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AVM Donald Bennett: Australia’s Greatest Military Leader?

Air Vice-Marshal Don Bennett arguably is Australia’s greatest wartime leader, yet very few Australians have heard of him. He particularly played a critical role in the formation of Bomber Command’s Pathfinder Force in World War II which led to the German's "greatest lost battle" of the war. With the 80th anniversary of the first Pathfinder mission marked on August 18, 2022, Williams Foundation fellow Dr Alan Stephens OAM wrote a retrospective obituary on Air Vice-Marshal Don Bennett and was published in the Sydney Morning Herald on August 30.

Celebrating Don Bennett on 80th anniversary of WW2 Pathfinders

When Don Bennett died in 1986, the Herald ran a short obituary filed by the Press Association. Descendants of Pathfinders and serving RAAF personnel acknowledged the founding of the Pathfinders group of Bomber Command 80 years ago at a luncheon in Sydney in August. This obituary, coinciding with the anniversary, remembers his contribution to World War II.

Years after World War II, Hitler’s minister of armaments and war production, the organisational mastermind Albert Speer, reflected on the bomber offensive waged against Germany. Speer’s verdict was unequivocal: the Allied air forces’ victory represented “the greatest lost battle on the German side”.

The Combined Bomber Offensive was the most important sustained campaign fought by any Australians during World War II. It brought the Nazi war economy to its knees, and it crushed the spirit of the German people who enabled it. As the most authoritative historian of the war, Richard Overy, concluded, “it is difficult not to regard the campaign as decisive”.

Don Bennett (Imperial War Museum)
Don Bennett (Imperial War Museum)

Air Vice-Marshal Donald (Don) Bennett, the Australian who commanded the Pathfinder Force (PFF) that recently celebrated the 80th anniversary of its first mission, was one of the principal architects of that victory. Widely regarded as the technically most brilliant airman of the war, Bennett was a driven man, utterly determined, and ruthless with those who didn’t meet his demanding standards; but he was also an inspirational leader touched by genius. His singular achievement was to bring expertise and method to a campaign that previously had been deficient in both.

Context is everything. World War II was a war of necessity (as opposed to a war of choice); it was nothing less than a fight for civilisation against a depraved enemy committing genocide. The consequences of defeat were unthinkable.

Set within that context, Don Bennett might be regarded as Australia’s greatest military leader.

Bennett assumed leadership of the PFF on its formation in July 1942, at the age of 31, via an already remarkable career. He was born in Toowoomba on 14 September 1910, the youngest of four sons of stock-and-station agent and grazier, Queensland-born George Thomas Bennett, and English-born Celia Juliana, née Lucas. A strict Methodist, Celia was the greatest influence on Don’s character. “Somewhat of a loafer” at school, Bennett worked as a jackeroo on the family property, where he developed an intense interest in motorised vehicles, at one stage helping a neighbour rebuild a Maurice Farman biplane.

Unable to follow his brothers into medicine or law because of his modest academic record, and inspired by seeing flying displays by the Wright brothers, Bert Hinkler, Amy Johnson and Charles Kingsford-Smith, Don determined to become a pilot in the Royal Australian Air Force. He moved to Brisbane, studied science at night school, and was eventually selected by the RAAF as one of only fifteen successful candidates from thousands of applicants. Training began at Point Cook airfield outside Melbourne in July 1930.

Pathfinder Don Bennett in a planning briefing.
Pathfinder Don Bennett in a planning briefing.

Australia was mired in the Great Depression, and while the RAAF was able to train pilots, it couldn’t afford to retain them; consequently, Bennett and his fellow cadets had to agree to transfer to the (British) Royal Air Force upon graduation. Don topped his course in flying, and in August 1931 began a four-year commission with the RAF in the United Kingdom.

Bennett excelled, flying a wide variety of aircraft, and qualifying for navigator’s and wireless operator’s licences, three different ground engineer licences, a commercial pilot licence, and a flying instructor’s certificate. A teetotaller who was never known to swear, he was regarded by some as an “arrogant aviation obsessive” who “could not suffer fools gladly”. That was a little harsh: Bennett held everyone, including himself, to the highest professional standards, but he could be warm and charming.

