Veteran Stories:
Robert Ellis Knowlton

Air Force

  • Painting of the Mark IX L LF Spitfire in which Robert Ellis Knowlton conducted at least 50 operations during the Italian Campaign. Mr. Knowlton commissioned the painting, which was created by Mrs. Kellie Anderson in 1995.

    R E Knowlton
  • Pages from Robert Ellis Knowlton's Pilot's Flying Log Book, showing his record of service and a list of aircraft flown.

    R E Knowlton
  • South African passport issued to Robert Ellis Knowlton on February 10, 1944. The passport allowed him to travel through neutral Portuguese East Africa while en route from South Africa to Egypt.

    R E Knowlton
  • Pilot Officer Robert Ellis Knowlton, RAF, in Queenstown, South Africa, shortly after being commissioned in late 1943.

    R E Knowlton
  • Robert Ellis Knowlton's Pilot's Wings and campaign medals (from left to right): 1939-45 Star; Italy Star; Defence Medal; War Medal (1939-45).

    R E Knowlton
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"We’d report where they were so that they could correct aim and eventually hit the target. The main aim of this was to destroy, or neutralize in some way, German long range artillery."


I was duly sent back to the Middle East. I had an interesting journey by the way. This is the beginning of 1944. And I was sent by civilian flying boat from Durban [South Africa] to Cairo [Egypt]. And because we had to fly through neutral territory, which was Portuguese East Africa, we were given South African passports. Anyway, we duly arrived in the Middle East and Cairo, and here we seemed to have a bit of an opportunity to say what kind of job we’d like to do. By that stage of the war in the Middle East, there weren’t straightforward fighter pilots. You were either a fighter bomber pilot, which would be strafing and bombing, or you were a fighter reconnaissance pilot. And I elected to be a fighter reconnaissance pilot as it sounded more interesting. I was sent to Palestine to a place called Petah Tikva, which is now incidentally a very big Israeli fighter base. And at last, I got to fly [Supermarine] Spitfires [short-range fighter aircraft] and [Hawker] Hurricanes. We trained on both, fighter reconnaissance on both types of aircraft because if we went to Burma, we’d fly Hurricanes and if we went to Italy, we’d fly Spitfires. Fortunately, I got sent to Italy and landed in Naples, just about the D-Day time [June 1944]. By then, Rome had fallen and I went up the middle of Italy to eventually join the squadron. There were four fighter reconnaissance squadrons in Italy. Two of them did reconnaissance for the British 8th Army, British, including Canadian forces of course, and on the east side of Italy, and two did the reconnaissance of the American 5th Army on the west side. And I was actually in a squadron of which we were doing reconnaissance for the American Air Force. So we were, although we wore RAF uniforms and were paid by the RAF and so forth, we were actually part of the U. S. 12th Air Force. For our missions, we were briefed by British Army captains, who themselves worked under a U. S. Army major who worked for the 5th Army. So that was the organization. The types of missions we carried out were about four kinds. Visual reconnaissance, where we fly along road or railways, reporting whatever we saw. We’d report when we came back. If there was anything of great significance, we’d report it over the radio, so fighter bombers could attack it. So that was road and rail reconnaissance. Then there was controlling artillery fire. If the anti-aircraft fire was too intense for spotter planes, then we would fly over the site. We’d be given either a photograph or a map of the area with a target indicated and then kind of grid on this, so we could actually control the artillery fire. So we’d circle around and watch for the shells and when they exploded. We’d report where they were so that they could correct aim and eventually hit the target. The main aim of this was to destroy, or neutralize in some way, German long range artillery. So that was another type of mission. A further was photo reconnaissance. This was largely carried out by unarmed photo reconnaissance aircraft, but some of our aircraft, including the one I flew, was fitted with oblique cameras looking out sideways and vertical cameras. This was a theoretical possibility, but we never in fact, I never did any photo reconnaissance, very few were necessary. And the last fighter reconnaissance we did was a battlefield where if there was going to be a set battle, we would be provided with maps of the area and locations of enemy batteries and sections of road which might become intensive use during a battle. And we’d just circle and report everything that we saw directly back to the army, the U.S. Army, so they could take the necessary action. And we’d report everything we saw. For example, if an ambulance went along a road, we’d report it. Not that the ambulance would be attacked, but it meant that that road at that time was not mined and this would have some military significance. So those were the four types of missions that we would fly. We flew in pairs. One guy would actually shoot the mission looking at the ground and the other guy would look after, they’d be watching the air and looking out for enemy fighters or even friendly aircraft because at times the skies were pretty full. Most of the missions took just over an hour or something like that. Spitfires had a very short range, so we only carried 85 gallons of fuel, so a lot of the missions were about an hour or so. And they’d go on from dawn until dusk. If you were on the first light of dawn, you’d be woken by somebody and you’d have a cup of tea and then you’d go off in your plane and take off into semi-darkness, so it would be about dawn by the time you arrived over the target. And this would continue until dark. And I operated mostly from Siena and then naturally, Florence [Italy]. And overall, I completed my tour of operations just before the war ended. I had to do 150 hours operational flying which worked out as 126 missions in my case.
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