Families gather to open new AJ-A memorial

Members of the families of the crew of AJ-A join with Jan and Macy van Dalen and John Bell of the 617 Squadron Association after the unveiling of the memorial at Castricum aan Zee on the Dutch coast. This was the aircraft piloted by Sqn Ldr Melvin Young on the night of the Dams Raid. It was the fourth to attack the Mohne Dam and caused the initial breach which led to its collapse.

The monument was unveiled by Belinda Brown, cousin of front gunner Gordon Yeo, the youngest member of the crew and Geoffrey Sturr, nephew of Melvin Young, the pilot.

Two Dambuster daughters. Left, Jill Owen (née Nichols), daughter of Sgt Laurie Nichols, and Angela McDonnold (née MacCausland) daughter of Flg Off Vincent MacCausland.

The Young and Ibbotson families in the cemetery in the nearby town of Bergen where the crew is buried.

Len and Sandra Brown, representing the family of Charles Roberts.

The family of Gordon Yeo.

Angela McDonnold (née MacCausland)

Photos: 617 Squadron Netherlands Aircrew Memorial Foundation/Dambusters Blog

Advertisements

AJ-A memorial nearly there: please help it get to target

One of the members of the crew of AJ-A on the Dams Raid, wireless operator Lawrence Nichols, pictured here during training with the rest of the participants on his wireless course. The picture was probably taken in Blackpool in 1941. Nichols is sitting on the ground in the centre of the front row. [Pic: © Ray Hepner collection.]

The appeal for funds for a new memorial plaque on the Dutch coast, near where Sqn Ldr Melvin Young’s Lancaster, AJ-A, was shot down on the night of the Dams Raid has been very successful, and has so far raised about 80% of the €3500 needed.

The organisers, the 617 Squadron Netherlands Aircrew Memorial Foundation is now appealing to anyone who has not yet supported the campaign to do so as soon as possible so that work can begin on designing and producing the plaque and its associated works.

The Foundation was established to commemorate all members of 617 Squadron who lost their lives in the war. As part of this work, the Foundation will unveil a memorial plaque to the crew of AJ-A on the seafront at Castricum-aan-Zee in late May 2018, to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the retrieval of their bodies from the sea and their burial in the nearby Bergen cemetery. Members of the families of the crew of AJ-A have already said that they hope to be present for this occasion.

If you haven’t yet made a donation to the Foundation, then this is your chance to do so! Please use the PayPal link below. (Any credit card can be used – you don’t need to have a PayPal account in order to make a payment.) Your donation will be gratefully received and will be acknowledged at the unveiling ceremony.



Appeal launched to fund AJ-A memorial in Netherlands

The crew of AJ-A: (L-R) Sqn Ldr Melvin Young (pilot), Sgt David Horsfall (flight engineer), Flt Sgt Charles Roberts (navigator), Sgt Lawrence Nichols (wireless operator), Flg Off Vincent MacCausland (bomb aimer), Sgt Gordon Yeo (front gunner), Sgt Wilfred Ibbotson (rear gunner).

For many years a small group of Dutch citizens, headed by Jan van Dalen, have looked after the graves of the Dams Raid crew of Sqn Ldr Melvin Young in the General Cemetery of the small coastal town of Bergen. The crew were aboard Lancaster ED887, AJ-A, on the Dams Raid on 16-17 May 1943, and all seven members lost their lives when they were shot down on their return journey.

AJ-A had been the fourth aircraft to drop its Upkeep mine at the Mohne Dam and had caused a small breach. A few minutes later AJ-J dropped another mine, causing the final breach and the dam’s collapse. Young had flown on to the Eder Dam in order to take over command if anything should happen to Guy Gibson on the attack there, but in the event had nothing to do. He then set course to return home and reached the Dutch coast just before three in the morning. Then, out over the sea, he hit disaster when the gun battery at Wijk-aan-Zee fired at the rapidly disappearing Lancaster. At that stage, the aircraft was well past the last gun battery and only a few hundred yards from safety. The battery later reported shooting down an aircraft at 0258, which was almost certainly AJ-A.

The wreckage of AJ-A, photographed shortly after the Dams Raid in 1943.

Over the next few weeks, the sea yielded up the victims. Part of the wreckage was washed ashore and the first bodies – those of Melvin Young and David Horsfall – floated up on 29 May. They were buried in the General Cemetery at Bergen two days later, and were joined by the bodies of the other five which were washed up over the next thirteen days.

