Orders, Decorations and Medals (8 September 2015)
Date of Auction: 8th September 2015
Sold for £12,000
Estimate: £15,000 - £20,000
Knilans had joined the Royal Canadian Air Force before America came into the war and had just recently been transferred. Now a '’Lootenant’ in the U.S. Air Force, he wanted to stay and finish his tour in the R.A.F., and had a row with his crew when he had them posted with him (without telling them) to 617. They claimed it was a suicide squadron, but, as Knilans pointed out, few people on 619 had ever finished a tour either, so it didn’t make much difference. The crew was even more unhappy when Knilans suddenly seemed to develop into an exceedingly hamfisted pilot. He was given a new aircraft, ‘R Roger’, when he joined 617 and could not make his usual three-point landings any more; even the take-offs were frightening, as ‘R Roger’ seemed most reluctant to leave the ground, and when she did leave climbed like a tired duck. ‘Give the game away, Nicky,’ one of his gunners said. ‘You’re getting flak-happy. You can’t even fly any more.’
‘Doggone, it’s not me,’ said the badgered American. ‘It’s this bloody-minded aircraft. You don’t have to fly it, you have to understand the son of a bitch.’
At length, the causes of R Roger’s terrifying tendencies were ascertained. Paul Brickhill’s The Dambusters, continues:
‘On 1 June Avro experts fitted new automatic pilots in the Lancasters for the D-Day operation, and Nicky Knilans at last found out why his much-cursed ‘R Roger’ flew like a lump of lead. They found it needed longer elevator cables than the others, inspected to find out why and discovered that the elevators had been put on upside down at the factory. Knilans had been flying it for months like that and, as Cheshire said, ‘Only you and God, Nicky, know how you stayed up.’
‘Not me, sirrrr,’ Knilans said in his American drawl ... ‘Only God. I didn’t know.' At any rate he was very relieved, but not so much as his crew. ‘R Roger’ had so often frightened them.’
The outstanding Second World War D.S.O., D.F.C. group of eleven awarded to Major H. C. “Nick” Knilans, United States Army Air Forces, late Royal Canadian Air Force, attached Royal Air Force, who somehow survived a spate of hair-raising sorties in 619 and 617 Squadrons in the period May 1943 to October 1944, the majority of them under Cheshire, V.C. and “Willie” Tait.
On being ‘grounded’ after the attack on the Tirpitz in September 1944, he had flown over 50 operational sorties, including thirteen when his aircraft had been damaged by flak or night fighters and seven when he had been compelled to return to base on three engines.
It was an extraordinary operational record, a record vividly described by Chaz Bowyer in Bomber Barons and one that won him an impressive array of American, British and Canadian awards: yet he wore only the ribbons of his D.S.O. and D.F.C., for fear of being labelled ‘a bragging Yank’.
A superb pilot, he was ‘saved’ by the intervention of Cheshire on the occasion he ‘buzzed’ 617’s Officers’ Mess at the Petwood Hotel: his Lancaster roared over the roof with only two or three feet to spare and so frightened a W.A.A.F that she dropped the entire contents of a tea tray over the Station C.O., Group Captain Philpott.
Such antics aside, Knilans was deadly serious about operations - ‘flying into combat night after night, to me, was not very funny. It was a cold-blooded battle to kill or be killed’: it was for just such reasons that he refused to have ‘a scantily clad girl’ painted on the nose of his aircraft.
Distinguished Service Order, G.VI.R., 1st issue, silver-gilt and enamel, the reverse of the suspension bar officially dated ‘1943’; Distinguished Flying Cross, G.VI.R., the reverse officially dated ‘1945’; 1939-45 Star; Air Crew Europe Star; Defence and War Medals 1939-45, silver; Canadian Voluntary Service Medal 1939-45, with overseas clasp; U.S.A., Distinguished Flying Cross; U.S.A., Defense Service Medal; U.S.A., European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal; U.S.A., Victory Medal 1945, together with the recipient’s R.C.A.F. cap badge and ‘Operational Wings’ with Bar, his U.S.A.A.F. metalled Wings and identity discs, and his fraternity ring, with ‘Pilot Officer U.S.A.A.F.’ and R.A.F. motto as legends, obverse red enamel badly damaged on the first, reverses with glue stains from old display mounting, otherwise generally very fine or better (Lot) £15,000-20,000
FootnoteThe awards of the recipient’s D.S.O. and D.F.C. were not announced in the London Gazette owing to his American citizenship and the fact he was a 1st Lieutenant, United States Army Air Force, on attachment to the Royal Air Force, at the time.
