(Source: East Kootnay News Online Weekly, July 24, 2016 – Elinor Florence)
· 2009.014.320, Glenn Murphy Collection F041
(l-r) Clara Sutherland (Fred’s mother), Margaret Murphy, Fred
Sutherland and Margaret Baker Sutherland. ca 1963.
There is so much about Peace River, its people, its history of which many of us are unaware. Take, for instance, Fred Sutherland, whose father Dr. Frederick Henry Sutherland, was one of Peace River Crossings first physicians and whose mother, Clara Caroline Richards was one of the “Crossings” first nurses.
Fred, who shared his parents with sisters Kathleen and Alma, made history in his own right. He is Canada’s last surviving Dambuster – “one of only two men left in the world who participated ‘in one of the most deadly, daring missions of the Second World War’.
When Fred left school at 18, his dream was to be a bush pilot in Canada’s wilderness. To reach that goal, he enlisted in the air force and trained as an air gunner at Brandon, Manitoba. In the spring of 1942, he completed his operational training at Royal Air Force Cottesmore in Rutland, England, where “he crewed up” with Australian Les Knight as his pilot – Sergeant Fred Sutherland the front gunner. They began flying the Lancaster at Skellingthorpe, Lincolnshire, in their first operational unit – Royal Air Force Number 50 Squadron.
The seven-man “close-knit” crew survived 25 trips over Europe – a full tour was 30. By March 1943, the crew looked forward to making the remaining five trips and the brief respite that would follow before their final tour of 20 additional trips.
Two crews from the squadron were chosen for a special, top secret project, in exchange for which they would be granted the last five trips of their first tour. “If you had made it through 25 trips, you were doing very well,” Fred recalls in an interview with reporter and relative by marriage, Elinor Florence, in the East Kootnay News Online Weekly, July 24, 2016. “Our crew was considered one of the best. We volunteered for the special mission because we wanted to stay together.”
As it turned out, the mission involved a “bouncing bomb” concept of scientist Barnes Wallis. There were stringent guidelines: “The bomb had to be dropped from an altitude of precisely 60 feet, at an air speed of precisely 390 kilometres per hour, and at a precisely specified distance from the target.”
The crews practised – first with dummy bombs, then with those filled with sand – still unaware their actual target(s) until the night of Operation Chastise – May 16, 1943. “It was a suicide mission”. Targets – three key dams to knock out hydroelectric power and reduce the water supply to the heavily industrialized Ruhr Valley. Fred never expected to survive. Of the 19 Lancasters taking off that night, eight were lost.
The last of the three dams on the agenda – the Eder. Five aircraft pursued the target in heavy fog – the approach made more difficult by the surrounding hills. Fred’s nose gunner position – lying in a transparent bubble at the very front of the aircraft below the cockpit was, as one might imagine, a vulnerable one.
The other aircraft had unsuccessful runs. Then, Fred’s aircraft released the final bomb “at just the precise moment” blowing the dam wide open. “As soon as the dam was hit, the water was going everywhere. There was a bridge down below the dam that just disappeared, just disintegrated. The force was terrific. We couldn’t believe it. We were just yattering away.”
Fred credits his pilot, Les Knight, with this feat. “Jumping over the hill and hitting the right speed and the right height as an act of genius.”
In total, 53 of the 133 airmen on the attack were killed – a casualty rate of 40 percent. Of the 30 Canadians, 14 were killed, one taken prisoner and 15, including Fred, returned to base.
Although this is the end of this mission, it is not the end of Fred’s war experiences before returning to Canada and home in 1944. Waiting for him at the station in Edmonton were his parents and his soon-to-be wife Margaret Baker.
For the rest of the war, Fred served as a gunnery instructor. Following the war, he became a forestry inspector for the Government of Alberta working in Calgary, Edmonton and Rocky Mountain House where he and Margaret currently live an active life – she 94 and he 93.
2009.014.374, Glenn Murphy Collection F041 – Margaret and Fred Sutherland. ca 1990s.
Fred and Margaret Sutherland have three children – Joan, Thomas John and James Duncan. Well, he may not have become a bush pilot, but he did fly and eventually spent time in Canada’s wilderness.