My grateful thanks to Sue Hartga for supplying me with the following account and images of her father, Cyril Knights, who served with the Royal Air Force, in India and Burma, 1942-45.
Cyril’s formative years
Cyril was the seventh of eight children, born to Harry and Grace Knights. Harry, worked on the railway, while Grace worked at home. Cyril’s older brothers – Reuben, also known as Harold, Dan and George, also worked on the railway at one time or another. Later on, Dan worked for the Post Office and George became an antique dealer. Cyril’s older sister, Muriel, had died as a toddler in 1918, and his younger sister, Connie, died of pneumonia when she was three years old. Another sister, Ivy, worked in London, in domestic service. Another sister, Dora, ran a newsagent, with her husband Frank, until her premature death from cancer in 1954. At the time of his birth, Cyril was the youngest by about eight years.
The family, apart from Ivy, stayed mainly in the Fens of Cambridgeshire, but when Cyril’s father was made signalman at Brandon, Cyril and his parents moved to Brandon, with Cyril going to school in the town. Cyril was not focused on his studies, preferring practical activities and being with his mates. After school, Cyril was apprenticed to George Beckham, who owned and ran a garage near the railway line. Cyril was trained as a mechanic. In the late 1930s, he went to live and work at a garage in the village of Cockfield, Suffolk.
Service in the Royal Air Force
The 1930s were turbulent times. Cyril could see that war was a possibility and instead of waiting to be called up and, for example, be forced into the front line with the army, he enlisted with the Royal Air Force, in a ground crew capacity. When war did eventually come, Cyril had already done his basic training and was posted to Bodney Camp – an out station of RAF Watton. He honed his skills on Blenheims, Beaufighters, Vultee Vengence and Mosquitoes. He ultimately achieved the rank of Sergeant.
Initially, from the start of the Second World War, in September 1939, the focus for Cyril’s squadron at Bodney was to supply bombers and air cover for the British Army in Europe. They played a key role in the Battle of Britain, with Cyril’s main role as part of the ground crew. He was to keep the planes in the air by repairing, maintaining and checking them for air worthiness. However, by 1942, the war in the Far East had become critical. The Japanese had captured Singapore and were working their way across Burma towards India threatening that part of the British Empire.
In April 1942, Cyril and his squadron boarded trucks to Watton railway station and travelled by troop train to Liverpool. From there they embarked on the troop ship, S.S. Empress of Russia, a converted ocean liner, and set sail for India. The journey took almost eight weeks. The ship then docked at Durban, South Africa, from where the squadron were transferred to the SS Khedive Ismail, another ocean liner, built in 1922, that had been converted to a troop ship in 1940. Later in the war, in 1944, the ship was sunk by a Japanese submarine. The final leg of their journey saw them travel to Karachi, via Mombassa and Bombay, from where they took a train to Quetta for acclimatisation and orientation training. After the training had finished, they then travelled thousands of miles across India to a place named Cholavaram. More training followed before they were returned to Karachi to pick up their aircraft, the Vultee Vengeance dive bombers.
Images of Cyril Knights, during his WW2 service.
During Cyril’s four years abroad, he worked in places across India and into Burma. He visited Delhi and Agra. His squadron’s role was to provide air cover and supplies to the army as they fought back the invading Japanese forces. They also teamed up with an Indian Squadron, working together. An essential part of checking the aircraft were the test flights. Many of the RAF stations had grass airstrips. Quetta, in the north, was surrounded by mountains. Cyril recalled one time he was lying prone across the cockpit while the pilot took off and landed in such a restricted landscape and as a result of this experience, he hated flying. The next time he flew as a passenger was to go on holiday to Jersey. As luck would have it, the plane hit an electrical storm!
Cyril did suffer more than one bout of malaria, and spent time recuperating up in the hills near Shimla. He also relapsed upon his return to the UK.
Throughout this time, relations between Britain and India were worsening. The voice of Indian Independence strengthened, meaning the situation for British servicemen became increasingly unsafe. As soon as victory over Japan was declared, in August 1945, it was clear it was time to leave. Cyril returned, via Durban, on the SS Île de France, docking at Southampton just before Christmas 1946. However, in a final twist, they were not allowed to disembark until 1st January 1946. Cyril travelled home to Brandon, surprising his mother as she was hanging out the washing in the garden.