||The examples and perspective in this article deal primarily with the United States and do not represent a worldwide view of the subject. (December 2010)|
A pathfinder is a paratrooper, Soldier or covert operative who is inserted or dropped into place in order to set up and operate drop zones, pickup zones, and helicopter landing sites for airborne operations, air resupply operations, or other air operations in support of the ground unit commander. Pathfinders first appeared in World War II and continue to serve an important role in today's modern military, providing Commanders with the option of flexibly employing air assets.
United Kingdom 
During the Second World War small groups of parachute soldiers were formed into pathfinder units, to parachute ahead of the main force. Their tasks were to mark the drop zones (DZ) or landing zones (LZ), set up radio beacons as a guide for the aircraft carrying the main force and to clear and protect the area as the main force arrive. The units were formed into two companies to work with the two airborne divisions.
During the Allied invasion of Sicily the 21st Independent Parachute Company parachuted ahead of the main force during Operation Fustian to capture the Primosle Bridge on the night 13/14 July 1943. They then took part in Operation Slapstick landing by sea at Taranto on 9 September. The company returned to the United Kingdom in December 1943, but left an independent platoon behind in Italy to work with the 2nd Parachute Brigade. They also took part in Operation Market Garden landing at Arnhem on the night 17 September 1944. After marking the DZs and LSs The Company was trapped with the rest of the division in the Oosterbeek Perimeter.
After the war 21st Independent Parachute Company went as part of the 1st Airborne Division to Norway to disarm the German garrison between May and October 1945. It was then attached to the 6th Airborne Division in Mandate Palestine where it was still serving when disbanded in September 1946.
Post war the Regular Army's parachute force was reduced to the 16 Parachute Brigade. To provide this formation with a pathfinder capacity the Guards Independent Parachute Company was formed in 1948 on the disbandment of Composite Guards Parachute Battalion. The Company deployed on a wide variety of operations between 1948 and 1977. It was deployed to Borneo during the Borneo Confrontation where it was used provide reinforcement to the SAS and its professional performance resulted in the formation of G Sqn of that regiment in 1966.
United States 
During World War II, the pathfinders were a group of volunteers selected within the Airborne units who were specially trained to operate navigation aids to guide the main airborne body to the drop zones. The pathfinder teams (sticks) were made up of a group of eight to twelve pathfinders and a group of six bodyguards whose job was to defend the pathfinders while they set up their equipment. The pathfinder teams dropped approximately thirty minutes before the main body in order to locate designated drop zones and provide radio and visual guides for the main force in order to improve the accuracy of the jump. These navigational aids included compass beacons, colored panels, Eureka radar sets, and colored smoke. When they jumped, the pathfinders many times would encounter less resistance than the follow-up waves of paratroopers, simply because they had the element of surprise on their side. Once the main body jumped, the pathfinders then joined their original units and fought as standard airborne infantry.
World War II 
Early operations 
The first two American airborne campaigns, the drops into North Africa (Operation Torch) and Sicily (Operation Husky) did not make use of pathfinders. The jump into North Africa, which was made up of the men of the 509th Parachute Infantry Battalion (PIB), resulted in its men being scattered to places such as Algeria, Gibraltar, and Morocco when they ran into bad weather and got lost. The next major airborne operation took place in the invasion of Sicily in July 1943. Many of the same problems were encountered, as the men were scattered as far as 65 miles from their drop zones, due to high winds and poor navigation. In fact, some of the paratroopers landed so far off course that it would be a matter of weeks before they finally found their way back to Allied lines.
In a history of the 509PIB's wartime actions titled "Stand in the Door! The wartime history of the 509th Parachute Infantry," authors and 509th veterans Charles H. Doyle and Terrell Stewart described how their unit formed the first U.S. Army pathfinder unit.
[General James] Gavin likes to claim credit for "inventing" Pathfinders, pointing to bad drops in Sicily as the cause. Let us set the record straight: The 509th, the world's most experienced bad drop specialists, first saw the need for them. Pathfinders were separate teams of "advance men" who jumped in ahead of main forces to set up beacons and other guides to incoming aircraft.
