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Dambuster Medals Return to New Zealand

Sadly Les Munro passed away in August 2015

2:33 PM Wednesday Apr 15, 2015

In a moving ceremony New Zealander Dambuster Sqd. Ldr. Les Munro presented his medals and other memorabilia to Auckland's world famous Museum of Transport and Technology (Motat).

The medals and memorabilia were handed over at the Bomber Command Memorial in London last month by Christopher Hill from auction house Dix Noonan Webb, and will now be displayed for the New Zealand nation and the rest of the world to see. Lord Ashcroft had intervened to buy the medals so as to present them back to Sqd. Ldr. Munro, who in turn presented them for posterity to Motat.

See New Zealand Herald/Bay of Plenty Times for more information.

See all our other New Zealand material here

Interview with Lord Ashcroft following the ceremony here

Bomber pilot fearless under fire

By Juliet Rowan, Bay of Plenty Times

4:00 PM Saturday Apr 25, 2015

  • SURVIVOR: Les Munro is the world's last surviving Dambusters pilot and one of only three surviving aircrew from the mission, codenamed Operation Chastise. Munro's picture of a Lancaster Bomber.
Les Munro is the world's last surviving Dambusters pilot and one of only three surviving aircrew
from the mission, codenamed Operation Chastise.

On the night of May 16, 1943, the moon was bright.

Nineteen Lancaster bombers flew fast and low across the English Channel, preparing to launch a daring raid on German dams.

Flying at more than 350km/h less than 20m above the water, the pilots of 617 Squadron - known as the Dambusters - required sharp concentration to reach their targets.

'You were flying visually,' says Les Munro. 'The moonlight shining on the water was inclined to destroy the horizon.'

Mr Munro is the world's last surviving Dambusters pilot and one of only three surviving aircrew from the mission, code named Operation Chastise. The other two live in Canada and Britain.

Only 11 planes returned from the overnight raid, and a total of 53 of 133 airmen who volunteered for the operation were killed. Three were taken prisoner.

Munro's plane was hit by enemy fire and forced to turn back, but the raid successfully breached two of three dams and damaged the third, marking a crucial victory for the Allied Forces in World War II. By destroying key German infrastructure and flooding the Ruhr valley, the Dambusters effectively slowed the Nazi war machine.

Mr Munro was a guest of honour at the 70th commemoration of the raid in Britain in 2013, the BBC reporting at the time that 'the courage of the low-flying crews that night ... is something that has inspired generations of RAF personnel'.

Mr Munro agrees the type of flying the Dambusters did was unlike anything fighter pilots did today - or did in 1943 - saying most flying is done at altitude with several miles of visibility.

But despite the risks the Dambusters took, Mr Munro says, 'It was just part of our job'.

Later, Mr Munro and the other pilots of 617 Squadron were involved in Operation Taxable, a mission to confuse the Germans about the location of the D-Day landings at Normandy on June 6, 1944. Last Tuesday, he was one of eight New Zealand servicemen honoured by France for their efforts 70 years ago at a ceremony in Auckland.

Mr Munro now has 12 medals, including a Distinguished Service Order and Distinguished Flying Cross personally bestowed by King George VI. Despite his decorations, Mr Munro says he has been mulling the futility of war in recent years.

'I have some difficulty in understanding why countries go to war to achieve objectives which should really be solved by discussion.'

Speaking at his Avenues home and surrounded by paintings of the Lancaster bombers he flew on all but two of his missions, the active 96-year-old demonstrates a remarkable recollection for dates, times and places, including the precise time he took off in the Dambusters raid.

'2128,' he says. 'I was second off the ground.'

He had already flown 21 operations for his previous squadron 97 when he volunteered for the Dambusters squadron. 'I didn't feel any pressure,' he says. 'It was an operation to me.'

The squadron formed on March 28, 1943, and for the next six weeks the airmen prepared tirelessly for the raid from their base at RAF Scampton in Lincolnshire. Two of Mr Munro's three paintings are signed by other squadron members and the third shows his Lancaster doing a dramatic low-flying practice drop of an inert bomb into the water. Although he does not recall the impact inside the plane as severe, he says the immense splash of the bombs hitting the water damaged six of 12 planes that day.

The operation used a revolutionary bomb called 'Upkeep', the shape of which Mr Munro likened to a road roller. The bombs were created by Sir Barnes Wallis and were known as 'bouncing bombs' because, spinning anticlockwise, they were designed to bounce off the water three times before lodging against the dam walls. The bombs then clung to the wall and sunk to 12m, before being detonated by a hydrostatic fuse. Achieving a successful detonation called for precision flying: the planes needed to be travelling 354km/h and flying at 18m. The upkeep bomb was connected by pulley to a small 4.5 horsepower engine in the nose of the plane, the engine needed to reach 500 revs per minute before the bomb could be dropped. Flying low at speed in the dark also presented major challenges for the pilots, particularly learning to judge the distance of objects ahead. Practices began in daylight and progressed to artificial darkness, the crews using screens to shield the plane windshields, before they turned to real night flying.

