A message of hope

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.

Den Ham tributes to Les Knight

Seventy-five years ago last Sunday, the Australian pilot Les Knight died when the aircraft he was flying crashed on the outskirts of the Dutch village of Den Ham. The other seven men in his 617 Squadron crew survived by baling out at low altitude. Over two days last weekend Knight was commemorated in a series of events which brought many local people together with the families of the men who flew with him on his final fatal operation.

A further report will follow later this week, but in the meantime, here are a selection of photographs which gave a flavour of the events. (Photographs courtesy of Wim Govaerts, Harmen Paalman and Herman van der Schuur.)

The Burgemeester (Mayor), Ms Annelies van der Kolk, welcoming guests. (Pic: Wim Govaerts)

The local Juliana brass band, under conductor René Bos. (Pic: Herman van der Schuur)

Several local children read tributes that they had written themselves. (Pic: Wim Govaerts)

Matthew Neuhaus, the Australian Ambassador to the Netherlands, laid a wreath at the memorial marking the spot where Knight’s Lancaster crashed. (Pic: Wim Govaerts)

Plt Off Ali RAF saluting the wreath laid on behalf of the British embassy. (Pic: Wim Govaerts)

A Royal Netherlands Air Force Officer saluting the wreath laid on his force’s behalf. (Pic: Wim Govaerts)

After laying his own tribute, Les Knight’s cousin Graham Simpson spoke to some of the local children. (Pic: Wim Govaerts)

Flypast by three aircraft from the RNAF air display team. (Pic: Herman van der Schuur)

Den Ham resident Lucas Kamphuis, who heard Knight’s aircraft crash at about 0400 on 16 September 1943, and visited the site at first light the same morning. (Pic: Wim Govaerts)

After the wreaths were laid, a queue of villagers formed, wanting to pay their own respects and leave a rose at the memorial. It took more than 15 minutes for them all to do so. (Pic: Wim Govaerts)

The Australian flag flying over the memorial. (Pic: Wim Govaerts)

Melvin Chambers, organiser of the Remembering Dambuster Les Knight event, paying his own respects. (Pic: Wim Govaerts)

The service in the village church on Sunday 16 September featured a reading by Graham Simpson. (Pic: Harmen Paalman)

Local scouts holding floral tributes at the cemetery where Les Knight is buried. (Pic: Harmen Paalman)

Members of the families of Les Knight, Robert Kellow, Sydney Hobday, Edward (“Johnnie”) Johnson and Les Woollard gathered at the graveside of Les Knight. (Pic: Harmen Paalman)

(Pic: Wim Govaerts)

Remembering Les Knight

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Driving through the small Dutch village of Den Ham this afternoon I couldn’t help seeing the large number of houses with this poster in the window. It is part of the RememberingDambusterLesKnight commemoration which is going on this weekend to mark the 75th anniversary of Les Knight’s epic final flight. On 16 September 1943, flying at only 100ft en route to attack the Dortmund Ems canal, his Lancaster hit some trees and was severely damaged. He jettisoned his bomb and gained enough height to allow his crew to bale out. All seven successfully left the aircraft. Realising that he was going to hit the ground, he then piloted his stricken aircraft away from the village of Den Ham and attempted to crash-land in a nearby field. Unfortunately he hit a bank and the aircraft broke up, leading to his death.

The local people have never forgotten his efforts to avoid the civilian deaths which would surely have occurred if he had crashed in their village. This afternoon, there was a turnout of several hundred people at an event near the spot where he came down. Tomorrow, there will be a church service followed by wreath-laying at his grave in the village’s cemetery.

Further report to follow.

Les Knight tribute planned for September in Holland

On 16 September this year it will be 75 years since Dams Raid pilot Les Knight was killed after his aircraft was badly damaged on an operation to attack the Dortmund-Ems canal. He was flying with the same crew with which he had successfully attacked the Eder Dam, and was also carrying an extra gunner, Sgt L C Woollard.

Knight jettisoned his bomb and then stayed at the controls struggling to keep the aircraft airborne while his crew baled out. He nearly succeeded in a forced landing, but the aircraft hit a bank running across a 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’s crash occurred just outside the village of Den Ham, and he is buried in its general cemetery. Because he managed to avoid the built-up area of Den Ham, Knight is still regarded as a hero in the village.

Local people are now organising a weekend commemoration of Les Knight and are bringing together members of his family, the families of all the men in his crew, and local people to honour his name. Also present will be members of the families of the local underground resistance movement which helped several members of the crew evade capture and return to England. The event has already been discussed in the Australian parliament and it is hoped that its government and service representatives will also attend.

The event will take place over the weekend of Friday 14 to Sunday 16 September 2018.

More information about the appeal on this website .

Les Knight and his crew, photographed at RAF Scampton in July 1943. Back row, left to right: Sydney Hobday, Edward Johnson, Fred Sutherland, Bob Kellow, Harry O’Brien. Front row: Les Knight, Ray Grayson. [Pic: IWM CH11049]

Above: Members of the family of Sgt L Woollard, one of the men who baled out safely, pictured on a recent visit to Den Ham. 

Live today: Australian Parliament to discuss Les Knight heroism

Les Knight’s grave, marked by a wartime wooden cross.

Very short notice, I know. However, readers might like to follow this live link to the Australian parliament live feed, where MP Andrew Wilkie will be addressing the chamber at 10.45 am (UK time/11.45 CET) and telling it how the small Dutch village of Den Ham has never forgotten Les Knight’s heroism by saving it from disaster in September 1943.

En route to a low level attack on the Dortmund Ems canal, on the night of 16 September 1943, Knight’s aircraft hit trees and was severely damaged. He  battled for many minutes to keep it aloft while the seven members of his crew all baled out and landed safely. He then piloted the stricken Lancaster away from the village of Den Ham and tried to land in a field. Unfortunately, he hit a hidden ditch and was killed on impact. He was buried by the grateful villagers in the local cemetery.

This coming September, Knight’s grave will be the focal point for a weekend of ceremonies to mark the 75th anniversary of his heroism, and his family and families of many of the crew he saved that night are expected to attend. It is also expected that there will be a delegation of Australian government officials, which is why Andrew Wilkie MP is speaking today. More on this to follow later this week.