This queue of Dutch citizens of Den Ham wanting to pay their own respects to Les Knight by laying a rose at his memorial took more than 15 minutes for them all to do so. (Pic: Wim Govaerts)
On this last day of 2018 it seems appropriate that I recall here what turned out to be my most life-enhancing experience of the year. Various domestic events have prevented me recording this in detail before now, but it had such a profound effect on me that I wanted to share it with you, even though it occurred more than three months ago.
I wrote in September about how I had been to the small Dutch town of Den Ham, about 30km from the border with Germany. The occasion was to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the death of the Australian Les Knight, one of the pilots who had taken part in the Dams Raid a few months before. While flying on a foggy night on another dangerous low-level operation to attack the Dortmund-Ems canal, his aircraft struck some trees and was badly damaged. He managed to gain enough height so that his crew of seven men could bale out and then he attempted a forced landing in a field just outside Den Ham.
Eyewitnesses said that they saw him change course to avoid landing in a built-up area. Unfortunately, he hit a hidden ditch in the field, the aircraft caught fire and he died. The seven other men all landed safely. Two were captured but the other five all escaped and with the help of the local resistance, ended up crossing the Pyrenees into neutral Spain. One of his crew, Fred Sutherland, is still alive and well and living in Canada.
Not surprisingly, Knight is regarded as something of a hero in the town. He was buried the next day in the local cemetery, in a hastily arranged service which most of the local population attended, despite being ordered not to by the occupying German forces. A granite memorial stone has now been erected at the crash site itself and it was near there on Saturday 15 September that the main commemoration took place. Several hundred people attended, and listened to speeches by the mayor, local politicians, community organisers and the Australian ambassador. Little children with cute Dutch pigtails read out poems. And a brass band played a selection of hymns and the Dam Busters march. They ended with the Last Post, and this was followed by two minutes silence. One of the quietest and deepest two minutes silence I have ever attended, and terribly moving.
We then walked down the road to the memorial itself. As we left the gates of the field, we were all handed a single rose. A number of wreaths were laid at the stone and then I watched as a queue of ordinary Dutch citizens shuffled slowly forward, bearing their rose. Many were far too young to have been in the war but some were older people who had lived as children in the town when it was occupied. As each one paused for a moment at the monument and laid the flower at its base I realised the significance of what was going on.
The Australian ambassador to the Netherlands, Matthew Neuhaus, who had spoken a little earlier, summed up the event well. During the war, he said, many thousands of his compatriots had travelled halfway across the world to fight for peace and freedom. Many of these had never returned and are buried in graves across Europe, and he reminded us how important events like these were for preserving the memory of courageous individuals and for preserving the memory of the horror of war.
He went on: ‘They are also important for reminding us that it is only with co-operation, compassion and a shared dedication to a just and peaceful world, bound together by common rules and values, that we can avoid a repeat of those horrors and ensure the sacrifices of Les Knight and others were not in vain.’
The following day, the local Pastor, Rev Tijs Nieuwenhuis, spoke at a packed service in the town’s church. He recalled how his father, a devout man, had told him how during the war years he would hear Allied bombers passing overhead during the night and pray for their safe return. He was convinced that a tyrannical regime based on ‘injustice, hate, nihilism, race discrimination and mass murder’ would ultimately be destroyed. Les Knight was himself a devout Christian, the Pastor said, and he went on to give up his own life so that others might live. ‘We may be thankful that our generation has been spared the need to discover whether we could match the impossible sacrifices that [he and others] made,’ he concluded.
During the weekend, I was asked several times just why the UK was about to leave the common enterprise which had begun with the express intention to defend the peace which had arrived in 1945. Why would the British people, who had fought so valiantly for victory, not want to be part of this project, for all of its faults? A Europe which had pledged that there should be no more wars, where Dutch, German and people from many other nations could come together on an early autumn day in 2018 to commemorate a young Australian who had travelled thousands of miles from his homeland to die fighting for peace and justice, and who had thereby saved the lives of many others.
I had no answer to this. All I can hope is that, somehow, somewhere a solution will be found and the madness will cease. One of the things I have learnt from the ten years I have devoted to this blog is just how much our Dutch, German and other European friends value our contribution to the shared peace which has existed in Europe for over seventy years.
And on that note, may I wish all the readers of this blog the compliments of the season and a very happy and peaceful New Year.