In 1937 Young joined the Oxford University Air Squadron (OUAS). A keen rower, he represented Trinity College at the Henley Royal Regatta. Another member of the crew was Richard Hillary. Young was also in the winning crew that won the Oxford-Cambridge boat race in 1938.
In September 1938, Young joined the Royal Air Force and was commissioned as a Pilot Officer. Soon after the outbreak of the Second World War Young was promoted to the rank of Flying Officer. On 10th June 1940, Young joined 4 Group Bomber Command based in Driffield, Yorkshire.
On 13th August 1940, Young took part in his first bombing raid on Italy. He later recalled: "Flying across Germany we had been used to fighting it out, but in Italy we met no opposition. It seems that when the Italian anti-aircraft gunners heard us coming, they ran for the air raid shelters."
On 7th October 1940, Young's aircraft forced landed in the sea due to engine trouble. His rescue was reported in Life Magazine by the journalist William Allen White. "Their raft is a huge orange doughnut, and within its circle five men are squatting, one of them frantically waving a canvas paddle aloft. A minute more and they are abeam - hardly 50 yds away. As we sweep by they wave frantically."
Young was forced to land in the sea several times on operations,and he and his crew had to resort to the aircraft's inflatable life raft. He therefore acquired the nickname "Dinghy Young".
Promoted to Flight Lieutenant, Young took part in raids over Mannheim, Mulheim, Cologne, Bremen and Wilhelmshaven. In April 1941 Young was transferred to Wellesbourne Mountford near Stratford-upon-Avon, in order to be trained to fly the Wellington bomber.
In May 1941 he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. The citation in the London Gazette included the following: "This officer has carried out 28 bombing missions involving 230 hours flying as well as 6 convoy patrols on which some 40 hours were spent in the air. His operational flights include attacks on important targets in Germany and Italy. On two occasions he has been forced down on the sea, on one of which he was in the dinghy for 22 hours in an Atlantic gale. On both occasions his courage and inspired leadership, combined with a complete knowledge of dinghy drill, were largely responsible for the survival of his crews."
Promoted to the rank of squadron leader, Young joined the 205 Group of the Middle East Air Force. Based in Malta, the 205 group attempted to keep the Axis forces from invading Egypt and then the oilfields of the Middle East. On 18th September 1942, Young received a Bar to his Distinguished Flying Cross. The citation in the London Gazette included the following: "This officer participated in the first large scale attack on Naples, pressing home his attack, in the face of an intense barrage, with great determination. On another occasion, he bombed the Castel Benito aerodrome and then descended to 1,000 feet to machine gun dispersed aircraft by the light of flares released by other attacking aircraft. At least two aircraft on the ground were set on fire and a gun emplacement silenced."
On 10th August 1942, Melvin Young got married to Priscilla Rawson at Kent in Connecticut. While on leave in the United States he spent two weeks in Florida addressing members of the US Army Air Corps. The topic of his talks was: "Night Bombing Operations - Germany, Sicily, Libya".
Young was transferred to 617 Squadron. In February, 1943, the Royal Air Force decided to plan an attack on the five hydroelectric dams on which the Ruhr industrial area depended. Barnes Wallis advised the Royal Air Force to use the new bouncing bomb he had been developing at the National Physics Laboratory in Teddington.
Young was selected to take part in Operation Chastise (also known as Dambusters Raid). The targets were the three key dams near the Ruhr area, the Möhne, the Sorpe and the Eder Dam on the Eder River. It was hoped that the raid would result in the loss of hydroelectric power and the supply of water to nearby cities. The success of the operation involved precision bombing. The cylindrical bombs developed by Barnes Wallis had to be dropped from 60 feet to skip into the dam face and roll down it to explode at a depth that triggered a pressure fuse. The pilots had to judge the critical release point by using dual spotlights whose beams converged vertically at 60 feet.
The aircraft used were adapted Avro Lancasters. To reduce weight, much of the armour was removed, as was the mid-upper turret. The substantial bomb and its unusual shape meant that the bomb doors were removed and the bomb itself hung, in part, below the body of the aircraft. The crews practised over the Eyebrook Reservoir, the Derwent Reservoir and the Fleet Lagoon. The final test flights took place on 29th April 1943.
Operation Chastise began on the night of 15-16th May. The first wave of aircraft, led by Guy Gibson, would first attack the Möhne Dam. Young was the pilot of one of the nine aircraft involved in this bombing raid. The second group was to attack the Sorpe Dam whereas the third group was a mobile reserve and would take off two hours later, either attacking the main dams or bombing smaller dams at Schwelm, Ennepe and Diemel.
Two aircraft piloted by Les Munro and Geoff Rice were forced to return to base following technical problems. Robert Barlow and Vernon Byers were shot down and crashed into the Waddenzee, whereas Bill Astell came down somewhere over Roosendaal.
