November 16th, 2016 ~ Vol. 85 No. 49
Looking Back - John Kinnear
Fred Sutherland – A Triumph of the Human Spirit
Looking Back
Source: Internet
Sutherland's AJ-N Lancaster crew - red arrow is Fred
So it seems that it has come down to this fact. There are only two of the 133 men who served in the RAF 617 Squadron (The Dambusters) that are still alive today. Squadron leader and bomb-aimer George “Johnny” Johnson RAF from Westbury-on-Trym, Bristol and nose gunner Fred Sutherland RCAF from Rocky Mountain House, Alberta. You may recall that I mentioned Sutherland briefly back in an article on May 28th of 2013 (see that was entitled: “The Amazing Bouncing Bomb”.

To recap, Fred was one of the 133 crew that flew in 19 specially equipped Lancaster’s on that night in May of 1943 in Operation Chastise to destroy the German dams Mohne, Sorpe and Eder. There were 30 Canadians in those crews, 15 of which returned safely to base. Seven of those fifteen were Albertans.

Fred Sutherland and his wife Margaret live in Rocky Mountain House and later this year will celebrate their 72nd wedding anniversary! That, in of itself, is a remarkable fact but if you thought that Fred’s mission to breach the Eder Dam was an amazing story then I have yet another Sutherland harrowing tale to share with you.

It seems that the Lancaster crews of 617 went on to several other missions after the dam attach including a mission against the monster German battle ship Tirpitz in November of 1944. But it was only four months after the dam raids that these specially trained crews were ordered to yet another important mission; to attack the Dortmund-Ems Canal. The canal is a 269 kilometer long water-railway and is a major German industrial highway that, at the time, was being used to move war materials like steel and coal inland from the North Sea. The plan was to use 12,000 pound Tallboy bombs like those that I mentioned in my June 4, 2013 attack on the Tirpitz follow-up article that profiled Blarimore born dambuster Daniel Revie Walker. (

The Dortmund canal was heavily defended and in fog conditions on that night on September 15/16, 1943 which resulted in the tragic loss of five of the eight Lancaster’s sent there. One of those was Sutherlands’ whose pilot Les Knight clipped some huge trees on a low level approach. Knight was killed attempting to belly crash land his plane but the rest of the crew bailed out into a field near the Dutch village of Den Ham. Sutherland, who was parachuting for the very first time, witnessed Knight’s crash as he descended.
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Stashing his parachute he headed out whilst keeping a low profile and sought help from the locals. Two of the crew were arrested by Gestapo but Fred managed to make contact with a school principal who was a local partisan leader. He was taken to the village of Lage Vuurse and a secret hut there maintained by the partisans. Despite the Gestapo’s ability to penetrate partisan groups, this hut, which had fake entrances, trip wires and power and food supplied, managed to remain undetected while Fred was there. The hut got its electricity and food from a nearby convent. Sid Hobday, the navigator from their plane, was reunited with Fred there and plans were made by the partisans to move them across Europe to Spain.

Just contemplating the intricacies of what the network of support people it must have taken to make this type of escape possible is mind boggling. You have to know that it was always at great personal risk and if discovered these “passeurs” were usually shot out of hand. So it was that Fred accessed one of these escape lines, being passed from link to link by “helpers” who clothed, fed and hid him.

Sutherland was moved from Rotterdam to Paris by train escorted by a guide named Chris Lindermans or “King Kong” as he was known. The ironic thing about this trip is that Lindermans is considered to be one of Netherlands’ most infamous traitors and is reported to have turned in over 250 partisans. That he escorted Fred successfully to a drop-off near the Pyrenees Mountains without betraying him just blows my mind. Lindermans is credited with having betrayed the Allies’ “Operation Market Garden” plans (the Arnhem operation) which led to their defeat there in 1944. He was found dead in his cell in 1946, part of the great mystery of this double agent.

Fred was ultimately questioned by Gestapo agents on a train who scrutinized his paperwork. The fake documents indicated he was a labourer that was deaf and dumb and was heading to the coast to work as forced labour for the Germans. So it was that Fred Sutherland made it down this human pipeline and eventually connected with Basque guides that took him up and over one of the treacherous Pyrenees “freedom trails”. Fred’s route started in Toulouse, then on to the Central Pyrenees and the starting point of the now famous Le Chemin de la Liberte (Path to Freedom).This was one of several escape routes into Spain used during the war that led, not only hundreds of French and Jews fleeing the Germans but may R.A.F. and American airmen, to safety after being shot down or crash-landing over Nazi-occupied Europe.
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Then it was on to Gibraltar by bus to the British Naval Base and back to England for days and days of debriefing about partisans, the hut in the woods, King Kong and any German ships sighted in Rotterdam. My God, if this isn’t the stuff of movies what is? Oh yeah, by the way. The hut was eventually discovered as was the link to the convent and the Mother Superior was badly beaten, pistol-whipped in the chapel and sent to Bergen Belsen concentration camp. Sound familiar? That is where Anne Frank was sent.

Fred returned home just before Christmas of 1943 and I was astounded to learn that, after all the dam busting and that nerve wracking escape across the European continent, he had not yet turned 21. Fred wanted to marry his sweetheart Margaret Baker, daughter of a local banker, but could not do so! The reason why will leave your shaking your head. Under Canadian laws at the time anyone under 21 was “deemed to be not sufficiently mature, so must receive permission from a parent.” Permission was then given to this remarkable man who had already gone through a lifetime of experiences.

Fred Sutherland chose to use the après service paid training opportunity offered him and got a degree in Forestry at UBC. He went on to a long illustrious career in forestry and retired as superintendent of the Rocky Mountain/ Clearwater Forest area. Locally grown forester Jim Nowasad, now retired, worked for Fred from 1974 till 1980 up in Rocky Mountain House and speaks very highly of this larger than life man. Fred actually did work in the Pass area for a time conducting a study of the forests in the Racehorse Creek area. Jim describes Fred as a fair, square shooter and that the relationship between him and Margaret is as true a definition of man and wife as you will ever find.

Author’s Note: So a really spooky thing happened. While researching all the men lost on the dambuster raid the name John Kinnear came up. He was, like Fred Sutherland, only 21 when he lost his life after their plane hit high tensions wires and crashed near Marbeck. Their plane, AJ-B, was the first casualty of the raid on the Mohne Dam which was eventually breached. He was a sergeant and flight engineer and was known to his family as Jack and eventually Jock. He is buried at the Reichwald Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery. I go by all three names myself!
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November 16th ~ Vol. 85 No. 49
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