Letters From a Fighter Pilot

Second World War pilot Willie McKnight shared his thoughts and feelings about his dangerous work in letters he wrote to a friend.

Written by Joel Ralph

October 26, 2015

This image shows a young man looking into the camera with a half smile. He is wearing a turtleneck and a blazer.

During the summer and fall of 1940 the German Luftwaffe and the British Royal Air Force (RAF) conducted one of the greatest air battles in history — the Battle of Britain.

Among those who fought in that battle was a young Canadian fighter pilot named Willie McKnight, who became one of Canada’s greatest air aces. In letters home to his friends in Calgary, McKnight wrote about the thrills and the dangers he faced. He also wrote about the fun times he had while off duty and reflected on his relationships and the life he left behind.

On January 12, 1941, McKnight was shot down over occupied coastal France. The squadron had lost one of its top aces.

Here is a transcript of one of McKnight’s earlier letters:

September 16, 1939

Dear Mike,

I think it’s rather a bit over a month since I last wrote to you so while I’m having a few free moments I thought I’d sit down and pen you a bit. There really isn’t a hell of a lot to tell you but I’ll try and remember all there is, so if this isn’t such a good letter don’t blame me.

I had a darn swell holiday before all this trouble broke out and really enjoyed myself. I think I met more relatives in two weeks than I knew at home. I’ve got a couple of cousins over here who are really lads worth knowing and the three of us had quite a time seeing what made Glasgow and Edinbourough (sic) tick at night.

Jack (one of them) had just brought a new car and so we were able to get around quite a bit. If you want my honest opinion (which I know you don’t but will give anyway) the women in Scotland have the ones here licked without a struggle. There are, I think more women, to every man in Scotland than there are divided up among the rest of the continent.

This image shows a group of men in uniforms leaning against an airplane

September 25, 1939

Well, I didn’t even make a decent start of this letter but I’ll try hard to get it finished to-day. I’ve got the afternoon off so I should at least be able to finish this letter even if I don’t do anything else.

The weather is gradually growing worse as the winter comes on and it gets more and more difficult to fly but they are (not?) cutting down on work any, every day it seems as though I do twice the work I did the day before. It’s a far cry from the war making life all (beer?) and skittles instead of that we do all our normal training duties, patrols of the coast and supervising guards etc. at night.

Since about a week before the start of the war we have been getting on an average of about three to four hours sleep, for meals we just get time to run in and gulp a plateful of food down — damn rotten food at that — and then we race back to work. Because of this my stomach packed up about two weeks ago and I was sick as hell.

The M.O.’s worried as hell because most of us chaps from the colonies have been getting worse every day and he has been kicking up a big stink trying to get the food improved. I also got my promotion about a week ago and am a full fledged Pilot-Officer now so I’m getting a bit more money saved up for when I go on leave — if I ever get any more.

I haven’t seen (I or A?) since my last leave so when I do see her again I’m really going to indulge myself for a while. I asked her down to the village near here for next week end and Ken Davhurst’s woman is coming so I’m going to enjoy myself while I can.

My course will be leaving here in a couple of weeks time, quite possibly before you get this letter and it is definitely known that some of us are going to France. Nobody knows yet who it will be but we will damn soon so I may be in France before you get this letter.

I don’t feel terribly thrilled about it but sooner or later I will have to go anyway and I’d just as soon go right at the first. We’ve got one of the squadrons (or rather had) that bombed the Keil (sic) canal resting here and waiting for replacements, they lost quite a few men but they say that they’re nothing to what will happen when the other side starts in. The second in command from here was transferred to a twin fighter squadron and is serving in France now and we’ve got quite a few older officers who were in the R.F.C. in the Great War taking refresher courses here.

One of them, a Flying Officer Bill — served in the same squadron as Kingsford-Smith and a few of the famous aces of the last time. We’ve hear that they are going to send several Canadian squadrons over and if you think there is any chance of you being sent over Mike I should strongly advise you to get into the Air Force. You may think that its dangerous as hell but it really isn’t and at least you stand a bit more of a chance.

I’m not just boosting my own service I really do think that and I think if you tried it you would agree with me. I’m definitely going on to twin fighters (really fast medium bombers) and so far they have been having the best of the bargain so I’m hoping to die of old age yet.

I hope that you and your mother and father are well and wish Helen the best of the luck, I’d like to send her something but until I can get off for a little time I shan’t be able to but I sincerely hope she is happy and makes a hell of a success of it, which I know she will.

This image shows a man leaning forward on an airplane wing with a tobacco pipe in his mouth.

I’ve missed you and Olive and the rest of the bunch a hell of a lot since I came over here and I’d quite honestly give a years pay to kick around with you again for even two or three weeks. There are some swell chaps over here but I don’t think I’ll ever meet anybody like the old bunch before they broke up.

The really funny part of it is that the longer I’m away the more I miss Marian. I know damn right well I shall probably never see her again and that it probably wouldn’t help me even if I did but I still can’t get over her. I’ve tried all sorts of ways but I think that always I’ll remember her most of all. I know now that I made a hell of a lot of mistakes but with another chance I could have proven her wrong.

Even now I think she’d (and the rest of you) would be surprised to know me — I’m even amazed at myself some times. I really didn’t know how much I though of her until after I’d been over here for about four months and the longer I’m here the more I miss her.

I hope I haven’t bored you but I’ve been wanting to tell her for a the last three months but I’m still bloody stubborn and I won’t as I thought I’d get rid of it.

Best Wishes to you and Olive,

Ever yours,
Bill

This image shows the first page of a handwritten letter.

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Read the full story in the December-January 2016 issue of Canada's History magazine.

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