The first group of aircraft piloted by Melvin Young, Guy Gibson, John Hopgood, Mick Martin, David Shannon, Henry Maudslay, David Maltby and Les Knight arrived safely at their first target. Gibson bombed first but it failed to hit the Möhne Dam. During his run Hopgood aircraft was hit by flak and destroyed. Gibson now flew his aircraft across the dam to draw flak from Martin's run. Martin's aircraft was hit but he made a successful attack.
Young was the next man to go. Guy Gibson recorded that Young's bomb made "three good bounces and made contact (with the dam)." A huge column of water rose and a shock wave could be seen rippling through the lake. The dam was now beginning to break but it did not collapse immediately. David Maltby was now ordered to attack the dam. He later said that "the crown of the wall was already crumbling" and that he could see a "breach in the centre of the dam" before dropping his bomb. Gibson radioed back to headquarters that he could now see a great gap, some 150 metres long, in the dam and a torrent of water that looked "like stirred porridge in the moonlight."
Guy Gibson then led Melvin Young, David Shannon, Henry Maudslay and Les Knight to the Eder Dam. The topography of the surrounding hills made the approach difficult and the first aircraft, Shannon's, made several unsuccessful runs without dropping his bomb. Shannon later recalled: "The Eder was a bugger of a job. I was the first to go; I tried three times to get a spot on approach but was never satisfied. To get out of the valley after crossing the dam wall we had to put on full throttle and do a steep climbing turn to avoid a vast rock face. My exit with a 9000lb bomb revolting at 500rpm was bloody hairy."
Gibson ordered David Shannon to take a break and called up Henry Maudslay to have a go. After Maudslay had two unsuccessful runs, Shannon made another attempt and this time he released his bomb and it hit the target. Maudslay made another run but his bomb hit the top of the dam and the aircraft was caught in the blast.
Only Les Knight had a bomb left. His first run ended in failure but the next one resulted in the bomb hitting the dam. Guy Gibson later recalled: "We saw the tremendous earthquake which shook the base of the dam, and then, as if a gigantic hand had punched a hole through cardboard, the whole thing collapsed."
Joe McCarthy reached the Sorpe Dam alone. It was the most difficult to breach as it was a vast earth dam rather than the concrete structures of the Mohne and Eder dams. McCarthy's aircraft successfully dropped its bomb but it did little damage. Three of the reserve aircraft were directed to the Sorpe. However, they were unable to breach the dam.
Meanwhile, Guy Gibson, Melvin Young, David Shannon, and Les Knight were involved in a dangerous journey to get back to England. Henry Maudslay had started off earlier after his aircraft had been badly damaged while bombing the Eder Dam. However, he was shot down close to the German-Dutch border. At 02.58 gunners at Castricum-aan-Zee managed to hit Young's aircraft and it crashed into the sea.
On 20th May 1943 Guy Gibson wrote to Melvin's father: "It is possible your son was able to abandon his aircraft and land safely in enemy territory." A few days later Melvin Young's body was washed ashore and was buried near Bergen in Holland.
Somehow he always seemed to be in good form and was immensely popular with everyone. He enjoyed playing bridge and we used to have many a game together in the Mess while waiting to go up to Flights. He was also very intelligent and cultured, read a great deal and so was a very good and interesting conversationalist. So far as I can remember he was a good pilot, certainly above average, and threw himself heart and soul into training.
Many people have said what a welcome addition the American destroyers would be to our fleet. I am sure that no one is likely to give them a more hearty and grateful welcome than that given by my crew and myself one afternoon a couple of weeks ago, when, after drifting aimlessly about in a rubber dinghy off the coast of Ireland for a very long time we suddenly saw on the crest of a wave the funnels of a destroyer.
It happened like this: We had been detailed to escort a convoy and had met it inbound at about midday. Several hours later while we were still on patrol, the rear gunner reported a trace of smoke from the starboard engine. I could see very little myself; the oil and radiator temperatures were quite normal and I was not unduly worried. I decided, however, to return to base at once and the wireless operator reported to base that we were doing so. But almost immediately our trouble increased, the engine got very hot - and so did I - and it was only a matter of a very few minutes before we found ourselves cooling rather rapidly in the Atlantic.
Their raft is a huge orange doughnut, and within its circle five men are squatting, one of them frantically waving a canvas paddle aloft. A minute more and they are abeam - hardly 50 yds away. As we sweep by they wave frantically and then sink dejectedly. But we are only manoeuvring to put our ship's bulk between the raft and the wind. In another two minutes we have turned and are coming back. Now our engines are off. We drift slowly toward them. Now they're just abeam. One fellow paddles frantically until the raft bumps the ship's side. Now our propellers boilingly backwater at the command and ropes go writhing down toward their grappling hands. A ship's ladder goes over our side.
But who are they? These staring, bleary-eyed men with salt-drenched blond hair, who sag weakly in the bobbing raft? "Germans!" guesses one of our crew. "We picked some of the blighters up last month. One of their aircraft came down."