D.S.O. submitted to the King in December 1943. The original recommendation for an immediate award states:
‘In an attack on Kassel on 3 October 1943, this officer was captain of a Lancaster which was attacked on the route to the target by an enemy fighter. In spite of the rear turret being put out of action and the gunner killed , he carried on and bombed the target. On the 26 November 1943, Lieutenant Knilans was captain of an aircraft taking part in the attack on Berlin when two enemy fighters intercepted. One damaged the mid-turret and put an engine out of action. In spite of this, the captain manoeuvred his aircraft so that no further damage was sustained while one of the fighters went down on fire and the other was damaged by the fire of the rear gunner. Although still well over two hundred miles from the target, the captain decided to continue, bombed from a low height and obtained a photograph of the target. On return to this country it was found that one wheel was damaged but in spite of this, the aircraft was landed successfully in bad weather. Lieutenant Knilans has made seventeen sorties and throughout shown outstanding airmanship and captaincy.’
D.F.C. submitted to the King in March 1944. The original recommendation states:
‘This officer has been operating with a special duties squadron and participated in many sorties against small and precise targets, vital to the enemy’s war effort. These attacks have been made in daylight and from low altitude in the face of intense enemy opposition from the ground. Lieutenant Knilans has participated in sorties against flying bomb and rocket installations and submarine pens at Brest, Lorient and Le Havre and by his imperturbability, courage and efficiency he has contributed largely to the successes achieved.’
Hubert Clarence “Nick” Knilans was born in Delevan, Wisconsin in December 1917, the great-grandson of an Irishman who had emigrated from Co. Tyrone to the U.S.A. in 1848; his grandfather had fought in the American Civil War. His father was a farmer and, on leaving high school, young “Nick” worked on the family farm during the depression of the 1930s.
Drafted for military service in April 1941, Knilans was immediately granted a deferment to continue working on his father’s farm, even though he was then employed as a private detective for ‘Dukes Detective Agency’ in Chicago. In truth, he wanted to join up as soon as possible but his ambition to become a pilot in the U.S.A.A.F. would have been thwarted by his lack of a college degree. Accordingly, he decided to apply to the R.C.A.F. and, having withdrawn his meagre savings from the bank, made his way to Canada.
Duly accepted by the R.C.A.F., he was officially enrolled at Windsor, Ontario on 25 October and commenced his pilot training at St. Eugene, Ontario in March 1942. Advanced to Sergeant on gaining his ‘Wings’, he was embarked for the U.K., where he attended further training establishments and No. 19 O.T.U. in Scotland.
619 Squadron: home on three engines with alarming regularity
In June 1943, he was posted to No. 619 Squadron, a Lancaster unit operating out of Woodhall Spa, Lincolnshire. Here, then, the commencement of his remarkable operational career: 18 months of uninterrupted active service with countless ‘close calls’.
His first two sorties, flown as 2nd Pilot in July, were against targets in Cologne and Turin on the nights of 8th and 12th. Both outings led to encounters with enemy night fighters, one of them, a Ju. 88, being shot down by his gunners as their Lancaster neared the Alps en route to Turin.
Knilans was now given his own command and, on the night of 24 July, as part of “Operation Gomorrah”, attacked Hamburg. Owing to a faulty altimeter, however, his landing at Woodhall Spa proved perilous in the extreme. Chaz Bowyer’s Bomber Barons takes up the story:
‘Arriving over base again, Knilans let down for landing but, due to a faulty altimeter, almost nosed into the ground. His port wing dipped into a gravel pit, hit a sand bar, then at full boost staggered upwards, barely above stalling speed. Slashing its way through the tops of a tree grove, the Lancaster almost decapitated several airmen's wooden huts at the edge of the copse before finally gaining a little height. Circuiting cautiously, Knilans ignored his altimeter, relying on his own vision, and brought the aircraft safely down. As he shut down engines in his dispersal hardstanding, he glanced at the altimeter - it was registering 960 feet altitude! Once outside the aircraft, Nick inspected the port wing engines - both had their propellers neatly curled at every tip. The time was 0435 hrs. on 25 July.’
