Born: 15 June, 1921, in Plymouth, Devon. Died: 2 September, 2014, in Talkin, Cumbria, aged 93
Lt-Col Michael Knight had the military in his DNA. His father Captain Athelstan Knight fought throughout the Great War with Royal Munster Fusiliers and won the Chevalier of the Légion d’honneur. Following in his father’s footsteps Michael Knight fought through the Second World War, seeing action in North Africa and Italy, and was awarded the Military Cross for gallantry. He went on to witness the carving up of his regiment following Indian Independence.
Shortly after the outbreak of war in 1939, Knight joined the 16th Punjab Regiment, Indian Army, and gained the rank of Major, before being posted to the Indian 4th Battalion Infantry Division, also known as the Red Eagle Division, which had only recently been formed in Egypt. It became the first Indian formation to go overseas during the war.
Primarily with British officers in charge, Knight and the division saw action in the campaigns in East Africa (Eritrea and Sudan), Syria, North Africa and Italy.
In December 1940, the battalion was rushed to the British Sudan to join with the Indian 5th Infantry Division, to prevent the numerically vastly superior Italian forces (ten divisions in total) from threatening Red Sea supply routes to Egypt as well as blocking the Suez Canal itself from the south. The East African campaign culminated (March 1941) with the battles at Keren in Eritrea where 42 Italian battalions were defeated by 19 British and Indian battalions.
By the Christmas of 1941, Knight and the division found themselves in the port city of Derna, eastern Libya, where he and fellow officers were treated to camel steak captured from the Italians’ stores. A month later, after a brief spell in Benghazi, division was forced in to a night withdrawal, during which one of the few Indian officers was accused of leading the column in circles, as a rooster had been heard as they had passed through the only village on the map. It transpired that the officer had had the foresight to conceal the fowl in his truck for his lunch the next day.
With daybreak fast approaching, a column of Italian tanks and supply trucks were spotted travelling along a road that would eventually intersect with Knight’s withdrawing troops. Fortuitously, they managed to get past the Italians, but the latter soon realised who they were and attacked the tail of the British column.
After a short respite, towards the end of October 1942, Knight and the 4th Battalion joined up with other brigades and were involved, with an elaborate deception exercise, in the early stages of the Second Battle of El Alamein, which marked a major turning point in the Western Desert Campaign of the war; the first battle had stalled the Axis advance into Egypt, after which, in August 1942, Lieutenant-General Montgomery had taken command of the British Eighth Army from General Claude Auchinleck.
At nightfall, Knight and his Vickers-Armstrong manufactured Bren Gun carriers travelled close to the Axis lines, firing as they went, with their silencers removed, to simulate the noise of tank fire. One carrier had a guardsman playing the pipes to give the impression that the 51st Highland Division had arrived at the front.
They encountered stiff resistance around Ruweisat Ridge, which was at the centre of the Allied front, while the main breakthrough was planned further north. The El Alamein victory turned the tide in favour of the Allies and ended General Rommel’s threat of gaining access to the vital Middle Eastern and Persian oil fields via North Africa.
With the fall of Tunis and capture of more than 250,000 Axis troops, including most of the Afrika Korps, in May 1943, North Africa was now in Allied hands, which ensured the safety of Allied shipping and naval movements throughout the Mediterranean; North Africa would now serve as a base for future Allied operations in Italy.
Subsequently, Knight and his regiment were sent to Italy for the last six months of Operation Avalanche, the Allied invasion of Italy, and were involved in the long and bloody battle of attrition to capture the heavily defended monastery at Monte Cassino. Their position was a mere 200 yards from the German lines. Following a massive artillery bombardment of more than 1,600 guns on 11 May, the breakthrough eventually came the following day; after almost five months it was captured and Rome was in sight but with heavy losses – 55,000 German and 20,000 Allied casualties.
Knight nearly did not see the end of the war because while taking leave and flying out from Naples to Algiers, the pilot of his plane momentarily lost control in the ash of Mount Vesuvius as it erupted.
With the end of hostilities in Europe, Knight returned to India, whereupon he was awarded the MC by Field-Marshal Sir Claude Auchinleck. The citation stated that Knight had seen continuous active service for almost four years. “Throughout his command,” it read,” he has never faltered in his enthusiasm and thrust-fullness. His energy and courage have been unbounded and his example to his men unsurpassed.”
Born in Plymouth in 1920, Hugh Michael Allen Knight was the only child of Athelstan and Cunitia (née Moresby). He was educated at St Edward’s School, Oxford, before officer training at Sandhurst. In 1939, he was commissioned to the Indian Army joining the 16th Punjab Regiment, before being posted to 4th Battalion.
Following Parliament’s Indian Independence Act, 1947, India was divided into the two new independent countries of India and Pakistan. As a result, his regiment was also divided, with the main contingent going to Pakistan while the Sikhs and Dogras left and joined the new Indian Army.
Knight was transferred the British Army in 1948 and joined the Royal Army Ordnance Corps where he gained the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.
A series of postings followed, taking him and his family to Germany, Cyprus and Scotland, where two of his sons attended Fettes School. In 1963, he became Commandant of the Central Ammunition Depot at Longtown, Cumbria.
Following retirement in 1974, Knight moved to Newcastle-upon-Tyne and over the next 17 years did fundraising for the Conservative Party. He also became involved with the Cumbria Association of Boys’ Clubs and was appointed chairman of the Executive Committee.
He also gave his time and expertise unstintingly, travelling throughout the county to meet those involved in the clubs. Later, with Jane, his second wife, he was very supportive of Girl Guiding in Cumbria North and she later became County Commissioner as well as Region Chief Commissioner.
In his free time, he enjoyed golf, fell walking, sailing, shooting, hunting and polo.
Knight, who died peacefully, is survived by Jane (née Reid), whom he married in 1980, and three sons from his first marriage to Bridget Diana Maude (1947) who died in 1979; a daughter predeceased him.