Friday, 7 October 2011

Willie McKnight - Canada's first ace

William Lidstone McKnight was born in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada on 18 November 1918 and grew up in Calgary. The son of a buyer for a grocery company and of a mother who died circa in the 1920s, Willie was a boy with a rebellious personality. After his high school dipoloma he entered the medical school at the University of Alberta but due to his cockiness was almost expelled from the faculty. In February 1939 an RAF recrutiting commission toured Canadian universities; seeking for adventure and trying to leave behind a turbulent love story with a girl named Marian, he enlisted as fighter pilot. He started his flight training in England at No. 6 Flying Training School (FTS), Little Rissington,, Bourton-on-the-Water, Cheltenham
Once again his ebullient personality caused him many problems: he was confined to his barracks at least twice, and he and a classmate (unknown name), were put on open arrest for "being perpetrators of a riot".
When the war broke out in September 1939, fighter cadets were hurriedly qualified as fighter pilot, even if many of them still lacked adequate experience. McKnight was posted to No. 242 Squadron, a unit with many Canadians in its ranks. The squadron didn't see action during the Phoney War, and spent almost five crucial months training for combat operations. The squadron was declared operational on 24 March, 1940.
On 14 May 1940, McKnight began operations over France. Six pilots were initially sent to France to act as reinforcements for No. 605 and 615 Sqns during the final days of the Blitzkrieg; the rapidly advancing panzer divisions forced the unit to change three airfields in six days. On 19 May, McKnight scored his first kill over Cambrai, when his flight of four Hurricanes was attacked by a superior force of Bf 109s. Flying as "tail-end Charlie", he skillfully went into a steep climbing turn which brought him on the tail of one of the diving Germans, thus scoring the squadron's first victory over France.
On May 21, the No. 242 Squadron was pulled back from the frontline and its pilot were given a seven days leave which was cancelled two days later when the British Expeditionary Force was forced to retreat around Dunkirk.
The situation was extremely dangerous, so much that the squadron was forced to operate from French airfields during daylight and to retreat at RAF Manston during nights. Willie McKnight flew during the fierce battles over Dunkirk's shores,  becoming an ace in 48 hours between 31 May and June, when No.242 claimed 13 enemy aircrafts. McKnight was credited with two Bf 110s and a Bf 109 on the 31st, and two Ju 87s the following day.
By 7 June, when the unit covered the evacuation of BEF troops from Biscay ports, McKnight had reached 10 kills, becoming the unit's top scores, followed by his friend-rival Stan Turner, 7 kills.
In the few weeks of the Battle of France he lost twenty-seven pounds and suffered from sleep deprivations and stomach problems. Despite his sickness he found time to have a brief affair with a young French girl who was on the run from the now threatened Paris:
This girl and I, took a flat in Nantes and had a hell of a time for about two weeks. . . I tried to smuggle the girl back on one of our bombing planes but one of the few big noises left in France caught me and raised a merry hell. It was too bed because she was certainly one first class femme - she had been to university and was a modiste until the Hun started toward Paris when she had to evacuate and then I ran into her. (Ralph, Wayne. Aces, Warriors and Wingmen: The Firsthand Accounts of Canada's Fighter Pilots in the Second World War)
After the fightings, McKnight was admitted to hospital in July 1940 for a rest.
lettera
Having lost 11 pilots over France, No. 242 Sqn needed to be reassembled and was thus given a new commader, the famous legless Douglas Bader. he quickly whipped the unit back into shape and selected new flight commanders. He quickly noticed McKnihgt skills and selected him as his wingman. In his post-war biograhpy "Reach for the Sky", Bader recalled that McKnight was tipically Canadian: fearless and aggressive. He also recalled had a taste for romantic music, and used to play and replay his collection of Bing Crosby records at the officers' mess.
No. 242 Sqn was assigned to No. 12 Group. In the early phases of the Battle of Britain, the area of the Midlands, which the air group was tasked to protect, received few attacks, but at the end of August the squadron moved to RAF Duxford and was soon involved in action, when on the 30th intercepted He 111s escorted by Bf 109s and 110s. Sqn Ldr Bader scored two kills and his wingman McKnight claimed two Bf 110s and one He 111.
McKnight scored again on 9 September when Bader coordinated three squadrons into a single unit putting into practices his concept of "Big Wing". Despite claiming two kills on that day McKnight's Hurricane was badly damaged and he made it back to base with one aileron shot away. Another two kills came on 18 September, and on 5 November the Canadian scored his last kill hitting a Bf 109 and forcing the pilot (Fw Scheidt, JG 26) to bail out.
During the fightings of the Battle of Britain, McKnight's merits were recognized with a Distinguished Flying Cross on 30 August, and a Bar added in September.
By the end of 1940, P/O McKnight had claimed 17 kills, plus 2 shared and three unconfirmed. To give details of these kills is difficult, as sources are contradicting: a possible list of kills is the following. Please note that it is a personal reconstruction created using different bibliographical sources.