The 509th's Scout Company was the first specialized Pathfinder group. In the U.S. Army, it started the training and experimentation necessary to develop the concept at Oujda. With fragments of practical knowledge from the British Airborne, company commander Captain Howland and his XO 1st Lt. Fred E. Perry worked hard to develop usable techniques. Perry recalls: "Everyone knew through hard experience that the Air Corps needed help to drop us on the correct drop zone. We organized the Scout Company for this purpose. This was later made into a Scout Platoon under my command, consisting of 10 enlisted and myself. We were equipped with a British homing radio and U.S. Navy Aldis lamps, which radiated a beam to guide planes. We trained on this procedure until the invasion at Salerno.
"In the meantime, the 82nd Airborne Division arrived from the States on May 10 and camped near the 509th at Oujda. We were attached to them. The 82nd would not buy our Scout Platoon idea, but they sure found out in a hurry after Sicily that we really had something that was needed."
At the time, Major General Matthew Ridgway and his "All-American" staff thought they knew it all. Impressed with themselves, although they were not jumpers or experienced glider troopers, they airily dismissed the 509th and its fresh combat experiences, as well as any nonstandard/Limey concept. They would learn the hard way.
Sicily and Italy 
After the serious problems uncovered during the parachute drop in the Allied invasion of Sicily, Allied high command questioned the utility of parachute infantry primarily because of the difficulty of dropping the infantry as cohesive units rather than as scattered groups. A review of procedures and methods resulted in the establishment of the pathfinder teams to aid navigation to drop zones. The pathfinder forces were only formed about a week in advance of the jump at Paestum, Italy on September 13, 1943. When the majority of the pathfinders landed directly on target, they were able to set up their radar sets and Krypton lights on the drop zone. A quarter of an hour later, the main body of paratroopers from the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment (PIR) landed right on the middle of the drop zone.
The same night, the newly formed pathfinder detachment from the 509th PIB saw their first action in that capacity at Avellino, Italy. However, unlike the successful pathfinders at Paestum, those at Avellino had markedly less success. However, this was not their fault, as the mountainous terrain surrounding the area deflected the radar signals and caused the pilots to become disoriented.
Airborne and pathfinder forces did not see combat again until June 6, 1944, at the commencement of the D-Day landings of Operation Overlord. Pathfinders taking part in the Allied parachute assault on Normandy, France, on 6 June 1944 were trained by the Pathfinder School at RAF North Witham of which the USAAF designation was Army Air Force Station 479.
At 21.30 hours on 5 June, about 200 pathfinders began to take off from North Witham, for the Cotentin Peninsula, in 20 C-47 aircraft of 9th Troop Carrier Command Pathfinder Group. They began to drop at 00.15 on June 6, to prepare the drop zones for the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions. They were the first US troops on the ground on D-Day. However, their aircraft were scattered by low clouds and anti-aircraft fire. Many never found their assigned landing zones. Some of the landing zones were too heavily defended. Some were flooded.
The low clouds and extremely intense anti-aircraft fire caused the pathfinder sticks to be dropped off course, with only one stick landing in the correct place (Ambrose, p. 196). Their radar beacons did work somewhat effectively; even though the pathfinders set up their equipment off course, many of the sticks of follow up paratroopers landed clustered near these beacons.
However, the lights proved ineffective, as most were not set up due to the clouds and misdrops of the pathfinders. While the bad weather and heavy anti-aircraft curtailed the effectiveness of the pathfinder teams on D-Day, the overall airborne drop was a success. This was true because the misplacement and scattering of the airborne forces deceived the German High Command, convincing them that there were far more American parachutists present than there actually were in France.
Southern France 
The invasion of the South of France took place on August 15, 1944, in the form of Operation Dragoon (Rottman, p. 80). The 509th PIB, the 517th PIR, and the 1st Battalion of the 551st PIB formed the American airborne contingent of the invasion, dropping into the French Riviera in the early hours of the morning. As had been the problem with previous night drops, such as Normandy, the pathfinders here were misdropped when the planes carrying them got lost. Further delays were encountered when these men had to find each other on the ground, work their way through a heavily wooded area near the town of Le Muy, and fight off German soldiers in the process.
