Big Bill and the Guns of Alamein

At the second battle of el-Alamein, where the Allied artillery was the only protection for the slow infantry advance through a vast minefield, Signalman Bill Sutherland from Orkney kept up the flow of targeting information from the front line to the guns for forty-eight hours, at one stage running 700 yards over open ground under fire to get two more batteries.

Bill’s story only became fully known after his death in 1995, through the book of family history produced by his brother, Capt. Robbie Sutherland that told of their times on land and sea, and growing up together in the town of Stromness and learning how to handle a boat in every type of weather.

The story of Bill and the role of radio communication in the battle was told in the 2017 Orkney International Science Festival by Robbie’s grand-daughter Serena Sutherland, together with Prof. Tom Stevenson and Dorothy Brankin of the Museum of Communication, Burntisland, and Sandy Firth of Orkkney Wireless Musuem. They showed examples of the type of communication equipment used by Bill and the tpe of mine detectors that enabled the 51st Highland Division to advance through the minefield at Alamein.

Bill loved country music, and particularly the songs of Big Bill Campbell, the Canadian singer living in England who helped popularise country music to British audiences from the 1930s to the early ’50s through his radio shows and recordings. During the presentation, musicians Andy, Lewis and Chris played one of Big Bill Campbell’s songs and they rounded off the story of ‘Big Bill and the Guns of Alamein’ with this song, with its thoughts of the sea and the desert.

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