Sqn Ldr H M Young DFC & Bar
Lancaster serial number: ED887/G
Call sign: AJ-A
First wave. Fourth aircraft to attack Möhne Dam. Mine dropped accurately, causing small breach. Aircraft shot down on return flight.
Henry Melvin Young was born in Belgravia, London, on 20 May 1915. His father was a solicitor, although he was serving in the army at the time of his birth. His mother was American, from a wealthy Californian family involved in the real estate business. He had a somewhat disjointed upbringing, spending several years in the USA during his schooldays. He spent two years at Kent School in Connecticut before leaving at the age of 17 to spend a year at Westminster School in London. He then went up to Trinity College, Oxford to study law. He had taken up rowing at school and carried on at Oxford, gaining a Blue for rowing for the university in the 1938 Boat Race. (A rowing contemporary at Trinity College was Richard Hillary, later to gain wartime fame as a fighter pilot and the author of The Last Enemy.)
Young joined the Oxford University Air Squadron and qualified as a pilot. Another student member was Leonard Cheshire, and Young’s instructor was Charles Whitworth, then an RAF Flight Lieutenant, and later to become station CO at Scampton at the time of the Dams Raid. Whitworth was fairly critical of Young’s abilities, describing him as ‘not a natural pilot’ although noting that he had ‘improved considerably’ and ‘was very keen and has plenty of common sense’.
Young joined the RAFVR in September 1938 and when war came a year later began formal training to be a service pilot. During this period he wrote to the headmaster of his old school in Connecticut, in terms which are expressed very similarly to those of his Oxford contemporary, Richard Hillary:
Since we had to have a war, I am more than ever glad that I am in the air force … though I haven’t yet had to face any of the conflict and killing of war, I am not frightened of dying if that is God’s will and only hope that I may die doing my duty as I should. In the meantime, I remain as cheerful, I think, as ever and try to keep others so.
Young’s first operational posting in June 1940 was to 102 Squadron, flying Whitleys. Some of their bombing operations took them as far as Turin in north Italy. It was during this tour that his ‘ditchings’ took place. The first was on 7 October 1940 when he and his crew spent twenty-two hours in a dinghy in the Atlantic, while on convoy escort duty. The second was on 23 November 1940 in the English Channel south of Plymouth. He finished his tour in February 1941, and was awarded the DFC.
In September 1941, after a spell at a training unit, Young was promoted to Squadron Leader and started a second tour with 104 Squadron on Wellingtons. A detachment of fifteen aircraft and crews from 104 Squadron was then sent to Malta and then on to Egypt. There he completed another tour, and received a Bar to his DFC.
In July 1942, he was posted to the RAF Delegation in Washington DC. While he was in the USA, he got married to his American girlfriend, Priscilla Rawson. However, he had to leave his new wife behind when he was posted back to England in February 1943. He was sent to 1660 Conversion Unit at RAF Swinderby to begin training on the heavy bomber, the Lancaster, which had come into service in his absence. He began training on 1 March 1943 and it was at this point he was allocated the crew with which he would fly on the Dams Raid. The crew had been without a pilot since their skipper had been sent on sick leave in January. Young first flew a training flight with his new crew on about 4 March, and undertook some fifteen more in the next seven days.
On 13 March they were all posted to 57 Squadron at Scampton, with Young being given command of its new C Flight. Four existing 57 Squadron crews – those captained by Flt Lt Bill Astell, Plt Off Geoff Rice, Sgt George Lancaster and Sgt Ray Lovell – were moved into the new flight.
In the normal course of events, this C Flight would have been built up further, but this was not to be. Within a few days, all five crews in the flight were transferred into a new squadron being established alongside 57 Squadron on the same station.
None of these crews were personally selected by Guy Gibson. But because Young was an experienced pilot with a DFC and Bar and already on the station, it must have been logical for someone at 5 Group HQ to suggest that he and the rest of his flight simply transfer in. Perhaps Young’s old flying instructor Charles Whitworth, the station commander at Scampton, had a hand in this. In the event, only three of the crews – those skippered by Young, Astell and Rice – finally flew on the Dams Raid.
Young’s seniority and administrative skills made him the obvious choice to be a flight commander, and it fell to him and his fellow flight commander Henry Maudslay to do a lot of the necessary organising to get more than twenty crews ready for such an important mission. He was popular amongst his fellow officers, with his prowess at beer drinking and eccentric habit of sitting cross-legged on either a desk or the floor much admired. This popularity may have led to his nickname of Dinghy being chosen as the code word to signify a successful attack on the Eder Dam.
On the raid, Young led the second formation in Lancaster AJ-A, the other two being piloted by David Maltby and David Shannon. This trio arrived at the Möhne Dam just a couple of minutes before Gibson began the first attack. By the time Young’s turn came, a certain amount of desperation must have been creeping in. Gibson and Martin’s mines had not been successful and Hopgood had been shot down.
Young’s perfect run resulted in a small breach in the dam wall. This only became obvious ten minutes later when David Maltby, following up with the next mine, saw that the crest of the dam was crumbling. The two explosions combined caused the final collapse. Young was then instructed to go with Gibson to oversee the assault on the Eder Dam, ready to assume command if Gibson was lost. So he witnessed its collapse and then set course for home.
Sadly, he never made it. A gun battery at Castricum-aan-Zee on the Dutch coast reported shooting down an aircraft at 0258, which was almost certainly AJ-A. Two bodies, one Young and the other an unidentified sergeant, were washed ashore on 29 May and they were buried nearby in the General Cemetery at Bergen two days later. The sergeant was later identified as David Horsfall, who would have been sitting alongside Young in the cockpit. The bodies of all seven of the crew of AJ-A were washed up over a period of thirteen days.
KIA 17 May 1943.
Rank and decorations as of 16 May 1943.
Sources: Arthur Thorning, The Dambuster who Cracked the Dam, Pen and Sword 2008
Richard Morris, Guy Gibson, Penguin 1995
John Sweetman, The Dambusters Raid, Cassel 2002
Further information about Melvin Young and the other 132 men who flew on the Dams Raid can be found in my book The Complete Dambusters, published by History Press in 2018.