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.

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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

IMG_2643 cropped

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.

 

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.

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.
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.