Wednesday, February 24, 2010

AVM Donald C.T. Bennett CB CBE DSO 1910-1986

Donald Clifford Tyndall Bennett was raised on a cattle farm in Queensland, his family hoped he would follow a career in medicine but he had different ideas. As a result, he enlisted in the RAAF, undergoing pilot training at Point Cook and like most of his compatriots of the time, found himself attached to the RAF in Britain. After a year flying fighters he applied to undergo training as a flying boat pilot.

Initially he was disappointed with his next appointment which was as an instructor at Calshot where he remained until his service with RAF came to an end. However, during this time he not only managed to pass on his skills and knowledge to others but was able extend his own experience and qualifications. These included the gaining of his 'B' Pilot's Licence, First Class Navigator's Licence, Ground Engineer's A, C and X Licences, Wireless Operator's Licence as well as an Instructor's Licence. It was at this point that he decided his future lay in civilian flying and so armed with his vast array of qualifications he resigned his commission in the RAF. However, instead of immediately looking for a job he married Elsa, daughter of a Zurich jeweler, and they spent the next year traveling around Switzerland and Australia, returning to Britain in January 1936 where he joined Imperial Airways as a First Officer.

From then until mid 1940 he flew landplanes and seaplanes around the world on Imperial's various routes. These included flying the top half of the Mercury-Maia trans-Atlantic mail plane combination as well as taking part in air-to-air refueling experiments in 1939. The early months of WW2 found him undertaking VIP flights around Europe including a clandestine flight into occupied France to collect Polish military and government officials. Finishing his BOAC (Imperial Airways renamed in 1939) service in July 1940, he was asked by the Ministry of Aircraft Production to join the team being set up to ferry aircraft for Britain across the Atlantic from the United States. Appointed it's Flying Superintendent, he led the first flight of seven Hudsons across the Atlantic in November 1940. With the increase in supplies from America, it was eventually decided to replace the 'civilian' ferry organization with and RAF unit and so with the appointment of ACM Sir Frederick Bowhill in August 1941, Bennett returned to London.

He was initially told that he would be appointed a Group Capt in Training Command, but when this was downgraded to Squadron Leader, he declined the offer, He was eventually granted the rank of Wing Commander and sent to assist in the establish a Navigation School at Eastbourne. Once the school was set up he requested an active assignment and was appointed CO of No 77 Squadron. He flew on operations as often as possible but always with a different crew by replacing that crew's pilot, that way he was able to assess the efficiency of all his crews. April 1942 brought a move to the command of No 10, newly equipped with the four-engined Halifax. Later the same month (27th), he took part in a combined raid by No's 10, 35 and 76 squadron against the Tirpitz. Hit by flak his aircraft caught fire and he set course for Sweden. Unable to make Sweden he ordered his crew to bale out whilst he remained at the controls before making his own escape. Landing in deep snow he located his wireless operator and with the help of friendly Norwegians he managed to cross the border into Sweden and eventually return to Britain resuming command of his squadron one month after baling out and to receive an immediate DSO. However, when No 10 Sqn was posted to the Middle East, he did not accompany them as he was summoned to HQ Bomber Command to see the AOC in C, Arthur Harris, his old CO from the flying boat days.

Harris advised him that he had been instructed to form a special marking force in an attempt to improve the accuracy of his heavy bombs, something Bennett himself had suggested to the Director of Bomber Operations about a year before. Harris also informed Bennett that he was to be promoted to Group Captain to command this unit, which would be known as the Pathfinder Force. Setting up his HQ at RAF Wyton, Bennett was allocated one squadron from each group as his initial establishment, resulting in his unit being equipped with four different types - Wellingtons, Stirlings, Halifaxes and Lancasters. With the success of the new unit, following some early teething problems, Bennett's command was upgraded to Group status on 8 January 1943 and given the title - No 8 (PFF) Group with Bennett promoted to Air Commodore as it's AOC. During the remainder of the war No 8 Group continued to lead and mark targets for the Main Force, although he often found himself at odds with his fellow group commander at No 5 Group, AVM Ralph Cochrane, over marking techniques and the need to concentrate marking squadrons in a single specialist group.

At the time of his appointment, he was the youngest Air Vice Marshal in the RAF but on leaving the RAF at the end of WW2, he was the only Group Commander, who having served a full term in the post was not knighted. He resigned his commission in 1945 in order to stand for Parliament, being elected Liberal MP for Middlesbrough West. However, his political career was short lived, losing his seat at the General Election shortly afterwards. He made further attempts to enter Parliament, unsuccessfully, eventually leaving the Liberal Party in 1962 owing to their support of the EEC, which he was against. After the war he also returned to the world of civilian aviation forming British Latin American Airways, later becoming British South American Airways Corporation as their Chief Executive from 1 August 1946 to 31 March 1948. However, he lost his job when he denounced the Minister for Civil Aviation, following the ministry's grounding of his Avro Tudor fleet in 1948. He then went on to form Airflight using Tudors to fly oil into Berlin during Operation 'Plainfare' and in May 1949, Fairflight, which he sold in 1951. He continued to champion the cause of flying boats long after they fell out of favour generally and was a leading advocate in the development of the Saunders-Roe Princess boats, only three of which were built but never entered service.