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 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, but ended up at Westminster School before going 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 Oxford 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 ‘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 Richard Hillary in The Last Enemy:
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 when he and his crew spent 22 hours in a dinghy in the Atlantic, while providing escort duty to a convoy, and the second was in the English channel south of Plymouth. He finished his tour of operations in February 1941, and was awarded the DFC.
After a spell at a training unit, Young started a second tour in September 1941, with a promotion to Squadron Leader, with 104 Squadron on Wellingtons. A detachment of 15 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, and while there got married to an old family friend, Priscilla Rawson. However, he had to leave his wife behind when he was posted back to England, and he began training on the new heavy bomber, the Lancaster, which had come into service in his absence. He began training on 1 March 1943 and had acquired a new crew sometime before 13 March, the day they were all posted to 57 Squadron at Scampton, with Young being given command of C Flight.
As is well known, not all the crews for the new 617 Squadron were personally selected by Guy Gibson. This even seems to have applied to Young, but because he was an experienced pilot with two DFCs 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 had a hand in this. In the event, one of the C Flight crews, Ray Lovell’s, was not deemed to have the necessary skills, but those belonging to Bill Astell and Geoff Rice were allowed to stay on.
Young’s seniority and administrative skills made him the obvious choice to be a flight commander, and it fell to him and Henry Maudslay to do a lot of the necessary organising to get 20 crews ready for such an important mission. He was popular amongst his fellow officers, and his prowess at beer drinking and eccentric habit of sitting cross-legged on either a desk or the floor endeared him to all. 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.
To distract the anti-aircraft defences as Young attacked, Gibson flew across the dam on the far side and Martin flew alongside AJ-A. Young made a perfect run, releasing the mine at the correct speed and distance, and it bounced three times, sank at the wall and exploded, sending up a huge column of water. But when the tumult died down there was no obvious breach, to the disappointment of the attackers circling overhead.
David Maltby was sent in and again made a perfect run. However, as he approached he could see that ‘the crown of the wall was already crumbling’ and that there was ‘a breach in the centre of the dam’. He adjusted his line slightly so that his own mine would strike to the left of Young’s and it too exploded causing a larger breach. Barnes Wallis had predicted that it might take two mines to cause the dam’s collapse, and so it proved.
Young was then instructed to go with Gibson to oversee the attack on the Eder Dam, ready to assume command if Gibson was lost. So he witnessed the attack by Les Knight which caused it also to collapse, and then this contingent set course for home.
Sadly, Young and his crew 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. The seven bodies of the crew were all washed ashore during the following few weeks, and they are buried together in the General Cemetery of Bergen, the nearest small town.
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, Cassell 2002