Brigadier Maurice Sutcliffe – The Times Obituary

Aggressive advocate of army aviation, particularly the use of helicopters, who survived a murder attempt while serving with the SOE

Maurice Sutcliffe

The Times – Obituaries – 16 April 2019

[Reproduced by kind permission of The Times, as used for non-commercial research]

    When Maurice Sutcliffe found a passion for flying after being wounded while serving as an infantryman in 1943, the discovery had a profound impact on his own career and on the British Army. He thereafter became a relentless advocate for the development of army aviation and later for the aggressive use of helicopters.

    Severely wounded in the legs while on patrol with the Royal Irish Fusiliers in north Africa, Sutcliffe was evacuated to Britain to receive treatment. Within six months he had recovered sufficiently to start serving as a liaison officer with RAF Bomber Command, but took his “duties” with 98 Squadron, which was flying B-25 Mitchell bombers, a step farther than might have been expected. He flew as an extra crewman on 12 daylight raids over Nazi-occupied France and Holland.

    In an interview recorded for the Imperial War Museum in 1994, Sutcliffe recalled: “I managed to get on a number of trips with them, mostly over the Pas-de-Calais, where there were flying bombs being erected and we were bombing the launch sites. I was accepted by the crews and they were happy to take me along. This was fascinating. It was my first insight into aviation.”

    He was then posted to another RAF liaison assignment in Italy, which led to a chance meeting with Brigadier Fitzroy Maclean, who recruited him for the Special Operations Executive (SOE) mission to Marshal Tito’s parents in Yugoslavia.

    After a parachute course in Italy, he was dropped into central Croatia to join a resistance group in urgent need of arms and supplies. His primary task was the selection of suitable drop zones, to inform the RAF of their location by radio and to guide the aircraft making the drops. He was also involved in the repatriation of some 200 Allied airmen who had been shot down in the region.

    Sutcliffe’s partisan group was forced to move camps repeatedly in the face of attacks by the Luftwaffe and he narrowly escaped a murder attempt when a German intelligence unit, probably aided by a Croat collaborator, sent him a parcel bomb. It was opened by an inquisitive partisan suspicious of the British mission’s motives. Sutcliffe survived, however, and flying continued to preoccupy him.

    After a brief period as adjutant of his regiment after the war, he seized an opportunity to volunteer as a liaison officer with the Royal Naval helicopter squadron in support of ground operations against communist terrorists in Malaya. On being met by a young infantry officer at an operational airstrip throbbing with naval helicopters about to lift soldiers into the Malayan jungle, he roared: “Look at that lot — naval aircraft. It is high time we got some of our own.” He was later mentioned in dispatches.

    Based in Kuala Lumpur, he used his free time to qualify for his private pilot’s licence at the local flying club. As a consequence he had a significant number of private flying hours in his logbook when he reported to Middle Wallop in Hampshire for military pilot training in 1954.

    He qualified on fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters, and was appointed to command No 6 Flight of the recently formed Army Air Corps in 1957, which was then the army’s only helicopter flight. After a course at the RAF Staff College at Bracknell, Berkshire, in 1959, he was selected for an exchange post on the staff of the United States Army Aviation Centre at Fort Rucker, Alabama, where the Americans were rapidly expanding their helicopter capabilities.

    By now Sutcliffe was taking every opportunity to persuade visiting senior British army officers of the advantages of helicopter-borne firepower in support of ground operations. One group were surprised to find themselves being flown by the British liaison officer to see a demonstration of American missile-firing helicopters after being briefed by him en route.

    When he returned to Britain in 1963, Sutcliffe’s name had become synonymous with arguments for an expansion of the army’s helicopter force. He was later promoted to lieutenant-colonel to command the Army Air Corps’ No 1 Wing in Germany and, with it, frequent opportunities to further his cause. Even though he was then in control of the service’s largest single fleet of small aircraft, he ran into strong resistance from officers who were concerned that a large, expensive helicopter force might draw men and funding away from established arms, and perhaps even replace some of their existing capabilities. While such attitudes may appear parochial, even Luddite, today, they were strong enough to impose a serious delay in the development of attack helicopters.

    Although Sutcliffe was proud to command the flypast for the visit of the Queen to the Army of the Rhine in 1964, he was “embarrassed” to lead a motley assortment of flying machines rather than an array of modern, combat-orientated helicopters. He was appointed OBE in 1966.

    On taking over the small Army Air Corps branch of the defence ministry in 1967, he championed the development of the Anglo-French Lynx and Gazelle, and early trials of armed helicopters. Even so, he still faced opposition from the sceptics who could not visualise these aircraft successfully attacking tanks with guided missiles, and traditionalists who feared that Royal Armoured Corps reconnaissance regiments might be transformed into “air cavalry” on the American model.

    Before leaving London in 1970 to become commander of aviation at Army Strategic Command, with responsibility for flying at home and overseas (other than Germany), he managed to retrieve army helicopters from under the command of armoured, artillery and infantry units and, in the teeth of regimental commanders who enjoyed having their own little private air forces, concentrate them under his control. The battle had been hard won.

    It is probable that Sutcliffe’s forthright and uncompromising manner stood in the way of his appointment as director of army aviation when the post was established in 1974. Instead, an armoured corps officer with no flying experience and a more emollient personality was chosen. If Sutcliffe felt any resentment, he never spoke of it.

    Maurice William Sutcliffe was born in Warwickshire in 1922, the second son of William Sutcliffe, a doctor from Dublin, and his wife, Charlotte, who had moved to England before the establishment of the Irish Free State.

    He left St Paul’s School in London in 1940 and attempted to join the Fleet Air Arm, but was turned away for being too young. Joining the army instead, he was commissioned into the Irish Fusiliers in 1942 to serve in Operation Torch, the Anglo-American invasion of French North Africa. His elder brother, Chug, serving with the same battalion, was killed days before his own arrival in north Africa.

    He had married Susan Leonard in 1952, and the couple had four sons and a daughter: Michael, who is now a retired banker; David, who died aged 27 from a brain tumour; Sean, who founded and runs the furniture company Benchmark; Vanessa, a registered nurse; and Nicholas, who is communications director for the Atlas Institute at the University of Colorado Boulder. The marriage was dissolved in 1977 and in 1997 he married Pamela Smith (née Threlfall), who survives him, along with his three sons and daughter from his first marriage, and a stepson, James Smith.

    He retired from the army in 1977 when he was quickly snapped up by British Aerospace as its representative at the King Faisal Air Academy in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. He spent ten years in Saudi Arabia, where he was popular with the local and expatriate communities. On leaving the country, a Bedouin family gave him a camel, which was a sign of admiration and friendship.

    A lifelong sailing enthusiast, he cruised extensively in the Mediterranean, off the Brittany coast and in home waters, often living for months with Pamela on his Nicholson 35, accompanied by a steady rotation of family and friends. He also crewed in a boat for the disabled whenever the opportunity arose.

    In later life his own disabilities, caused by the wounds he had suffered in north Africa, forced him to abandon the sea, and he and his wife eventually moved from their home in Southampton to east Devon.

    He was president of the Glider Pilot Regiment Society for many years and vice-president of the British-Yugoslav Society. When the Yugoslav crisis had arisen in 1992 with the Serbian onslaught against the Croats, he drove a truckload of medical supplies to the area of Papuk, a mountain in eastern Croatia, where he had spent the last year of the war with Tito’s partisans and nurtured his passion for flying.

Brigadier Maurice Sutcliffe, OBE, soldier and army aviation pioneer, was born on October 10, 1922. He died on April 8, 2019, aged 96

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