35 seconds over Arnhem
On September 20, 1944, Noel Sutherland took off from an English airﬁeld at the controls of a Stirling bomber for what was expected to be a straight forward air drop of supplies for the Allied paratroopers locked in a bloody battle at Arnhem.
He had already ﬂown to Arnhem on September 18 and 18  – towing in gliders crammed with troops who were to try and secure a Rhine River crossing for what was to become celebrated as “A bridge too far”.
Those two ﬂights had gone ahead with few problems, but the resupply mission was to provide the young New Zealand pilot with some of the worst moments of his life.
The Stirling was a big aircraft – about seven metres from the cockpit to the ground, four engines and a crew of six. The two main landing wheels weighed a quarter of a tonne each and were nearly as high as a man.
“There was a much heavier concentration of German troops than expected and we had to ﬂy in low and slow,” he recalled this week. “It was a bit of sport for those Germans on the ground – we were just there for the picking.”
In 35 seconds over Arnhem – it felt like a lifetime – the Stirling was struck by enemy ﬁre more than 150 times. The tail was shattered, cables severed and although none of the crew was injured most had close shaves to recount as bullets and shrapnel rattled round in the interior.
After making the drop at 600 feet the Stirling had been instructed to regain height as quickly as possible to make way for following aircraft.
But the disabled aircraft was wallowing and Noel Sutherland instinctively pointed the nose to the ground in a bid to gain speed and, with speed, greater control.
“It saved our lives. I took us under the tracers, but also below a church spire. We pulled up just in time and cleared the spire by a metre.”
The crew’s quick reaction to the problems on board the aircraft also played a big part in their survival. One grabbed both ends of the severed tail rudder cable to provide a human link with the pilot.
Eventually with much ingenuity some cables were re-threaded or joined with shoelaces enabling Noel to limp back across the Channel to a forced landing in England.
The Stirling presented a sorry sight a write-off – “It looked as if someone had pulled its insides out”.
In some stage in those days over Arnhem Noel became a Flying Officer – “I went over as an NCO and came back with a commission.”
Along the way he also picked up the Distinguished Flying Cross.
Noel was born in Palmerston, Otago, in 1920 and was studying at Canterbury University when he joined the RNZAF in 1942.
After initial pilot training in New Zealand and Canada he was posted to England and converted to the four-engine Stirlings, joining the RAF’s 190 Squadron.
After the war Noel returned to Lincoln college to continue his studies in soil conservation and later completed his studies in soil sciences at Victoria before becoming District Government Soil Conservator in Hawke’s Bay 30 years ago.
He now lives in retirement at Havelock North and still keeps in touch with the other ﬁve members of his crew, specially the two New Zealanders, navigator Colin Rouse, Wellington, and rear gunner Reg Vincent, Motueka.
Photo caption – Noel Sutherland, his Stirling bomber struck by enemy ﬁre more than 150 times.