Pathfinders by Cecil Lewis
This 1944 novel, recently reprinted in the Imperial War Museum Wartime Classics series, is a moving account not only of the first plane flying out in a vital bombing raid, but more significantly the story of those on board. Six men, from various backgrounds and different countries, are charged with flying ahead of a massive force of bomber aircraft. This is a novel of their individual stories, their backgrounds and concerns aside from the mission that night. They are experienced, highly trained and committed to their task of dropping the flares that will guide other planes to drop bombs on Kiel. Several hundred aircraft will drop bombs in a very short period of time, flattening a city, its war production and those who work and supply there. This is a novel which nods to the awfulness of that objective, and makes the point that in Spring of 1942, after three years of War, it was seen as the only way to take the fight to the heart of Hitler’s forces. This is a long time before the Normandy Landings, the physical invasion of the shores of France, when bombing and thus disrupting Hitler’s ambitions at home was seen as the only option. The Introduction points out that there were those who objected to this wholesale bombing programme, and ever since the actions of Bomber Command have been controversial. The debate goes to the heart of fiction written in a time of war without the benefit of hindsight, when victory was not assured even within years. I found it a fascinating story of the men and those around them who had been drawn together by their own skill and circumstance to fly this mission, and I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this book.
This is a novel of the men who had to endure the periods of inactivity, who had to endure physical confinement in a plane, who had to display an almost superhuman level of concentration and skill to achieve their objectives. That is aside from the very real danger that they were in, a relatively small plane flying in the darkness of night into and over enemy territory. At the beginning of the novel the Flight Control Officer reflects on the losses of bombers, men, that could be expected. He remembers that a man had recently written “So we fly up and down the valley of death, till one by one fall into it”. No one has illusions about the possible outcomes of tonight’s mission, but the crew maintain their own peace. The radio operator reads Shakespeare, others think of their own roles, navigating, adjusting dealing with the reality of where they were, what they were doing, amongst thoughts of their families. This book is remarkable for the life stories it details throughout the narrative; the actual details of the flight almost interrupt these background tales. The characters who surround the crew in their own narratives are three dimensional and really live.
The mechanics of this story are fascinating, from the details of pre- flight checks including a form that has to be signed, through to the politics of bombing a densely populated area. What sets this book apart is the concentration on each of the crew’s own back story, the emotions they have gone through, their motivation for being in that aircraft, the burdens they may well carry. This is an author who has not just stuck to the technical details or the events of the night, but has got under the skin of the characters and the way that the war has brought them together, despite their different backgrounds. This is a book that I thoroughly recommend to those who enjoy fictionalized war memoirs, but also to those who find character driven narratives of interest.