Brigadier Maurice Sutcliffe – Daily Telegraph Obituary

Soldier who served with the SOE in the Balkans and went on to be a pioneer of army aviation – obituary

Maurice Sutcliffe

Telegraph Obituaries, 24 April 2019

[Reproduced by kind permission of the Daily Telegraph, as used for non-commercial research]

Brigadier Maurice Sutcliffe, who has died aged 96, served with the SOE in the Balkans in the Second World War and was a pioneer of army aviation.

Sutcliffe was badly wounded while serving in North Africa with the Royal Irish Fusiliers (RIF) in 1942. He recovered but was medically downgraded, and took the opportunity while attached to the RAF to serve as an extra crewman on daylight raids over Nazi-occupied France.

Early in 1944 he was posted to the Photo Reconnaissance Squadron in southern Italy. A chance meeting with Brigadier (later Major General Sir) Fitzroy Maclean led to him being recruited to join the Special Operations Executive’s (SOE) mission to the Yugoslav partisans.

After a four-day parachute course, two days on weapons training and another two on explosives he was dropped into the Papuk Hills in eastern Croatia. He commanded the Geisha Mission, comprising three radio operators, an interpreter and two members of the American OSS. The Mission operated between the Drava and Sava rivers and covered the road and rail links between Belgrade and Zagreb.

Sutcliffe, back row, second from the right, with his team in Yugoslavia. Behind them is the shack that served as their base for nine months until it was discovered by the Germans and burnt down

Their main tasks were to gain intelligence of enemy troop movements and, with the help of the partisans, to tie up large numbers of German units which would otherwise be prosecuting the war elsewhere. Sutcliffe signalled requests for supplies of arms, explosives and medical supplies to his HQ in Bari, southern Italy. He selected airstrips and used a short-range homing device to enable aircraft to locate these, guiding them in by flashing a recognition signal and using an agreed pattern of fires.

The partisans never abandoned their wounded. If the Germans found them they would shoot them as terrorists so they were hidden in bunkers deep in the hills and forests until medical help could be found for them. Then they would be brought down by horse-drawn carts, straw would be laid on the floor of Dakotas and they would be loaded aboard and flown to the RAMC hospital at Bari.

The aircraft, operating from Brindisi in southern Italy, were also used to repatriate escaping PoWs and Allied fliers who had bailed out or crash-landed. On one occasion, when the crew of a Wellington bomber made their way to Sutcliffe’s hut, their arrival coincided with a rapid sweep of the area by the Germans.

There was no chance of filling a rucksack with food, only time to grab the radio crystals and codes and head straight for the higher hills and forest. They trekked through the snow without food for the next two days before reaching a logging camp and shaking off their pursuers.

Lt-Col Sutcliffe, as he was then, besides an Otter aircraft he flew to Arizona

Harassing attacks by Stukas or JU88s usually followed surveillance by the German spotter aircraft, and Sutcliffe’s area, being within 40 miles of the Hungarian border, was well within range and an easy target.

The German intelligence agency targeted him personally by sending him a parcel bomb. They missed their mark, however, for a colonel in the partisans, suspicious that Sutcliffe had received a package from Hungary, opened it and was killed.

Maurice William Sutcliffe, the son of a Dublin doctor, was born on October 10 1922 in Birmingham, where his father practised for a time after the First World War. Young Maurice was educated at St Paul’s School but left in 1939 when it moved, and he went on to Wellington.

The following year he attempted to join the Fleet Air Arm but was turned away because he was under age and enlisted in the Army as a private. He was in Gravesend during heavy bombing and helped to put out fires in the docks. After attending officer cadet training at Dunbar, East Lothian, in 1942 he was commissioned into the RIF and took part in Operation Torch.

Sutcliffe, left, with General Montgomery inspecting the Royal Irish Fusiliers

He landed in Algiers with a reinforcement company of the 1st Bn to learn that his brother had been killed the previous night by “friendly fire”; there had been a failure to communicate the correct password to the sentries on duty. Two weeks later, he and a comrade made up a newly formed patrol group with orders to reconnoitre a feature which had been selected for a battalion attack.

