Positioned in the centre of the middle row, Sidney Knott, photographed in summer 1942. Taken at 42 Air Gunners Course, No. 1 Air Armaments School, RAF Manby.
Guest post by Susan Paxton
On a mid-March day in 1943 Wing Commander Cosme Gomm, DSO, DFC, looked up as the good-looking young Lancaster Captain entered the room. Gomm had established 467 Squadron, Royal Australian Air Force, four months previously. The Squadron Commander motioned Frank Heavery to a seat.
Measured by the grim realities of life and death in Bomber Command during early 1943, Heavery and his crew were experienced. They had survived 12 operations, including two trips each to Essen and Nuremberg. Heavery respected Gomm. He was a man worth listening to, having completed a first tour on Whitley bombers before flying Beaufighters in the night interception role. Gomm formed 467 at Scampton on November 7 1942 and had taken it to another bomber station, Bottesford, later that month.
Gomm came straight to the point. Air Vice-Marshal Cochrane, 5 Group’s Commander, was charged with forming a “Special Duties” squadron. Cochrane wanted talented crews for this new unit. Gomm looked hard at Heavery: “I don’t want to lose you, but I have made my choice and I have picked you. How do you feel about it?”
Tony Redding, Life and Death in Bomber Command, 2013 revised edition
Sergeant Frank Heavery was uncertain enough to take a vote amongst his crew, and when it came out 3-3, he cast the tiebreaker. No, they would stay at 467 (RAAF) Squadron and finish their tour there: in fact, they would be the first 467 Sqn crew to survive their ops tour. The next crew Gomm asked was less experienced, that of Sergeant Vernon Byers, RCAF. They had three operations behind them, and were posted to the “special duties” squadron, which by that time had its number 617, on 24 March, one of the earliest crews to arrive at Scampton. They would be the first crew to die on Operation Chastise, shot down at 2257 on 16 May 1943 off Texel island on the Dutch coast.
Thanks perhaps to that deciding vote, the young man who was Frank Heavery’s rear gunner is celebrating his 100th birthday today, on VE Day. He is Sidney Knott DFC, perhaps the last surviving “almost Dambuster”, and he voted, incidentally, to go to the “special duties” squadron. After finishing his tour with 467 Squadron, he spent his 6 months rest at 17 OTU, crewed up there with Flt Lt Clive Walker and went with him to 582 Squadron (Pathfinders), finishing his second tour in mid-August 1944 with a total of 64 operations, a promotion to warrant officer, and the award of a DFC which arrived in the mail in 1948, which must have been quite the anticlimax.
There are many interesting people and stories with ties to Operation Chastise, and the “almost” crews are among the most fascinating. Sidney Knott is especially fortunate in having lived to tell his story to author Tony Redding, who wrote it up very ably in Life and Death in Bomber Command, published originally in 2005 and then in a revised edition in 2013. Anyone who wants to understand Bomber Command at the time 617 Squadron was being formed would do well to find a copy.
Happy birthday, Sidney. And thank you.