Friday, November 11, 2011

Remembering Willie

On November 11, we think of the muting of armies, of acres of graves, of old, beribboned men with heads bowed before a cenotaph.

Too often, when we remember the men and women who fought and died in foreign wars, we think of them only as soldiers. But, of course, they were young people in their prime, full of energy, curiosity, and hormonal urges.

Such was Calgary's Willie McKnight, born just days after the first World War's armistice, and therefore coming of age just in time for the second.

Having been expelled from medical school, and running away from a turbulent relationship with girlfriend Marian, the rambunctious McKnight fell into the welcoming arms of RAF recruiters and signed on as a fighter pilot. He shipped off to Little Rissington, Bourton-on-the-Water, Cheltenham, England, for training to fly Hurricanes.

Skirmishes with those in authority continued, including an incident that had him and a classmate charged for "being perpetrators of a riot."

McKnight scored his first kill in a dogfight over Cambrai when he brought down a Messerschmidt Bf 109 by entering a steep climbing turn to get on the tail of the diving German.

Ultimately, in the only calculus that mattered in wartime, he had 17 kills, plus 2 shared and three unconfirmed, thereby becoming Canada's first air ace of the war.

Also confirmed, in the midst of all this, was an affair with a French girl who was escaping from Paris. Willie described it thus:
"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 bad 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."
He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, and a Bar, for his efforts in the Battle of Britain.

He was killed on January 14, 1941, by anti-aircraft fire.

He was 22.

[Written with information from World War 2 Eagles]

1 comment:

  1. A larger than life personality. A shorter than average life. He must have left a big hole in the hearts of many people when he died.