Gerald Featherstone-Knight: more information
BOW BRICKHILL’S WAR HERO
By Michael Hallett
Gerald Featherstone-Knight was born on 18 September 1894 and baptised the following month in Bassingbourne, Cambridgeshire. His parents, Robert Lyman Knight and Lena Featherstone-Knight, divorced two years later.
Possibly as a result of this, Gerald went to live with his grandfather, the Reverend Robert Knight, Vicar of All Saints Church in the small Buckinghamshire village of Bow Brickhill from 1907 to 1914.
On 15 August 1914 the North Bucks Times reported that three men from Bow Brickhill, W. Garrett, G. Saunders and G. Knight,had enlisted. On 21 November the same newspaper reported that Knight had been commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in the 3rd Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment.
Knight’s service with the Devonshire Regiment is unknown. Many army officers became disillusioned with the stalemated war in the trenches, volunteered as observers then became pilots. Knight seems to have followed this path and by April 1916 he was a full Lieutenant with the Royal Flying Corps. He was posted to No. 12 Squadron near Arras.
At 8:15 A.M. on 9 November he took off in BE.2c serial 2502, part of a formation ordered to bomb the German aerodrome at Douai, north-east of
Bapaume. Knight’s machine lagged behind with a misfiring engine. He was attacked by planes from German fighter squadrons (Jastas) 1 and 2, including the soon-to-be legendary Baron Manfred von Richthofen, the ‘Red Knight’ who brought down 80 Allied aircraft. The controls of Knight’s BE.2c
were damaged by Leutnant Hans Imelmann, a 19-year-old from Hanover in a Fokker monoplane, the fifth of six victories before he was shot down and killed in January 1917. Knight force-landed behind enemy lines and was captured.
Knight spent nine months as a prisoner of war, during which he made three escape attempts. His first prison was the Cambrai Citadel. He later recounted:
“I had not been there long before I set about to escape. Opportunity came sooner than I expected. I got through the German lines at night in a suit of the Belgian-peasant sort and swam the Cambrai Canal. When I was almost over, I spotted a Bosch sentry on the opposite bank. He heard me in the water and looked hard in my direction. It flashed through my mind that he might imagine the noise was made by a dog. I gave colour to this impression by paddling round in the manner of a retriever and, whining nicely, making, meantime for the bank from which I had plunged in.
I scrambled out again, cold and somewhat disappointed, and made for the railway bridge with the idea of getting into our lines. I was making my course by the flashes of our own guns, which were plainly visible ahead. I found, however, I was out of my reckoning, and stumbled once more into the Bosch's quarters. I hid when I could, posing as a workman. I came across a small straw-stack, well behind a Hun camp, and lay ‘doggo’ for the night. Unfortunately my luck was dead out; a Bosch transport man came to my nesting place for an armful of straw and collared my head in the armful. He was quite surprised. I knew it was no good trying to bluff him, so I surrendered once more with as good a grace as possible.”
Knight was taken back to Cambrai and told he would be shot, but this proved to be a bluff. Instead he was transferred to camps near Osnabrück, Clausthal, and finally to a desultory camp on moorland near Ströhen. Knight’s book contains lively descriptions of life in these camps, of the boarding-school hi-jinks that kept spirits up and their inmates’ devotion to the cause:
“Every evening after supper we always drank the King’s health in tea. Though the quality of the beverage was weak, our loyalty had never been stronger.”
Many of them shared Knight’s enthusiasm for escape and various attempts – mostly failures – are mentioned.
Knight made two attempts to escape from Ströhen, which was situated some 60 miles from the Dutch border. In the first instance he got through the wire fence only to discover his planned hiding place was occupied by some Germans. Knight was able to retrace his steps without discovery and plot another attempt. On 16 August 1917 Knight escaped by hiding in a tiny recess in a bathroom, about 11 inches deep by one foot wide, where he hid behind a false wall made from some canvas covered frames he smuggled in under his coat. (Knight was even accosted by a guard while making these frames; they were passed off as components of a model aeroplane.) Knight waited in this claustrophobic recess for six hours then escaped from an outbuilding under cover of darkness.
After two hours crawling through the peat bog surrounding the camp Knight emerged onto firmer ground and set course for Holland. For over a week Knight spent the nights tramping across western Germany and the days in hiding:
“One early morning I went into a cornfield, after walking nearly all night, to prepare a snug hiding-place for myself among the stooks. An aged farm labourer saw me arranging the sheaves and called out: ‘Here, what are you doing?’ I replied in German, ‘Can’t you see what I'm doing?’ He evidently could not, for he ambled quickly towards me. I thought it was time to leave, so I left via a big ditch and dodged behind a haystack and so got away. I found another hiding place that day, and the next night I milked a Hun cow in a field.”
Knight’s tensest moments came while navigating the flat, dyke-infested country between the River Ems and the Dutch border at
night, with little cover and only the stars to guide him.
After a brief spell in a Dutch quarantine camp, Knight returned to England on 13 September 1917 and was invited to Buckingham Palace for an audience with King George V. Knight was promoted to Captain near the end of the war but on 30 June 1919 he was admitted to a hospital for RAF officers
at 82 Eaton Square, London, with a sarcoma (a type of cancer). Knight died in hospital on 30 October 1919 and soon afterwards received the Military Cross for his gallantry in escaping from captivity. He was 25 years old. Knight’s death was reported in the North Bucks Times on 11 November 1919 – the first anniversary of the Armistice which ended the war.
Gerald Featherstone Knight is remembered today for his book Brother Bosch: an Airman’s Escape from Germany. His name is on the Bow Brickhill war memorial, along with those of the other men from the village who gave their lives during the Great War.
This article was derived from G. F. Knight’s book, Brother Bosch, from Flight Magazine, October 4, 1917, and from a variety of online sources believed to be accurate but not confirmed.
Special thanks to Sue Malleson from www.bowbrickhill.com.