Eyes Turned Skywards: Wing Commander Robert Sutherland

Wing Commander Robert Sutherland, known as Bob to his friends, is one of the two central characters in 'Eyes Turned Skywards', alongside Monique Dubois, a.k.a. Vera Duval. Much of Bob’s story emerges during the book: some of it over dinner in Sarclet Castle and some of it in conversation with Monique and with Lady Alice Gough.

Bob was born in 1912. His father was, and at the time of the book still is, 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.

Two months later he 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 in 1933 at Renfrew Airport 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 air raids began, Bob was immediately in action, proving 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 Service 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 severe 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 is what Bob is doing when we encounter him at the start of 'Eyes Turned Skywards'.

Wing Commander 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 share 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 fictitious Wing Commander 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.

The journey Bob Sutherland made across Europe in 1930/31 has 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'.