In April 1935 he met Elsa Gubler, a young Swiss woman. “Ly” was beautiful, intelligent, spoke seven languages, and shone at sport. It was a classic romance: their eyes met, they were both smitten. Four months later they married at the registry office in Winchester. It was to be a close and rewarding union of equals.

On their honeymoon cruise to Australia, Bennett asked Ly to help him with a book he was writing on aerial navigation. The Complete Air Navigator became the standard text on the subject.

Permanently settled in England, Bennett left the RAF and in January 1936 joined Imperial Airways, where he played a major role in the establishment of international civil aviation. He pioneered long-distance flights to Africa, India and the United States; made the first commercial trans-Atlantic flight; trialled aerial refuelling; and constantly enhanced operational techniques.

When World War II started, Bennett became superintendent of the Atlantic Ferry Organisation, flying American aircraft to the UK. He rejoined the RAF in September 1941 and by December was commanding a bomber squadron. Shot down by ground fire over Norway in April 1942 while leading a strike against the battleship Tirpitz, he evaded capture and escaped back to the UK via neutral Sweden.

With the Allied armies in retreat, Bomber Command (later joined by the United States Army Air Forces) assumed responsibility for opening a second front in western Europe. But the campaign suffered from a severe absence of method. An official investigation in August 1941 made the alarming finding that, of those crews recorded as having completed their mission, only one in three had been within eight kilometres of their target. This was massively ineffective and unsustainable.

The RAF decided to form an elite “Pathfinder” unit to guide the main bomber force and mark its targets.

The decision was vehemently opposed by the head of Bomber Command, Air Marshal Arthur Harris, who argued that it would be counter-productive to take the best crews out of his squadrons. Perhaps more to the point, Harris rejected the strategy of attacking “precision” targets such as factories, oil, transport, and power generation, instead cleaving to his conviction that his Command’s primary goal should be to “de-house” the workers who were enabling the Nazi war machine. Overruled by his superiors, Harris personally selected Bennett to lead the PFF, describing him as “the most efficient airman I have ever met”.

Initially the Pathfinders were hampered by unsuitable aircraft, obsolescent technology, inadequate training, poor organisation, and obstruction from the recalcitrant Harris. Their first mission on 18 August 1942 was a fiasco.

Bennett became the necessary agent of change, applying his unrivalled expertise, intellect and strength of character at every level of the Pathfinder’s activities. Uncompromising standards were set; obsolescent aircraft were replaced by the war’s best bombers, the Lancaster and Mosquito; and vastly improved navigation aids and a sophisticated system of target-marking pyrotechnics were introduced. The best crews were designated as “Master Bombers” and circled overhead targets to marshal the main strike force. Contrary to regulations, Bennett frequently flew on operations.

By December 1943 the PFF had grown to nineteen squadrons and Bennett, aged 33, was the youngest air vice-marshal in the history of the RAF.

The Pathfinder crest with motto "Guide To Strike."
The Pathfinder crest with motto "Guide To Strike."

Eighty percent of the tonnage of bombs dropped on the Nazi homeland fell between January 1944 and May 1945, with 95 percent of missions meeting the RAF’s accuracy parameters. Led by the Pathfinders, the campaign “placed a clear ceiling on German war production in 1944, and undermined it fatally in 1945”.

It was the greatest lost battle on the German side.

The danger was extreme, the cost grievous. Some 3700 PFF aircrew were killed (including 500 from the RAAF), a loss rate of around 44 percent.

Bennett was one of the principal contributors to the Allied victory, but he was treated shabbily by the British establishment in post-war commemorations, being the only senior RAF commander not to be knighted. His relationship with Harris was often fractious; while he personally felt that many of his RAF counterparts were prejudiced against Australians.

He left the RAF and resumed his career in commercial aviation, with varying success; and he became involved in increasingly far-right politics, again with varying success. His autobiography, Pathfinder, was published in 1958. He died in Slough on 15 September 1986, survived by his wife and two children.

Air Vice-Marshal Donald Bennett’s life was defined by his peerless leadership of the Pathfinders. No other Australian held such an important command for so long, and none contributed more to victory in the most consequential war this country has fought. Given that compelling context, it is not unreasonable to suggest that he is Australia’s greatest military leader.

Alan Stephens is a historian and visiting fellow at UNSW Canberra. With thanks to the Sydney Morning Herald for permission to repost this piece.


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