Dambuster of the Day No. 62: Frederick Sutherland

Sutherland IWM detail

Fred Sutherland in 617 Squadron, July 1943

Sgt F E Sutherland
Front gunner

Lancaster serial number: ED912/G

Call sign: AJ-N

First wave. Third aircraft to attack Eder Dam. Mine dropped accurately causing final breach.

Frederick Edwin Sutherland was born in Peace River, Alberta, Canada on 26 February 1923, the only boy in a family of the three children of Dr Frederick Henry Sutherland and his wife, Clara. His father was a doctor and his mother was a nurse. From a young age, he had wanted to fly and had dreams of becoming a bush pilot, but the war put paid to that. So he joined the RCAF in 1941, as soon as he turned 18. After initial training he volunteered for air gunner duties.

He arrived in England in 1942, and crewed up with Les Knight and his future colleagues at a training unit before they were all posted to 50 Squadron in September of that year. He flew on 25 operations with Knight before the whole crew volunteered to transfer to the new 617 Squadron in March 1943.

Like most of the squadron he had no idea what the target was to be until he walked into the briefing room hours before take off on 16 May 1943. When he saw the scale model of the Möhne Dam, the first thing he noticed were the 20-millimetre gun posts at either end of the dam. ‘I immediately thought we didn’t have a hope,’ he said recently.

After the Möhne was breached and the crew moved on to the Eder, he realised how difficult the attack was going to be:

We were all afraid of the hill. We had to drop the bomb at the right distance and the right height, and then to make it [Les] had to push the throttles right through the gate, which is not supposed to be done… I didn’t see anything when the bomb went off because I was in the nose, but I heard the rear gunner saying ‘it’s gone, it’s gone’.

After the raid, Les Knight, Sidney Hobday and Johnny Johnson were decorated. Knight was embarrassed that the whole crew had not been rewarded, Sutherland recalled. ‘He felt badly that half the crew got decorated, the other half didn’t. He said you know I’m wearing the DSO for all you guys, you all did something for it.’

On the fateful Dortmund Ems raid in September, Knight’s crew were in the formation of four aircraft led by the new squadron CO, George Holden. As they flew over the small town of Nordhorn in Holland, Holden was hit by flak, and his aircraft exploded. On board were four of Gibson’s Dams Raid crew, including fellow Canadians, Terry Taerum and George Deering. Sutherland in the front turret saw everything:

It was so close I could almost reach out and touch it. Your friends are getting killed and you are scared as hell but you can’t let it bother you because if you did, you could never do your job. All you can do is think, ‘Thank God it wasn’t us.’

Hours later, Sutherland was himself on Dutch soil, having parachuted to safety after being ordered by Knight to bale out. After being hidden by a friendly Dutch farmer, he was put in touch with the underground network, and met up with Sydney Hobday. The two were smuggled all the way through Belgium and France to Spain.

At one point while on a train, using forged documents provided to him by the underground, he duped a German officer who inspected his fake passport. Suspicious, the officer held the passport up to the light and scrutinized it painstakingly, trying to determine if it was forged. ‘I had to ball up my fists to keep him from seeing how much my hands were shaking,’ he recalled.

After getting back to the UK he was sent home to Canada in 1944. Greeted in Edmonton by his girlfriend, Margaret Baker, he proposed immediately. Terry Taerum’s mother found out that he had been posted back to Canada, and asked to meet him. She wanted to know whether her son had any chance of escaping the blaze when his aircraft was hit. ‘Telling her about it was the hardest thing I ever had to do,’ he said recently.

Following the war, Sutherland stayed on in the RCAF for 12 more years, and was commissioned. He then studied forestry, and got a job with the forestry service. In 1964 he became forestry superintendent in Rocky Mountain House in his home province of Alberta, and he still lives in the area.

Fred Sutherland used the famous Chemin de la Liberté route in his escape through the Pyrenees, and in 2010, he paid a return visit to the area and met the people who keep the memories of the route alive.

