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.

Fred Sutherland was born in Peace River, Alberta, Canada in 1923. 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 Sidney 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.


Right says Fred

Sutherland screengrab

Canada’s national broadcaster CBC has put up some great new pages on its website about the Dams Raid. It features an interview with Fred Sutherland, looking fit and well in his home in Alberta, and giving his insights into the attacks on both the Möhne and Eder Dams. The news piece about Fred is here, but the more interesting stuff is here, with several more clips from the interview, some historical pieces of audio and much more well-researched information. Make sure you go through all the clips. You’ll be glad you did.

Question time

For some time Ron Lapp from Winnipeg has been trying to find out the answer to a question of detail about the Dams Raid:

 When the Lancaster nose turret guns were fired, as they certainly were on the Dams raid, were the empty cases and links collected somehow, or did they just fall to the floor of the nose and get collected later?  I have seen a picture showing the expended cases and links on the bottom of the nose, but I am not sure if this was common practice.  I have also read that canvas bags or a flexible sleeve may have been used, but have not seen pictures of either of these possible collection methods.  In the case of the Dams raid, with a gunner in the nose turret and the bomb aimer at his position, I would not think that the bomb aimer would want to be distracted by having spent cases and links falling over him during the bomb run.

Fortunately, I knew someone who would have the answer: Fred Sutherland, the front gunner in Les Knight’s aircraft, AJ-N – the aircraft which dropped the mine which broke the Eder Dam. Fred obliged with an almost immediate definitive response: 

There were bags under each gun to catch the spent cases. There were several reasons for this. First, each gun fired 20 rounds a second and even with a short burst the empty cases soon built up a great pile.
Then there was at times, the violent evasive action where the empties could get air borne and foul up the works.
In the front turret which was designed for one person they would have showered down on the B/A. After a long burst [of fire] the cases became very hot.

So, there we have it. Another small mystery resolved!