The Last Canadian Dambuster

Fred Sutherland of Rocky Mountain House, Alberta, is now Canada’s last surviving Dambuster -- one of only two left in the world. He’s also a member of my extended family because he is married to my cousin Margaret. On a recent visit, I interviewed him about his wartime past.

(Story and photos copyright Elinor Florence unless otherwise credited.)

I grew up hearing about Fred Sutherland. Fred is married to my mother’s first cousin, the former Margaret Baker, so he is part of our extended family.

But it was never the Dambuster story that was told by my mother – it was about those nerve-wracking months when Fred disappeared on a raid over Germany and the family didn’t know whether he was dead or alive -- in many ways, a tale more harrowing than that of the Dambuster raid.

My mother and I visited Fred and Margaret recently at their cozy bungalow in Rocky Mountain House, Alberta. Their three children live in other parts of the province, but Fred still drives and the couple manages on their own, although Margaret has survived an ordeal with cancer.

While we enjoyed a glass of sherry, and caught up on family news, I asked Fred about his wartime experiences. In spite of being interviewed many times over the years, he graciously answered my questions.

 

                  Fred’s Early Life

Fred was born in 1923. His father was the local doctor in Peace River, Alberta – a small community located 500 kilometres north of Edmonton. His mother was a nurse from Ontario who came to Peace River for work, and ended by marrying Fred’s father.

“It wasn’t until after she died that we discovered she was an aboriginal,” Fred said. “She was a Woodland Cree from Moose Factory, Ontario, who came to southern Ontario 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 a Metis. I don’t even know whether she told my father.”

The only son in his family, Fred grew up with two sisters, Kathleen and Alma. He dreamed of becoming a bush pilot in Canada’s wilderness. He had a girlfriend, pretty little Margaret Baker, the daughter of the local bank manager.

At the age of eighteen, before finishing high school, he joined the air force in July 1941. Here’s how the young man looked in his new uniform.

 

 
 

     Fred Trains for “Operation Chastise"

Fred completed his training as an air gunner at Brandon, Manitoba, and arrived in England in spring 1942. He did his operational training in Rutland where he “crewed up,” with Australian Les Knight as his pilot.

Their first operational unit was Number 50 Squadron, at Skellingthorpe, Lincolnshire, where they began flying the Lancaster in September 1942.

It is a measure of their skill that the crew survived the next twenty-five trips over Europe. A full tour was thirty operations, and by March 1943 the seven-man crew was looking forward to completing the last five trips. Then they would have a respite before beginning their final tour of twenty trips.

So they were happy to hear the news: two crews from their squadron were asked if they would volunteer to participate in a special top secret project – and in exchange, they would be granted their last five trips.

“If you had made it through twenty-five trips, you were doing very well,” Fred recalls. “Our crew was considered one of the best. We volunteered for the special mission because we wanted to stay together."

In total, twenty-one bomber crews were selected from the Royal Air Force's 5 Group, including Brits, Canadians, and other nationalities, to create a new squadron, No. 617.

Here's a photo of Fred's close-knit crew. He is in the centre, without his hat.

 

After the initial excitement, though, reality set in. What was this special mission, and just how risky would it be?

“Everybody was curious. They told us not to try to figure it out, but amongst ourselves, we couldn’t help wondering.”

They didn’t know it yet, but they were about to become famous.

Scientist Barnes Wallis had developed the theoretical concept of a special “bouncing bomb” that would skip over the water like a skipping stone and lodge underwater against the wall of a dam, when it would explode.

But the bomb had to be dropped from an altitude of precisely sixty feet, at an air speed of precisely 390 kilometres per hour, and at a precisely-specified distance from the target.

This called for some fancy flying.

The crews went to work, dropping dummy bombs on fake targets. Then they progressed to spinning bombs filled with sand rather than explosives.

“We thought we must be going after the U-boat pens,” Fred said, referring to the dreaded German subs. They still had no idea what their target might be.

This simulation shows the bomb bouncing on the water behind the aircraft.

 

 

      Fred's Opinion of the Dog's Name

The commander of squadron 617 was a dashing young man named Guy Gibson, who owned a black Labrador that became the squadron's mascot. Here's a wartime photo of the dog.

   

Peter Jackson, the producer of the Hobbit movies, has said that he plans to remake the 1955 Dambusters movie. I wrote about that previously and you can read more by clicking here: Dambusters Movie.

Regarding the remake, if it ever happens, there is a debate about whether to use the dog’s real name, which happened to be “Nigger.”

This has sparked a row between people who think historical fact should be maintained, and those who believe the dog’s name is too racially sensitive for a contemporary movie. I wrote about this previously here: Dambusters Dog.

