At the end of 1943, during what came to be called ‘The Battle of Berlin,’ No. 4 Group Bomber Command, whose headquarters was at Heslington Hall, near York, was expanded by the creation of two new Squadrons. One of those was 578 squadron. It was equipped with the new Handley Page Halifax BIII, a heavy bomber capable of reaching many targets in Nazi Germany.
578 Squadron’s first operation came on the night of 20 January 1944, before the move to Burn. Wing Commander D S SWilkerson 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. This operation was to suffer the first 578 squadron fatality; the aircraft piloted by Sergeant Hugh Melville crashed into the North Sea, fifty miles off Flamborough Head, with the loss of two members of his crew.
578 Squadron finally arrived at RAF Burn in February 1944. During its fourteen month existence the Squadron’s Halifax aircraft flew 2,722 missions against 107 enemy targets. 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 578 Squadron earned one Victoria Cross, 143 Distinguished Flying Crosses (DFC) and 82 Distinguished Flying Medals (DFM).
The Victoria Cross was the only one to be earned by a Halifax crew member, being awarded posthumously to Pilot Officer Cyril Barton.
The Squadron took part in all the major operations of the Bomber Command offensive against Berlin during its brief existence. It also played an important part in the D-Day invasion flying two operations on that day, also suffering some of the first casualties of D-Day when one of its most experienced crews crashed in the English Channel. 578 went on to be part of Bomber Command’s support for the Normandy offensive on 20th July 1944, suffering their worst casualties in a single operation when six aircraft were lost. Today, a memorial stands in Balkholme village in memory of the two crews who perished within sight of their home airfield.
The Squadron was known for its consistent bombing accuracy. This resulted in the granting of the squadron crest shown below with the motto ‘Accuracy’.
The squadron ground crews gained a reputation as being the second to none. Their outstanding service record on the Halifax’s Bristol Hercules XVI engines resulted in an award by the Bristol Aeroplane Company now on display in Burn Methodist chapel.
Two 578 squadron Halifaxes achieved more than 100 operations, a remarkable achievement in these dangerous times. There are now no surviving examples of complete Halifax bombers in the UK, though a fine replica can be seen at the Yorkshire Air Museum at Elvington.
578 Squadron’s final operation took place on 13th March 1945 to Wuppertal. 14 aircraft took part in this daylight raid. No aircraft were lost. 578 Squadron was disbanded shortly afterwards. On the day 578 squadron left Burn for the last time the Squadron flew in formation over Selby and the village of Burn in tribute to the people who had made them welcome over the previous 14 months.
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