Swimmer, mountaineer, airman, unsung hero …Alec Sutherland was one of those almost indefatigable men who could not bear to waste a moment’s time.
Still a teenager when he helped to found an Air Training Corps squadron and joined the RAF, he went from training on Gypsy Moth biplanes to serving on Lancasters in Bomber Command.
Though snow blindness impaired his night vision and prevented him becoming a pilot, he was among the crews of the celebrated No 5 Group – motto: “Undaunted” – whose missions on the heavy bombers over enemy territory helped take Britain to victory in the Second World War.
Yet he would have to wait another 70 years for the official recognition that he and his fellow fliers so richly deserved, finally receiving his Bomber Command clasp when he was 90. By that time he had also founded Inverness Mountaineering Club, scaled Mont Blanc, survived an avalanche, run with the Commonwealth Games baton, coached hundreds of young swimmers and been made an MBE, all of which resulted in him leaving his own unique imprint upon his home community of Inverness.
The eldest of three children to railway station chief clerk Willie Sutherland and his wife Jessie, he grew up in the Highland capital, where he attended Merkinch Primary School and Inverness Technical High School.
As a small boy, he was taught to swim by his father and, when the new Glebe Street Baths opened in Inverness in 1937, young Alec was one of the founding members of the London, Midland and Scottish Railways (LMS) Swimming Club.
After leaving school, he started work with Inverness County Library, where his role – delivering books to all the schools in the county – helped to foster a lifelong love of reading.
In 1940 he joined the Air Defence Cadet Corps, who initially met in a barn, drilling with broomsticks. It was the forerunner of the Air Training Corps whose 161 (1st Highland) Squadron Sutherland helped to found the following February – by which time the organisation was on a different footing. Sutherland was the squadron’s first senior NCO, a cadet flight sergeant, and the corps was now being trained by RAF instructors, using airframes, engines and an entire Hawker Audax trainer bi-plane that had been rebuilt inside their hall. They also completed flying hours at RAF Longman and Dalcross airfields, training on de Havilland Gypsy Moth and Dragon Rapide biplanes, Airspeed Oxfords and Boulton Paul Defiants.
He signed up with the RAF in Edinburgh in October 1941 and mustered at London’s Lord’s Cricket ground. After being selected for aircrew training, he went to No 17 Initial Training Wing at Scarborough and then on to No 1 Radio School. where he qualified as a wireless operator in November 1943.
He then went to Canada under the Commonwealth Air Training scheme, where he was based latterly at the RAF Air Navigation School in Port Albert, Ontario, before returning to the UK to fly as a wireless operator in Avro Ansons with Coastal Command, based at RAF Nutts Corner in Northern Ireland. As the war began to draw to a close, he was posted to Bomber Command as a radio operator in Vickers Wellingtons with 14 Operational Training Unit (OTU) before moving on to Avro Lancaster heavy bombers with 26 OTU. He flew several missions over Germany where the relentless bombardment was brutal but, as he said, “necessary”.
After victory in Europe, in May 1945, he was proud to swim for the RAF at a celebratory Aquacade in London. However, his war was not quite over. He was due to be sent to serve in the Far East and preparations were well under way, with the aircraft being repainted and the crew receiving their tropical inoculations, when the Japanese surrendered after the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the United States that August.
Sutherland remained in the RAF until 1946, engaged in training flights and helping to deliver surplus bombers to scrapyards all over the country, including to RAF Kinloss and to Brackla airfield near Cawdor.
Back in civvy street, he returned to Inverness where he became an assistant librarian, resumed swimming coaching and took up water polo competitively.
Previously an enthusiastic hillwalker, he had also been interested in mountaineering and, having flown over Mont Blanc in the Alps during the war, he vowed that if he survived the conflict he would return to climb the peak. In 1947 he and a friend motorcycled from Inverness to Chamonix in the Alps, where they successfully scaled western Europe’s highest mountain.
Some time later he had a narrow escape in the Cairngorms when he and another friend survived an avalanche. He lost his ice axe in the incident but, determined to retrieve the implement which he said was of “sentimental value”, he kept his nerve and descended into a crevasse to recover it. It is thought to have been the piece of equipment he used in the ascent of Mont Blanc.
Sutherland, who amassed a wide knowledge of the Cairngorms, the Cuillins and the hills of Glen Affric, was involved in establishing Inverness Mountaineering Club in 1950 and was immensely proud to be entrusted with custodianship of the remote Shenavall Bothy, at the foot of An Teallach in the west Highlands, which he described as “the most beautiful house in Britain”.
In 1952 he married his wife Rhoda, whom he had met at a dance the previous year, and the couple went on to have two sons. They ran a bed and breakfast from their home, playing host to thousands of guests over the years, some of whom became good friends. On local government reorganisation in 1975, he moved from the library to work for Inverness District housing department until retiring in 1987.
A couple of years later he was honoured with the Inverness Sports Personality (senior) award for services to swimming and in 1996 he received a Help the Aged award in honour of his voluntary work.
His 80s continued to be action-packed: in 2002 he ran with the Commonwealth Games baton. Five years later, he won two gold medals at Masters swimming in Manchester, was selected as a local hero to take part in the traditional Riding of the Scottish Parliament procession, was awarded BBC Scotland’s Sports Personality of the Year Unsung Hero award and had an executive room at Inverness Leisure named after him.
Sutherland, who was awarded life membership of Scottish Swimming in 2008 and an MBE in 2009, continued to remain active and in good health until three years ago. He was present at the unveiling of the Bomber Command memorial, in London in 2012, commemorating the 55,573 members who died during the Second World War, and last year received his Bomber Command clasp.
He personally ensured that the sacrifice of his fellow airmen did not go forgotten by sharing his experiences with local schoolchildren, accompanying his talks with his own historical archive which included his flying suit and a tattered swastika flag given to him by a former prisoner of war whom he had escorted home on a flight.
He is survived by his wife Rhoda, sons Graham and Lawrence, grandchildren Lauren and Fraser and his sister Nancy.