Unfortunately, the dog was killed on the evening of the raid, run over outside the base. Some say his ghost still haunts the area.

Since Fred was part of this historic event, I think his opinion about the dog's name should carry some weight.

“Of course, I knew the dog,” Fred said. “He was always hanging around the hanger. At the time of course nobody thought anything of his name, it never was meant to be critical. But I think they should change the name of the dog if it is going to offend a lot of people.”

I agree with Fred that the dog’s name is a sideline that shouldn’t detract from the significance of the raid itself.

 

                       Busting the Dam

So much has been written about this raid by military historians that there seems little new to add, but here’s a recap.

The aircrews were informed of their target on that very night – May 16, 1943. Fred remembered thinking that it was a suicide mission. "When someone goes into the target at sixty feet with all the lights on, they’ve had it.”

It was so secret that Fred didn’t hear the name of the mission until the briefing: Operation Chastise. The targets were three key dams: the Mohne, the Sorpe, and the Eder. The goal was to knock out hydroelectric power, and reduce the water needed by industry.

Nineteen Lancasters took off that night, and eight were lost. The Mohne Dam was attacked first, and it was breached. The Sorpe Dam was second, and it survived.

Five aircraft headed toward the Eder Dam. The Eder Valley was covered by heavy fog and the surrounding hills made the approach difficult.

The first aircraft made six unsuccessful runs. The second dropped a bomb that struck the top of the dam and the aircraft was severely damaged in the blast. The final bomb was dropped by Fred’s aircraft, and this was successful!

Fred credits his pilot for this feat. “Jumping over the hill and hitting the right speed and the right height was an act of genius.”

As you might imagine, there was much jubilation in the aircraft. “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.”

This limited edition print by Robert Taylor shows the Eder Dam being breached by N for Nut, The code name for Fred’s aircraft. (It and other art works are available by clicking here: Wings Fine Arts.)

 

And here’s what the dam looked like on the day following the raid.

In total, 53 of the 133 aircrew who participated in the attack were killed -- a casualty rate of forty percent. Of the 133 airmen who took part, thirty were Canadian. Fourteen of the Canadians were killed, and one taken prisoner. Fred was one of the lucky fifteen who returned to base.

For more details about the raid, here’s a previous interview with Fred in The National Post. Click: A Real Suicide Run.

If you want to know more about Fred and the other Dambusters, Charles Foster, nephew of Dambuster pilot David Maltby, maintains his own blog here: Dambusters Blog.

And to see and hear Fred describe the incident in his own words, here’s a video shot by the excellent Veterans Voices of Canada, based in Sylvan Lake, Alberta, and posted on Facebook. Click: Fred Sutherland Video.

(To see more videos like this, click here: Veterans Voices of Canada.)

 

     Fred Shot Down, Hides in Holland

After the Dambuster raid, Squadron 617 was kept intact. Just four months later, on September 15, 1943, Fred’s crew set out on an almost identical raid on the Dortmund Emms Canal in Germany.

They were carrying a 12,000-pound explosive bomb. It was a costly operation, with five of the eight aircraft failing to return. Fred’s was one of them.

While their low-level Lancaster was searching through the mist for the canal, it struck the tops of some trees. But their excellent pilot Les Knight managed to get the Lancaster across the border into Holland so the crew could bale out.

Fred thought he had been frightened during the Dambuster raid, but now he was terrified. “I’ve never been so scared in my life. I knew my best method of survival was to stay calm, and I kept telling myself: ‘Don’t panic! Keep your head!’”

He and his navigator, Sidney Hobday, remained in hiding for a day or two before being picked up by a Dutch civilian and taken to a camp deep in the woods where about eight or ten other men were hiding.

All were Dutchmen, evading the Nazi forced labour camps, except for one: a 17-year-old Jew named Ed Lessing. “The other guys didn’t want him 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.”

Ed spoke English, and the two boys became friends. Amazingly, they are still friends today. Ed Lessing lives in New York, but he visited Fred in Rocky Mountain House. He even painted a picture of them, entitled: “A Dark Time in the Woods.” He presented the painting to Fred, who cherishes it.

 

After a month hiding in the camp, papers were prepared for Fred saying that he was a labourer on the Cherbourg Fortifications. They dressed him and Hobday in work clothes and put them on a train from Rotterdam to Paris.

“My seat was at the back of the car, beside the toilet. People kept coming up to me and asking if the toilet was free, and I would either nod or shake my head since I couldn’t speak any Dutch. The train was full of Germans. It seemed that everyone I looked at was a German!”

The two Canadians made it to Paris, and were taken in by an elegant old lady named Madame Vilo. “Every night the three of us sat around and drank a bottle of wine.” They were there for another month.

