Veteran Stories:
Atholl Sutherland Brown

Air Force

  • Bristol Type 156 Beaufighter.
    Source: Canadian Forces (copyright expired)

    Mr. Sutherland Brown was assigned to fly a Bristol Beaufighter from England to India in 1942 at the age of 20.

Enlarge Image
Listen to this story

"[...] if you were shot down over Burma and became a prisoner of war, it was a most terrible event. You were better off to die than be a prisoner of war of the Japanese."


I was in Maple Bay sailing small boats and racing. We would gather at Maple Bay – [the invasion of Poland] started on the first of September [1939] I think and the war started I think on the 4th [Canada declared war on Germany on September 3rd, 1939]. I was in fact a member, a boy soldier with the Canadian Scottish Regiment, so I returned [to Victoria]. But as I was underage, I was turfed out at that time. Went back to high school, completed high school, one year at Victoria College and then I was 18, so I joined up in the air force, hoping to be a pilot and I became one. My father was a military man and although there weren’t extensive discussions in the family, I was old enough to read the papers and I knew quite a bit about it, I followed it, it was a time of great stress in the Western world. You would have had to have been kind of dull not to have known what was going on. Well, Japan was looked on as a potential enemy and it was a great problem for the defence of this coast if we came to war with Japan. But after the naval treaties of the mid-1930s I guess, people thought that that was less likely. But they were a potential threat and they turned out to be a real threat. I joined because, two things: and it’s hard to weigh which they were. One, I wanted to learn to fly, I wanted to fly and two, I was imbued by my family with a sense of duty and service to my country. And so it was the most natural thing in the world to join up. And beyond that, I’d had a brother who was killed in the air force just maybe six months before I joined up. So there was an element of that in it too. My oldest brother was already in the army and he was overseas in England at the time. Getting your wings as a pilot took about, well, more than a year and so I joined up, I went to Edmonton and Manning Depot and then did guard duty for a month or two in Lethbridge and then back to initial training in Edmonton. Then Primary Flying [Training School] in Boundary Bay, B.C. and then EFTS [Elementary Flying Training School] in Calgary. Got my wings there in, I guess it would be September 1942. Then I went to Prince Edward Island where I took a pilot’s navigation course and then I went overseas. And in - overseas, I took operational training in Scotland and Yorkshire [England] and then I picked up a plane from the factory at Bristol, Bristol Beaufighter, and I was assigned to take it to India. And as a youth of just barely 20, so I flew a plane out to India and I served, most of my war service was in the India and Burma [campaigns]. I returned to Canada from Burma in August I think 1945. And immediately was de-mobbed [demobilized] and went back to UBC [University of British Columbia]. At the end of the war, 25 percent of the pilots on the Burma theatre with the Commonwealth air forces, RAF [Royal Air Force] and RCAF [Royal Canadian Air Force], were Canadians. There were a tremendous number of Canadian pilots out there, far more than other air crew. It’s a very little known fact but there were several thousand Canadian pilots on the Burma front. And I had no choice but I was pleased to go out there. It was an adventure. Flying a plane out to India, then serving out there first of all with a communications squadron and later on with an RAF squadron, 177 Beaufighter Squadron. When you joined up, you were an Aircraftsman. And then when you’re in pilot training, you’re AC2, Aircraftsman, Second Class. And you stay that until you graduate and you either graduate as a Sergeant Pilot or as a Pilot Officer. I was made a Pilot Officer right away. A year later, I was a Flying Officer. At the end of the war, I was, well, before then, I was a Flight Lieutenant, which is the equivalent of a Captain nowadays. Flying was very exciting, especially the type of flying we were doing in Burma, at very low level. The air war was a little different than being in the [British] Fourteenth Army for instance, brutal war in the jungles. It was less so but there were lots of distressing memories in India. There was a famine on then, out of the hands of the British who were not in control of the government at the time, although they were in control of the war. The famine was the result of a number of things and I can tell you coming through Haora Station in Calcutta, with people dead and dying on the … And the railway station was pretty upsetting. And if you read something of history, you could read the various estimates of how the famine happened, why people starved to death in such large numbers when there was food available in India. So it, it’s less war memories than memories of a thing like that were shocking. The Indian population of course was very divided between rich and poor with abundant beggars and that could be very distressing. As far as war went and we were attacking trains and Japanese motor transports and ships, they were the enemy and they attacked the western countries and we knew what happened to you if you were shot down over Burma and became a prisoner of war, it was a most terrible event. You were better off to die than be a prisoner of war of the Japanese. In Europe, the reverse was the case. If you were a prisoner of war and you were in a Luftwaffe - in a prisoner-of-war camp operated by the German air force, it may have been tough but it wasn’t like it was in Burma. Our squadron was made up of British, Australian, Canadian and about equal numbers of Australians and Canadians. And the odd New Zealander. And between us, the Commonwealth air crew, we were, oh, about a third to a half - depending on what time you’re talking about - of all the pilots were from the Commonwealth in a British Royal Air Force squadron. Our squadron had 40 percent casualties. So if you did a tour of duty there, which was 50 trips, your chance of being killed or shot down were four out of ten. VJ-Day [Victory in Japan] was when I was on leave in Victoria after having returned from Burma. VE-Day [Victory in Europe], I was in England at the time so you know, the newspapers were full of it and I took part in celebrations for VE-Day in London and it would be hard not to know that the war was over. The Second World War was a war in the Western world [that] was completely justified. Although we declared war on Germany, it was because they attacked Poland which we had a treaty with. But basically, they were building up to take over the, Western Europe and get “living room”, Lebensraum. And the war was thrust upon us, we were ill-prepared, the Western world, although preparing, was still very ill-prepared. Japan attacked the United States in Hawaii, having already invaded China and having the ‘Rape of Nanjing’ [the massacre of Chinese civilians by the Imperial Japanese Army in 1937-1938] and other atrocities there, the Western world was fully justified in its effort to defend itself against the dictatorial powers.
Follow us