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.

Dambuster Double signed book

‘Unique’ is a pretty overworked adjective these days, but here is something that I am confident is exactly that. It is a copy of my book, The Complete Dambusters, and it has been signed on the title page by both of the last two men alive who took part in the Dams Raid, George ‘Johnny’ Johnson and Fred Sutherland.

I am very honoured that they both took the time to sign it, and I thank the members of both families who helped make this possible.

Record number of Canadian Dambuster families gathered in Alberta

Dambuster families gather in Nanton, Alberta. Back row, left to right:  Larry Heather (Earnshaw family), Dianne Young (Fraser family), Peter Brosinsky (Earnshaw family),  Charlene Brosinsky (Earnshaw family), Shere Fraser (Fraser family), Kerry O’Brien-Larsen (O’Brien family), Jim Heather (Earnshaw family), Doris Fraser (Fraser family), Tamara Sutherland (Sutherland Family), Hartley Garshowitz (Garshowitz family), Joan Norris, Tom and Cathy Sutherland (Sutherland family), Marilyn McDowell (McDowell family), Bryce Ramlo, Erin Ramlo and Karen Ramlo (McDonald family)
Front row, left to right: crouching/sitting:  Joe McCarthy (McCarthy family), Emily, Kathy and Rob Taerum (Taerum family), Ted Barris, author. [Pic: Hartley Garshowitz]

A record number of Canadian Dambuster families gathered at the Bomber Command Museum of Canada in Nanton, Alberta last weekend. They came from all parts of Canada and Washington State, USA, to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Dams Raid in which their relatives took part. Many of them died on the raid.

Most later gathered under the wing of the museum’s Lancaster aircraft, which has been specially reconfigured and painted in 617 Squadron’s colours as a further tribute. Not all the families are present in the photograph above, so for completeness they are listed below.

Charles Brennan, flight engineer in AJ-M. Granddaughter, Andrea Davids from Calgary, and her son Mark.

 

Harlo Taerum, navigator in AJ-G. Nephew, Rob Taerum, Rob’s wife Kathy, and their daughter Emily Taerum from Calgary.

 

Lewis Burpee, pilot of AJ-S. Son, Lewis Burpee from Ottawa.

 

 

Don MacLean, navigator in AJ-T. Son, Jim MacLean from Toronto.

 

 

Ken Earnshaw, navigator in AJ-M. Nephews and nieces, Jim Heather of Vulcan, Alberta; Margaret Danielson from Edmonton with her daughter Clarissa Danielson Hall and son-in-law Scott Hall; Larry Heather from Calgary; Charlene Brosinsky and Peter Brosinsky from Bashaw, Alberta.

Abram Garshowitz, wireless operator in AJ-B. Nephew, Hartley Garshowitz from Hamilton, Ontario.

 

Floyd Wile, navigator in AJ-B. Nephew, Don Lightbody and his wife Carolee Lightbody from Halifax, Nova Scotia.

 

Percy Pigeon, wireless operator in AJ-W. Son Greg and Greg’s wife Louise from Williams Lake, British Columbia.

 

Grant McDonald, rear gunner in AJ-F. Nephew, Bryce Ramlo, his wife Karen and their daughter Erin Ramlo from Mayne Island and Vancouver, British Columbia.

 

John Fraser, bomb aimer in AJ-M. Widow, Doris Fraser from Langley, BC, daughter Shere Fraser from Blaine, Washington, and niece Dianne Young from Calgary.

 

James McDowell, rear gunner in AJ-K. Daughter, Marilyn McDowell from Burlington, Ontario.

 

Revie Walker, navigator in AJ-L. Son, John Walker, John’s wife Amy and their daughter Kenzie from Calgary.

 

Gordon Brady, rear gunner in AJ-S. Niece, Sheila Robbins and her husband Graham from Beaumont, Alberta.

 

Joe McCarthy, pilot of AJ-T. Son, Joe McCarthy jr. from Blaine, Washington.

 

 

Harry O’Brien, rear-gunner in AJ-N. Daughter, Kerry O’Brien-Larsen from St. Albert, Alberta.

 

Fred Sutherland, front gunner in AJ-N. Son, Tom Sutherland, his wife Cathy, from Fort McMurray, Alberta, and their daughter Tamara Sutherland from Edmonton, Alberta; daughter, Joan Norris and her husband Hugh of Calgary. Fred Sutherland still lives in Rocky Mountain House, Alberta, but chose not to attend this event himself.

Fred Sutherland unveils portrait in Alberta

Great to see a new photograph of Fred Sutherland, looking well. Last Thursday, in his home town of Rocky Mountain House in Alberta, Canada, Fred unveiled a new portrait of himself, painted by Dan Llewelyn Hall. This is one of the 133 portraits painted by Dan to honour all the men who took part in the Dams Raid.

On the raid, Fred Sutherland was the front gunner in AJ-N, piloted by Les Knight, and was thus in a prime seat when the Eder Dam was breached by his aircraft’s mine.

All the portraits in Dan’s series will be unveiled at the International Bomber Command Centre in Lincoln at 2.00pm on Sunday 13 May. All are welcome to this event. The exhibition will then move to London and will be on display at Prospero World, 4 Farm Street, London W1J 5RB from 16-20 May. Admission is free. although a donation to the four charities benefitting from the exhibition will be appreciated.

Report from BBC in Canada about the unveiling
Report from Canadian broadcaster CBC 

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.
Sources:
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.

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.