 

             The Long Walk to Freedom

Finally it was time to evacuate the men across the Pyrenees. After another train ride to Toulouse, they got into a truck with some American flyers.

“We went tearing along these mountain roads with a wild driver and came to a house at the foot of the mountains. There we were joined by five more guys – three Americans, Dutch, French, Australian, and us two Canadians – and 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.

“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.”

But they were safe at last, having traversed the famous Chemin de la Liberte route (The Freedom Trail). From Gibraltar, Fred flew back to England in a Liberator, where he was finally able to send the precious telegram to his father.

“We used a special number to save on words. The number meant: ‘I am well. I am safe and sound.’”

Imagine the joyful hullabaloo in the Sutherland household back in Peace River! His parents immediately telephoned Margaret and told her the good news.

 

                   Fred Arrives Home

Fred’s flying career was over. Once an airman was rescued by the Resistance, he wasn’t allowed to fly again in case he was captured and forced to reveal the identities of his rescuers.

In December 1943 Fred sailed for home. He celebrated Christmas on board the ship, then took the train from Halifax to Edmonton. “When I got to Edmonton, one of our Military Police stopped me and gave me heck for not having my coat buttoned up properly!”

But standing on the platform were his parents and Margaret, who had driven down from Peace River to meet him. Five hundred kilometres was a long journey in those days, but they couldn’t wait another minute.

To the surprise of his parents, Fred and Margaret announced their intention of being married immediately! It’s a good thing Fred’s parents were present, because Fred was still only twenty years old (Margaret had just reached the majority age of twenty-one, since she is a few months older than Fred) and he needed his father’s permission to tie the knot!

The very next day, January 5, 1944, Fred and Margaret were married in an Anglican Church with his parents present. Fred served as a gunnery instructor in Canada for the rest of the war.

After the war, he became a forestry inspector for the Government of Alberta and worked in Calgary, Edmonton, and Rocky Mountain House, where he retired. His career meant that he spent much of his time in the wilderness, where he had some hair-raising encounters with bears. But Fred kept his head, just as he had done during the war.

 

                Fred’s Portrait Painted

In 2014, a world-renowned British artist named Richard Stone travelled to Canada to paint Fred’s portrait as part of a series called Portraits of Heroism.

The artist also visited the other surviving Dambusters: bomb aimer George “Johnny” Johnson of the United Kingdom, and pilot Les Munro of New Zealand.

All three former airmen agreed to sit with Stone as an honour to the many crewmen who died during the raid. Sadly, Les Munro has since passed away.

The plan was to reunite the three men at an unveiling of their portraits in the United Kingdom, but Fred is unsure whether he will be able to make the long trip overseas. The photo below shows him posing for his portrait at the Banff Springs Hotel. (Photo Credit: Rocky Mountain Outlook).

Fred, thank you for your service to your family, your community, and your country. And thank you for sharing your memories here today.

God bless you and keep you.

                                                        * * * * *

            MY FAVOURITE VETERANS

Fred Sutherland's wonderful story, along with twenty-seven other original articles from Wartime Wednesdays, are now available in printed book form.

To read more about the book, click: My Favourite Veterans: True Stories From World War Two's Hometown Heroes. To order a signed copy for $35.00 Canadian, email me at elinor1@telus.net or call me at 250-342-1621.

You may also purchase a copy from Amazon by clicking here: My Favourite Veterans: True Stories From World War Two's Hometown Heroes.

 

            MY FAVOURITE VETERANS

Fred Sutherland's wonderful story, along with twenty-seven other original articles from Wartime Wednesdays, are now available in printed book form.

To read more about the book, click: My Favourite Veterans: True Stories From World War Two's Hometown Heroes. To order a signed copy for $35.00 Canadian, email me at elinor1@telus.net or call me at 250-342-1621.

You may also purchase a copy from Amazon by clicking here: My Favourite Veterans: True Stories From World War Two's Hometown Heroes.

                      About My Novel

  • Bird’s Eye View is fact-based fiction about a young Canadian woman who serves as an aerial photo interpreter in World War Two. In 2016 it was named a Canadian bestseller by both The Globe & Mail, and The Toronto Star. It's available as a trade paperback through any bookstore, and also as an ebook. To order online from Amazon, click Bird's Eye View. It's also available from Amazon's U.S. and U.K. websites.

                    About My Website

  • All blog posts are indexed by subject and title on this page. Scroll to the top of this page to see the list, and enter your email address to subscribe to Wartime Wednesdays. If you enjoy it, please share through Facebook, Twitter, email or just an old-fashioned phone call!

                     About My Events

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During my research into Canada’s wartime past, I uncovered some fascinating facts and anecdotes. I’ll share them here and welcome feedback and stories of your own.

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