Welcome to today’s stop on the blog tour for Pathfinders by Cecil Lewis, another recent addition to the Imperial War Museum’s fabulous Wartime Classics series. My thanks to Anne at Random Things Tours for finding me a place on the tour and to the Imperial War Museum for my advance review copy.
About the Book
Over the course of one night in 1942, the crew members of Wellington bomber ‘P for Pathfinder’ each reflect on the path of their own life, 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’.
Based on its author’s extensive flying experience, this new edition of a 1944 classic includes an introduction from an Imperial War Museum historian which puts the novel in historical context and shines a light on this vital and sometimes contested aspect of Britain’s Second World War.
Format: Paperback (264 pages) Publisher: Imperial War Museum
Publication date: 20th May 2021  Genre: Fiction
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Like me, readers may have been expecting the main focus of the book to be on the crew’s mission, leading the way in a bombing raid over the heart of industrial Germany. The chapter in which the crew carry out their meticulous pre-departure checks on the Wellington bomber certainly gives a sense of the tense atmosphere in the hours preceding a mission. However it’s the reflections of pilot and Wing Commander Hugh Thornly that provide a clue to the direction the book will take. ‘He felt he could understand anything they had done, could pardon or console, help or advise, and yet, there it was they were practically strangers to each other. Only the job kept them together.’
The way the book focuses on the stories of the six men who make up the crew of ‘P for Pathfinder’ reminded me a little of the 1953 film The Cruel Sea, based on Nicholas Montserrat’s novel of the same name, in which the viewer gets small but telling glimpses into the personal lives of some of the crew members. In Pathfinders these are much more than glimpses. Instead, the stories illustrate the varied backgrounds of those who served in the Royal Air Force and explore each man’s motivation for doing so, whether that’s a sense of duty, a desire for revenge or the impulse to escape from the struggles of their current life.
Co-pilot Peter Morelli memories are of a chance encounter and the brief but tender romance that followed. In particular, he recalls an idyllic few days spent in the Italian Lakes, a snatched moment of happiness before the war intervened.
Front-gunner Sam Dollar’s solitary life as a trapper in the wilds of northern Canada ends as a result of a blizzard leading him to flee the wilderness he has grown to love in order to join up. I loved the author’s descriptions of the harshly beautiful landscape. It brought to mind the writing of one of my favourite authors, John Buchan who, during his time as Governor-General of Canada, fell in love with the country and whose final novel, Sick Heart River (published posthumously in 1941) contains scenes similar to those in Sam’s story. Coincidentally, one of Buchan’s final acts as Governor- General was to authorise Canada’s declaration of war against Germany.
Wireless operator Benjy Lukin’s ambition to be part of the film industry leads him into an unhappy marriage with an aspiring film actress whose enticing attitude of ‘rustle and froth and languor, was an invitation to break all the Commandments’. By chance he meets a woman who seems the exact opposite of his wife – cultured, intellectual and serious – but with it comes a conflict between love and duty.
Navigator Tom Cookson’s memories are of an eventful voyage from New Zealand through stormy seas with his friend Dick in a yacht they built together. The level of detail about the process of building the boat suggests the author was as knowledgeable about boats and seamanship as he was about aircraft and flying. One of the most memorable scenes is an encounter described as ‘a glimpse of the eternal struggle for existence among the giants of the ocean’.
In what for me was the most touching section of the book, rear-gunner Nobby Bligh’s thoughts are directed towards his wife Sally. He recalls joyful moments from their courtship, wedding and honeymoon. However, as he observes, ‘The Valley of the Shadow is narrow: men and women walk that path alone’. Like many, personal loss becomes the motivation for him to enlist. When asked why he’s volunteering he responds, ‘To get behind a gun… and the quicker the better’.
Throughout the book, the author makes occasional diversions to ponder on the nature of courage, the ‘Blitz spirit’ of Londoners and the universal desire for freedom. In the section from the point of view of Hugh Thornly, this becomes more like a lecture (albeit a very cogently argued one) reflecting, I suspect, many of the author’s own views on national identity, the consequences of developments in scientific knowledge and globalisation. Although this was the least successful part of the book for me, the author could have been writing about the current pandemic when he has Hugh observe, ‘Everybody behaves well in an emergency: the difficulty is to get them to do so when there is no emergency’. Quite.
The disparate stories of the crew come back together in the penultimate chapter as ‘P for Pathfinder’ nears its objective and each man is fully engaged in carrying out their role to the best of their ability. As it turns out, they will need to go far beyond their allotted roles.
Pathfinders is both a glimpse into one eventful night during the Second World and an exploration of the human spirit.
In three words: Intimate, insightful, evocative
Try something similar: There’s No Story There & Other Wartime Writing by Inez Holden
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.