I love history, and telling historical stories. This one, about an airman’s lifelong dedication to his fellow crewmen that perished in a crash during WWII, fell into my lap in time for Remembrance Day a couple of years ago.
John Knight just wanted a few moments’ peace to smoke a cigarette.
The 26-year-old retired to one of the dome blisters along the fuselage of the RCAF Canso bomber in which he was a flight engineer and machine gun operator.
The aircraft was part of a squadron that patrolled the North Sea between Iceland and Scotland during the Second World War, on alert for German submarines.
Knight and his seven crew mates had just returned to their base in Reykjavik from a couple weeks’ rest back home in Canada.
It was their first patrol of their three-flight rotation out of Tain, in the Scottish Highlands, before they’d return to Iceland.
It was stormy and foggy that afternoon of July 29,1944. So foggy Knight couldn’t see the end of the plane’s wings from his perch in the glass bubble.
At some point along their 58-mile flight to Wick, the bomber was instructed to fly instead to Stornoway, in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland.
But the heading they were given was faulty and sent them on a course towards Foula, one of the remote Shetland Islands off Scotland’s north coast.
Foula’s barren landscape is dominated by Hamnafield Hill, an 1,100-foot high bump of rock and moss. The Canso’s altimeter was at 920 ft. when it slammed into the hill.
The aircraft burst into flames, fuel tanks and ammunition exploded. Wreckage tumbled down the mountain.
Knight was knocked unconscious by the impact. When he came to, he was able to push open the blister and drop to the ground where he crawled behind a rock to shield himself from the flames and flying shrapnel.
He was the only survivor.
Family knew little of father’s crash
Growing up in Winnipeg, Joe Knight and his three brothers heard little of their father’s wartime experiences. They knew he was the lone survivor of a plane crash somewhere in Scotland, and they knew he didn’t wear shorts or short-sleeved shirts because of scars from his injuries.
John Knight belonged to the Royal Canadian Legion, but he didn’t participate in parades or other activities.
“He didn’t complain, he didn’t brag about himself,” said Joe of his father. “He wouldn’t be drawing attention to himself.”
In fact, it was only after John Knight passed away in 2006 that the full story of his survival and life-long dedication to his fallen crewmates began to emerge.
Foula far removed from war
The island of Foula was far removed from most of the madness that had engulfed the rest of Europe during the Second World War.
A Norwegian naval unit based at another port in the Shetland Islands escorted fishing vessels and transported refugees. A few of the islands’ lighthouses had suffered air strikes.
But otherwise, the war barely registered in the daily life of Foula’s 23 residents.
It was afternoon tea time when Knight’s Canso bomber crashed into Hamnafield Hill with a dull thump.
Three locals, David Gear, Foula’s postmaster Peter Gear, and a senior who had stopped at the island’s post office to retrieve his pension cheque hiked up the mossy hillside, dodging wreckage and burning fuel.
They found John Knight badly injured. His pelvis was broken, his arms and legs seared from the flames. The men loaded the airman onto a stretcher and descended the steep hill as gently as they could.
As they reached the bottom of the hill, David Gear’s daughter Vida offered Knight a bottle of water.
Mysterious photo had special meaning
More than 60 years later, after John Knight’s funeral, Joe Knight was bequeathed his father’s framed photo of Foula Island and the barren Hamnafield Hill.
Joe hung it in the den of his New Westminster home where’s he’s lived the past 26 years, unaware of the photo’s significance.
The family had always assumed the fading colour photo was a souvenir of a trip their parents took to Scotland-though they never understood why anyone would travel to such a stark landscape.
He found himself wondering why that cliff of rock and moss meant so much to his dad.
“I’d look at it up on the wall and think about it,” said Joe.
Getting on with life, but never forgetting
John Knight spent most of the next year recovering from his injuries at various hospitals in England and Canada. At one point doctors thought they would have to amputate one of his arms, but a chance visit by the King of England’s doctor got him the care he needed to save the limb.
John and his wife, Vina, had five more children after he returned from the war, adding to the one boy they’d had before the conflict started. Two children died in childhood.
During his post-war career, Knight worked with the Department of Veterans Affairs for 22 years, and another 11 on hydro projects in Northern Manitoba and Newfoundland, helping First Nations’ locals land jobs at the sites. He was an elected councillor.
He never forgot his fallen crewmates.
“I now think Dad felt he had to pay back for the fact he survived and his comrades didn’t,” said Joe of his father’s public service.
In 1989, Knight received a letter from the government records branch of the National Archives of Canada advising him they’d been contacted by a man named John Henry, asking about the plane crash’s sole survivor.
Henry’s wife was Vida Gear, the young girl who’d helped quench a stricken soldier’s thirst all those years ago. He was researching the story of the plane crash; it had been part of Shetland Islands’ lore for decades.
Within a week, Knight penned a long letter to Henry. He recounted his memories of the crash and told of his life since then.
Their correspondence continued through the years, and they exchanged family photos and Christmas cards.
In 1995 John and Vina travelled to Scotland to pay their respects to the fallen aircrew who were all buried at the Commonwealth Cemetery in Lerwick. They also visited John Henry, who gave his Canadian friend the framed colour photo of Foula.
“It will be kept in a place of prominence in our home,” wrote Knight in a thank-you letter.
Meantime, Joe and his brothers had been curious about their parents’ choice of holiday destination but didn’t probe.
“Their visit to Lerwick was a bit of a surprise to our family,” said Joe. “We didn’t think to question Dad on why Lerwick, why now? It should have been a bit of a clue, but we missed the boat.”
The mystery begins to reveal itself
The pieces of the puzzle started to fall into place a few years after John’s death. A friend of Joe’s brother, Bob, discovered a website about the crash that had been created by a nephew of one of its victims. He sent the link to the family.
“Then we really started to think this wasn’t a garden variety crash,” said Joe.
As Joe learned the story of his dad’s survival, about the people who helped him, and about his friends who perished in the crash, he vowed to find a way to honour them.
In September, Knight and his two surviving brothers, along with their wives, travelled to Lerwick to meet the man with whom their father had struck up a long-distance friendship.
Henry, now well into his 80s, had saved most of their correspondence. When Knight read some of the letters, he swelled with emotion.
“He was a young man, full of life, caught up in a big adventure,” said Knight of his dad.
The family had commissioned a brass plaque memorializing the crash and the heroics of Foula citizens to save John’s life.
They hoped to place it on a cairn atop Hamnafield Hill.
But with only one weekly flight to the remote island because its airfield didn’t have a fire warden, and a local boat tour operator shut down for a family emergency, the timing didn’t work out.
Instead, David Gear’s daughter-in-law, Sheila, ascended the trail to the hilltop on a sunny Wednesday at the beginning of October and mounted the plaque on the cairn.
“It’s a great comfort to our family knowing it’s there,” said Joe.
“Our father and his comrades are together, once again and forever.”