Fred Sutherland, who died on Jan. 21 at the age of 95, was the last survivor of the 30 Royal Canadian Air Force airmen who took part in a legendary Second World War raid that was depicted in the 1955 epic war film The Dam Busters.
The object of the raid was to breach dams in Germany’s industrial Ruhr Valley. First, someone had to invent the bomb to do the job. Barnes Wallis, a British scientist, developed a bomb that would bounce across the water like a child’s skipping stone. That way the bomb avoided underwater nets and exploded just beneath the water, up against the concrete wall, rupturing the dam. That was the theory. The bomb, which was barrel-like, resembling a depth charge, was carried beneath the plane’s fuselage and spinning, so it bounced or skipped across the water.
Delivering the bomb meant flying at low altitude to avoid radar, then even lower above the dam’s reservoir on the final run, with German guns firing at the Lancaster bombers lit by searchlights.
Sergeant Sutherland was the nose gunner, in a dome below where the pilot sat, with the best, and most terrifying, view of the approaching target. He said he never thought he would survive.
“When you go into the target at 60 feet with all the lights on, you’ve had it,” said Mr. Sutherland in an interview with the author Elinor Florence, for her anthology, My Favourite Veterans: True Stories of World War Two’s Hometown Heroes.
Three dams were attacked in the raid; the Lancaster that Sgt. Sutherland was flying in went into the Eder dam after two others had failed to hit the target with their 4,176-kilogram bombs. In order to work, the bombs had to be dropped 60 feet above the water with an airspeed of 390 kilometres an hour.
The bomb from Sgt. Sutherland’s Lancaster breached the dam.
“As soon as the dam was hit, the water was going everywhere,” he said. “There was a bridge down below the dam that just disappeared, just disintegrated. The force was terrific. We couldn’t believe it.”
The result of the raid was a disruption of industrial production because the hydro power from the dam was cut. More than a thousand people were killed, including many Soviet prisoners of war who were forced labour in German factories.
The successful raid had an enormous effect on the home front.
“It caused some production to be curtailed. But from a psychological perspective in Canada and Britain it was a morale booster,” said Steve Harris, director of history in the Department of National Defence. Dr. Harris wrote the official history of the RCAF in the Second World War.
It was a Royal Air Force operation, but there were many Canadians on the mission and the pilot of Sgt. Sutherland’s Lancaster, Les Knight, was an Australian. Nineteen aircraft set out on the night of May 16, 1943. Only 11 returned.
“As with all aspects of the history of Bomber Command, Canadians played a major role in the Dams Raid,” says the Bomber Command Museum of Canada in Nanton, Alta. “Of the 133 airmen that set out on the raid, 30 were Canadian, and six were from Alberta. Fourteen [of the Canadians] were killed during the raid, and one became a prisoner of war. Exactly 50 per cent of the Canadians who took off did not return. Four of the Canadians who survived the raid were killed in action later in the war.”
Frederick Edwin Sutherland was born in Peace River, Alta., – 500 kilometres northwest of Edmonton – on Feb. 26, 1923, the son of the local doctor. That led to his nickname in the air force: Doc. His mother, the former Clara Caroline Richards, was a nurse from Ontario who came to Peace River for work and ended up marrying Fred’s father.
“It wasn’t until after she died that we discovered she was aboriginal,” Mr. Sutherland told Elinor Florence. “She was a Woodland Cree from Moose Factory, Ont., who came south to stay with an aunt and take her nurse’s training. It was obviously a deep secret because she never said a word about it. I don’t know whether she was a full-blooded Cree, or Métis. I don’t even know whether she told my father.”
Before he finished high school, Fred Sutherland joined the RCAF, trained and went to England. Three months after the Dam Busters Raid, his aircraft went down over the Netherlands. The pilot, Les Knight, told the crew to jump, but he was killed in a crash landing.
“I was terrified,” said Mr. Sutherland. Members of the Dutch resistance sheltered him and an English crew member. They were kept in an isolated house with others trying to get out of Nazi-occupied Europe, including Ed Lessing, a 17-year-old Jew.
