A Rocky Mountain House man who was the last surviving Canadian airman from Second World War’s legendary Dambusters squadron has died.
Fred Sutherland, 95, was a 20-year-old front air gunner on one of 19 Lancaster bombers that set out on the night of May 16-17, 1943 with the top secret mission to destroy dams in Germany’s industrial heartland.
Codenamed Operation Chastise, the mission for the 133 specially trained airmen was to blow holes in the massive dams to disrupt power and water supplies. Only 11 planes returned and 53 airmen were killed, including 14 of the 30 Canadians who participated.
Sutherland died on Monday. Only one other Dambuster, Britain’s Johnnie Johnson, now remains.
A gathering of Sutherland’s friends and family will take place at 1 p.m. on Monday at the Royal Canadian Legion in Rocky Mountain House.
In 2013, Sutherland recounted his experiences in the transparent nose of his bomber as it attacked the Eder dam with the ingenious bouncing bombs that had been developed specifically for this mission.
Sutherland said from his perch he couldn’t see if their bomb had done its work as the plane clawed its way into the sky to clear power lines after its bombing run.
Then he heard the pilot’s crackling through his headset. “It’s gone, it’s gone!
“We were talking quite a bit. We were kind of excited. We couldn’t believe it,” he recalled.
The mission was so secret Sutherland and the other bombers’ crew members had no idea what targets they were to hit until the day of the mission. His crew figured they would be going after U-boat pens.
Raised in Peace River, he was only 18 when he joined the air force in 1941. He was in Saskatchewan, when he answered a call for volunteers to be air gunners in 1942.
By the time of the Dambusters raid, he had already survived 25 missions. The crew then volunteered for Squadron 617, which would be led by Wing Commander Guy Gibson.
Sutherland’s plane’s first target was a dam on the Mohne River the night of the raid. But it was breached before his plane could drop its payload so it flew to a secondary target, the nearby Eder Dam.
Two other bombers made unsuccessful attempts to destroy the dam, when Sutherland’s plane got its chance — and didn’t miss.
Pilot Les Knight, an Australian, and the engineer and navigator did an incredible job as the plane raced towards the dam only 20 metres above the water, he said.
“Everything had to be perfect. It was just like clockwork.”
Sutherland kept climbing back into bombers after the historic raid. Four months after the Dambusters escapades he and the other crew members had to bail out over Holland after their plane was damaged when it hit trees while attempting to breach a canal.
Sutherland and four others eventually made their way back to England by way of Gibraltar with help from the Dutch and French Resistance. Two crew members were captured and the pilot, the same one who had flown his bomber during the dam attack, was killed trying to crash land the stricken bomber.
In 1944, Sutherland was released from the air force and returned to Canada and married his wife Margaret days after arriving home.
He moved to Rocky Mountain House in 1964 and became forest superintendent before retiring in 1986. He was pre-deceased by his wife. He is survived by three children and six grandchildren.