  • 19 May, 1940: Bf 109
  • 28 May, 1940: Bf 109
  • 29 May, 1940: Bf 109 (plus 1 unconfirmed)
  • 29 May, 1940: Do 17
  • 31 May, 1940: Bf 110
  • 31 May, 1940: Bf 110
  • 31 May, 1940: Bf 109
  • 1 June,   1940: Ju-87
  • 1 June,   1940: Ju-87 (plus 2 unconfirmed)
  • 30 Aug,  1940: Bf 110
  • 30 Aug,  1940: Bf 110
  • 30 Aug,  1940: He 111
  • 9 Sept,   1940: unidentified 
  • 9 Sept,   1940: unidentified
  • 18 Sept, 1940: Do 17, plus a shared Ju 88
  • 5 Nov,   1940: Bf 109
By the beginning of 1941, the RAF chose to carry out offensive operations across the Channel, initiating a series of missions nicknamed Circuses and Rhubarbs. Circuses were flown by small bomber formations with strong fighter escort, while the latter were undertaken by pairs of fighters. The damage inflicted to the enemy was modest, and even worse a heavy price was paid for these useless missions when many skilled and experienced pilots were lost for no results.
The first Circus was flown on 12 January, 1941 by No. 242 Sqn, led by McKnight's friend,  Flt Lt Stan Turner. Two days later it was Willie's turn, when together with Turner himself and Sqn Ldr Bader the unit flew its first Rhubarb mission.The Hurricanes headed for France at low altitudes a ran into German E-boats, attacking them. McKnight was flying in P2961/LE-A with wingman Marvin Brown: the pair was fired by accurate anti-aircraft fire. Brown made it back to base, while McKnight went missing. The circumstances of his death are still uncertain today, neither his plane or his body hves never been found.
Some recent sources claim that McKnight might have been shot down by Fw. Helmut Brugelmann of 8./JG 26, but the majority of scholars seems to agree that the Canadian ace was downed by Flak. He died at the age of 22.
Flying Officer Willie McKnight has no known grave; his name is inscribed on the Runnymede War Memorial, Englefield Green, Egham, Surrey, Uk.

Calgary's McKnight Boulevar, near the airport, is named after him.
Today, McKnight is famous through modellers and SIM players for his personal nose art, representing a human skeleton image which held a sickle in its hands, painted on both sides of his cockpit.
References

Halliday, Hugh. The Tumbling Sky. Stittsville, Ontario: Canada's Wings, 1978
Holmes, Tony. Hurricane Aces 1939 - 1940. London: Osprey Publishing. 1998
Ralph, Wayne. Aces, Warriors and Wingmen: The Firsthand Accounts of Canada's Fighter Pilots in the Second World War. Toronto: Wiley, 2005.

2 comments:

  1. Thank you for all this info for an aging Canadian living in Salisbury,UK and fascinated by the last real air battles on earth.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thanks Owen. I'm glad you liked it. Thanks a lot!

    ReplyDelete