“The other guys didn’t want [Mr. Lessing] there, because they were afraid it would go harder on them if we were captured, but the Dutch policeman who looked after the camp insisted that he stay,” Mr. Sutherland recalled. Mr. Lessing spoke English, and the two men talked and remained friends for life. Mr. Lessing visited Rocky Mountain House from his home in New York and presented Mr. Sutherland with a painting, titled A Hut in The Woods.
The Dutch resistance produced phony work papers and the two airmen made their way to Paris, then south where they crossed the Pyrenees by foot.
“Our group consisted of 15 guys – French, Dutch, American and British – accompanied by two Basque guides, for a total of 17. We walked for two days and two nights. At one point we got lost in the rain and the fog, trying to evade the German patrols,” Mr. Sutherland recalled.
"One American named Bill Woods was a photographer on a B-17. He only had cardboard shoes, and he wore them out in a few hours, so I gave him mine. I had another pair that were too tight, so I put them on over my bare feet because I had no socks. I got blisters right away, and by the time we reached our destination, my feet were a terrible mess."
It was the stuff of adventure novels. Once in Spain, a neutral country, though under Franco sympathetic to the fascist cause, British officials helped them get to Gibraltar. It was three months from the time he crash-landed until he was back in England. His flying days were over.
Aircrew who were shot down were not allowed to return to active service since there was the risk they could give away the escape route if shot down again and captured.
Once at his base he sent a telegram to his family telling them he was safe. They telephoned his girlfriend, Margaret Baker, to tell her the news. The two met in Peace River when she was 12 and he was 11.
Sgt. Sutherland sailed for home in December of 1943 and became an instructor for the rest of war.
He married Margaret in Edmonton in January of 1944. He wasn’t yet 21, so he had to get his father’s permission to marry.
Mr. Sutherland worked while finishing high school then went to the University of British Columbia and earned a degree in forestry in 1952.
He worked for logging companies for several years then joined the Alberta Forestry service in 1958. He worked as a forest ranger in the Crow’s Nest Pass area then moved to Edmonton as a land-use specialist. In 1964 he moved to Rocky Mountain House, 80 kilometres west of Red Deer, and was superintendent of the Rocky Clearwater Forest District, which stretched from Rocky Mountain House to Banff National Park.
For someone who grew up in Peace River and loved wild rural Alberta, it was an ideal posting, and he stayed there for the rest of his working career, retiring in 1986 and staying in Rocky Mountain House. In his years in the bush, he encountered a lot of wildlife. He once had to shoot a grizzly bear that was stalking him.
“Both dad and my mother lived for the outdoors,” said their son, Tom Sutherland, who lives in Fort McMurray. “He was an amazing fly fisherman, and he fished in the small creeks near Rocky Mountain House. And he loved whitewater canoeing.”
Fred and Margaret Sutherland went canoeing, hiking and camping until their 90s. In retirement, they bought some land in the bush about 25 kilometres west of Rocky Mountain House. They built a two-storey cabin by hand. There was no road into the property, so they brought in all the lumber, tools and supplies on a wheeled cart designed to carry canoes on a portage.
“My father was always in good shape. He loved backpacking. He and my mother would go into the mountains, climb up and ski down,” Tom said.
They also travelled to Mexico, South America and Europe. On one flight back from Mexico the pilot announced there was a distinguished war veteran on board and the passengers all applauded. Fred Sutherland was not a man who boasted of his war exploits.
Tom said that for the longest time his father didn’t talk about his experiences in the war, but he opened up about his experiences in the last 30 years.
Though he never flew in a bomber after 1943, he did crash land one more time. He was the passenger in a small plane that went down near the top of a mountain. All on board survived.
His wife, Margaret, died in September, 2017. He leaves his children, Joan, Tom and Jim, and six grandchildren.
Mr. Sutherland’s death leaves only one participant in the Dam Buster raid, 96-year-old Johnny Johnson, formerly of the Royal Air Force, who lives in Britain.