Kiwi pilot last of the Dam Busters
NEW Zealander Les Munro was the last surviving pilot from the specialised World War II “Dam Buster” mission targeting German infrastructure.
The team of top pilots secretly trained in 1943 to master flying at high speeds, low altitudes and in the dark. The British team was tasked with flying over Germany and dropping a specially designed bouncing bomb to destroy dams.
More than 50 of the 133 airmen died during the raid, but it was considered a success after two dams were destroyed that flooded factories and killed more than 1000 German citizens in the Ruhr valley, while also boosting morale back in Britain.
Munro himself was unable to complete the mission after his Lancaster bomber was hit by enemy fire and was forced to return to base.
The mission inspired a book and a 1955 movie The Dam Busters starring Michael Redgrave.
“Really sad to hear of Les Munro’s death,” Prime Minister John Key wrote on Twitter.
“New Zealand has lost a remarkable man who led a remarkable life.”
Peter Wheeler, the chief executive of the New Zealand Bomber Command Association, a group for aircrew veterans, said Munro was prouder of a mission he completed a year later, on the night before the invasion of Normandy, or D-Day.
Wheeler said in that mission, Munro and other pilots attempted to trick German radar operators by circling and advancing slowly, while also tossing out aluminium strips, in order to appear on radar screens as a major sea invasion, away from where the real invasion would soon happen.
Squadron leader Munro retired from flying on February 5, 1946, a veteran of 58 missions.
He was described in screenwriter Paul Brickhill’s The Dam Busters as a “slow-speaking, taciturn New Zealander, so earnest and dour that he was known as ‘Happy’.”
Munro earlier this year offered to auction his war medals to secure funding for the upkeep of the Bomber Command Memorial in London. But Britain’s Lord Ashcroft stepped in the day before the auction, donating £75,000 ($117,000) and allowing Munro to donate the medals to a New Zealand museum.
The medals are now housed close to a Lancaster bomber – the same as the one Munro once flew.
“I’m comforted by the thought that my medals will be within proximity of the plane and I appreciate it very much indeed because they will have some relationship,” he said.
Born John Leslie Munro on New Zealand’s North Island, he was always known as Les. He lived on the family farm before enlisting in the Royal New Zealand Air Force in July 1941. He trained in Tiger Moths but on graduation chose to fly bombers.
He was posted to Canada for initial bomber training before going to England for further training, where he joined the 97 Squadron in Lincolnshire. There he flew Avro Manchesters and Avro Lancasters.
Wheeler said that after World War II, Munro began working at a government agency that gave loans to ex-servicemen to help them become farmers. Wheeler said Munro “took his own advice” by becoming a farmer himself.
In 1948 he married Betty Hill and they had five children. They farmed cattle and sheep on the central North Island, and Munro later became involved in local politics, becoming mayor of the Waitomo District Council, serving from 1978 to 1995, and where a street is named in his honour.
He and his wife retired to the coastal community of Tauranga.
Munro is remembered as a modest, generous and “very nice fellow”.
“He was always a little embarrassed about the attraction of the Dam Busters story,” Wheeler said, adding that Munro was nevertheless always willing to talk about it and attend events.
Munro is survived by four children, 11 grandchildren and four greatgrandchildren. His wife predeceased him as did a fifth child, John, also a pilot, who died in a small plane crash.