Dambuster of the Day No. 57: Leslie Knight

AWM Knight UK0238A

Pic: Australian War Memorial

Plt Off L G Knight

Lancaster serial number: ED912/G

Call sign: AJ-N

First wave. Third aircraft to attack Eder Dam. Mine dropped accurately causing final breach.

Leslie George Knight was born on 7 March 1921 in Camberwell, a suburb of Melbourne, Australia. He was the older of the two sons of Harold and Nellie Knight. He had planned to become an accountant, but the war intervened. He joined the RAAF in 1941, and was sent to England in the autumn of that year.

After training as a pilot, he formed a full crew while training and, with one exception, they would go on to fly with him throughout the rest of their operational life. The crew was posted to 50 Squadron in September 1942. Knight had flown on some twenty-six operations by March 1943, when the crew were offered the chance to transfer into a new squadron being formed at nearby Scampton for a secret mission. They took a joint decision to transfer together, as his wireless operator, Bob Kellow, later explained: ‘The offer presented to us sounded interesting and with our faith in each member’s ability we made up our minds there and then that we would accept the offer and move over as a crew to this new squadron.’ The crew’s faith was probably because they had together recognised that Knight was an exceptional pilot, even though he couldn’t ride a bicycle or drive a car.

On the Dams Raid, Les Knight was flying AJ-N, the ninth and final aircraft of the first wave of Operation Chastise, tasked with attacking the Möhne and Eder Dams. Five mines had been used at the Möhne before it had been breached, which left only three for the Eder, as Bill Astell had crashed en route. David Shannon and Henry Maudslay dropped their mines but did not break the dam, so Knight’s weapon presented the last chance for success.

After a dummy run, which was dangerous enough for rear gunner Harry O’Brien to record afterwards that he ‘never thought they would get over the mountain’ on the other side of the dam, Knight brought AJ-N into attack. With a bright moon on the starboard beam, the mine was released, bounced three times and hit the dam wall. Knight climbed steeply and, as the aircraft reached a safe height, saw an explosion which caused a ‘large breach in [the] wall of [the] dam almost 30ft below top of [the] dam, leaving top of [the] dam intact.’

Bob Kellow had his head up in the astrodome, looking backwards. It seemed, he said, ‘as if some huge fist had been jabbed at the wall, a large almost round black hole appeared and water gushed as from a large hose.’

The climb after the attack was hair raising. Bomb aimer Edward Johnson said later that it ‘required the full attention of the pilot and engineer to lay on emergency power from the engines and a climbing attitude not approved in any flying manuals and a period of nail biting from the rest of us not least me who was getting too close a view of the approaching terra firma from my position in the bomb-aimer’s compartment.’

But they made it, and headed for home via the Möhne Dam, where they noticed how much the water level had already dropped. The trip back was relatively trouble-free – they avoided some flak bursts near Borken, and Fred Sutherland was able to shoot up a stationary train in a small town. They were very lucky, however, not to have fallen at the final hurdle in an incident which only O’Brien noticed: ‘… at the Dutch coast the terrain rose under us, Les pulled up, over and down. On the sea side of this rise was a large cement block many feet high. This block passed under our tail not three feet lower. As the rear gunner I was the only one to see it.’

Knight received the DSO for his work on the raid, and navigator Harold Hobday and bomb aimer Edward Johnson both got DFCs. Knight however was an abstemious character and although he appears in the ‘morning after the raid’ photograph taken outside the Scampton Officers Mess he skipped the Hungaria Restaurant party after the London investiture.

The crew went back on training after the raid, but the first action they saw was the raid on the Dortmund Ems canal in September. An extra gunner was allocated to each crew, so Knight’s Dams Raid crew was augmented by Sgt L C Woollard.

It was a terrible night, with heavy fog blanketing the heavily guarded canal. Four of the eight crews who took part had already been shot down when Knight, flying at about 100ft in fog, hit some trees and badly damaged both his port engines.

This is one of the stories which Paul Brickhill tells beautifully in his 1951 book, The Dam Busters. With his tailplane and a starboard engine also damaged Knight managed to pull the Lancaster up to about 1,000ft and called his fellow Aussie Mick Martin, who had assumed command after the CO and deputy force head had both come to grief.

‘Two port engines gone. May I have permission to jettison bomb, sir?’ It was the ‘sir’ that got Martin. Quiet little Knight was following the copybook procedure, asking respectful permission to do the only thing that might get him home.
Martin said, ‘For God’s sake, Les, yes,’ and as the bomb was not fused Knight told Johnson to let it go. Relieved of the weight they started to climb very slowly…
The controls were getting worse all the time until, though he had full opposite rudder and aileron on, Knight could not stop her turning to port and it was obvious that he could never fly her home. He ordered his crew to bale out and held the plane steady while they did.

Paul Brickhill, The Dam Busters, Evans 1951, p121

The scene inside the aircraft just before the crew began baling out was further described by wireless operator Bob Kellow in his memoirs:

[W]e had crossed the Dutch/German border and were about half way to the Dutch coast. We all knew that at this height and with only one motor working properly our chances of getting back to England were slim.
Les had asked our rear gunner, ‘Obie’ O’Brien, to go to the front gun turret …
‘OK I’m in the turret, Les. What do you want me to do?’
‘Good, now reach along below my feet Obie and see if you can find a loose, broken cable,’ said Les. ‘It belongs to the starboard rudder. When you find it, pull on it for all you’re worth.’
In a few minutes Obie announced that he’d found the cable and was pulling it.
The plane began to swing slowly to the right. It was only then that I realized that we’d been steadily swinging to the left for the past few minutes. …
‘I’ll have to stop the starboard inner, Les,’ said Ray, our flight engineer.
‘Try to hold it a bit longer, Ray,’ Les replied.
Obie meanwhile warned that his arm was breaking from pulling on the cable and he’d need a break.
‘OK Obie, but pull on it again as soon as you can,’ said Les.
It was clear Les was putting on a superhuman effort to keep our crippled plane on some sort of course, but I knew we couldn’t go on much longer. The plane was down to 1,000 feet and the glide angle was steadily increasing.
‘Send out that we’re bailing [sic] out, Bob,’ Les said to me.
I unhooked my morse key and began tapping out the message.