Knilans was back on operations the following night, attacking the Krupps Works in Essen. Over the target, he saw one of our Lancasters coned by searchlights and surrounded by hundreds of flak bursts. Suddenly, the stricken bomber careered towards Knilans, bringing with it the enemy’s fire and his own Lancaster shuddered under the impact of several hits. Notwithstanding the resultant damage, he continued on his bombing run, although he ensured it was a swifter than usual approach. On returning to Woodhall Spa, the full extent of the flak damage was apparent: a shell had passed clean through the main petrol tank without exploding - leaving holes big enough to fit his leg in - while one steel sliver had sliced the glycol lines to the engine radiator, hence his first trip back on three engines.
On the night of 27-28 July, Knilans returned to Hamburg, the resultant firestorms of “Operation Gomorrah’ now having taken hold. Knilans sets the scene:
‘We began to see a glow on the horizon some 100 miles from Hamburg. It grew to a tremendous sea of fire lighting ground and sky for miles around. The seething flames were rearing upwards several hundred feet to merge into a column of smoke. This fiery column rose up to 20,000 feet.’
As it transpired, the fiery column of smoke proved to be Knilans’ saviour - he sought its cover after being jumped by an enemy night fighter - ‘like a shark coming from the depths’. He continues:
‘I had my oxygen mask on but the smoke began to make my eyes water. I turned some more, still inside the smoke, before coming out into the clear sky again. The bandit was gone. The trip home and the landing were uneventful.’
He was to return to Hamburg on the night of 2-3 August, this time amidst stormy conditions. Bomber Barons takes up the story:
‘He took off in a heavy, gusting rainstorm - ‘like flying into a bottle of ink - and on reaching Hamburg found the still-burning city covered by a massive thunderhead. Having his position plotted quickly, Knilans made a timed run to target, plunging into the heart of the glowering storm clouds. No sooner into cloud than he felt the Lancaster forced into a dive by an immense down-draught, with the crazily-dancing blue streaks of St. Elmo’s Fire flowing over the windshield and wings. Rime ice began forming on wings and propellers, breaking away to hammer the fuselage like frozen flak.
At 14,000 feet Knilans gave the order to drop bombs, hit an up-draught and promptly pushed his control column fully forward with fully applied starboard rudder. The Lancaster shot upwards again, emerging from the clouds at 21,000 feet with the starboard wing nearly vertical. Flying south of Bremen before turning for the home run, Knilans and his gunners warded off a half-hearted attack by a night fighter along the way but reached base without further problems. Afterwards, a flak shell hole was found in the starboard elevator, just two feet from the rear turret.’
Unusually for Knilans, his next few sorties passed without serious incident, namely attacks on Mannheim, Milan and Munchen Gladbach in August. He was commissioned Pilot Officer and, having made two trips to Hanover and another to Mannheim in September, took-off on his ‘unlucky thirteenth’ sortie - a strike on Hagen on the night of 1-2 October. Owing to lost oil pressure he had to feather his starboard inner engine over the target and return to base on three engines. The cause of the fault was subsequently revealed by his ground crew at Woodhall Spa: a ‘friendly’ incendiary bomb had penetrated the starboard inner engine, severing the oil and petrol feed lines - but failed to ignite.
Another run-in with night fighters - loss of Rear Gunner
Tragically, no so luck favoured Knilans - or more precisely his rear gunner - on his next sortie. Bomber Barons takes up the story:
‘On the night of 3 October Nick and his crew were in good humour. The rear gunner, Gerry Jackson, had been presented with a newborn son by his young wife in Dumfries, Scotland the previous day; moreover, the whole crew were due for a nine days’ leave next morning. Climbing in to JB131, ‘T-Tommy’, they left base at 1844 hrs. and set course for Holland on the first leg of a raid against Kassel. Two and a half hours later, as Knilans made his turn for the second leg to fly between Munster and Hamm, his wireless operator reported a blip on his Monica radar set but thought it might be another Lancaster some 300 yards further back and lower. Knilans rolled his aircraft to starboard to let his gunners get a better view, but as he straightened out again a stream of tracer cannon shells and bullets came up through the port wing, just two feet from Nick's head, while other cannon shells thudded into the fuselage.
