Award to WWII vet
By TAO LIN
HE’s had close calls with death, dropped supplies all over occupied Europe and flown between the fronts above Normandy.
Now, 70 years after Noel Sutherland served as a flying officer during World War II, the 94-year-old Karaka resident has received France’s highest military decoration, the Legion of Honour.
It was established by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802 and seeks to reward both distinguished military and civilian services rendered to France.
As part of Anzac Day and centenary commemorations of World War I, France’s ambassador to New Zealand, Florence Jeanblanc-Risler, awarded the medal to eight New Zealanders who had played a significant role in the liberation of occupied France in World War II.
Born in Palmerston, Otago, Sutherland joined the air force in the early 1940s and completed his training in Canada before heading to England.
After more training, he and the rest of the No 190 Squadron started dropping paratroopers and supply containers full of ammunition, fuel, explosives and weapons to support the French resistance fighters, the Maquis.
Sutherland says he saw a huge part of occupied Europe from the air – from Denmark to Switzerland and all over France.
He’s got endless stories to tell but says he’ll always remember his very first operation.
Loaded with supplies, he flew out on a peaceful night to make a drop on the French city of Poitiers.
Just before he got to his destination he saw lights below him fla
shing what he though [thought] was the V for Victory sign.
“I thought, my God, if we ever have to come down, this is the part of the world I want to be in because that was a sign of sympathy,” Sutherland says.
Once he got to his destination, he couldn’t find his drop zone because it wasn’t lit up in the usual way and drifted away to give those on the ground time to set up the lights.
He was flying low by the carriages of a stationary train when tracers, a type of bullet that lets off a light when fired, started going off below him.
“It was like the first of May duck hunting season,” he says.
The operation was aborted immediately and once Sutherland got back to base, a French major came up to him and kissed him on both cheeks, exclaiming “so pleased to see you! So pleased!”
“I didn’t know what the hell he was talking about,” he says.
He soon found out. An anti-aircraft train used by enemy forces for air defence had pulled into Poitiers railway station just as he crossed the English coast.
“The flashing lights that I got through the windows, I think, were the discharges of people taking pot-shots at me – and I was thinking they were all being peaceful!
“They’d already shot down two or three aircraft that afternoon,” he says.
Sutherland had another close call when he flew between the fronts over Normandy, dropping supplies from 500ft. Out of interest, he asked someone from the artillery unit how high the bombs below him were going.
“Turns out the trajectory of the bombs were just about the height of how high we were flying.”
The war ended while Sutherland was on final leave and he arrived home for Christmas 1945.
He worked in soil conservation and lived in Hawke’s Bay for many years before moving to Auckland to retire and be close to his family.
He now lives in the Summerset at Karaka retirement village.
Sutherland says he’s intrigued about why he’s been awarded the Legion of Honour when so many others deserved it but never received it.
“The Legion I regard as a very high honour. I regard myself lucky to be able to have recognition for the trips that I did all over France. It seems this generation is really giving thanks for the peace.
“As far as I’m concerned, I share that with the families of the rest of the crew.”
Sutherland received his medal at a formal ceremony at the Royal New Zealand Navy’s National Museum at the Devonport Naval Base.
Photo caption –
FRENCH LEGION OF HONOUR DECORATION FOR KIWI FLYER
Karaka resident Noel Sutherland received the Legion of Honour for his contribution as a flying officer in World War II to the liberation of occupied France. The Legion of Honour is France’s highest military decoration.