The 635 Squadron (PFF) Story

My version of the 635 story
by Don Currie – WWII 635 Sqdr. PFF

After much initial rejection of the idea by Sir Arthur Harris, the head of Bomber Command, a Pathfinder Force was formed in August of 1942 with Nos. 7, 35, 83, 109 and 156 Squadrons under the direct control of Sir Arthur Harris, and using their mix of Squadron aircraft, Wellingtons, Halifaxes, Stirlings, Mosquitoes and Lancasters. Their early marking attempts were not particularly successful.

It was decided to set them up as a separate Group, and so No. 8 Pathfinder Group was established in January 1943, under the command of G/C D.C.T. (Don) Bennett, (then Air Commodore), an Australian, and a perfectionist. It was to be formed from elite, volunteer crews that had already proven their ability to find and hit their targets. After being accepted, they would undergo further training to become even more proficient in identifying and marking the proper target prior to arrival of the main force.

It was also decided that Pathfinder Force would be equipped with Lancasters, undoubtedly the best aircraft for the job, and that all crews would attend a Pathfinder OTU where they would be made operational on the Lancaster, and would make up their navigation team, rather than having a single Navigator as before. This set up consisted of a Navigator I, whose duty was to plot their course, calculate winds, determine ground speeds, etc. from the information he received from the Navigator II, called the Observer. He then passed any needed course corrections and air speeds to the pilot to ensure their arrival on time. His partner, the Observer, used GEE, H2S and Loran to determine their actual ground position and passed this information every 6 minutes to the Navigator. He also had the bomb panel which he used when blind bombing was required. Visual bombing was done by the flight engineer. There was no bomb aimer as such, nor any front gunner.

With the production of Lancasters steadily rising, and the crews to fill them rapidly moving in from the BCATP in Canada, the RAF increased the number of Squadrons in operation, and the number of Pathfinder Squadrons to lead them. So, in March of 1944, 635 Squadron was formed using crews from the “B” flight of 35 Squadron and the “C” flight from 97 Squadron. It was stationed at Downham Market in Norfolk, a small town some 9 miles south of King’s Lynn. Battle strength was 20 Lancasters, a mix of Mk I and Mk III’s. With PFF loss rates being what they were, additional crews were made up through volunteers from many other Squadrons. As individual crew members completed their tours, they would be replaced in the crew by volunteers from various trade and holding depots who had been processed through a PFOTU.

Commanding 635 Squadron for most of its life was W/C “Tubby” Baker, DSO, DFC, who completed his 100th op on March 13, 1945 on a daylight raid to Wuppertal, and was then moved on to training command. He was an ideal Commander. When ops were on, everyone was with him to make for a successful operation. With no ops scheduled, training flights were laid on, and each crew’s training flight log was as closely scrutinized as were the ops ones. But when the Squadron was stood down, “Tubby” ensured it was really stood down, with no unnecessary parades or ‘make work’ projects to give an appearance of being busy.

With 608 Squadron of Mosquitoes of Light Night Striking Force on the same field, and many times operating jointly with 635 as markers on the same targets, there was always a friendly feeling of competitiveness between them. When going to the same target, 608, in their much faster Mosquitoes, would take off long after 635 had disappeared, would be over the target finishing their marking as the 635 primary markers were arriving, and be back to Downham, debriefed and in bed or the bar while 635 were still struggling home.

The “flyability” of the Lancaster was amazing. Empty it could climb on one engine below 9000 feet, and maintain level flight above that altitude. It could carry a full bomb load and maintain speed on three engines. One S/L on 635 had one engine cut on take off. Rather than return, as he was entitled to do, he carried on to the target, marked successfully, and returned to shoot up the control tower before landing safely.