Instinctively diving hard away, Knilans yelled to his gunners, ‘Where is he now?’ Only the mid-upper gunner, Roy Learmouth, replied, telling his skipper that his perspex had been shattered and splinters had hit him in the eyes. From the rear turret came only silence. The first burst had exploded inside Jackson's turret, killing him outright. Other damage included the port inner engine, which had to be feathered, and (as Nick found later) the tail assembly and port main wheel had suffered.
Though now without any defences against further fighter assaults, Knilans decided to complete the sortie. Reaching Kassel, he duly bombed it, then worked his way into the part-protection of the main bomber stream for the return journey. On the way home one of his crew confirmed damage to the port main wheel tyre, so Nick decided against landing quickly at Marston - a grass airfield which might produce a ground-loop on landing, hence possible disaster - and instead flew back to Woodhall Spa. Here, with no little skill and sheer muscle power, Knilans managed to land with one wheel and three engines without crashing. As soon as he clambered out of the Lancaster, Knilans went to the tail turret which had yet to be opened. Prising the jammed sliding doors apart, Nick extracted the body of his dead gunner and put him in the nearby ambulance. Gerry Jackson now would never see the face of his newborn son.’
Transfer to the U.S.A.A.F.
After two more sorties - including a return trip to Kassel on 22 October when his aircraft was again hit by flak and returned home on three engines - Knilans was informed by the Squadron Commander that he was to be transferred from the R.C.A.F. to the U.S.A.A.F. Ten days later, after gaining sanction to see out his tour of operations, he pitched up at Woodhall Spa in the uniform of a 1st Lieutenant, U.S.A.A.F. Now the recipient of a 50% bonus for operational flying, he drew the same salary as his station C.O., a Group Captain.
D.S.O. - American D.F.C.: ‘words cannot do justice to the outstanding courage displayed by this officer’
Returning to operations with 619 Squadron, he was assigned to attack the Big City on three occasions in the period November 1943 to January 1944. Of these latter sorties, the night of 26 November was particularly memorable. Bomber Barons takes up the story:
‘At 5 p.m. on 26 November 1943 the first of sixteen Lancasters from 619 Squadron took off from Woodhall Spa, each loaded with a 4,000 lb HC ‘Cookie’ blast bomb nestling among some 3,000 lb of incendiaries in the bomb bays. The target was primarily Berlin, but twelve of the Lancasters had been briefed to drop their loads on Frankfurt en route as a feint diversion attack, hopefully to draw the Luftwaffe defence fighters away from the main bomber stream's path to the Big City. In the case of Lancaster 111, ED859, ‘V-Victor’ the feint was rather too successful. As it approached Frankfurt at 20,000 feet a Junkers Ju. 88 bore in from dead astern, closed to 150 yards, then raked the bomber with a hail of cannon shells. Four more times it closed with its intended victim, its fire shattering the port inner engine and destroying the port tail elevator, before the Lancaster’s air gunners finally shot it down in flames. Even as the doomed Ju. 88 plunged to earth, a second German, a Messerschmitt Bf. 110, attacked the corkscrewing bomber from the port beam. As it passed closely over the Lancaster, it ran straight through a burst of fire from the gunners, jinked away to starboard, then disappeared into the blackness.
The damaged bomber steadily lost height as its pilot [Knilans] fought for control, finally levelling out at some 13,000 feet. Taking stock of his situation, the pilot decided to press on to Berlin on his remaining three good engines - another 200-plus miles to go to target. Reaching the city, he lowered his seat to avoid being blinded by the dozens of searchlights weaving around him, then put the crippled aircraft into a shallow dive to start his bombing run. Running the fierce flak barrage, he saw cascades of incendiaries and ‘Cookies’ raining down from the main force well above him, while to one side he caught a glimpse of another bomber jettisoning its entire bomb load only seconds before it exploded in an horrific gout of flame. Concentrating on his instruments, the Lancaster captain made his bomb run through the inferno and emerged apparently unscathed. Setting course for home he found his aircraft was still slowly losing height and he eventually crossed the Dutch coast at merely 2,000 feet altitude. On arrival over his base airfield, however, he found that his problems were not over - a thick blanket of ground fog precluded landing there and he was diverted to Spilsby. Here, still with only three good engines, and a punctured main tyre, he finally landed safely. Of his companion skippers on that sortie, nine had made landings at other airfields, one of these crashing in the fog and killing his crew, while Lancaster ‘S-Sugar’, with ruptured fuel tanks from the Berlin flak, managed to reach the mouth of the Humber before running out of petrol and baling out. Eventually, twelve hours after actual take-off, the skipper of battle-scarred ‘V-Victor’ tumbled thankfully into his own bed.’
