Clayton Knight: The Artistic Fighter Pilot

In this installment of Profiles in History, we meet an artist and pilot who served under several Allied countries during both world wars.
Clayton Knight: The Artistic Fighter Pilot
Comic strip Ace Drummond drawn by Clayton Knight, from Quebec newspaper La Patrie, May 24, 1936. (Lambiek)
Dustin Bass

Clayton Knight (1891–1969) possessed an affinity for drawing. In his late teenage years, he began his art career in Rochester, New York, as a designer for Stecher Lithographic Company, which specialized in “nurserymen plates” displaying fruits and flowers. Desiring to perfect his craft, Knight moved to Chicago to study at the Art Institute where he was trained by several famous artists, including Robert Henri and George Bellows, who were known for their realism.

Knight quickly excelled at the school, winning the Frederick Magnus Brand prize for composition in 1913. The young artist moved back to New York and continued his art career in Manhattan. Shortly after his return to New York, war broke out in Europe. America, however, remained neutral for nearly three years until declaring war on Germany on April 6, 1917. Two months later, he enlisted into the U.S. Army Signal Corps in hopes of being selected to join the aviation section. By the end of the month, Knight was one of the 150 American pilots known as the “second Oxford detachment” chosen to attend the ground school in England.
Recruiting poster for Royal Flying Corps. (Public Domain)
Recruiting poster for Royal Flying Corps. (Public Domain)

World War I Pilot

The transport ship Carmania made port in Liverpool on Oct. 2, 1917. Although these pilots had graduated from ground school in the States (Knight at the University of Texas), they were sent to Oxford to attend the Royal Flying Corps’s No. 2 School of Military Aeronautics. Seeing that the American aircraft were obsolete compared to those being used in the war, this was a prudent decision.

Knight was attached to the Royal Flying Corps’s 44th Squadron as part of Britain’s Home Defence Squadron. The squadron flew the successful Sopwith Camel, a rotary engine single-seat biplane that had been introduced in July of 1917. These planes downed more enemy planes than any other during the war with 1,294 victories.

Sopwith Camel USAF. (Public Domain)
Sopwith Camel USAF. (Public Domain)

Knight continued flying missions until World War I nearly concluded. It was while piloting the Airco DH-9, the single-engine two-seat bomber plane, with the 206 Squadron over Belgium (by then German territory) that his plane was downed. He had taken machine gun fire from German Fokkers, specifically from that of one of the more successful German fighter pilots, Harald Auffahrt. As Knight and John Hubert Perring, who had been assigned as an observer, spiraled toward the ground, Knight was able to regain control, level out the plane, fire off enough rounds to down an oncoming Fokker, and make an emergency landing in Aalbeke near Courtrai.

Both Knight and Perring were taken as prisoners by the Germans. Knight, having suffered a serious injury, was taken to a German hospital. After the war’s conclusion, slightly more than a month later, Knight was transferred to a British hospital where he made a full recovery.

Art and Aviation

Knight would now combine his two passions: art and aviation.
Along with his artist/designer wife Katharine Sturges, Knight began illustrating for aviation magazines and books, such as “War Birds: Diary of an Unknown Aviator” (1926), “The Red Knight of Germany: The Story of Baron von Richthofen, Germany’s War Bird” by Floyd Gibbons (1927), and “Pilot’s Luck” (1929). His drawings achieved much fanfare among art and aviation enthusiasts, especially as this time period was considered the Golden Age of Aviation. During this time, he also began collecting aviation art, a collection that became one of the largest, if not the largest archive of its kind.

As the 1920s gave way to the 1930s, trouble in Europe began brewing once more. The continent was bound for another major war and America would again remain neutral, at least for several years. In 1939, Knight took a job as a correspondent for the Associated Press. The job, however, was merely a front for more pressing matters.

With America’s neutral stance, Knight organized the Clayton Knight Committee, along with his friend and Canadian war hero Billy Bishop. Bishop had been a fighter pilot during World War I and is credited with 72 victories (some sources have suggested more). The Committee was financially backed by Canadian oil heir Homer Smith, who had also been a World War I fighter pilot. With the outbreak of hostilities again in Europe, Knight, Bishop, and Smith, well past their fighting primes, worked together to circumvent America’s neutrality.

Billy Bishop in the cockpit of his Nieuport Scout on Aug. 6, 1917. (Public Domain)
Billy Bishop in the cockpit of his Nieuport Scout on Aug. 6, 1917. (Public Domain)

Recruiting for the RCAF

After a meeting with President Franklin Roosevelt, however, Knight realized that circumventing could almost be as easily done than said. Roosevelt agreed that as long as the recruiting of American pilots to join the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) was conducted discreetly, the government would look the other way, volunteering Americans would not forfeit their citizenship, and if America did become involved militarily in the war, those pilots could transfer back to the U.S. Army Air Corps (later to be named the Army Air Forces in 1941 and the U.S. Air Force in 1947).

Smith and Knight established committee headquarters at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel. The two began canvassing the country’s aviation schools for pilots to join the RCAF.

After a meeting with Gen. Hap Arnold, chief of the U.S. Army Air Corps, it was suggested that Knight might consider the washouts from the Air Corps. These pilots had not made the cut with the Air Corps typically for reasons other than talent, such as conduct unbecoming.

The Committee branched out from New York City to include recruiting offices across the country in Atlanta, Cleveland, Kansas City, Memphis, Dallas, San Antonio, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Spokane. By the time America declared war on Japan after the Pearl Harbor attack on Dec. 7, 1941, the Committee had recruited approximately 9,000 American pilots to serve in the RCAF.

The addition of these pilots was pivotal during the early days of the British Commonwealth’s fight against Nazi Germany. As America entered the fray against the Axis Powers, approximately 8,000 remained within the RCAF, but would eventually fight alongside their countrymen.

"War Birds" illustrated by Clayton Knight. (Amazon)
"War Birds" illustrated by Clayton Knight. (Amazon)

The Clayton Knight Committee was terminated in May 1942. For Knight, the heavy lifting was complete, but he still remained helpful to the war cause. He was contracted as an official artist for the U.S. Army Air Forces in Alaska, the Aleutian Islands, and the Central Pacific. A year after the war’s conclusion, Knight was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire for his efforts in both The Great War and World War II.

Knight continued illustrating and writing books, primarily regarding aviation. Many of his works are housed in the Air Force University Library and Historical Branch. His son, Hilary Knight, followed in his illustrative footsteps and is known for being the illustrator of the children’s book series “Eloise.”

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Dustin Bass is an author and co-host of The Sons of History podcast. He also writes two weekly series for The Epoch Times: Profiles in History and This Week in History.
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