Flying Officer Michael Joseph Sunstrum
On 17th January, 1943, No.402 Squadron, RCAF, paid a terrible price when they headed across the Channel on a fighter sweep, (Rodeo 151), with No.401 and No.412 squadrons – three pilots missing. All of them had, in fact, lost their lives: Wing Commander John Clarke Fee DFC and Bar, Flying Officer Michael Joseph Sunstrum and Pilot Officer Allister McLean Skinner.
In return Kenley’s Canadian Wing damaged five locomotives, destroyed 1 FW190, probably destroyed another and probably damaged five more.
Michael Joseph ‘Joe’ Sunstrum was born in Markinch, Saskatchewan on 11th September, 1922. He was the second child of Samuel Henry Sunstrum and Mary Frances Cameron, who had tied the knot in Brandon, Manitoba, in 1920. Joe’s Father was born in Ontario and worked as a Station Agent for Canadian Pacific Railways. His Mother, Mary, was born in Ballycastle, Ireland, and records indicate that she took her son with her when she visited her family in Ballyshannon, in 1924. Joe had three sisters: Patricia, Maureen and Kathleen, and a brother, James Henry.
Joe went to Primary and High School in Naicam. During 1939, he joined the Non-Permanent Active Militia of Canada, serving with “C” Company of the Saskatoon Light Infantry, Dundurn, for 7 months. Despite having never flown before, he enlisted in the RCAF, on 30th May, 1941, at Regina, Saskatchewan.
Sunstrum commenced his training in earnest at No.2 Initial Training School, on 8th August, 1941, completing Course No.33 a month later with high marks in Maths and Signals. He was considered to be, “a cheerful but serious type of airman.”
Flying training began at No.15 EFTS, on 13th September, and Joe impressed his instructors with his calm demeanour, becoming a, “very safe pilot.” He passed Course 38 and was sent to No.11 Service Flying Training School at Yorkton, on 10th November, 1941, where he was graded as a high average pilot: “Young, but capable and steady,” who, “completed his course with no weakness in any way.” Joe passed Course No.42 and was awarded his ‘wings’ on 27th February, 1942. He was immediately posted overseas and sent on two weeks embarkation leave, before beginning the journey to England on 20th March.
More training followed at No.17(P) Advanced Flying Unit and then No.52 Operational Training Unit, Debden, where Joe converted to Spitfires and was graded as above average in all subjects except instrument flying. He was posted to 402 Squadron RCAF, and made his first flight from RAF Kenley on 3rd October, 1942, – local familiarisation in a Tiger Moth. Joe flew his first operational patrol with Flight Lieutenant Foss Henry Boulton, on 14th October and his first ‘Circus’ (a bombing raid with a huge fighter escort) the following day. From then on he was flying regular operations with the squadron.
At 2.15pm on 17th January, 1943, Joe Sunstrum took off from Kenley on what would be his last sortie – Rodeo 151, a low-level attack in communication lines in France, by 24 Spitfire IX’s of 401 and 402 Squadrons, plus the 15 Spitfire Vb’s of 412 Squadron. They crossed into France, west of Dieppe, led by Wing Commander Fee DFC, with Joe flying as his No.2 on Red Section. Sections split off from the main formation to attack ground targets and were covered by the Wing Commander’s section. They had been over France for 15 minutes when enemy fighters were sighted. W/C Fee’s section turned to meet 9 FW190’s head-on and “the dogfight which developed was one that Joe would have hated to miss,” according to Squadron Leader Malloy – it eventually involved 20 FW190’s. Sunstrum was heard on the R/T reassuring Fee that he was right behind him, but at 15.33pm, Fee was heard saying, “I’m hit fellows and I’m going out.” Two aircraft were seen going down over France, which may have been Fee and Sunstrum. No more was heard or seen of them and they were posted missing.
Having no known grave, Flying Officer Michael Joseph Sunstrum is remembered on the Runnymede Memorial.
Rest in peace Sir and thank you for your service.