Due to the ineffective placement of the pathfinders, the follow-up waves of paratroopers were not dropped in the right place either. This was further exacerbated by pilot error, as many of the pilots opted to drop their paratroopers at too high an altitude; the result was that these men were widely scattered. Much like the paratroopers in Normandy, however, the overall operation was a success as the paratroopers still managed to accomplish their missions and capture their objectives in conjunction with the seaborne landing forces.
Operation Market Garden, which took place on September 17, 1944, was the next major airborne operation into the Netherlands, the largest to date. The mission of the paratroopers was to capture a series of bridges from Best in the south, to Arnhem (by British paratroopers) in the north. This would then allow the ground element to cross the bridges in a rapid maneuvre. While the operation ultimately failed, due to delays among the ground forces, the airborne divisions accomplished most of their missions; this was due in large part to the efforts of the pathfinder forces. A combination of the drop taking place in broad daylight and the fact that the Germans were not expecting an airborne attack allowed the pathfinders to land on target and guide in the rest of the paratroopers to the proper location. This is especially remarkable, considering the fact that the number of pathfinder sticks and the number of men in each stick were reduced to the bare minimum (one per drop zone) for this drop.
Battle of the Bulge 
During the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944, the 101st Airborne Division along with elements of other units was trucked to the Belgian town of Bastogne in order to secure and defend the town which contained a major road junction. By December 22, 1944, the units defending the town were surrounded and running low on supplies. Two sticks of pathfinders of the 101st Airborne Division parachuted into besieged Bastogne to set up signal beacons to guide in a flight of planes to resupply the Allied units in that town; the resupply succeeded, thanks to the efforts of the pathfinders. There were pathfinder trained personnel already in Bastogne, but they were unable to perform the pathfinder duty without the equipment that was parachuted in with the pathfinders.
Into Germany 
A similar mission was carried out by the pathfinders of the 506th PIR at Prüm, Germany, on February 13, 1945. Their objective was to set beacons to guide in planes to resupply the surrounded 4th Infantry Division, and they succeeded; this allowed the division to fight off the Germans surrounding them.
The only major airborne operation into Germany came on March 24, 1945, in the form of Operation Varsity, the crossing of the Rhine River by Allied paratroopers. Because it was another daylight drop (navigation should not be a problem) and that the drop zones were heavily defended, pathfinders were not dropped prior to the main paratrooper forces in this operation. Instead, some set up beacons on the Allied side of the river, and others dropped with the main paratrooper force to set up smoke and panels as a final navigational aid.
The Pacific Theater 
There was a much lesser demand for pathfinders and airborne forces in general in the jungles and islands of the Pacific. The 511th PIR was the only Pacific based airborne unit to employ pathfinders, which it did in the Philippines. They were used twice, at Tagaytay Ridge in early February 1945, and again on June 23, 1945. However, neither time did they parachute in to mark the drop zones; rather, they infiltrated over a beach in one instance, and across a river in the other. Needless to say, the pathfinders were used unconventionally in the Pacific Theater.
Post-World War II 
The divisional pathfinder units of World War II were assigned to the subordinate parachute infantry regiments. In 1947, the first divisional pathfinder platoon was organized in the Headquarters Company, 82d Airborne Division. Pathfinders were also established in the 11th Airborne Division, at that time on occupation duty in Japan.
Korean War 
The organizational structure of the 187th Airborne Regimental Combat Team included a Pathfinder Team; however, when the 187th conducted a parachute assault in October 1950 near the villages of Sukchon and Sunchon in North Korea, the commander, Brig. Gen. Frank S. Bowen, decided against using pathfinders on the jump. According to USAF Historical Study No. 71, "Bowen thought that the use of pathfinder teams to signal for resupply drops would have been valuable, but such teams, had they been employed to mark the initial jump areas, would have been killed before they got into action."
Vietnam War 
In Vietnam Pathfinder Infantrymen were inserted into areas to establish landing zones for air assaults or other helicopter operations. Pathfinders determined the most practical landing zones, withdrawal routes, approach lanes, and landing sites for helicopter assaults, in hostile areas.