Fred S. + Jo Salter

Fred Sutherland in 2010 on his return visit to the Chemin de la Liberté route, photographed with Jo Salter, the first woman to fly as a combat pilot with the RAF, and a fellow 617 Squadron veteran. [Pic: Scott Goodall]

More about Sutherland online:
Blog article and interview by Elinor Florence, 2015
Interview on CBC, May 2013
Interview and article, Edmonton Journal, Canada, November 2013
BBC Radio documentaries about the Chemin de la Liberté

Survived war.

Rank and decorations as of 16 May 1943.
Richard Morris, Guy Gibson, Penguin 1995
John Sweetman, The Dambusters Raid, Cassell 2002
John Sweetman, David Coward and Gary Johnstone, The Dambusters, TimeWarner, 2003

The information above has been taken from the books and online sources listed above, and other online material. Apologies for any errors or omissions. Please add any corrections or links to further information in the comments section below.

Further information about Fred Sutherland and the other 132 men who flew on the Dams Raid can be found in my book The Complete Dambusters, published by History Press in 2018.

New Forest to yield up Slam secrets


A Grand Slam being released by 617 Squadron’s Flg Off Phil Martin on 19 March 1945, in the successful attack on the Arnsberg Viaduct. [IWM CH 15375/Wikipedia] 

617 Squadron’s reputation as the RAF’s crack bomber squadron was cemented towards the end of the war when it was chosen to drop the first ‘Grand Slam’ bomb. This was the biggest conventional bomb used during the war, and weighed in at 22,000 lbs. It had been designed by Barnes Wallis to create an ‘earthquake’ effect which would destroy buildings or structures in the area without necessarily hitting them directly.
On the morning of 13 March 1945 the Grand Slam was tested at the same New Forest bombing range which had been used in the summer of 1943 to see whether the ‘bouncing bomb’ used on the Dams Raid would be effective when dropped on land. (In fact, it caused a trail of debris to be thrown up which would damage low-flying aircraft, so it was never used.) The Grand Slam test drop, on the other hand, was very successful, leaving a crater 70 feet deep and 130 feet in diameter.
That afternoon at Woodhall Spa, two specially adapted 617 Squadron Lancasters were loaded with Grand Slams and a further 18 with the 10,000 lb Tallboys, and set off for the Bielefeld Viaduct, an important railway target which had withstood several earlier attempts to destroy it. The two Grand Slams were in aircraft piloted by 617 Sqn CO Group Capt Johnny Fauquier and flight commander Sqn Ldr Charles (‘Jock’) Calder. However, when they reached the target it was completely enveloped in cloud, so bombing was impossible. The squadron returned to base, although as a precaution, given their huge load, Fauquier and Calder landed at the emergency landing strip at Carnaby with its much longer runway.
The next day, Fauquier and Calder’s aircraft were reloaded with Grand Slams, ready for another operation against the same target. Fourteen Lancasters were loaded with Tallboys. When Fauquier’s aircraft developed a mechanical fault before take off he jumped out and ran towards Calder. Calder guessed correctly that his aircraft might be commandeered by his superior officer and ignored the gesticulations from the runway.
Calder dropped his Grand Slam at the viaduct at 1628. Witnesses described it as looking something like a telegraph pole as it fell, and that it was considerably bigger than anything that had been seen before. The airborne shockwave was felt 3km away. When combined with the effect of the Tallboys dropped around the same time, the effect was as awesome as Wallis had predicted and five arches on the viaduct were destroyed.
The damage done in the test drop in the New Forest is now being investigated by archaeologists for the first time since the war, according to a recent report in The Independent:

The New Forest National Park Authority’s current geophysical survey and historical investigation into Grand Slam is part of a wider project researching and surveying the park’s often unappreciated wartime role. Quite apart from Grand Slam, the New Forest was used as a test site for the first Barnes Wallis bouncing bombs, the development of the ‘Tallboy’ predecessor of Grand Slam, as well as early demonstrations of the Churchill tank. The forest was also home to nine wartime airfields, many of which played a key role in D-Day.

41 more Grand Slams were dropped between 13 March 1945 and the end of the war. If they had been available earlier in the war, by how much would it have been foreshortened?
Jock Calder was one of 617 Squadron’s most distinguished pilots in the last few months of the war. He died in 1997.