The crew prepared themselves, and one by one they left the aircraft. Kellow moved forward to the cockpit:

I stood by him as he firmly held the wheel and tried to keep ‘Nan’ on a steady course, making it easier for each man to jump out. Like a sea captain, he wanted to be sure everyone was safely off before he abandoned ship. His parachute was clipped onto his harness and he looked searchingly at me, probably wondering why I hadn’t jumped already.
Using signs, I asked if he was OK. He nodded his answer and a wry smile puckered his mouth.
With a last smile, I gave him the thumbs-up sign, checked my parachute and took my position at the edge of the escape hatch. Then
I bent forward with my head down and tumbled out into the dark Dutch night.

Bob Kellow, Paths to Freedom, Kellow Corporation, 1992, pp21-22

Knight stayed at the controls and attempted a forced landing in a field. He nearly succeeded, but the aircraft hit a bank running across the field and exploded. All seven of the rest of the crew landed safely. Five evaded capture, while two became PoWs. There is no doubt that they all owed their lives to their young pilot, something that they never forgot.

Knight also changed course to avoid crashing into the built-up area of the village of Den Ham. An eye witness, Henk Kremer, who was an eleven year old boy in 1943, wrote the following account in 2018:

At about 3.15am my father woke me telling me that a burning aircraft was flying towards the village. When I looked outside my bedroom window, I saw on the east side of our village a low flying burning aircraft, it was flying towards the village. I remember thinking: this is not going to end well. At that moment, I saw the machine make a slight turn to the right changing his flightpath to a northerly direction. Straight away the aircraft made another course change by turning sharply to the left… I saw the fire at the front of the aircraft had become fiercer. [From the skylight with a view to the north] I saw the aircraft quickly lose height and that the propellors were ablaze. Then the aircraft crashed, and then there was only an intense fire was visible. This happened about 1200 metres from our house.

Another witness, Bertha Bakker, then a teenager, and whose family owned the land next to the crash site, takes up the story:

My father went straight to the crash site. My sister and I just followed my father… The heat was terrifying and very intense. It was terrible to see. I was maybe 100, 200m from the crash… My father was there quicker than the Germans. My father saw Knight in the cockpit and he was crouched over. He was leaning forward. He was not sure but it looked as if he was crouched over in the seat trying to cut himself out of the safety harness. My father saw him burning. It was horrible, just horrible.

The next morning, the Dutch police and the German military cordoned off the area. Knight’s body was removed from the wreckage and a local schoolmaster called Snel took a risk by taking a photograph as this was done. He later took another of the hearse taking Knight’s body to the cemetery.

The body was taken by horse-drawn hearse to the old cemetery in Den Ham by local funeral director Gerrit Meijer, who led the cortège on foot. Dozens of local people (Hammenaren) gathered in the streets and at the entrance to the cemetery to pay their respects, although the Germans prevented them from entering the cemetery. One young boy, Henk Steen, however took a chance and climbed through a hole in the hedge.

I stayed very close to the hedge. The German soldiers saw me but did not send me away. I stood maximum ten metres from where everything was taking place. I saw six soldiers march into the graveyard with a German officer and [preacher] Dominee Meuleman.
Three soldiers stood on either side of the coffin, Meuleman said some prayers and the officer spoke of course in German. I heard him clearly but did not understand much of what he said. I was told later by someone who could understand German that the officer said that he saw Les Knight as a ‘brother-in-arms and not as an enemy’. The officer then ordered the soldiers to shoot a salvo as military salute. This of course was a very honourable thing to say. For years I have thought about what the officer said and conclude: I believe that officer was a good man. There was no way that a Nazi officer would stay anything as noble as that.

Witness quotations from Melvin Chambers, Remembering Dambuster Les Knight, Den Ham, 2018.

It is very clear from all the witness statements that Les Knight deliberately steered away from the centre of the village in an effort to avoid casualties. Another young boy who visited the crash site, Lucas Kamphuis, has said that he was ‘an exceptional person to have the clearness of mind to do what he did.’

The grave was first marked with a simple wooden cross, which was replaced after the war with a Commonwealth War Graves Commission gravestone. There is a granite memorial at the crash site itself, maintained by Lucas Kamphuis and others.

Knight’s 55 page personnel file is available online at the National Archives of Australia. Here is his final ‘casualty notification’. [Thanks to Graeme Stevenson for informing me about this resource.]

Knight NAA file

More about Knight online:
Commonwealth War Grave Commission entry
Wikipedia entry
Westmorland Gazette story about wartime family friend

KIA 16.09.43

Rank and decorations as of 16 May 1943.
Richard Morris, Guy Gibson, Penguin 1995
John Sweetman, The Dambusters Raid, Cassel 2002

Further information about Les Knight and the other 132 men who flew on the Dams Raid can be found in my book The Complete Dambusters, published by History Press in 2018.

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