The 617 Squadron Netherlands Aircrew Memorial Foundation has now been formally established to commemorate all members of 617 Squadron who lost their lives in the war. As part of this work, the Foundation plans to erect a memorial plaque to the crew of AJ-A on the seafront at Castricum-aan-Zee, which they are hoping to unveil at the time of the 75th anniversary of the crew’s burial in Bergen cemetery in late May 2018. Members of the families of the crew of AJ-A have already said that they hope to be present for this occasion.

The cost of this project is estimated to be in the region of €3500-4000. If you would like to make a donation to the Foundation to help pay for the memorial, you can do so using the PayPal link below. (You don’t need to have a PayPal account in order to make a payment – any credit card can be used.) Your donation will be gratefully received and will be acknowledged at the unveiling ceremony.



 

Dambuster of the Day No. 22: Melvin Young

Young colour

Sqn Ldr H M Young DFC & Bar
Pilot
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.

More about Young online:
Commonwealth War Graves Commission
Wikipedia entry

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.

More on the oar

Young Coxless and Boat Race Oars

Pic: David Young via Arthur Thorning

Following my post from last month, I was recently sent a new picture, shown above, of the real oar used by Melvin (“Dinghy”) Young in the University Boat Race in 1938. The oar belongs to a member of the Young family who lives in California. Shown in the same picture is another souvenir oar used by Melvin when he rowed for his college, Trinity, in 1936. The picture was supplied by Arthur Thorning, Young’s biographer.

There are a number of differences between this oar and the mystery oar shown on the BBC Antiques Roadshow on 6 January, as can be seen when you look at the two side by side.

Oars side by side

1. The shafts are on different sides: Young oar (YO) on the right, Antique Roadshow oar (ARO) on the left.
2. The colours are different. YO is dark (Oxford) blue, ARO is grey-blue (a colour that doesn’t belong to either Oxford or Cambridge).
3. YO has the full initials for H.A.W. Forbes, F.A.L. Waldron and G.J.P. Merifield, ARO has shortened these to H.A. Forbes, F.A. Waldron and J.P. Merifield.
4. YO has the President’s name on the right, ARO on the left (not seen in picture above but visible earlier in the video.)

However, there are some similarities between the two, which makes me think that the ARO may have been copied from the YO, or perhaps from a photograph (as Young’s oar was almost certainly already in the USA when the film was made.) These are principally in the abbreviations used and the style of the lettering. The college abbreviations are exactly the same (Magd., B.N.C., St. Ed. Hall) and the crew weights are also identical. A ‘blackletter’ (sometimes wrongly called Old English) font has been used for the heading and a serif font (in both roman and italic styles) for the remainder.

Comparison of the ARO with a still from the 1955 film The Dam Busters has convinced me that it is either a prop from the film, or a copy based on the film (although the whole oar is never shown in the film). The lettering looks identical, and as the film was shot in black and white, it would not have mattered that it was not an exact Oxford blue.

After the original Antiques Roadshow programme was transmitted, I contacted the production team and was sent a copy of a response by Paul Atterbury, the expert who assessed the oar:

Our recent Dambusters item has provoked a large response, which doesn’t surprise me. What does is the variety of responses, ideas and information we have received, implying a certain lack of agreement about this story. As a regular Roadshow specialist working in the miscellaneous section, I have to deal quickly, and as accurately as I can, with a wide and very unpredictable range of things brought in by the public. We have no advance knowledge of what is going to come in on the day, and only very limited time to carry out any research before something is filmed. We have to assume that the background information supplied by the owners is straightforward. In the case of the oar, it seemed to me a genuine blade, rather than something constructed as a film prop. Over the years I have seen plenty of them. The colours, and style of painting implied the right period, and the condition the right patina of age. Obviously, the names could have been added later to an existing blade, but it would seem an unnecessarily complicated, obscure and not particularly valuable copy or fake. Equally, the film company could have painted an existing oar, but that again seems an elaborate and expensive process for a few seconds of filming in black and white. As I said in the item, there was no guarantee this was Young’s blade, as there would have been seven others at the time, and it could have come from any of those families.

Any further information would be gratefully received!

Dinghy’s oar? Or not?

