Pic: Shepherd family/Newcastle Chronicle
Flg Off Kenneth Law Sumner DFM died in Newcastle on Tyne on 2 April of complications arising from COVID-19. He had already distinguished himself with a first tour of operations as a bomb aimer in 44 (Rhodesia) Squadron, starting in June 1943, before joining 617 Squadron in December 1944. His first tour included seven trips to Berlin. While still a Flight Sergeant, he received an immediate DFM for his actions on one particular operation in April 1944, an attack on Schweinfurt, in a crew piloted by the New Zealander Plt Off Owen Taylor. His commanding officer recommended him for an award, writing:
Flight Sergeant Sumner is employed as an Air Bomber with this squadron since June 1943. During this time he has taken part in 26 operational sorties against many heavily defended enemy targets including Berlin (7), Frankfurt (2) and Nuremburg (2). On 26th/27th April 1944, he was bomb aimer in a Lancaster aircraft detailed to attack Schweinfurt. When about 250 miles from the target, in the vicinity of Strasbourg, the aircraft was hit by flak. This caused considerable damage to the aircraft including several hits on bomb bay and Bomb Aimer’s compartment. Flight Sergeant Sumner informed his captain that he had been hit but stated that it was not serious and insisted on carrying on with his duties. He continued dropping Window until the target area was reached and then successfully directed his pilot over the target on a good bombing run. Then when the target was in his sights, he dropped his load and operated the camera in spite of damage to the bomb release wiring and the fact that the bombing release itself was shot away. On the return journey he remained at his post dropping Window and assisted his pilot and navigator with pin-points and it was not until the aircraft had crossed the enemy coast that he would allow his injuries to be dressed. Afterwards, he returned to his compartment and carried on for the remainder of the trip. On landing, it was found that he was wounded in the hand and arm including one finger broken and it was necessary to remove him immediately to hospital where he is now under treatment. His conduct in the incident described above came as no surprise to his crew and squadron colleagues to whom his devotion to duty, efficiency and high personal courage have invariably been an inspiration. I strongly recommend Flight Sergeant Sumner for an immediate award of the Distinguished Flying Medal.
Sumner was born in Saskatchewan, Canada, in 1923 but his family returned to the UK while he was still a young boy. He went to Durham School and then joined the RAF in 1941. After completing a first tour, he returned to operational duties as a bomb aimer, joining 617 Squadron in December 1944. He flew on six further trips, in the crews of Flt Lt Ian Marshall and Sqn Ldr John Brookes DFC, before the war came to a close in May 1945. His last sortie was also the squadron’s final action of the war, a daylight attack on the SS barracks at Hitler’s Eagles Nest retreat in Berchtesgaden, Bavaria. John Brookes led this operation, so Sumner was flying in the lead aircraft, Lancaster PD131. In the event, they were unable to identify the aiming point in time so didn’t drop their Tallboy bomb.
Following his demobilisation, Sumner married Phyllis (“Rennie”) Reynolds, who died in 2015. They lived first in North Yorkshire, farming with Sumner’s parents, before moving to Gosforth on Tyneside in the 1950s. Later, Sumner set up a successful coach business. He was a big supporter of local sports teams, particularly Newcastle United FC, and his daughter Lorelle went on to marry its sometime owner, the controversial Freddy Shepherd.
Ken Sumner kept very active in his later life. According to the Newcastle Chronicle, he regularly competed in the Great North Run, and walked along the Great Wall of China aged 80.