A few miles southeast of the city of York, a narrow country lane snakes through flat, fertile farmland, crisscrossed with drainage ditches and hedges of hawthorn and bramble. The skyline is interrupted by stands of poplar, lime and oak, and occasionally the spire of a long-empty church.
Where the lane straightens for a short distance, a small sign marks the entrance to Melrose Farm, one of the many scattered across the landscape in this part of Yorkshire.
The track towards the farmhouse leads past a small single-storey whitewashed building, then through a maze of functional sheds and barns, and bears slightly right through the muddy farmyard, past tractors and feed silos.
Just around the corner, and invisible from the main road, stands something quite remarkable, a window into the past. There, restored to its original state, is the control tower of the old RAF Melbourne, the wartime home of 10 Squadron, and 20 year old wireless operator Jack Clyde and his crew.
A solitary orange windsock hangs limply from a pole, occasionally flapping listlessly in the breeze. The runway is still there, now used occasionally for motor racing and microlight aircraft. Close your eyes and you can almost hear the Merlin engines as the Squadron’s Halifax bombers queued in the dusk for take-off and another perilous journey over Nazi Germany, a journey from which several of the crews would, inevitably, fail to return.
The battered old sails of the windmill at Seaton Ross, a familiar and welcoming sight for the returning crews, are long since gone, although a little of the mill itself remains, now converted into a dwelling.
It is a silent place now, but it is not difficult to imagine the clatter of feet running up and down the concrete stairs of the control tower, the eagerly awaited crackling of the radio in the early hours of the morning, and the roar of engines as the returning Halifaxes began to arrive home.
Once a year, on Remembrance Sunday, the tower comes back to life, as members of 10 Squadron Association crowd inside for tea and biscuits after the service at the Memorial which you will see at the entrance to the farm.
Each year, the number of those present who served here dwindles yet further. Thousands of men passed through RAF Melbourne; there are but a handful of these brave and revered gentlemen left.
During the course of the war, “Shiny Ten” flew more operations than any other 4 Group Bomber Command squadron, at enormous cost. In the nine months Jack spent at Melbourne, fifty-four Halifaxes were lost and 285 of his colleagues killed. Dozens more were taken prisoner of war.
By the time the conflict was over, 835 10 Squadron men had perished, many of whom have no known grave.
The statistics make extremely sobering reading. Over 125,000 aircrew flew with Bomber Command, each man a volunteer; 55,571 of those men were killed, representing losses of 44%, the highest attrition rate of any Allied unit in the Second World War. The average age at death was just twenty-three. A staggering 72% of aircrew were either killed, severely injured or taken prisoner.
Anyone can view the memorial; you can also spot the old guard house and several other wartime buildings scattered around. Entrance to the control tower is by prior arrangement with Mr John Rowbottam, the owner of Melrose Farm.
The original Blacksmith’s Arms, where the Pennicott crew and their comrades downed many a pint, is now a private home; however a couple of miles away in Allerthorpe, you’ll find The Plough, which serves excellent food and a selection of Real Ales. Look out for the 10 Squadron photos and memorabilia which line the walls.
Heading back towards York, pay a visit to the superb Yorkshire Air Museum in Elvington, where you can see the only complete Handley Page Halifax Bomber on British soil; think about Jack Clyde and Pennicott crew and the men who flew the Halifax, especially those who “failed to return”.