Last Sunday’s BBC Antiques Roadshow came up with an interesting artefact which had a Dambuster connection. A viewer brought in the blade of an oar which she said her husband had found in a skip in Bletchley.

Antiques Roadshow oar

As can be seen from the screengrab above, this is inscribed with the names of the Oxford University eight who had taken part in the 1938 Boat Race. (For the benefit of non-UK readers: this is a race between Oxford and Cambridge University Boat Clubs, which takes place every spring on the River Thames between Putney and Mortlake.)
Roadshow expert Paul Atterbury was quick to note the possible significance of one of the names. The No. 2 oarsman is listed as H M Young (Trinity), weighing 12st 12lb, who later became famous as Melvin (‘Dinghy’) Young, pilot of AJ-A on the Dams Raid.
Paul Atterbury went on to give a brief summary of Young’s role: how he caused the initial breach in the Möhne Dam, then completed by David Maltby’s attack, and his tragic end, shot down over Holland on the way home.

Young book oar

However, a comparison with a picture of the genuine oar, shown above, which appears in Arthur Thorning’s 2008 biography, The Dambuster who Cracked the Dam, quickly shows that the Bletchley skip oar is not Young’s. Although the full oar isn’t shown in Thorning’s picture there are many obvious discrepancies between the style of lettering and the punctuation in both pictures. In fact, it doesn’t look at all like the work of a professional signwriter. Thorning also states that the oar was in the possession of relatives in California, along with other of Young’s rowing souvenirs.
Which leads us to a mystery. If this is not Young’s real oar, what is it? It could, of course, have belonged to one of the other seven oarsmen in the 1938 Oxford boat. Many, if not all, would have done what Young obviously did – had it inscribed as a souvenir.
But there is another intriguing possibility. One of the many stories told about the making of the 1955 film, The Dam Busters, is that the Young family lent the producers the actual oar. In one of the film’s last sequences, the camera shows some of the things which signify the crews who went missing – empty chairs in the mess, a ticking alarm clock, and poignantly, the name of H M Young on an oar.

Dam Busters 1955 screengrab

Here is a screengrab from this scene. Although this is not of the highest quality, it’s plain that the lettering is consistent with that on the oar from the Bletchley skip. So it would seem that even if the film’s props department had a loan of the original oar, they decided it wasn’t suitable and made another one. They thereby caused yet another of The Dam Busters myths to be wrong. So, this could be the prop, created for the film and now left in a skip.
However, there’s one more thing, as Lt Columbo used to say. It’s possible that the oar from the Bletchley skip was not even used in the film. If you look carefully at the screengrab above, you can’t see the name of the Bow oarsman J L Garton at all, and there seems to be a larger gap between the centre spine of the blade and Young’s name than appears on the Antiques Roadshow picture. Is it possible that when director Michael Anderson and cinematographer Erwin Hillier came to shoot the actual scene, they discovered that Garton’s name got in the way and so a new prop without his name was created and used in the actual sequence?
Paul Atterbuy gave a valuation of somewhere between £200 and £500 if this had been the real Young oar. This seems a bit on the conservative side to me, given that people have paid considerably more than this for Gibson autographs and signed first editions of Paul Brickhill’s book. How much it would be worth as a film prop is probably anyone’s guess, even coming from a film as famous as The Dam Busters.

Guilty as charged!

Well, I might as well admit it. I noticed a posting over on the RAF Commands forum about some confusion over the number of the Lancaster flown by Sqn Ldr Melvin Young on the Dams Raid. The writer asked why it was numbered ED877 when he thought this was the aircraft from 156 Squadron in which his uncle was killed when it was shot down on 5 May 1943.
He was soon advised of the correct information – Young’s aircraft was in fact number ED887/G. As the original poster noted, a glance at Google shows that there are many hundreds of references to the wrong number all over the interwebnet – and many of them are down to me.


Oh dear. I had better confess to the mistake.  All I can say in my defence is that I took the number from the list in John Sweetman’s magisterial book, The Dams Raid. Other authors have made the same mistake, I notice. I shan’t name them, but I will note that the earliest source I could have consulted, Bruce Robertson’s Lancaster – the Story of a Famous Bomber, is of course correct. And so is the list in Alex Bateman’s No 617 Squadron (Osprey, 2009) – although you would expect nothing less from such a meticulous researcher as Alex.