Major Nick Knilans D.S.O. D.F.C.
Major Nick Knilans D.S.O. D.F.C.
Born: December 27th 1917 Delevan, Wisconsin. Died: June 1st 2012 Age 94.
Epitomised the contribution of RAF
Bomber Command to the Allied war effort by flying a great range of missions with No 619 and No 617 ‘Dambuster’ Squadron, notably against Tirpitz and on D-Day, he was awarded the DSO
His position with Bomber Command was particularly special because Knilans was an American citizen. Having joined the Royal Canadian Air Force and flown with the RAF, however, he insisted on remaining with No 617’s Lancasters even after being nominally transferred to the USAAF.
On the night of November 26 1943 Knilans and his crew took off to bomb Berlin.
As they approached Frankfurt at 20,000ft, their Lancaster was raked by a stream of cannon shells from an enemy night fighter, which made four more attacks before the Lancaster’s gunners shot it down.
The bomber had been badly damaged but, though it was another 200 miles to the target, Knilans continued on three engines.
Over Berlin the anti-aircraft fire was intense but Knilans, forced to fly lower than usual, dropped his bomb load.
On its return his aircraft continued to lose height and he crossed the Dutch coast at 2,000ft.
Arriving at base, he was prevented from landing by ground fog, so he flew to a nearby airfield and put down despite a damaged undercarriage.
Hubert Clarence Knilans, always known as Nick, was born on December 27 1917 at Delevan, Wisconsin, into a family with Irish roots – his great grandfather having emigrated from County Tyrone in 1848.
On leaving the local high school, he worked on the family farm until April 1941, when he was drafted for military service.
He wanted to be a pilot but had no wish to join the US Army. So he packed a small bag, withdrew his meagre savings from the local bank, and after telling his family he was taking a few days vacation in Chicago, left for Canada in October 1941, where he enlisted as a pilot in the RCAF.
After completing his flying training in Ontario, Knilans sailed for England in the Queen Elizabeth and completed his training as a bomber pilot before joining No 619 Squadron in June 1943. The squadron operated from Woodhall Spa.
After two sorties with experienced captains, Knilans and his crew flew their first operation together on the night of July 24 when Bomber Command launched the Battle of Hamburg.
This devastating attack owed much to its success to the first use of ‘window’ – later known as ‘chaff’ – metal-backed strips of paper dropped to confuse the enemy radars. Bundles were dropped from Knilans’s aircraft before the bombs were released.
In October, Knilans was informed that he was to be transferred to the USAAF.
He was commissioned as a first lieutenant – with pay equivalent to that of an RAF group captain – but he insisted that he wanted to complete his tour with his crew on No 619, he returned to the squadron just as the Battle of Berlin was beginning.
Knilans remained with No 619 until January 1944 and made further attacks on the German capital.
On January 17 it was announced that he had been awarded the DSO.
Due for a rest, Knilans wanted to remain on operations with the RAF and his crew agreed to join him when he volunteered for No 617 Squadron, commanded by Wing Commander Leonard Cheshire.
Under Cheshire’s leadership, the squadron had developed low-level target marking techniques and precision bombing with the 12,000lb Tallboy bomb.
During the build-up to the Normandy landings, No 617 attacked the V-1 rocket sites, supply dumps and road and rail communications, including a spectacular attack against the Saumur railway tunnel.
On the night of June 5, the eve of D-Day, Knilans flew on a successful sortie over the English Channel, dropping ‘window’ to fool the enemy into thinking the invasion armada was heading for the Pas de Calais.
Over the next few weeks, Knilans dropped Tallboys on V-1 sites and submarine pens before setting off on his final operation with No 617 on September 11, when he flew one of 38 Lancasters heading for north Russian airfields.
Running short of fuel, he was one of seven pilots who had to make emergency landings at various small airfields on the Kola Peninsula. His Lancaster was undamaged and he managed to rejoin the main force at Yagodink.
Four days later, 27 Lancasters took off to attack Tirpitz in Kaa Fjord in north Norway.
Knilans dropped his Tallboy but a smoke screen prevented accurate bombing. Although not known at the time, Tirpitz was hit and badly damaged.
Before leaving No 617, Knilans had built up his hopes that the King would present him with his DSO, he was disappointed when it arrived in the post.
A few weeks later he was awarded the DFC to add to his American DFC and Air Medals.
Knilans had survived 50 operations and had brought six of his original seven-man crew through alive, but he was the only survivor of his original pilot’s course.
He volunteered to fly night fighters with the USAAF in the Pacific theatre but the war ended before he reached the region.
In addition to the losses of his friends, Knilans had witnessed the devastation of German cities, and determined post-war to devote himself to constructive public service work.
For 25 years he was a teacher, including a two-year period as a Peace Corps volunteer in Nigeria.
He championed the betterment of the lives of American youths with Mexican roots and became a counsellor within the California prison system.
He finally retired in 1978, but continued to support programmes for underprivileged youths.
Nick Knilans was unmarried.
Reprinted with the kind permission of the Daily Telegraph obituaries column.
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Article prepared by Barry Howard.