Fred Sutherland: tribute from the Johnson family

Left to right: Fred Sutherland, “Johnnie” Johnson, Ray Grayston. Pictured at East Kirkby, 2002. 

Guest post by Philip Johnson, son of Flt Lt Edward “Johnnie” Johnson DFC, bomb aimer in AJ-N on the Dams Raid. (All pictures © Philip Johnson.)

I am 81 now and my memories of my father’s crewmate Fred Sutherland and his wife Marg are based on conversations with my father and the meetings I had with Fred and Marg at the 617 Squadron major events that I was invited to over the years, starting with the premiere of The Dam Busters film in London in 1955.

My father aways called Fred by his RAF nickname “Doc”. My father would retell stories he would hear from Doc and Marg about their adventures and trips. To him, Doc was always an “outdoor in the Rockies” man. Marg would occasionally exchange ideas and information with my mother on their joint interest in fabrics and hand skills (sewing and embroidery). For years, my mother cherished a small doll given to her by Marg (I think from South America or Mexico – a fabric/weaving trip). Marg guaranteed it improved sleep. I still have it working for me.

My last meeting with them both, and the occasion when I spent most time with Doc, was at my father’s 90th Birthday party in May 2002. As a family we were fortunate to be able to enjoy his birthday in the company of Fred and Marg, and also Ray Grayston and his family. What a splendid few days we had at the Petwood Hotel and the East Kirkby Aviation Centre where we enjoyed the final pleasure of a trip down the runway in the restored Lancaster.

There will never be enough words to capture the loss the family of Doc and Marg must feel. It has to be for me to say, on behalf of all my family in UK and New Zealand, “Farewell, knowing you was a special pleasure.”

Here are some pictures to show what Fred and Marg meant to my family.

This rare picture, probably taken while they were still at 50 Squadron, shows Les Knight with his complete Dams Raid crew. Left to right: Fred Sutherland, Johnnie Johnson, Bob Kellow, Harry O’Brien, Sydney Hobday, Les Knight, Ray Grayston. The two men on the right hand side are unknown ground crew. [Amended from original post, 03/02/2019.]

Fred and Marg skiing. A note on the back in Fred’s writing says “Feb 90 at Lake O’Hara”. 

A special gift on Johnnie Johnson’s 90th birthday was a recreation of the well-known wartime picture of the Knight crew by artist Simon Smith. Johnnie, Ray Grayston and Fred Sutherland shown here with the portrait. 

Inside Lancaster “Just Jane” at East Kirkby. Fred Sutherland trying out the pilot’s seat. 

Fred and Marg Sutherland inspecting a vintage Bentley car outside the Dambusters Inn in Scampton. 

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Fred Sutherland

PIC: © Sutherland family

BREAKING NEWS

I am sorry to have to report that Fred Sutherland died on Monday 21 January, at the age of 95. He was one of the only two survivors of the men who flew on the Dams Raid in May 1943. Sutherland was the front gunner in the aircraft piloted by Les Knight, which dropped the ‘bouncing bomb’ which broke the Eder Dam.

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 Royal Canadian Air Force 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 pilot 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. Sutherland was normally the mid-upper gunner but the special Lancasters used on the raid had this turret removed, so he was transferred to the front turret positioned immediately above the bomb aimer.

All the crews undertook intensive trying for about six weeks but, like most of the squadron, Sutherland 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.

In the event, Knight’s aircraft was not needed at the Möhne. After this was breached the crew moved on to the Eder, and Sutherland 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.’

The next operation the crew flew on was the fateful raid on the Dortmund Ems canal in September 1943. Knight’s crew were in the lead section of four aircraft led by the new squadron CO, George Holden, who had taken over from Guy Gibson a month previously. 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 when his aircraft, flying very low in foggy conditions, hit some trees and was badly damaged. All the seven men in his crew escaped and survived, but unfortunately Knight was killed trying while trying to crashland in a field outside the village of Den Ham. After being hidden by a friendly Dutch farmer, Sutherland was put in touch with the underground network, and then met up with his crewmate Sydney Hobday, the navigator. The pair 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, Sutherland 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.

Any airman who evaded capture was not allowed to fly over occupied Europe again in case they were captured and gave up the secrets of the underground resistance, so Sutherland was sent on training duties and then in 1943 eventually sent home to Canada. He spent Christmas on a troopship and on his arrival on home soil set off for Alberta by train. Greeted in Edmonton by his parents and his girlfriend, Margaret Baker, he proposed to Margaret on the platform. A few weeks later 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.

After a spell as an instructor, Sutherland was demobbed from the RCAF in November 1944. 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, where he lived until his death. Margaret and he had three children, and they had been married for more than 73 years by the time she died in 2017.

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. Marge and he were both very active until late in their lives, and frequently went on hiking holidays.

Fred was a lovely man – friendly, courteous and generous with his time. He never forgot that he was lucky to have survived the war while many of his comrades did not. He will be much missed by all who knew him, especially his family, to whom we send our deepest condolences.