Last surviving member of heroic RAF Pathfinder crew dies

Percy Cannings

Percy Cannings - Credit: Archant

Buckden’s Percy Cannings, the last surviving member of the 97 Squadron Pathfinder crew, has died after a short battle with cancer.

Percy, real name Douglas, was born in West Sussex, working as a gardener like his father before him on a large estate. As soon as he was 18 he followed his older brothers Eric and Arthur into the RAF.

He took part in 47 raids in all over Europe with both the 100 and the 97 Squadron and, in 1944, received the Distinguished Flying Medal, which is awarded to RAF personnel for an act or acts of valour, courage or devotion to duty whilst flying in active operations against the enemy.

Husband to Bet for 66 years and father to four children, David, Sue, Sandy and Sharon, he went on to work in the building trade after he left the air force. It was while he was working on new houses in Buckden during the mid-1960s that he fancied one for himself and moved his young family to settle in Manor Gardens in the village where he lived for the rest of his life.

As a member of Buckden Gardeners he became well known for his prize vegetable and fruit specimens from his two allotments and garden. He regularly swept the board at the annual show, and quite often won with his fruit pies too.

Percy and Bet were also stalwart members of the Buckden Wine and Beermakers and travelled to France and Germany on wine discovery trips with the club. Until recently they also ran the Whist Drives at Buckden Towers.

It was in 2003 that Percy began to relive his wartime experiences with his family when he was approached by an author, Kevin Bending, of a book Achieve Your Aim (the motto of the squadron), about the history of the 97 Pathfinder Squadron. It was no small coincidence that the headquarters of the Pathfinders was in Huntingdon, just a few miles from where Percy was living.

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His family knew very little about his wartime career and the part Percy played as a member of a Pathfinder crew. In 2011 Percy and Bet were invited to Belgium as special guests of honour at the launch of a book about raids over Courtrai during the war.

Percy’s daughter Sharon explained that the people of the Flemish town were grateful to the Pathfinders for helping to liberate them from the Nazis. They were thrilled that Percy and Bet could attend the launch. The Pathfinders, to whom a museum is dedicated at RAF Wyton, helped to minimise casualties by strategically pinpointing targets with increased accuracy.

These experiences led Sharon and Martin to decide to record Percy’s journey to discover what happened to his fellow crew members. One of the most moving stories was how Percy witnessed a terrible accident during a formation flying training exercise over Crowland.

Two Lancasters collided right in front of him and crashed to the ground, killing both crews, 13 men in all, save for one who managed to parachute out. That night Percy had to go straight back on a night operation over Limoges.

“Dad was a shy man and to him it was all just part of his job. He was very matter of fact about it all on the surface, glad that he came out unscathed and was able to go on and lead a very full and happy long life. He was quiet, unassuming, humble. The hardest thing for him was seeing the empty beds of those men who didn’t come back,” said Sharon.

“One of his proudest moments was when, on his 90th birthday, the City of Lincoln Lancaster, from the Battle of Britain memorial, flew over the Cinema in the Woods, Woodhall Spa, in his honour, where the premiere of the film ‘Finding the Pathfinders’ was taking place.”

The Lancaster flew so low that all the alarms of the cars parked in the cinema car park went off. It was as if all the ghosts of the men he had flown with were heralding the moment too.

Percy’s funeral is due to take place at Cambridge Crematorium on May 10.