The US Army's 11th Aviation Group landed in country in August 1965, and while assigned to the 1st Air Cavalry Division expanded its Pathfinder unit to company size, creating the provisional 11th Pathfinder Company.
While the 11th Pathfinder Company was assigned to the 1st Air Cavalry Division's reconnaissance section, units such as the 1st Infantry Division, 101st Airborne (Airmobile), 82nd Airborne (3rd Brigade), etc., operated Ranger or LRRP (Long Range Reconnaissance Patrols) companies within their reconnaissance elements.
The 1st Air Cavalry Division, which had deployed to Southeast Asia in September 1965, departed South Vietnam on 29 April 1971. The 11th Aviation Group re-deployed from Southeast Asia on 14 March 1973.
The activities of the Pathfinder Platoon, HHC, 160th Aviation Group, 101st Airborne Division in Vietnam are covered in the book "Pathfinder: First In, Last Out" by the late Richard R. Burns, a veteran of the unit. To date it is the only book covering pathfinders in Vietnam.
Modern pathfinders 
Pathfinders still exist in a number of armed forces around the world. Most of them are senior members of parachute units and have earned the right to wear the Maroon beret. Pathfinders in the U.S. Army wear the Pathfinder Badge.
In the Canadian Army, airborne pathfinders are paratroopers who — besides securing drop zones, gathering intelligence, and briefing follow-on forces — also conduct ambushes and reconnaissance behind enemy lines. To qualify as a pathfinder in the Canadian Army, the soldier must pass the Patrol Pathfinder course conducted by the Canadian Forces Land Advanced Warfare Centre. Joint Task Force 2 and the Canadian Special Operations Regiment employ pathfinders in several roles.
The President's BodyGuard 
Initially a cavalry unit raised in September 1773 to guard the Governor General, the unit is the seniormost unit of the Indian Army. The unit converted to the airborne role in 1944 and became the pathfinder unit of the 2nd Indian Airborne Division and renamed "44th Divisional Reconnaissance Squadron (GGBG)". The unit today is about a company-plus strength and maintains very strong affiliation to the Cavalry, Guards and the Airborne fraternity with 100 percent troopers airborne qualified and equipped for mechanized warfare.However the Special Forces (Airborne) units are mainly assigned such tasks as they are specialist in pathfinder operations using HALO/HAHO.
United Kingdom 
The Pathfinder Platoon is a specialist reconnaissance unit of the British Army, and an integral part of 16 Air Assault Brigade. The Pathfinder Platoon acts as the brigade's advance force and reconnaissance force. Its role includes locating and marking drop zones and helicopter landing zones for air landing operations. Once the main force has landed, the platoon provides tactical intelligence for the brigade.
Following the 1982 Falklands War, 5 Airborne Brigade was established as a light, rapid reaction force for similar requirements. The brigade was formed from the Parachute Regiment, and support units. The Brigade identified a requirement for an independent intelligence collection capability, deployable into a hostile or non-permissive environment ahead of the main force so in 1985 the Pathfinder Platoon was established.
Pathfinder Platoon operations have included:
- Operation Agricola - In June 1999, the Pathfinder Platoon was deployed to Kosovo. It operated behind enemy lines providing reconnaissance and forward air control. Once NATO forces entered Kosovo, the Platoon provided a defensive screen around Pristina International Airport prior to the arrival of the Russian forces.
- Operation Palliser - In May 2000 the Pathfinder Platoon deployed to Sierra Leone, to assist the United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone efforts.
- Operation Essential Harvest - With the rise in ethnic tension overspilling in to violence in Republic of Macedonia between ethnic Albanian, National Liberation Army (NLA) and Macedonian security forces, the British Government sent a force to oversee a NATO-led ceasefire. The Pathfinders, alongside the UKSF, oversaw the uneasy truce and were used to establish links between the warring factions and monitor any hostile activities.
- Operation Veritas - The platoon deployed into Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan, in December 2001 to assist NATO's International Security Assistance Force.
- Operation Telic - In Iraq, The primary mission for the teams was to conduct mobile surveillance/fighting patrols behind enemy lines in support of UK and US forces. After the hostilities, the unit were redeployed on the Iran/Iraq border as well as carrying out "snatch squad" tasks on suspected Ba'athist war criminals in Maysan.
