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Tuesday, 29 May 2018
Page: 4792


Mr WILKIE (Denison) (19:40): This year marks the 75th anniversary of Operation Chastise, better known as the 'Dambusters'. This was the operation conducted by the Royal Air Force's 617 Squadron during the Second World War in May 1943, when 19 Lancaster heavy bombers dropped special 'bouncing bombs' to attack German dams and hydroelectric power stations. Each cylindrical spinning bomb weighed more than four tonnes and was designed to bounce across the surface of the water, not entirely unlike a child skipping a stone, which allowed them to bounce over any protective barriers and detonate at exactly the right point against the dam wall. The Dambusters was a remarkably ambitious operation and one that required significant planning and innovation, not to mention the skill of the aircrew who had to fly at 30 metres or less above the ground and water. No wonder the unique nature of the operation and the bravery and skill of the men involved has made the Dambusters one of the most well-known military operations of the 21st century.

There were 13 Australian crewmen among the Dambusters, and one of the pilots was Pilot Officer Leslie Gordon Knight, better known as 'Les'. I first learned about Les when a constituent approached me to donate an Australian flag to replace the one flying at Les's memorial in Den Ham, in the Netherlands. Since then, I've been amazed to learn about Les's life and his involvement in a number of operations during World War II, including the Dambusters. I think it's important to tell his story here tonight, in the Australian parliament.

Les was born in Camberwell in Melbourne in 1921. He took his first flying lesson in Tasmania in May 1941 and by March 1943 had flown 26 operational missions. Ultimately, he was hand-picked to join the Dambusters and commanded 'N for Nancy', which was to target the Eder dam, along with two other aircraft. Les's bomb blew a 230-foot hole in the dam wall, and he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order for his role in the mission.

The 617 Squadron went on to do other things, and four months later Les took part in Operation Garlic, an attack on the Dortmund-Ems Canal. The eight Lancaster and six Mosquito aircraft involved encountered heavy going as they approached the target on 16 September, 1943, and Les's aircraft was badly damaged when it hit trees in fog near the Dutch village of Den Ham in the Netherlands. Les heroically allowed his crew to bail out before steering his plane away from the built-up area to crash in a field. Not only did he save his crew; but his quick thinking also saved the lives of many in the Den Ham village. Regrettably, Les died in the crash aged just 22, and he's buried in the Den Ham General Cemetery.

Since Les's story was brought to my attention, it has been remarkable to see the impression he has left behind both in Australia and in the Netherlands. Why just this month there was a ceremony in Den Ham to raise the new flag, and I'm told that six members of the Knight family attended, as well as three children of Sergeant Les Woollard, one of Les's crew. Moreover, three generations of the Knight family will visit the Netherlands in September for a three-day event. The Australian flag flies at the monument to Les, which was erected in 2002, and it is well looked after by 85-year-old Lucas Kamphuis. Lucas heard Les's plane fly overhead in 1943 when he was just a boy and saw the wreckage of Les's plane on that fateful day. Lucas still walks to the monument every day to make sure it's in good condition.

All of this resonates in me deeply because my own father, Malcom Wilkie, was a tail gunner on Lancaster bombers during World War II and completed an astonishing 32 operational missions over Occupied Europe. There are no words to adequately describe what he and his Royal Australian Air Force colleagues in the European theatre saw, suffered and, indeed, achieved. A great many died.

In closing, I acknowledge all of those who have worked hard to remember Les, especially Denise Geeves from my electorate and Melvin Chambers, who is in Den Ham, working tirelessly to mark the 75th anniversary of Les's sacrifice. As we commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Dambusters, it's important to remember people like Les, whose bravery has left a lasting impression on people in Australia and in the Netherlands.