He was recommended for - and awarded - the D.S.O., in addition to the American D.F.C., the latter distinction actually being signed-off by “Willie” Tait on 10 September 1944. In concluding his account of events on the night of 26 November 1943, Tait stated, ‘words cannot do justice to the outstanding courage displayed by this officer and the superb skill with which he inflicted damage on the enemy while bringing his aircraft and crew safely home.’
Knilans’ final trip with 619 Squadron was an attack on Stettin on the night of 5-6 January 1944. On the return trip he was alerted to a ditched crew off the Danish coast and set in motion a successful rescue by an A.S.R. seaplane.
The bombing of civilians - “Operation Gomorrah” being a case in point - had been playing on Knilans’ mind; he wanted to continue his operational career but on the basis of attacking precision targets. His answer lay in a transfer to 617 Squadron and he duly volunteered his services - and those of his crew without their knowledge. On the basis that casualties were invariably heavy in any Bomber Command unit, his crew elected to stay with him; after all, Knilans had already brought them home from countless episodes over enemy territory.
Bomber Barons sets the scene:
‘On 8 and 9 January 1944, Knilans’ former unit, 619 Squadron, moved to Coningsby, and 617 Squadron moved in to Woodhall Spa from Coningsby. It meant that Knilans could remain in the Petwood Hotel Officers' Mess - 'the best damn foxhole I would ever find for shelter'. At that period 617 Squadron was commanded by Wing Commander Leonard Cheshire, D.S.O., D.F.C., and was carrying out pin-point precision attacks on vital objectives. Among its crews were several hardened veterans in bombers, including Micky Martin, the 'low-level' specialist, Dave Shannon, Les Munro, Joe McCarthy, another American, and Bill Reid, holder of a Victoria Cross. It was a somewhat elite company to be joining, but Knilans was not over-awed. He knew too well that the Grim Reaper played no favourites in his grisly selection process - veteran or tyro, all could be chopped with equal ease.’
Knilans’ first sortie with 617 was in Lancaster ME 561, ‘R-Roger’ to attack a V-weapon site in the Pas de Calais area on 25 January 1944. The sortie went without a hitch, but as described in the introduction above, ‘R Roger’ was to prove a cumbersome steed. In February, Knilans’ participated in the attack on the Gnome-Rhone engine works at Limoges, a highly successful raid captured on film by an R.A.F. photographer in Cheshire’s aircraft; so, too, on the Antheor Viaduct, a heavily defended target that loomed up on 617’s horizon on several occasions. On the occasion of Knilans’ visit on the 12th, Micky Martin’s Bomb Aimer, Bob Hay, was killed by a 20mm. flak shell - on seeing Martin’s aircraft caught in the searchlights, Knilans’ rear gunner, Roy Learmouth, did his best to take some of them out.
On the night of 2-3 March, Cheshire led 15 of 617’s Lancasters to the aircraft factory at Albert. In common with the Gnome-Rhone raid, and as described in No Passing Glory, by Andrew Boyle, it was a notable success:
‘Within a quarter of an hour the two factories were enveloped in flames. Every bomb but one had struck home; and this exploded harmlessly well away from the town. Nearly a year later Allied bomb damage experts examined the broken shells of the buildings. The machine-tool section had been so badly smashed that the Germans had not even attempted to restore it, while output in the aircraft engine department was still only a tenth of what it had been before that one attack by 617. Cheshire wrote in his diary: ‘This factory will produce no more engines for the Hun’.’
Knilans heard afterwards that the Germans had posted a notice offering a reward of £250 for any captured members of 617 Squadron; apparently the Gestapo were keen for an interview.
Having then attacked further precision targets at St. Etienne (10 March), Metz (15 March), and Clermont Ferrand (16 March), Knilans participated in the strike on the
Michelin Tyre Works at Clermont-Ferrand on 16 March. Such was the success of the operation that Cheshire was able to signal base: ‘Michelin’s complexion seems a trifle red.’
Similar targets were attacked at Bergerac and Lyons in the second half of the month - on the 18th and 28th - while in April Knilans was detailed to attack Toulouse (5th); St. Cyr (10th) and La Chapelle (20th).