- Operation Herrick - The Platoon was deployed to the southern Afghan province of Helmand alongside the British 3 Para Battle Group in 2006.
The platoon work under the command of the Brigade Headquarters. The Officer Commanding Pathfinder Platoon is a senior Captain or Major. The platoon operates in teams of between 4–6 men. In 2006 a new rate of Parachute Pay (High Altitude Parachute Pay) was introduced for members of the Pathfinder Platoon following the recommendations of the Armed Forces’ Pay Review Body.
Republic of South Africa 
The 44 Pathfinder Platoon is part of 44 Pathfinder Company of the South African Army, within 44 Parachute Brigade and 1 Parachute Battalion respectively.
United States of America 
The U.S. Army operates three Pathfinder schools. The first is the United States Army Pathfinder School, at Fort Benning, Georgia, which serves as the Army proponent agency for Pathfinder operations and oversees the standardization of Army Pathfinder doctrine. The second is the Sabalauski Air Assault School of Fort Campbell, KY. The third is part of Fort Benning's Army National Guard Warrior Training Center, which also conducts Pre-Ranger and Air Assault classes. The courses taught at the WTC and Fort Campbell do not include parachute jumps.
The 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) at Fort Campbell has a pathfinder unit in each of its two aviation brigades. The second was created when the division's long range surveillance detachment (LRSD) was reassigned from the division's military intelligence battalion to one of the aviation battalions and converted to a pathfinder unit. In 2006 the Long Range Surveillance Detachment in the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg was likewise transferred to 2nd Battalion, 82nd Aviation Regiment redesignated as a pathfinder unit.
In June 2005 the 17th Aviation Brigade in Korea was inactivated, along with its pathfinder detachment. At the time, it was the only pathfinder unit outside of the 101st. Since then, the 82nd Airborne Division added a pathfinder unit, as noted above.
Starting about 1960 there was a pathfinder presence at Fort Rucker, Alabama, initially designated as the Pathfinder Team, Company A, 2d Battle Group, 31st Infantry, later reflagged as the 5th Battle Group, 31st Infantry on 1 July 1963. The purpose of the battle group, which was organized differently than standard battle groups, was to provide training support to the Aviation Center. Subsequent reorganizations and reflaggings led to the 5th Infantry Detachment (Pathfinder) and 5th Infantry Platoon (Pathfinder). On 1 July 1975 the unit was reorganized and reflagged as Company C (Pathfinder), 509th Infantry, and it retained this designation until 1 June 1993 when it was reflagged as Company A (Pathfinder), 511th Infantry. This designation only lasted until 31 October 1995 when the pathfinder presence at Fort Rucker came to an end due to budget cuts that also ended the post's Air Assault School. Combined with the inactivation of all five USAR pathfinder platoons and all five ARNG pathfinder detachments at the end of fiscal year 1990, the inactivation of A-511th at Fort Rucker resulted in only two pathfinder units remaining in the Army: a detachment in the 17th Aviation Brigade in Korea and a company in the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) at Fort Campbell, Kentucky.
Three standing pathfinder companies exist in the Army today. The first is Company F (Pathfinder), 5th Battalion, 101st Aviation Regiment, 101st Aviation Brigade, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), Fort Campbell, Kentucky.
The second pathfinder company, also of the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), was activated in 2005 from the now-disbanded Long Range Surveillance Detachment, 311th Military Intelligence Battalion. It was reorganized and reassigned as Company F (Pathfinder), 4th Battalion, 101st Aviation Regiment, 159th Aviation Brigade.
The third pathfinder company is at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. As with the 159th's pathfinders, the 82nd's pathfinder company was constituted from the now-disbanded 82nd Airborne Division Long Range Surveillance Detachment, 313th MI Battalion. Its new designation became Co F (Pathfinder), 2nd Battalion, 82nd Aviation Regiment.
