Battle of Britain profile of courage: Pilot Officer William Lidstone McKnight

Biography / September 14, 2015

By Royal Canadian Air Force Public Affairs

He was a “hat trick” champion when scoring had nothing to do with putting hockey pucks in the net and everything to do with knocking German aircraft from the skies.

Canada’s highest scoring ace of the Battle of Britain was Pilot Officer William Lidstone McKnight, DFC and Bar, who was born in Edmonton, Alberta, in 1918. He downed 17 German planes in his short but illustrious career. During the Battle of France, McKnight shot down 10 planes and scored six victories in four days over the beach of Dunkirk, while the British evacuated hundreds of thousands of troops from French soil before the Germans could push them into the sea.

He epitomized the boisterous, “pushing the envelope” panache that is said to characterize fighter pilots, whether that carefree spirit comes to them by innate design or conscious imitation. While flying in France, McKnight is reputed to have “commandeered” a general’s staff car to help carry out a romantic liaison with a Parisian beauty.

McKnight flew with the Royal Air Force’s 242 Squadron, which was dubbed “all Canadian” because so many Canadians served in it. The unit’s commander during the Battle of Britain was Squadron Leader Douglas Bader, a renowned ace and an incredible pilot who flew with two artificial legs. Bader was so impressed with the abilities of the young McKnight that he made the Canadian his wingman in the squadron.

On August 30, 1940, during the Battle of Britain, McKnight had three kills in one day: two Messerschmitt Bf 109s and a Henkel He 111. The hockey-wise Canadians dubbed his feat a “hat-trick”.

Less than five months later, on January 12, 1941, he was dead; his Hurricane aircraft lost over the English Channel. William McKnight has no known grave and was only 23 years old when he went missing.

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