Secret mission: “Operation Taxable”
In May, the Squadron was taken off operations to rehearse for a secret mission to cover the imminent Allied invasion of Normandy - “Operation Taxable”. Fellow 617 pilot Les Munro summarised the operation thus:
‘I have always considered that “Operation Taxable”, designed to deceive German radar by dropping aluminium strips - or ‘window’ - as one of the most important missions ever undertaken by 617 Squadron.’
The pilots had absolutely no latitude for deviation from ground speed, compass bearing, rate of turn and timing: ‘flying in oblongs so precisely demanded all our skills as pilots and while we didn’t bomb anything it confirmed what precision flying could do.’
The ploy does indeed appear to have succeeded in giving the Germans the impression that the invasion fleet was sailing towards the Pas de Calais, an ambition assisted by No. 218 Squadron, flying Stirlings in a parallel mission: the second wave of 617’s force observed German shore batteries engaging the ‘ghost’ invasion fleet.
The Saumur Tunnel
On 8 June, 617 was ordered to attack on the Saumur Tunnel in the South of France, which, if successful, would stem the flow of vital German reinforcements bound for the Normandy invasion area - the operation had been called at very short notice because of reports of a German Panzer Division moving up from the south.
Stemming the advance of enemy reinforcements aside, the raid was also significant because it was the first time 617 used Barnes Wallis’s 12,000lb Tallboys - the bomb bays of the Squadron’s Lancasters had to be modified in order to accommodate the 21-feet-long monster, ‘an almost aerodynamically perfect bomb capable of maintaining perfect trail angle and of penetrating solid masses of concrete before exploding.’
The force was supported by three Mosquitos flown by Cheshire, Fawke and Shannon and 10 Lancasters of No. 83 Squadron for flare marking purposes. The results were spectacular and the tunnel was still under repair when the area was liberated in August 1944.
Smashing the E-Boat Pens
Again in support of the Normandy operations, 617 was next ordered to attack the E-Boat pens at Le Havre on 14 June - the Squadron’s first daylight operation. With Cheshire marking in one of three Mosquitos, 617’s 22 Lancasters met heavy flak - several aircraft were hit and some of them compelled to turn for home on three engines. Knilans’ mid-upper gunner was among the resultant casualties, hit by flak shell fragments in his leg. Nonetheless, as revealed by post-raid photographs, the operation was a complete success, causing considerable damage to the pens and surrounding installations.
As a result, 617 were ordered to attack the E-Boat pens at Boulogne the following day. Once again heavy flak met them and at least seven Lancasters were damaged
but post-raid photography revealed a scene of devastation below: the two raids had accounted for 133 E-Boats and removed a major threat to the Allied invasion armada. On this occasion, Knilans and his crew had another narrow escape after one of the attacking Lancasters dumped its 1,000 lb bombs above them. Knilans made a steep diving turn to port but Roy Learmouth, his rear gunner, still reckoned he could have reached out and touched one of the bombs that hurtled past his turret.
Smashing the V-weapon sites
On 19 June Knilans dropped a 12,000 lb Tallboy bomb near the V-weapon site at Watten - ‘near’ because the bomb had hung up; a similar mission to Wizernes on the following day was aborted but Knilans successfully attacked St. Leu d’Esserent in the Pas de Calais on 4 July; owing to a faulty bomb sight, he had to abandon his attack on Mimoyecques on the 6th.
“Willie” Tait now took command of 617 Squadron, one of his first missions being to renew an attack on the V-weapon site at Wizernes on 16 July; owing to the fact Knilans ‘Tallboy’ fell just 50 yards from the tunnel entrance, it transpired a second visit to the site on the 20th was unnecessary; on the 25th, during an attack on the site at Wattem, Knilans scored a direct hit.
Another close-call developed over the site at Rilly La Montagne on the 31st. Bomber Barons takes up the story:
‘Just as Knilans was concentrating on his instruments for the drop, his flight engineer tapped his shoulder and pointed upwards. One hundred feet higher, directly above Nick, another Lancaster had its bomb bay doors open, about to release its 12,000 lb Tallboy! Nick immediately skidded R-Roger sideways and then resumed his run. Below him another Lancaster from 617 was not so lucky, as a Tallboy struck the mid-section of ME557, S-Sugar, skippered by Bill Reid, V.C. Reid's aircraft broke up - only Reid and his wireless operator, Luker, survived. Meanwhile, Knilans had his starboard outer engine hit by flak and had to feather it - ultimately making his sixth three-engine landing to date at base.’
