany.
Cecil Lewis’ novel examines the life of every man in turn, rendering a moving account of each as not merely a nameless crew member, but as an individual with a life lived, ‘a life precious to some, or one… these men with dreams and hopes and plans of things to come’.
I have read many books that are set during the Second World War and yet, I have read nothing like this offering from Imperial War Museum. First published in 1944 as the war entered the final stages of the conflict, it is quite extraordinary, in that it does not focus on the War itself, but on the lives of a remarkable group of men. The Pathfinders were target markers, who flew ahead of the main force, setting off flares above targets, guiding in the main bomber force. It was dangerous and skilled work and though to modern sensibilities, including my own ,about the targeted approach aimed at not just the military, but civilians, it remains both a moving and fascinating read.
Cecil Lewis combines moments of intense and yet intimate scenes of the men as they set off on a mission. The interaction between them, a bond formed from as the result of shared experiences and the heightened dangers they faced together, with individual stories about the lives they lived before this mission. He captures with remarkable clarity how these men, all from widely different walks of life, formed chains of connections forged from the moments spent not just in the hellfire of a bombing raid, but also in the quiet moments between.
He skirts around the bigger events, briefly making us witnesses to the raid and then quietly explores the individual lives of each man. Reminding us that they were not faceless cogs in the machinations of war, but someone’s son, brother, husband or friend. It’s what makes this novel feel so intimate, when you compare it to others set in this period. It has a remarkable ‘heart’ at it’s centre, a restrained, but passionate reminder that these men deserve to be remembered, their stories told. He does so with a clarity of understanding, that left me both deeply touched and affected by their experiences.
It is a work of fiction and yet it also feels like he is intertwining the biographies of real men, into his story of stoic bravery and selfless sacrifice. Much of what he weaves into Pathfinders is as relevant today as it was in 1944 and he has an innate understanding of the forces that drive man to endless conflicts! Each chapter gives a a voice to a crew member and we roam from the frozen lands of Canada, the the seas around New Zealand, and London, learning not just about their lives, but why they join up, why they are driven to place their lives in danger!
It is a novel that is both moving and fascinating. Written by a skilled and talented writer and it maybe the first book I have read in this series, but it won’t be the last.
About the author
Cecil Lewis (1898 – 1997) was a British fighter ace in the First World War and his
memoir Sagittarius Rising became a classic of the literature from that war, considered by many to be the
definitive account of aerial combat. He was a flying instructor for the RAF during the Second World War where he taught hundreds of pilots to fly, including his own son. After the war he was one of the founding
executives of the BBC and enjoyed friendships with many of the creative figures of the day, including George
Bernard Shaw, winning an Academy Award for co-writing the 1938 film adaptation of Shaw’s Pygmalion. He
had a long and varied career but retained a passion for flying all his life. In 1969 he sailed a boat to Corfu
where he spent the remainder of his life, dying two months short of his 99th birthday. He was the last
surviving British fighter ace of the First World War.
Imperial War Museum.
IWM (Imperial War Museums) tells the story of people who have lived, fought and died in conflicts
involving Britain and the Commonwealth since the First World War.
Our unique collections, made up of the everyday and the exceptional, reveal stories of people, places, ideas
and events. Using these, we tell vivid personal stories and create powerful physical experiences across our
five museums that reflect the realities of war as both a destructive and creative force. We challenge people to
look at conflict from different perspectives, enriching their understanding of the causes, course and
consequences of war and its impact on people’s lives.
IWM’s five branches which attract over 2.5 million visitors each year are IWM London, which will open
extensive new Second World War and The Holocaust Galleries in autumn 2021; IWM North, housed in an
iconic award-winning building designed by Daniel Libeskind; IWM Duxford, a world renowned aviation
museum and Britain’s best preserved wartime airfield; Churchill War Rooms, housed in Churchill’s secret
headquarters below Whitehall; and the Second World War cruiser HMS Belfast