Air Chief Marshal Sir Michael Knight, who has died five days after his 90th birthday, rose from being a National Service pilot to be the UK’s Military Representative at Nato HQ in Brussels.
By 1980, Knight had held a series of senior posts directing RAF operations when he was appointed as the Air Officer Commanding No 1 Group. Under his command he had Vulcan and Victor squadrons (which in the 1960s were the cornerstone of Britain’s Cold War nuclear deterrent), Buccaneer strike squadrons, and strategic reconnaissance units.
In early 1982 his Vulcan bomber squadrons were due to begin standing down as the new Tornado was beginning to replace them. But when the Argentines invaded the Falkland Islands on April 2, Knight was ordered to prepare, and support, his air-to-air refuelling Victor squadrons and a Vulcan squadron for possible action.
To equip his aging force for this unexpected commitment 8,000 miles from their bases in England required the aircraft to undergo a series of non-standard modifications: these included fitting the Vulcans with an air-to-air refuelling capability, additional secure communications and the ability to fire new precision (conventional) weapons. In addition, Knight had to oversee the intensive training of his crews for a role very different from that needed for operations in Europe.
As the Vulcans flew their unique missions in the South Atlantic, Knight had the unpleasant task of co-ordinating the disbandment of other Vulcan squadrons and attending the stand-down parades. On a more positive note, he was able to personally welcome the first RAF Tornado strike/attack aircraft into squadron service as they arrived at two of his bases.
Following the campaign in the South Atlantic, Knight was charged with organising (in the event, under marginal weather conditions) the Falkland Victory flypast over London.
Michael William Patrick Knight was born in Leek, Staffordshire, on November 23 1932, and was educated at Leek High School before studying English Literature at Liverpool University, where he joined the University Air Squadron. After graduating with a First, he began his National Service and completed his training as a pilot.
After deciding to make the RAF his career, he flew VIP transport aircraft, initially around Europe before joining a squadron of Hastings transprt aircraft flying world-wide routes. This included regular flights to support the RAF activities at the weapons-testing range at Woomera in South Australia. With the introduction of the Comet airliner into RAF service with 216 Squadron, Knight joined one of the first crews to fly the jet transport.
In 1957 he converted to the Canberra bomber, the beginning of a long association with the aircraft, and one in which he would accumulate 2,500 flying hours. He joined 139 Squadron in Lincolnshire, which, in addition to its bombing role, also marked targets with flares ahead of the main bomber force.
The RAF decided this role was needed in the Middle East, and in 1959 Knight was sent to Cyprus to join 249 Squadron and train crews in the special marking techniques for operations in the area. He was to remain in Cyprus for more than four years, the latter two as the commanding officer of 32 Squadron where he developed tactics for the operational use of the recently introduced air-to-ground rockets.
His squadron was placed on high alert during the Kuwait crisis of June 1961 when Iraq moved troops to the border and threatened to claim the oil-rich state. For his work in Cyprus, he was awarded the AFC.
After attending the RAF Staff College in 1964, Knight was posted to the Ministry of Aviation. There he was involved with plans for the soon-to-be-cancelled TSR 2 strike aircraft, and introduced to the Buccaneer, a low-level strike/attack aircraft he would soon get to know well.
In 1967 he was posted to Tengah, the RAF’s largest operational base in the Far East, to command the Strike Wing. His squadrons included three operating the Canberra, a Hunter ground attack squadron and a Javelin all-weather fighter squadron. The Confrontation with Indonesia had recently finished and, within two years, the British withdrawal from the Far East would begin. As in all his appointments, Knight took every opportunity to fly and he was able to travel widely, usually with his rugby boots in his baggage.
In late December 1970, Knight was appointed the senior military assistant to the chairman of Nato’s Military Committee, the former Luftwaffe fighter “ace”, General Johannes Steinhoff, who had been severely burnt in the final weeks of the war when his Messerschmitt 262 jet fighter crashed on take-off. Although badly disfigured, Steinhoff joined the new West German Bundeswehr on its formation in 1952 and rose to command the German Air Force. Knight held the general in high regard and established a close friendship with him, and his two years in Brussels were to prove particularly valuable later on.
In December 1973, Knight took command of Laarbruch, a large base on the Dutch/German border, and the home of two Buccaneer squadrons, a Phantom squadron and a surface-to-air missile squadron. He flew with his squadrons whenever possible, and was a very popular commander who understood, and enjoyed, the “work hard, play hard” ethic.
