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HISTORY OF 578 SQUADRON

At the end of 1943, mid point in the phase of Bomber Command activity known as ‘The Battle of Berlin,’ it was decided that 4 Group, whose headquarters was at Heslington Hall, near York, should be expanded and strengthened by the creation of a new Squadron which would be spawned from 51 Squadron, based at Snaith. The Squadron, to be known as 578, would be based at Burn, a small village less than three miles south of Selby, North Yorkshire.

The Commanding Officer of 51 Squadron at that time was Wing Commander D S S Wilkerson DFC RAFVR, who relinquished this post and set about forming and training the new Squadron, to bring it to full operational standard in the shortest time possible. As a nucleus, he took ‘C’ Flight of 51 Squadron with the intention of moving over to Burn at the end of January 1944. Group Captain N W D Marwood-Elton DFC was appointed Station Commander at Burn, in charge of building up the non operational side of the establishment under the difficult conditions of inclement winter weather.

On 14 January 1944, one hundred and thirty-one ground staff personnel were transferred from 51 to 578 Squadron, arrangements were made with the former to assist in administration and welfare until the move to Burn took place. Two days later, 578 Squadron took on charge fourteen Halifax B Mk III aircraft. Shortly afterwards, one hundred and thirty aircrew were posted in to fly them.

The baptism of fire for 578 Squadron came on the night of 20 January 1944 when Wing Commander Wilkerson led six aircraft to join a total force of 769 ordered to attack Berlin. The following night, six of the Squadron’s aircraft took off to take part in an attack on Magdeburg. Four of them returned safely to Snaith, another landed short at Hutton Cranswick after running short of fuel. This operation was to suffer the first fatality, for the aircraft piloted by Sergeant Hugh Melville crashed in the North Sea, fifty miles off Flamborough Head, with the loss of two members of his crew.

The intention was that the new Squadron should transfer from Snaith to Burn on 28 January 1944, but the date was deferred in order to maintain maximum attacking force over a favourable dark moonless period. As it happened, the Squadron was not required for operations until the last night of January when nine of its aircraft, accompanied by an equal number from 51 Squadron, took part in another successful attack on Berlin. Two nights later, Wing Commander Wilkerson led the Squadron’s contribution of fifteen aircraft, again to Berlin, all to return safely.

During the first week in February 1944, when the weather was not conducive to operational flying, final instructions were given to ground staff officers concerning the move to Burn and to all members of aircrew. Officers were detailed to be in charge of each site to check the labelling of luggage and to oversee the ‘inbussing’ of personnel. The handing in of equipment, was completed and final transport arrangements made.

The move was completed successfully and the first meal at Burn was served to all ranks. Aircraft were unable to fly over from Snaith because of poor visibility, crews were transported by road to their new billets, to be sent back next day, when the weather had improved, to collect their aircraft.

Local practice flying took place to enable crews to become familiar with the layout of their new airfield, and members of the ground staff to find their way around. On 9 February 1944 the announcement was made that 578 Squadron could muster thirteen fully operational crews with two in reserve.

Because continued bad weather restricted flying, a Squadron ‘self help’ programme was set up where each day, individual Flights worked out their programmes, other aircrew, not so required, were set to address various tasks about the airfield, such as widening paths, digging drains, clearing snow and moving furniture.

Thus it was, that in less than one month, a front line, a three flight Heavy Bomber Squadron had been formed, equipped, moved, settled into a new environment and brought into active service, to be supplemented one month later by a third Flight. Truly a meritorious feat of organisation by any standards which must have contributed to the subsequent award of the Distinguished Service Order to Wing Commander Wilkerson.

578 squadron
Some 578 Squadron aircrew 1944

During the busy and eventful fourteen months which were to follow, Group Captain Marwood-Elton had the misfortune of being shot down and taken prisoner of war on 22 March 1944. He was quickly replaced by a new Station Commander, Group Captain J Warburton.

Wing Commander Wilkerson relinquished his Station Command on 23 August 1944 to Wing Commander A G T James OBE who, like his predecessor, chose to support his aircrew by flying on operations with them, as pilot. He, in turn, handed over to Wing Commander E L Hancock on 20 February 1945 who stayed in the post until the Squadron was stood down on 15 March 1945.

Squadron aircraft flew 2,722 sorties in 161 operations against 107 enemy targets, dropping 9,676 tons of bombs. Of the aircraft employed over that period, 46 failed to return from operations or crashed, with a loss of 219 airmen killed and at least 60 others becoming prisoners of war.

Members of the Squadron earned many awards for bravery and exemplary service including the Victoria Cross to Flying Officer Cyril Barton, the only such honour given to a Halifax crew member, two Distinguished Service Orders, 144 Distinguished Flying Crosses and 79 Distinguished Flying Medals, in addition to a posthumous Silver Star for Gallantry in Action, awarded by the President of the United States of America to Wing Commander Wilkerson DSO, DFC.

Veterans of 578 Squadron, without exception, speak and write about the marvellous spirit, of comradeship and outstanding good humour which ‘Wilkie’ had engendered from the outset and continues even to this day.

Almost immediately after the Squadron was disbanded in 1945 the will was there, among all ranks, to continue to meet from time to time, to renew friendships, to remember fallen comrades and to mull over old times. Because of the close links which had developed with civilians in the locality, it was thought that these must be included. Accordingly, 578 Squadron Burn Association was formed to enable members to keep in touch with each other by means of Newsletters and the Annual Re-union held in May.

The full and continuing strength of the Association has been demonstrated in recent years by the erection of Squadron memorials in Selby Abbey, by the wayside and in the Methodist Chapel at Burn in North Yorkshire, at Balkholme in East Yorkshire and at Carpenter’s Wood near Maidenhead in Berkshire. In addition there are private Squadron related memorials at Farnsfield in Nottinghamshire, Tedsmore in Shropshire, Silverstone in Northamptonshire and at Mailley Reineval in Northern France.

source:  ‘Based at Burn Mk II’
Author :  ‘Hugh Cawdron’