Smashing the U-Boat pens
Bomber Barons continues:
‘On 1 August Knilans was again over France, intent on bombing Siracourt, but total cloud cover over the objective meant all aircraft returning with their bombs still aboard. It was officially the end of Knilans’ second operational tour, but Nick volunteered for an additional five bombing sorties. If he survived these, he knew he would then be rested permanently.
On 4 August, still piloting R-Roger, he bombed a bridge at Etaples, while next day he lifted a Tallboy to Brest and made a direct hit on the U-boat pens there. On 6 August he bombed the submarine base at Lorient with a Tallboy, hitting the briefed aiming point, despite a flak barrage which bucked his Lancaster and scarred every bomber taking part in the raid. After a brief spell of leave, Knilans was among the eleven Lancasters detailed on 18 August to bomb U-boat pens at La Pallice with Tallboys - a particularly successful sortie.’
Yet the strain of such protracted active service was beginning to show:
‘By then Knilans sensed that he was having trouble flying accurately - his subconscious seemed to be rebelling at the continuing nerve strain of operations. Nick had been flying sorties for fifteen months without a break - he decided to finish before he killed his faithful crew. For several weeks thereafter he was detailed to fly a series of fuel consumption and all-up weight tests. One such flight involved taking off with maximum fuel possible, total bomb load, which with the Lancaster’s natural weight totted up to 5,000 lb ‘overload’. The main runway was blocked by a stalled Lancaster, so Nick tried to take off from the alternative, shorter runway. At barely more than stalling speed, Nick finally dragged the reluctant Lanc off the ground 100 yards beyond the end of the runway, skimmed closely over some telephone wires, ‘milked up’ the flaps, and finally picked up full flying speed. Engineers from the Avro company watching were astonished that anyone could take a Lancaster so over-loaded off such a short runway - and Nick privately told Willie Tait later that he wouldn’t recommend doing it again either!’
“Tirpitz” - seventh trip home on three engines
Knilans now volunteered to participate in one more sortie - a very special sortie: the attack on the Tirpitz in Alten Fjord, via Russia; an attack duly delivered on 15 September 1944.
During the mission, after a troubled take-off from makeshift ‘staging post’ in Russia, Knilans was compelled to fly on three engines for a seventh - and final - time. Paul Brickhill’s history, The Dambusters, takes up the story:
‘Iveson had just enough petrol to get to Yagodnik and took off at full throttle, barely clearing the trees. The Russians brought more petrol for Knilans; he roared over the grass to take-off but his spark plugs were fouled and the engines were sluggish. Feeling the power lacking (she would have lifted easily enough but for the 6-ton bomb) Knilans shoved the throttles through the ‘gate’, hauled her off the ground and she lunged into the tree-tops and cut a swathe through the foliage for a hundred yards. Boughs shot up all round, twigs and leaves scooped into the radiators, a lopped branch knifed through the nose and shot into the cockpit beside Knilans, and then the engines hauled her clear. Wind howled through the smashed nose into Knilans’ face so that he could hardly see and flew with a hand over his face, peeking between two fingers. One engine cut out because of overheating from the blocked radiator, but they made it safely to Yagodnik and the ground crews set about repairs ... ‘
A piece of birch tree, three feet in length, was recovered from the Lancaster’s main door on landing: it was later displayed at Woodhall Spa with the caption, ‘Believe it or not!’
On his return to England, Knilans was formally ‘grounded’. He was awarded the D.F.C. Of his earlier award of the D.S.O., Brickhill’s The Dambusters states:
‘Knilans was told he had ‘finished’. After two straight tours without rest he had ‘operational fatigue’; his mind still registered mistakes in the air but his muscles would not respond. He had another disappointment too. His D.S.O. medal arrived - in the post. Knilans had set his heart on having it pinned on at an investiture.
Humphries kept it for him in the squadron safe while Knilans miserably waited for his posting, and whenever the inactivity got a little too much for him he used to wander down to the squadron office, moon around bashfully for a while and then say, ‘Humph, can I have a look at my medal?’ Humphries would solemnly take it out of the safe, and Knilans would hold it in his hand and sigh, ‘Heck, I guess that King never will get to meet me now’.’