After attendance at the Royal College of Defence Studies, Knight served in MoD responsible for air support operations. During his time, he was closely involved in the operation to send reinforcements to Belize following threats of invasion by Guatemala. Six Harrier jets, supported by the Hercules transport fleet, were deployed to Belize in July 1977. The presence of this show of force prevented any escalation of trouble.
After two years, Knight became the senior air staff officer at HQ RAF Strike Command responsible for the efficiency and the day-to-day operations and exercises of the many squadrons and operational ground units – an appointment he described as “very busy”.
In 1980 he left to take up his appointment at No 1 Group; in June he was appointed CB.
On promotion to air marshal in 1983, Knight was appointed to the Air Force Board as the Air Member for Supply and Organisation giving him responsibility for all the support and maintenance aspects of the RAF.
After three years he returned to Brussels in August 1986 to be the UK’s Military Representative (Milrep), providing a link between the UK government and Nato. Leading the military team in the UK delegation, and working in partnership with the UK permanent representative, the political lead in the delegation, the role of the Milrep was to protect British interests and to articulate the UK military contribution to the developing Nato strategy – at a time when the end of the Cold War was in sight. He reported directly to the Chief of Defence Staff in London in this important political-military role. As the UK member of the influential Nato Military Committee, seated alongside his United States colleague, he applied his outstanding networking skills to good effect.
A significant development occurred shortly after his arrival when in 1986 President Ronald Reagan met the General Secretary of the Communist Party, Mikhail Gorbachev, at a summit in Reykjavik, Iceland. Although the talks collapsed at the last minute, sufficient progress had been made for the signing the following December of an Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty between the United States and the USSR.
Over the remainder of Knight’s time in Brussels, a steady thawing of relations between the West and the Soviet Union culminated in the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War shortly after Knight left his post to retire from the RAF in August 1989.
Throughout his long career, Knight enjoyed the camaraderie and banter of the squadron crew room. Always insisting on the need to fly according to the regulations and the aircraft’s limitations, he admired and encouraged those with an aggressive spirit – in and out of aircraft.
He was advanced to KCB in 1983 and a year later was elected a Fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society.
After retiring from the RAF, he became the chairman of the leading aerospace company, Cobham, which specialised in air-to-air refuelling equipment and providing specialist training for RAF units. He held numerous non-executive directorships with other aerospace companies.
He was also heavily involved in the fields of healthcare, education and sport, together with numerous charities. He was chairman of the RAF Charitable Trust and of the Exmoor Calvet Trust, which helps people with disabilities to experience a variety of challenging activities in the countryside. When he served as the president of the Aircrew Association, his obvious ability to relate with Second World War veterans was appreciated.
Knight was assiduous in promoting aviation among the young. After leaving the RAF, he reverted to the rank of flying officer in the RAFVR (Training), spending the next eight years giving air experience to young ATC and CCF cadets flying in Chipmunk aircraft.
He was chairman then president (and later life vice president) of the Air League, the aviation and aerospace charity which, inter alia, offered flying scholarships to young people. Until the end of his life, he gave strong support to a scheme to provide flying scholarships to the disabled.
His two favourite aircraft were the iconic delta-winged Vulcan, in his words “a masterpiece of British design”, and the Buccaneer attack aircraft. As chairman of the “Vulcan to the Sky” trust, he was heavily involved in the campaign to restore to flight the last Vulcan bomber XH558, to which Telegraph readers contributed £300,000.
He was the first president of the Buccaneer Aircrew Association, a position he held for almost 20 years, never missing the annual “Buccaneer Blitz” reunion. His post-lunch address was a highlight, enlivened by his wicked humour and irreverent sideswipes at other fast-jet squadrons.
He was passionate about rugby, having his first game when he was 11, and until his early forties he played all over the world as a second row forward. His final game, as a group captain with the Laarbruch Ancients, resulted in a 41-0 victory in Berlin, when he scored the final try. He was chairman of the RAF Rugby Association and served as the RAF representative on the Rugby Football Union.
Charismatic, larger-than-life, energetic in pursuing his many interests and seemingly indestructible, Mike Knight rarely missed a party and was in demand as an after-dinner speaker with a limitless fund of jokes and anecdotes.
He married, in 1967, Patricia Davies; she died in 2008. He is survived by his son and two daughters.
Air Chief Marshal Sir Michael Knight, born November 23 1932, died November 28 2022