635 was used as a test Squadron for some of the later developments. “Village Inn,” the code name for the Automatic Gun Laying Turret (AGLT) was in one of the aircraft at the end of the war, but had limited use, and was probably classed as “Not proven.” 5 Mark VI Lancasters were also assigned to the Squadron. These had been Mark III’s, re-powered with 1635 hp Merlin engines in cylindrical cowlings, which gave them the appearance of Mk II Bristol powered Lancs. Their front and mid-upper turrets had also been removed. Four were used on ops, one was lost, 3 were assigned to other Squadrons, and one was returned to Rolls Royce.

The story of how S/L Bazalgette earned his VC is told in a separate story. A similar story, with a happier outcome was that of F/L H.M. Johnston. In a raid on Nantes, June 11/12, 1944, he was called down to 3500 feet to act as Deputy Master Bomber, to help mark the target. Breaking through the low clouds, he was soon coned by the searchlights, and hit by flak, a burst of which set fire to the hydraulic oil reservoir for the rear turret. This oil fed fire spread the full length of the fuselage. The force of the explosion forced the Lanc into a dive, but though Johnston applied full trim to try to level out, the fire burned through the control cables making this virtually impossible. The intercom was unusable, so the order to bail out had to be passed verbally. The front crew members bailed out, and Johnston had regained enough control of the Lanc to enable him to jump, when the rear gunner and wireless op came forward holding the quick release buckle, all that remained of the gunners parachute. With Johnston just able to maintain level flight at an airspeed of about 90 knots, he decided to carry on while the rear gunner and wireless op went back to put out the fire. Then the rear turret fell off, which made things extremely difficult. Eventually the crippled Lanc made it back and landed at Warmwell on the south coast. The three survivors received immediate awards. To F/L Johnston, the pilot, the DSO; to P/O Padden, the wireless op, the DFC, and to F/Sgt Ledgerwood, the rear gunner, the DFM.

Heraldry not being noted for its speed, it was not until August of 1945, shortly before the Squadron was disbanded, that an official badge was designed for the Squadron. Its description is as follows

Badge: In front of a roundel nebuly a dexter gauntlet holding three flashes of lightning.”
“Nos ducimyus ceteri secunter” (We lead, others follow).
King George VI, August, 1945.

The mailed fist indicates a heavy striking force while the flashes of lightning suggest the provision of light for target identification. The background of nebuly indicates the clouds in the sky.

The Squadron’s first operation was 22/23 of March 1944 when 10 Lancs went to Frankfurt. Rates of attrition were high in PFF, but the Lancaster was a sturdy aircraft and Lancaster ND 709 completed its 100th op while flying with 635.

The last operations were daylight raids on 25 April, 1945 when 4 Lancasters attacked the gun batteries on the island of Wangerooge, and 14 Lancasters attacked Hitler’s nest at Berchtesgaden. 1 Lanc, whose bomb load hung up, dropped it on Prien.

After war’s end, 635 took part in operation “Manna,” ferried many POW’s home to England, and ferried British troops home from Italy. Then began training for “Tiger” force, designed for operation in the Far East against Japan. These were long flights, anticipating much over water flying. But when the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki brought about Japan’s immediate surrender in August, the war was truly over. The Canadians, New Zealanders, Aussies, with some South Africans and Poles also, were sent to their countries holding depots to await transport home. It was reported that out of the 20 to 27 crews which had been operational in 635 during the war, only 2 complete crews could be mustered after all these had left.

635 Squadron RAF (PFF)

Born March 20, 1944
Died September 1, 1945

sic transit gloria mundi (thus passes the glory of the world)

– or maybe, from Shakespeare –

“Out! Out! Brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more.”

by F/O Donald M. Currie, 635 Squadron PFF

From memories, and detailed help from
“Bomber Squadrons of the RAF and their Aircraft” by Philip Moyes;
“Lancaster” by M. Garbett and B. Goulding;
“The Crucible of War, 1939-1945” by Greenhous/Harris/Johnston/Rawling,
and further reading of miscellaneous books and magazines on the RAF/RCAF actions during the war,
including the minutes of the Senate Hearings on “The Valour and the Horror.”