THERE is an extraordinary photograph in the 77 Squadron history room at the Yorkshire Air Museum.

It shows a group of young men sitting in the briefing room at RAF Elvington on August 23, 1943. They're mostly young men, leaning forward slightly as they listen, their faces intent as they are briefed on the details of that night’s mission.

Seated second left in the front row of the photograph is a young Pilot Sergeant, Alan Russell Baxter. His legs are crossed, his hands folded neatly on his knees, his lean, ascetic face a picture of calm concentration. "The crew of pilot Alan Baxter did not return that night, having been shot down by a German fighter," reads the caption beneath the photograph. Your heart bleeds for Pilot: Sgt Baxter, and for the other young men in that photograph.

In October 1942, just a little more than 75 years ago, the RAF's 77 Squadron became the first unit to occupy the newly-built airbase at RAF Elvington. The squadron, which began intensive training on the Handley Page Halifax heavy bomber, consisted of about 1,800 aircrew regulars and volunteers from all the allied nations, and was supported by hundreds of ground crew and technical staff, both men and women.

The village of Elvington was completely taken over with hundreds of specially-built living quarters for the men (and for a small number of women in the WAAF), offices, ammunition stores, a briefing room, garages, a gym and a hospital. There are still remains of the buildings to be seen in the fields around the village to this day. The airfield was surrounded by hangars and dispersal bays for the aircraft.

The airfield and the squadron became fully operational the following January, 1943, in time for the most intense period of the bombing offensive against Germany. The squadron, like other bomber squadrons, suffered heavy losses: 72 aircraft were lost during this period, and 529 aircrew were either killed or taken prisoner of war.

In May 1944 the squadron moved to Full Sutton airfield to continue the offensive until the end of the war when it transferred to Transport Command dropping supplies in India and ferrying back prisoners of war.

By the end of the war the squadron had lost a total 890 killed in action and four killed while prisoners of war. A further 216 survived crashes over Europe and became prisoners of war; and 20 successfully evaded capture or escaped. Of those killed in action, 104 are buried in the UK and Ireland, 322 are buried in Germany and the remaining graves are in Belgium, Denmark, Holland, France and Poland. Poignantly, 230 have no known grave and are commemorated at the RAF memorial at Runnynede.

Despite this enormous sacrifice, the squadron - which was was disbanded in 1963, with no surviving RAF links - somehow became the ‘forgotten squadron’.

The opening of the Yorkshire Air Museum in the early 1980s on the squadron's old base at Elvington, however, offered an opportunity. The 77 Squadron Association was formed of surviving veterans, their families and friends.

Members have visited Elvington every year since then (see panel), and through the Association’s website there are an increasing number of people making contact, all interested in the history, or in finding out what their grandfathers, fathers and uncles went through during the Second World War.

The Squadron history room at the air museum is now filled with photographs and memorabilia collected and displayed by veterans.

On the Association's website, meanwhile - there are hundreds of original photographs, many donated by veterans and their families. “A veteran, Mike Varley, started a website in the early days of the internet and when he died last year we were able to take over his stories and histories and add more photographs to create a modern website,” says Rachel Semlyen, the founding chairman of the Yorkshire Air Museum.

Rachel and local historian Van Wilson have also put together a film about the squadron which will be available to order and which they hope will be shown in the Astra cinema at the museum.

So if you want to ensure that 77 Squadron is no longer the forgotten squadron, why not visit the history room next time you're at the museum, and pay your respects?

Stephen Lewis

BLOB To see more photographs of 77 Squadron, visit


Local historian Van Wilson, the 77 Squadron Association's treasurer and membership secretary, never met her father, Pilot Officer Alan May. Although he survived the war he died in a flying accident a few months before she was born. But Van, with her children Toby and Phillippa, were all at a Reunion Dinner at the Yorkshire Air Museum on Saturday September 16 this year, and at the annual service on the Sunday in Elvington’s Parish Church.

At the church there is a stained glass window commissioned by the Association from artist Ann Sotheran, and a Roll of Honour. Van turned the page at the service and veteran pilot, Professor Bill Ballantyne from London, who is now 96, laid a wreath.

Jeff Strain, who is now 94 and lives in Leeds, was a radar technician with the squadron at Elvington and was one of a few technical staff who stayed on to train the French who took over the base in May 1944.

Jeff laid a wreath at the museum memorial before the Reunion Dinner. At the dinner, veteran air gunner, Tom Nash, also in his nineties, gave a moving toast to “Absent Friends".

“We had just three veterans this year,” says Rachel Semlyen, one of the organisers of the event, and the founding chairman of the Yorkshire Air Museum. "Our President Bill Foote DFC was unfortunately not well enough to come and of course we lost a few during the year."

But thanks to the efforts of the 77 Squadron Association, the sacrifice that so many members of the squadron made all those years ago will not be forgotten.