[Hat tip: Graeme Stevenson]

Dambuster of the Day No. 61: Edward Johnson

Hobday Knight Johnson 23Jun43

L-R: Sydney Hobday, Les Knight and Edward (‘Johnnie’) Johnson, outside Buckingham Palace in June 1943. [Pic:www.studiegroepluchtoorlog.nl] 

Flg Off E C Johnson
Bomb aimer

Lancaster serial number: ED912/G

Call sign: AJ-N

First wave. Third aircraft to attack Eder Dam. Mine dropped accurately causing final breach.

There were two bomb aimers called Johnson on the Dams Raid, something that occasionally causes confusion. A third bomb aimer was called Johnston. In the inevitable way of things in the wartime RAF, both Johnsons were also known to their friends and colleagues as ‘Johnnie’ (EC Johnson’s preferred spelling). The older of the two was Edward Cuthbert Johnson, bomb aimer in Les Knight’s crew, who was born in Lincoln on 3 May 1912, the son of Herbert and Jessie Johnson.

His father was killed on the Western Front in 1914, when the family were living in Gainsborough. He was then educated at Lincoln Grammar School. On leaving school, he worked for Woolworths and then the catering firm, Lyons.

After marrying May Beckwith in 1936, he moved to Blackpool to work in a boarding house business in Blackpool with her family. Their son, Philip, was born in 1938.

He joined the RAF in 1940, qualified as an observer/bomb aimer in early 1942, and was commissioned. After further training he was posted briefly to 106 Squadron, but then sent back to a training unit to be crewed up with Les Knight and his colleagues. They moved to 50 Squadron in September 1942, and Johnson flew on some twenty-two operations with the Knight crew.

Johnson and Hobday were the elder statesmen of the Knight crew, both nine years older than their skipper, and senior to him in rank. But they worked well as a team, each obviously seeing in the younger man the qualities of an outstanding pilot. All three were decorated for their role in the Dams Raid, Knight getting the DSO and Johnson and Hobday the DFC, and were photographed together outside Buckingham Palace on the day of the investiture.

In September, on the fateful Dortmund Ems operation, Johnson jumped from the stricken Lancaster when ordered to by Knight. He yelled: ‘Cheerio boys. Best of luck. See you in London.’ He recalled later: ‘The farewells were a little hasty but lacked nothing in sincerity for that.’ Like four of his colleagues, Johnson successfully evaded capture and reached the safety of Spain, with the help of a friendly Dutch farmer and policeman, and various members of the resistance in Holland, Belgium and France. He returned to the UK via Gibraltar. He served out the rest of the war in various ground postings, and left the RAF in 1947.

He went back to Blackpool, and joined a company selling fireplaces, where he worked until his retirement. Edward Johnson died in Blackpool on 1 October 2002.

More about Johnson online:
Obituary in the Daily Telegraph

Survived war. Died 1 October 2002.

Rank and decorations as of 16 May 1943.
Richard Morris, Guy Gibson, Penguin 1995
John Sweetman, The Dambusters Raid, Cassell 2002
John Sweetman, David Coward and Gary Johnstone, The Dambusters, Time Warner 2003

Dambuster of the Day No. 60: Robert Kellow

AWM Kellow UK0330

[Pic: AWM]

Flt Sgt R G T Kellow
Wireless operator

Lancaster serial number: ED912/G

Call sign: AJ-N

First wave. Third aircraft to attack Eder Dam. Mine dropped accurately causing final breach.

