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. 

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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.

 

Dambuster mothers identified

Premiere mothers
Thanks to Alex Bateman, I’m now able to list the mother of four of the Dams Raid aircrew who attended the Premiere of The Dam Busters and were presented to Princess Margaret. They appear in the Pathé News report of the occasion.
The mothers are: top left, Mrs Florence Hatton, mother of Bill Hatton; top right, Mrs Nellie Knight, mother of Les Knight; bottom left, Mrs Dorcas Roberts, mother of Charlie Roberts; bottom right, Mrs Elizabeth Nicholson, mother of Vivian Nicholson.

Dambuster of the Day No. 57: Leslie Knight

AWM Knight UK0238A

Pic: Australian War Memorial

Plt Off L G Knight
Pilot

Lancaster serial number: ED912/G

Call sign: AJ-N

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

Les Knight was born on 7 March 1921 in Camberwell, a suburb of Melbourne, Australia. 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 Willard.

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.

Les Knight’s crash occurred just outside the village of Den Ham, and he is buried in the village’s general cemetery. The grave was first marked with a simple wooden cross, which was replaced after the war with a Commonwealth War Graves Commission gravestone.

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.
Sources:
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.

Les Knight’s mother at his grave – new picture

A Dutch correspondent, Hans Dekker, who lives in Den Ham, has kindly sent me some exciting rare photographs concerning Flt Lt Les Knight, the pilot of AJ-N on the Dams Raid, who was killed in a later operation on 16 September 1943.
I have told the story of his final flight before, notably in a 2010 obituary of Ray Grayston, his flight engineer, but it bears repeating.
Four months after the Dams Raid eight crews from 617 Squadron were sent out with another new weapon, a 12,000lb ‘thin case’ bomb, to attack the Dortmund Ems canal. It was a terrible night, and heavy fog blanketed the target. Four crews had been shot down when Knight, flying at about 100ft in fog hit some trees, and badly damaged both his port engines.
His tailplane and starboard engine were also damaged, and Knight was left with no option but to jettison his bomb and get his crew to bale out. He held the aircraft steady while they left and when the last man, Grayston, had gone he must have tried to bale out himself. However as soon as he took pressure off the control stick and rudder the aircraft flicked on its back and plunged to the ground. Knight did not get to the hatch in time.
All seven of the rest of the crew (they were carrying three gunners) 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 the village’s general cemetery.
The grave was first marked with a simple wooden cross, which was replaced after the war with a Commonwealth War Graves Commission gravestone.

His mother, Mrs Nellie Knight, visited the grave in about 1954.

Some other members of the Knight family may be in this picture. I would welcome any further information.

Other members of his crew have visited Les’s grave on a number of occasions. Here is Bob Kellow, the wireless operator, probably taken in the 1980s.

Finally, here is the full crew, pictured at Scampton in July 1943, as one of the series of publicity photographs taken by official RAF photographers of members of 617 Squadron.

IWM CH11049

Left to right: Harold Hobday (navigator), Edward Johnson (bomb aimer), Fred Sutherland (front gunner), Les Knight (pilot), Bob Kellow (wireless operator),  Ray Grayston (flight engineer), Harry O’Brien (rear gunner).