Group Captain Robert Sutherland
Group Captain Robert Sutherland, known as Bob to his friends, is one of the two central characters in 'Bloody Orkney' and its predecessors, 'Eyes Turned Skywards' and 'The Danger of Life'. The other is Monique Dubois, a.k.a. Vera Duval. Bob was a wing commander in charge of a training unit in 'Eyes Turned Skywards'. He was then promoted to the rank of group captain and took up the position of deputy head of Military Intelligence 11, in charge of the section’s activities in the northern half of the UK.
Bob was born in 1912. His father was, and still is in the books, a senior policeman in Edinburgh City Police. Bob was sent to George Heriot’s School from the age of 5 and attended the school until the summer of 1930, when he was 18. His family wanted him to go to university, but instead he moved to stay with friends in London and worked for a brewery, making deliveries to pubs.
On 8 December 1930 Bob boarded a Dutch steamer at Tower Bridge in London and sailed to the Hook of Holland. He then walked most of the way to Rome. He followed the River Waal across Holland to Nijmegen, and once in Germany he followed the River Rhine. From Munich he cut across the tail of Austria, via Innsbruck, then travelled down through Italy via Verona to the coast of Tuscany. He got to Rome in September 1931 and his father paid for a train ticket back to Edinburgh. The journey Bob Sutherland made across Europe in 1930/31 had many similarities with the early part of the journey undertaken by Patrick Leigh Fermor in 1933/34, and described by him in his classic travel book, 'A Time of Gifts'.
Two months after returning to Scotland, Bob joined the City of Glasgow Police as a constable, becoming a detective constable in June 1935 and a detective sergeant in May 1938. In 1933 he became close to the sister of a colleague, Mary Callaghan. However, a visit with friends to the Scottish Flying Club pageant at Renfrew Airport in 1933 gave Bob a fascination for flying, and he subsequently learned to fly. Mary did not appreciate being Bob’s third priority after flying and the police, and the relationship failed.
In the summer of 1936 at the age of 24, Bob was invited to join the Auxiliary Air Force by Lord Hamilton, commanding officer of No. 602 Squadron AAF. Bob was commissioned as a Pilot Officer in the AAF with 602 Squadron at RAF Abbotsinch near Paisley. He was promoted to flying officer on 8 May 1938, a week before he was made a detective sergeant in his day job.
With the onset of war, Bob took up a full-time role with 602 Squadron, by now flying Spitfires. As Luftwaffe air raids began, Bob was immediately in action, proving himself to be a highly successful fighter pilot. On 15 August 1940, while flying Hurricanes with 605 Squadron from RAF Drem east of Edinburgh, he shot down three bombers attacking Tyneside and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. He was awarded a second DFC for shooting down three aircraft on 15 September 1940, while flying as a squadron leader from Croydon, south of London. And on Monday 7 October 1940 he shot down five German fighters in a single day. On the morning of 1 November 1940 Bob shot down his twenty-first confirmed 'kill', though his personal tally included two more that had not been officially confirmed. That night, Bob was shot down while returning alone to Croydon in the dark. Ironically, a week later he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order.
Bob suffered a serious head injury when he was shot down, losing the sight in his left eye. He spent four months recovering, then went on a speaking tour to the United States. On his return in August 1941 he was promoted to wing commander and appointed commanding officer of 55 Operational Training Unit, training fighter pilots. This was based initially near Sunderland and later at RAF Annan in southern Scotland. This was what Bob was doing when we met him at the start of 'Eyes Turned Skywards'. Bob has gradually come to terms with his monocular vision, but it still prevents him flying at night; and he also avoids driving in the dark when he can. He shot down his twenty-second confirmed 'kill' (and by his count his twenty-fourth) in September 1942, while flying to Caithness in 'Eyes Turned Skywards'. His promotion and appointment as deputy head of Military Intelligence 11 came at the end of 'Eyes Turned Skywards' and he was in post by the beginning of 'The Danger of Life'.
Group Captain Robert Sutherland is a fictional character, though he has a career in the Royal Air Force that will be recognisable to anyone familiar with the life and achievements of Squadron Leader Archibald McKellar, DSO, DFC and Bar. Bob Sutherland’s family background and pre-war employment were very different to Archibald McKellar’s, but the two shared an eminent list of achievements during the Battle of Britain. Squadron Leader McKellar was sadly killed when he was shot down on 1 November 1940, whereas the fictional Group Captain Sutherland was only wounded when he was shot down on the same day, allowing him to play a leading role in this book.
Is it right to appropriate a real man’s war record for the services of fiction? I’ve always thought that Squadron Leader McKellar has never received the recognition he deserved given the scale of his achievements as a fighter pilot. And perhaps the ultimate irony was that the Air Ministry decided that the dates during which the Battle of Britain was fought were from 10 July 1940 to 31 October 1940. Because Squadron Leader McKellar was killed a day later, he is not listed on the Battle of Britain roll of honour in the RAF Chapel in Westminster Abbey. I’d like to think that basing Bob Sutherland’s record on Archie McKellar's might help bring the latter's achievements to a wider audience.
I've been asked who I'd like to play Bob Sutherland in a film adaptation of any of my WW2 thrillers. To my mind, Jack Lowden would be just right.