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Wesley Roy Knowlton was born on June 17, 1919 in Amherst, Nova Scotia. Entering the service of The Canadian Bank of Commerce on July 7, 1937, he worked at the Saint John, New Brunswick branch, as well as other branches in the Maritimes. In March 1942, Knowlton enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force from the Windsor, Nova Scotia branch.
After training as an air navigator in Canada, he joined the 431 (Iroquois) Squadron in November 1943. Shot down northeast of Brussels in April 1944, he evaded capture by the Germans until the liberation of Brussels on September 4, 1944. Knowlton was released from active service on August 1, 1945. Upon returning to Canada, he enrolled in Commerce and Finance at the University of Toronto.
The farm where Knowlton was hidden
His hiding-place was over the lean-to
Excerpt from War Service Records, 1939- 1945 detailing Knowlton's adventure behind enemy lines:
In the early hours of 28th April 1944, a Halifax bomber of 431 (Iroquois) Squadron, R.C.A.F. ... was hit by a German night fighter and crashed in flames about thirty miles northeast of Brussels. Four of the crew were killed in the attack. The surviving four baled out, and of these two were later taken prisoner...
The Navigator, Flying Officer (later Flight Lieutenant) W.R. Knowlton, landed in a field with his right shoulder dislocated and the blade badly fractured. When he regained consciousness about two hours later the cold spring dawn was breaking. The first sound he heard was the barking of a dog, and the second the rattle of a train going over the bumpers. He strained his eyes, hoping and almost expecting to see the familiar initials of the London and North Eastern Railway on the coaches, for his first hazy impression was that he had landed in England.
As the light grew he decided to bestir himself in spite of his pain, and still in a state of mental confusion, he took a path which led to a farm he could see in the distance. But the path took him directly into a German training camp. There was now no turning back, and he walked straight through the camp without, however, encountering a single guard. Further on the path he picked up a pencil marked 'TigerBrand', which strengthened his first impression that he was in England, but as he approached the farmhouse he found a child's scribbler with the multiplication table in Flemish on the cover. For a moment he mistook the language for German, and this minor encounter upset him more than the passage through the camp. He decided to by-pass the farm and to descend the hill into the lower wooded country where he would lie low for forty-eight hours-the prescribed rule to follow in a situation of this kind so as to collect one's wits and put the enemy off the scent. As he was going down the path, however, he was spotted by the farmer, who ran to him and, hailing him with 'Kamerad!' hustled him into the farmhouse. It was by now six o'clock and dangerous to be abroad. He could not be sure whether he had fallen into the hands of a friend or foe, but some sixth sense told him that he was safe and that he would not be betrayed.
It was not until later, however, that he learned the truth-that the farmer was one of the Maquisards who was under the instructions of a regional chief in the Belgian underground. They had long been preparing for the Allied invasion and had perfected their organization very much along the lines followed in other occupied lands. But at the time Knowlton did not know this and could only place himself unreservedly at the mercy of his host.
The farmer's children
It was a typical peasant Flemish family-father, mother and eight children, all sleeping in one big room on the second floor of the house. He had to be disposed of before the children were up, and so, after he had met the mother, who characteristically did most of the farm chores, he was hidden in a great hay-loft on top of the goat pen, where he stayed for three and a half months... Three times the house and the loft were searched by the Germans, but each time he managed to escape detection, putting the hay carefully back in place as he moved away from them into another corner of the loft.
Three months and a half of imprisonment amid the stench of the goats without medical attention for his damaged shoulder... For the first week Knowlton could get no sleep at all, what with the discomfort, the pain and the goats, but after that it was nothing for him to sleep twenty hours a day.
Then one day something happened. Knowlton was told by the farmer that he had received instructions from the 'Chief' and that necessary papers had been manufactured. He was provided with a forged passport and work card, on both of which he was shown as a temporary employee of the Sanitary Inspection Branch of the Ministry of the Interior and Public Health. His own R.C.A.F. identity photographs completely regularized the documents. He was provided with boots and a civilian suit, as well as a bicycle which took him to a railway station. From there he travelled by train to Louvain and to Brussels, and by tram in the latter city to his rendezvous. He was under instructions to pose as deaf and dumb, and to keep in sight but not approach the underground agent who met him for a moment at the Louvain station. On the train he took good care not attract any attention, but he still recollects with ironic pleasure helping on board a German soldier with a very heavy pack, and sitting in a Brussels tram cheek by jowl with a higher officer of the Luftwaffe.
His conductor descended at dusk near a park in Brussels and a moment later he was met by a woman who took him to her apartment in the city. Like her associates in the underground, she was anonymous, but he learned that she had heard of his presence on the farm from the farmer's 'Chief' and that it was by her instructions that he had received his papers and been sent to Brussels.
The first concern of his benefactress was to secure for him proper medical attention. He was taken to a hospital, where three doctors were awaiting him... Only the operating surgeon and the attendant nurse knew that he was a Canadian airman...
After a week in the hospital he was brought back to the apartment, where he was strictly confined during the few weeks that remained before the liberation of the city. It was close to some sort of Maquisard headquarters, he met there as many as fifty or sixty agents a day, whose names he was never told.
From a window looking on the street he could see the retreat of the German Army as it passed through the capital. On Sunday evening, 4th September, 1944, Brussels was liberated, and six days later he was evacuated by air to England.
Knowlton with women of the Belgian Underground