The Army's force structure also includes two provisional pathfinder units that are not documented on the parent unit's MTOE. These are the platoon-sized Company F, 2d Battalion, 10th Aviation Regiment, part of the Combat Aviation Brigade, 10th Mountain Division (Light Infantry) at Fort Drum, NY, and a new Pathfinder Company operating as part of the 2d Battalion, 25th Aviation Regiment, Combat Aviation Brigade, 25th Infantry Division, Schofield Barracks, HI.
These pathfinder units currently fill roles across the spectrum of their doctrinal missions, along with other roles outside of their prescribed task lists.
In the United States Marine Corps, pathfinders' missions are conducted by the Force Reconnaissance platoons by inserting in the battlefield and placing signal panels or illuminating flashers, eventually being replaced by remote sensors and beacons during the Vietnam War.
See also 
- Stanton, Shelby L. Vietnam Order of Battle. 1987; Galahad Books. ISBN 0-671-08159-4.
- "21st Independent Parachute Company". Paradata. Retrieved 7-April-2010.
- "Obituary,Lieutenant-Colonel Bill Barclay". London: Daily Telegraph. 2 February 2010. Retrieved 8-April-2010.
- Chester Wilmot. The Struggle for Europe. Wm Collins and Sons Ltd. p. 251.
- "shinycapstar.com". "Immediately after the war, the 1st (Guards) Parachute Battalion was formed for service in Palestine. In 1948, this was reduced in size and eventually became the Guards Independent Parachute Company which was finally disbanded in 1975."
- Peter Dickens. Secret War In South East Asia. Greenhill Books. p. 211. "In September, however, the Guards Independent Parachute Company under Major L.G.S. Head were allowed across the Sabah border to act offensively... ...This professional performance and others were to result in the formation of 'G' Squadron in 1966"
- Tony Geraghty (1980). Who Dares Wins. Arms and Armour Press. p. 52. "-while the Parachute Brigade's Guards Independent (Pathfinder) Company was sent to Borneo to learn something like an SAS role on the job (as was the 2nd Battalion, The Parachute Regiment). Later the Guards Company would provide the nucleus of the new G Squadron."
- "16 Company, The Parachute Regiment".
- Huston, James A. "Out of the Blue." West Lafayette, Indiana: Purdue University Press, 1998, p. 23, 29.
- Rottman, Gordon. U.S. Airborne Units in the Mediterranean Theater 1942-44. Osprey Battle Orders Ser. Oxford, UK: Osprey Publishing Ltd., 2006, p. 64, 67, 67, 75, 80, 83.
- Charles H. Doyle and Terrell Stewart. "Stand in the Door!: The wartime history of the 509th Parachute Infantry." Phillips Publications, P.O. Box 168, Williamstown, NJ 08094
- Moran, Jeff. American Airborne Pathfinders in World War II. Atglen, Pennsylvania: Shiffer Military History, 2003, p. 28, 31, 32, 33, 70, 70, 76, 77, 83, 89, 90, 91, 91, 92, 92, 92, 94, 94, 94.
- Zaloga, Stephen J. U.S. Airborne Divisions in the ETO 1944-45. Osprey Battle Orders Ser. 25. Oxford, UK: Osprey Publishing Ltd., 2007, p. 65, 70, 72, 73, 74, 73.
- Ambrose, Stephen. D-Day, June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994, p. 196, 223, 216.
- Stanton, p. 162
- Stanton, p. 72-86
- "Fact file: 16 Air Assault Brigade". BBC News. 2003-02-26. Retrieved 7-April-2010.
- MOD Briefing, 17 June 1999
- Smith, Michael (20 August 2001). "Macedonian war is over, pledges rebel leader". The Daily Telegraph (London).
- Berry, Jessica; Lusher, Adam (19 August 2001). "Macedonia strife threatens Nato mission". The Daily Telegraph (London).
- "Armed Forces’ Pay Review Body THIRTY-FOURTH REPORT 2005" (PDF). "As part of the periodic review, MOD proposed the introduction of a new rate for High Altitude Parachuting. The new rate will apply to members of the Pathfinder Platoon who MOD regards as a fundamental component of the UK’s airborne capability. ..."
- Jeff Moran. "American Airborne Pathfinders in World War II." Schiffer Publishing Ltd., 4880 Lower Valley Road, Atglen, PA 19310