"Nah, they aren't!" says another Cockney scornfully. "Look at the uniforms, will ye? They're no Jerries - that's our own RAF". And so it is. The water-soaked horizon blue of the RAF under the orange life jackets - orange because it is the color most vividly contrasting with the sea's blue-green. Numb hands are now reaching up for our ropes. It is much too rough to launch a boat.
One of the aviators rises wildly, unsteadily grapples at a rope, is too weak to wrap it around him, topples into the sea. Instantly a sailor goes over our rail, comes up behind the man with the loose-rolling head and wild eves just out of the water. He ties the rope under his arms and pushes him to the dangling ship's ladder. But he's too weak to manage the rungs with his cold hands and feet, so three sailors pull his sea-chilled body up and over the side. The others with a little help from our sailors mount the wooden rungs and reach the solid safety of steel deck, and are half led, half carried down to the cozy warmth of our wardroom.
This officer has carried out 28 bombing missions involving 230 hours flying as well as 6 convoy patrols on which some 40 hours were spent in the air. His operational flights include attacks on important targets in Germany and Italy. On two occasions he has been forced down on the sea, on one of which he was in the dinghy for 22 hours in an Atlantic gale. On both occasions his courage and inspired leadership, combined with a complete knowledge of dinghy drill, were largely responsible for the survival of his crews. He has always shown the greatest keenness to seek out and destroy his targets.
This officer participated in the first large scale attack on Naples, pressing home his attack, in the face of an intense barrage, with great determination. On another occasion, he bombed the Castel Benito aerodrome and then descended to 1,000 feet to machine gun dispersed aircraft by the light of flares released by other attacking aircraft. At least two aircraft on the ground were set on fire and a gun emplacement silenced.
On a further occasion, when returning to Malta from a raid on Tripoli, a stick of bombs burst on the aerodrome while Squadron Leader Young was landing his aircraft, setting fire to a bomb loaded aeroplane. Displaying great coolness, he completed his landing and avoided obstructions on the runway. He dispersed his aircraft, then took charge of the flare path and had it moved so that the remainder of the squadron were enabled to land safely. This officer has always shown the greatest courage and determination both in the air and on the ground. He has won the entire confidence of his crews.
The plan for the operation was that three waves of aircraft would be employed. The first wave of nine aircraft, led by Gibson, would attack the Mohne Dam, then the Eder followed by other targets as directed by wireless from 5 Group HQ if any weapons were still available. This wave would fly in three sections of three aircraft, about ten minutes apart, led by Guy Gibson, Melvin Young and Henry Maudslay. Melvin was to fly accompanied by David Maltby and David Shannon. The second wave would fly, by a different route to confuse enemy defences, to the Sorpe Darn. Indeed, because this route was slightly longer via the islands off north Holland, the second wave actually took off before the first wave. The third wave, also of five aircraft, was to set off later and act as a mobile reserve to be used against such dams as were still unbroken. In all nineteen Type 464 aircraft and their crews were available. The crews of Divall and Wilson had sickness and one aircraft could not be repaired from damage during training.
The Operational Executive Order required that the raid be flown at low level, not above 500 feet, except between Ahlen, the final waypoint, and the target where the leader of each section should climb to 1,000 feet ten miles from the target, presumably to ensure finding the target with certainty. For reasons of surprise, it would be desirable to fly as low as possible to reduce the chance of being seen by the German radar, and thus risk interception by fighters, and to minimize the time of exposure to anti-aircraft guns (flak). The 500 feet limit was an acceptance that it would be essential to identify turning points accurately and the section leaders would have felt particular responsibility to ensure that they kept to the route, which had been devised to avoid known flak locations as far as possible. After the raid Maltby and Shannon commented that Melvin had shown a tendency to fly higher than them, and they had used Aldis signal lamps to warn him to keep low. For his part he would have been feeling a great responsibility to lead his team accurately. It may also be that, with relatively little recent flying, on his first operation in a Lancaster and his first at all for nearly a year, and with a crew with little operational experience, he was more concerned about hitting obstacles on the ground than they were - he had never seen himself as "the fighter pilot type".
The hazards of low level operations over enemy, territory were such that Harris generally disapproved of using heavy bombers in this role. Operation Chastise was an exception, but the loss on the raid of several aircraft to flak and surface impact supports Harris's general view.
It is with deep regret that I write to confirm my telegram advising you that your son, Squadron Leader Henry Melvin Young D.F.C., is missing as a result of operations.
Squadron Leader Young was a great personal friend of mine and was himself largely responsible for the success of this operation. He was deputy leader of this raid and I watched him drop his load in exactly the right position with great precision. Afterwards we led the raid on the Eder dam and he and I flew on the return journey back to base. Somewhere, however, between the target and the enemy coast he ran into trouble and has not returned.
If as is possible your son was able to abandon his aircraft and land safely in enemy territory, news should reach you direct from the International Red Cross Committee within the next six weeks. Please accept my sincere sympathy during this anxious period of waiting.