His attachment to the R.A.F. over, Knilans volunteered to fly Northrop Black Widow night fighters with the U.S.A.A.F. in the Pacific theatre but the war ended before he could get into action.
Knilans became a teacher after the war, a lengthy career which included a stint as a Peace Corps volunteer in Nigeria. In addition, ‘He championed the betterment of the lives of American youths with Mexican roots’ and served as a counsellor within the California prison system. He finally retired in 1978, ‘but continued his championing of the underdog in society, especially underprivileged youth.’ Bomber Barons continues:
‘It is a dedication to serving mankind which resulted from a private vow he made one night high over Berlin in 1943 when, fighting to control a crippled Lancaster, Nick Knilans had sworn to repay his debt to humanity. As he figured it, he had been extraordinarily lucky. He had survived more than fifty operational trips, including thirteen when his aircraft had been flak-damaged, and seven when he’d had to complete the sortie on only three engines. And of the two dozen men who’d graduated from training with him, he was the only survivor. To Nick Knilans it was a huge debt to be repaid.’
Nick Knilans died in June 2012, aged 94.
sold with a large quantity of original documentation, including:
(i) The recipient’s Royal Canadian Air Force Pilot’s Flying Log Book (R.C.A.F. Form R. 95 Type), covering the period March 1942 to October 1944, with signatures of Leonard Cheshire, V.C. and “Willie” Tait, and pasted-down photographs,etc.; the unused pages of the book dedicated to Knilans’ “Recollections of Bombing Trips”, namely his hand written accounts of each of his operational sorties, many of them accompanied by original target photographs, and accordingly an important record in respect of 619 and 617 Squadron, binding worn and re-taped, contents good.
(ii) Congratulatory ‘postagram’ from “Bomber” Harris in respect of his award of the D.S.O., dated 7 December 1943; likewise a congratulatory letter from the Lieutenant-General Commanding the U.S. Eighth Air Force, dated 7 December 1943.
(iii) Typed citations in respect of Knilans’ awards of the D.S.O. and D.F.C., embossed British Embassy, Washington D.C. notepaper with red seals, both dated 17 December 1946, mounted on card.
(iv) Warrant appointing Knilans a Pilot Officer in the Royal Canadian Air Force (Special Reserve), dated 16 November 1943.
(v) R.C.A.F. certificate awarding Knilans a Bar to his Operational Wings, dated 14 June 1945.
(vi) A quantity of wartime period R.C.A.F. record cards and reports, together with Certificate of Service, issued in November 1948 and Record of Service issued in July 1952; together with a list of his wartime postings, as sent by the R.A.F. to the U.S.A.A.F., with covering letter, dated 25 January 1944.
(vii) A quantity of wartime period U.S.A.A.F. documentation, including a copy of the U.S. H.Q. Air Service Command orders announcing the award of the recipient’s American D.F.C., and related forwarding card from the War Department, Washington D.C.; letter of appointment to the rank of 1st Lieutenant , U.S.A.A.F., dated 16 November 1943; and two certificates concerning his time on the Officers’ Reserve (Air Command and Staff School, dated July 1952 and Air University, U.S.A.F., Extension Course, dated December 1960).
(viii) British Provisional Driving Licence, in the name of ‘Mr. Hubert Clarence Knilans’ and dated 5 September 1944.
(ix) A letter to Knilans from the Director of the Strand Hotels Limited, regretting the loss of two pairs of his trousers at the Regent Palace Hotel, dated 29 June 1944; together with wartime membership card for the ‘Brevet Club’, 3-4 Charles Street, Mayfair, valid until October 1944.
(x) A collection of copied articles written by Knilans in respect of his wartime experiences, together with copied manuscript of his private memoirs, A Yank in the R.C.A.F. - A War Within a War.
(xi) A large quantity of the post-war era documentation and photographs, including squadron reunion menus and invitations, several of them with multiple autographs of fellow veterans; newspaper cuttings concerning his time with 617 Squadron in particular, together with related cassette recordings and letters from old comrades, among them a charming note from Bob Iveson in which he says ‘Chesh and Willie Tait’ send their fondest regards; and correspondence and certificates in respect of his career as a teacher, letters from the C.I.A. and F.B.I. concerning his application for posts in June-July 1952, etc.
See lot 561 for the recipient’s miniature medals.