Robert George Thomas Kellow was born in Newcastle, New South Wales, Australia on 13 December 1916, the son of George and Violet Kellow. He went to Newcastle High School, the same school as fellow Dambuster Jack Leggo, the navigator in Mick Martin’s AJ-P. He worked as a shop assistant after leaving school, but when war came he enlisted in the RAAF.
He was selected to train as a wireless operator/air gunner and was sent to Canada for training. From there, he was posted to the United Kingdom, and arrived in January 1942.
After further training he was crewed up with pilot Les Knight and then posted to 50 Squadron. He completed some 25 operations with Knight before the whole crew were offered the chance to transfer to the new secret squadron being set up at Scampton. Shortly before the transfer came about, he was recommended for a DFM and then commissioned. (The DFM wouldn’t actually be awarded until June 1943.)
There was no doubt in Kellow’s mind about the transfer, as he explained after the war: ‘The offer presented to us sounded interesting and with our faith in each member’s ability we made up our minds there and then that we would accept the offer and move over as a crew to this new squadron.’
On the flight to the dams, Kellow was watching from AJ-N’s astrodome when he had the unfortunate experience in witnessing the last moments of Bill Astell and his crew, damaged by flak near Dorsten and crashing in flames a few minutes later. He then had to wait more than an hour while the Möhne Dam was destroyed before they reached the Eder and he was told to start up the spinning mechanism for AJ-N’s mine.
Following the successful attack, Kellow was understandably preoccupied while Knight and Grayston pulled AJ-N up and over the surrounding hills, and his message confirming the drop – ‘Goner 710B’ – was sent six minutes after the message ‘Dinghy’, denoting a breach of the Eder, had been transmitted by Bob Hutchison, in Gibson’s aircraft.
Knight, Kellow and the rest of the crew were not back in action until September, in the disastrous attack on the Dortmund Ems Canal.
Five of the seven crew who baled out of Knight’s aircraft would eventually get back to England, helped by Dutch and French Resistance networks and couriers. Hobday and Sutherland had been reunited and travelled as a pair, but Kellow made the six week journey to Spain on his own a day or so ahead of them, and arrived back in England in December 1943. Like all those who had made the perilous return trip he was not allowed to fly over enemy territory again, to protect the networks he had used to evade capture, so he returned to Australia in May 1944.
He served in RAAF 37 Squadron for the remainder of the war, mainly in Australia, but including a deployment to New Guinea where he flew in a Lockheed Lodestar.

AWM OG1532 Kellow postwar

Bob Kellow, in a Lockheed Lodestar of RAAF 37 Squadron. [Pic: AWM]

In April 1946 Kellow returned to Newcastle, NSW, after being discharged from the RAAF, with a glowing report from his Commanding Officer who described him as showing ‘great possibilities for good leadership’, and  ‘one of the most liked and well known’ and  ‘invaluable’ members of the Squadron.
He returned to his job as a shop assistant in Australia, and in 1946 married Doreen Smith, a Canadian who he had met while training there in 1941. By 1952, they had two children and the whole family moved to Winnipeg, Canada, where Kellow worked for the Manitoba Power Commission.
He travelled back to the UK for a number of 617 Squadron anniversary events, and paid his respects at Les Knight’s grave in Holland.
Bob Kellow died in Winnipeg on 12 February 1988, and is buried in the city’s Brookside Cemetery.
[Thanks to Graeme Jensen for help with this article.]

More about Kellow online:
Page on Newcastle High School website

Survived war. Died 1988.

Rank and decorations as of 16 May 1943.
Richard Morris, Guy Gibson, Penguin 1995
John Sweetman, The Dambusters Raid, Cassell 2002
Page at Memorable Manitobans website
Personnel file at National Archives of Australia

“Stand by to pull me out of the seat if I get hit!”

dam busters poster

If you live in the UK and can receive Channel 5, you may like to know that it is showing The Dam Busters again this afternoon. TV screenings of the film usually lead to a spike of new visitors to this blog, so I’d like to welcome you if you have turned up here for the first time as a result of watching it.
The purpose of this blog is to keep people up to date with Dambusters news – information about who took part in the raid, news of commemorative events (the 70th anniversary took place in May 2013) and other bits and pieces, such as the very slow progress on the remake of the original film. This is in the hands of Peter Jackson, of Hobbit fame, and will apparently be proceeding when this series of three films have been concluded. (See this series of posts for an update.)
You might like to know that we are about halfway through a series of profiles of each of the 133 aircrew who took part in the raid. (The full list can be found here and you can see photographs of each of them in this pictureboard, assembled by the BBC with help from this blog.)
If you want to subscribe to the blog, there’s a button further down the page. Or you can get a link to updates by following us on Twitter, @DambustersBlog – if that’s your thing.