Les Knight: Dambuster

Les Knight and his crew
Les Knight and his crew

Leslie Gordon Knight, DSO (7 March 1921 – 16 September 1943) was a Royal Australian Air Force pilot who served with the RAF’s Bomber Command during World War II. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Order in 1943 for taking part in Operation Chastise while flying with 617 Squadron. Knight’s crew attacked, hit and breached the Eder Dam, the second dam to be attacked, after his comrades had previously scored one hit and one miss.

Les Knight was born on 7 March 1921 and lived in Bowen Street Camberwell. He had planned to be an accountant, but joined the RAAF in 1941 and by autumn was sent to England.
After training as a pilot, he formed a full crew who went 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 26 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. 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.

While 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 bailed out. 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 Den Ham General Cemetery, The Netherlands. Because he managed to avoid the built-up area of Den Ham, Knight is still regarded as a hero in the village. Knight’s crew members landed safely, owing their lives to their young pilot, something that they never forgot. Five of the men evaded capture and two became POWs.

Local people have organised a weekend commemoration of Les Knight over the weekend of Friday 14-16 September, bringing together members of his family, the families of his crew and local people. Also present will be family members of the local underground resistance movement which helped several of the crew evade capture and return to England. In the 1955 film The Dam Busters, Knight was played by Welsh actor Denys Graham.

And so, with each day, week, month, year passing since that fateful night in September ‘43 Les Knight lies in rest in the old general graveyard in Den Ham. His grave often visited, flowers laid, his headstone cleaned, respects and thanks paid. Les Knight. Never been forgotten by Den Ham.

Les Knight is remembered on a brass plaque inside the Camberwell Uniting Church, 314 Camberwell Road. *With thanks to local resident, Joe Vella, AHSA, Aviation Historical Society, who suggested this article.

In May 1943, the Royal Air Force launched an audacious raid on key war-time manufacturing targets in the Ruhr Valley of Germany – Operation Chastise. The mission became famously known as the Dambusters raid. The key players were Barnes Wallis who designed the innovative bomb used, Guy Gibson who put the No 617 squadron together, the Lancaster bombers and the 113 air crew gathered from Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and America who executed their task with great effect while suffering significant casualties.