They ran into a strong German force. Sutcliffe got back but he was badly wounded in both legs. He was evacuated to England, where he spent eight months in hospital before being medically downgraded and attached to RAF Dunsfold as an Air Liaison Officer.

He took part in daylight raids as a crewman flying Mitchell Light Bombers in attacks on E-boat pens and missile launching sites. A raid with a Dutch Naval Squadron ran into heavy and accurate anti-aircraft fire. The aircraft flying alongside him went down; it was, he said, one of the most frightening experiences of his life.

After the end of the war he rejoined the RIF and during the following six years he served as adjutant in Austria, Palestine, Transjordan and Egypt. In 1952 he was posted to Malaya during the Emergency as a Ground Liaison Officer. He was based at Kuala Lumpur and was Mentioned in Despatches.

Maurice Sutcliffe

In 1954 the continuing close relationship with the RAF and the Royal Naval Helicopter Squadron led to him reporting to the Glider Pilot Regiment at Middle Wallop in Hampshire for military pilot training. He qualified on fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters and in 1957 commanded No 6 Flight of the recently formed Army Air Corps (AAC), which was then the Army’s only helicopter flight.

After attending the RAF Staff College he was selected for an exchange posting to the US Army Aviation Centre at Fort Rucker, Alabama, and became one of the pilots for the trials and development of the Iroquois helicopter.

Sutcliffe took every opportunity to persuade senior British Army officers of the advantages of helicopter-borne firepower in support of ground operations, but ran into strong opposition from officers who feared that a large, expensive helicopter force might divert funds from established arms, and this resulted in delays to the development of attack helicopters.

After promotion to lieutenant-colonel, he commanded the AAC’s No 1 Wing in Germany. One evening, he was called by a senior officer who was on an exercise at Anholt, a small Danish island in the Kattegat, midway between Jutland and Sweden.

Brigadier Sutcliffe with members of his family

A soldier was badly injured and needed urgent hospital treatment. Sutcliffe had a Beaver aircraft stripped down and flew there through the night. He took a good navigator and a doctor but they had no navigational aids beyond a map and a compass. There was no airstrip so he chose a field, having first given instructions that a jeep be driven over it to test for bumps, and fires lit to guide them in. The injured man was loaded on and taken to Copenhagen.

In 1966 Sutcliffe was appointed OBE and a year later promoted to Brigadier AAC. After a spell with the AAC branch of the War Office, where he pressed for the development of Lynx and Gazelle helicopters, in 1970 he became Commander of Aviation at Army Strategic Command. He retrieved Army helicopters from under the command of armoured, artillery and infantry units and brought them under his control.

It had been a hard-fought battle. Sutcliffe admitted that he had lost the friendship of many regimental commanders who regarded the helicopter as the CO’s taxi, and it may be that his uncompromising stance stood in the way of his appointment as Director of Army Aviation when the post was created in 1974. If so, he never complained.

In 1977 he retired from the Army and for 10 years worked for British Aerospace as its representative at the King Faisal Air Academy in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. He was a popular guest at the British Embassy and made many friends in the country. In 1992, during the conflict in Yugoslavia, he drove a truckload of medical supplies to Croatia.

Sutcliffe visiting his old Second World War stamping ground in what is now Croatia

In retirement, he had more time for sailing, which was a lifelong passion. He bought a small house in a marina on Southampton Water which had its own berth, where he docked his Nicholson 35, Ringhaddy, the last in a long succession of cruising yachts. Over the ensuing years he explored as far as the Mediterranean and spent his last summer on board, aged 79, cruising along the coast of Croatia.

He was also a good swimmer and enjoyed skiing, which he had learned in Austria. As a younger man, he was a proficient horseman and rode in point-to-points. He was president of the British Yugoslav Society and vice-president of the Glider Pilot Regiment Association.

Maurice Sutcliffe married first (dissolved), in 1952, Susan Leonard. He married secondly, in 1997, Pamela Smith (née Threlfall), who survives him with three sons and a daughter from his first marriage and a stepson. Another daughter from his first marriage died in infancy and a son died in his twenties.

Brigadier Maurice Sutcliffe, born October 10 1922, died April 8 2019  

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