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 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.

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, Cassell 2002

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.