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.
Well said and well written Charles. Very moving! What a heroic and principled nation we were with the selfless support of our allies, and what a foolish nation we seem to have become.
My answer is that we defended Europe and the Netherlands by having an independent spirit of mind not through being subverted by a common policy based upon the decrees of unelected bureaucrats. Freedom is what we are fighting for again!
As a much separate comment the Dutch always do these events so well and with so much respect. Well done to them and to all who organised it.
Tony Knight: ‘We’ didn’t ‘defend’ Europe, we fought for our own ends and only survived due to the USA, Soviet Union and the huge resources of the Empire: men & materiel the Nazis could never match – and don’t forget the Belgian and French armies that enabled our escape at Dunkirk, the Poles and Czechs that flew in the RAF etc etc…
Argumentum ad passiones fallacies such as yours are what swung the referendum; such things always appeal to those with think with their emotions rather than their brains.
The EU, which of course includes the UK, is far more democratic than the UK government itself has ever been.
This not the place for such discussions though; all I will say is: be careful what you wish for. You may find the grass isn’t greener in isolation after all.
Wonderful to see that the sacrifice Les made is being remembered in such a moving and respectful manner.
Thank you for all the work you do on the blog — it does much to keep the Dambusters’ memory alive.
A very well written piece, Charles. The annual ceremony held in Arnhem to commemorate ‘Market Garden’ is similarly moving.
With regard to our impending departure from the EU, I’m with Clement Atlee, who held very clear views on the issue – we should never have joined in the first place:
Reblogged this on tesseractorion.
From an Australian perspective (I’ve been here for 50 years now) the current state of affairs in many western countries, but especially in the UK, seems a very depressing betrayal of the idealism that underpinned the allied sacrifices of WW2 and the common hopes for a new order thereafter.
All the best for 2019 Charles. David would have been proud of the contribution you have made.
I very definately second that remark
Very moving and well done to everyone
Dear Charles, thank you for being present in Den Ham in September at the commemoration. Thank you for this moving story. A message of hope, this is the essence for me of your article. It has been a pleasure and privilege to have (co-)organised this commemoration weekend.
Oh dear. The implication is that anyone who voted out of the EU cares not about peace, or the Dutch or German amd people (whoever they are). Remainers still don’t get it!
A Happy New Year.
I agree with all that you say in your latest blog. What strikes me is the way the populations of the European countries which are airmen flew over in 1939-45 have remembered so well the sacrifices made by those brave men. In Britain we tend to forget. Maybe because we were not occupied.
I too hope that Brexit will resolve itself, these things always do. Those that voted for leaving the EU did so, not from a dislike of all things European but, because of the frustrations of the bureaucracy that tends to emanate from Brussels. I voted “remain” but I can understand why people voted otherwise.
Thank you for a wonderful blog and may it continue as ever into 2019!
OF ALL NATIONS BRITAIN HELPED TO SECURE THEIR FREEDOM I HAVE FOUND DUTCH PEOPLE HAVE SHOWED HOW MUCH THEY APPRECIATED OUR HELP,BY PAYING TRIBUTES AT MEMORIALS OF THE FALLEN SO MANY YEARS AFTER WAR AND CONTINUE TO DO SO.
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Good morning from my home in Sydney, Australia.
I was so moved by the post about Les Knight that I forwarded the details on to Dr. Brendan Nelson, Director of the Australian War Memorial in Canberra- I hope you do not mind.
Thank you for all you do in remembering the men of 617 Sq.
Thank you for an excellent article. It is just a pity that you found it necessary to make a political comment at the end, this is certainly not the place to discus Brexit. However, as you raised the subject. The EU has very little to do with peace or democracy and if we had been given a vote we would not have ratified the Maastricht Treaty. What ever one thinks of the UK parliament the UK is the most stable country in the world and has been for centuries. Whilst the EU may have worked with the core countries all with similar economies and standards of living it is cloud cuckoo land to think it will continue to work now that so many countries with markedly lower economies are involved. There is no cliff we are about to fall over all countries will want to carry on trading as they did before and that is exactly what will happen.
I find it very disrespectful making any form of connection with those who gave their lives for our freedom.