Mr Munro says some pilots clipped the tops of trees and returned with leaves in their air intakes after failing to judge the distance of objects and not pulling up quickly enough. The moonlight, although a necessity for visibility also created problems for the pilots when reflecting on the water. The situation was compounded by changes in the barometric altometer due to changes in sea pressure and in a bid to help the pilots maintain correct altitude, lamps were installed in the plane's nose and tail, the beams of which intersected on the water's surface when the aircraft reached 18m. Even with the lamps, flying was difficult and one pilot hit the water, lost his bomb and nearly drowned his rear gunner during the raid. In the end, Mr Munro did not make his target after his Lancaster bomber was hit by enemy fire upon reaching the Dutch coast and he was forced to turn back.

'It was inviting suicide to carry on,' he says.

The flak hit as his plane came over the crest of the island of Vlieland after he had gained height to clear looming sand dunes. With his communications wiped out, the then 25-year-old gave verbal instructions to his wireless operator to check on all the crew, particularly the rear gunner.

The operator returned saying, 'Harvey's all right but there's no possibility of restoring communication.'

The plane was within an hour of its target, the Sorpe dam, but without the system, Mr Munro was unable to receive vital instructions from his navigator and bomber, necessary not only to reach the dam, but to avoid enemy fire and drop the bomb at precisely the right moment. About the time his plane was hit, Mr Munro saw an explosion to his right which he believes was another Lancaster that had gone slightly off course, but other than that, he could not see the squadron's other planes during the flight. He and his crew arrived back at Scampton soon after the plane which hit the water and lost its bomb. He and the other pilot returned to the mess and as the night wore on, they became aware of who had survived and who had not. He says two crews were lost in badly damaged planes that managed to get back to the French coast before crashing.

Despite suffering an almost 40 per cent casualty rate, Mr Munro says the atmosphere in the mess 'was a mood of celebration because they'd breached the two primary targets, the Mohne and the Eder'.

'I felt embarrassed joining the celebrations because I hadn't achieved my objective,' he says.

Mr Munro does not single out any operation as the most significant of his career, but says Operation Taxable was of "major importance".

'If we could [confuse the Germans] that was going to be a major plus for the Allies. And the Germans did withhold sending heavy armour to the Normandy beachhead until they were satisfied that's where the operation was.'

Working under decorated Group Captain Leonard Cheshire and being made a flight commander is also an era he looks back on 'with a great deal of satisfaction'.

Cheshire helped develop an accurate system of marking targets at low level while the Lancasters flown by Mr Munro and others bombed from altitudes of 4267m to 5486m..

Mr Munro is modest about his achievements and matter-of-fact about his fearlessness.

He once spoke of getting a piece of shrapnel embedded in his boot and when asked what he did, he said, 'Pulled it out and kept on flying'.

He tells the Bay of Plenty Times Weekend the only time he felt fear was on his first operation for 97 Squadron mining the mouth of the Gironde River in western France. 'The outline of the coast was black and ominous-looking. There were no lights showing. I wondered whether one, we were in the right place or two, whether we were suddenly going to be fired at. Right through the rest of my operations, I never had that occasion to feel fear again because I was always too busy if we were in trouble, getting the plane out of trouble and making sure we could escape.'

Mr Munro also survived a crash early in his operational career when the engine of a Wellington bomber failed soon after take-off. "It clipped the tops of trees, then settled down in an open paddock. It was almost the softest landing I made in my career," he jokes. The crew escaped unharmed, despite the engine catching fire and the attached bombs exploding and destroying the plane soon after they made their exit.

In the past, Mr Munro has said it was only thanks to 'Lady Luck' he survived the war and he has gone to extreme lengths to ensure his fallen comrades are not forgotten, recently making headlines for offering his war medals for overseas auction in a bid to raise funds to maintain London's Bomber Command Memorial. The memorial at Green Park commemorates 55,573 aircrew, including 1679 New Zealanders, who died in World War II. The auction was stopped after British war collector Lord Ashcroft intervened amid public concern about the loss of Mr Munro's medals to New Zealand. He offered 75,000 ($149,810) to the RAF endowment fund charged with generating income for the upkeep of the memorial, and in exchange, Mr Munro has donated his medals, logbooks and other memorabilia to Motat museum in Auckland.

New Zealand also looks set to benefit from a portrait of Mr Munro by renowned British portrait artist Richard Stonewho flew to New Zealand to sketch Mr Munro in April last year. Mr Munro says he has been told it is likely to hang at London's Imperial War Museum for six months before being gifted to a NZ museum of his choice. He has not made up his mind, but says Motat or the Air Force Museum at Wigram are possibilities.

Although Mr Munro dedicated his war effort to flying, his only stint as a pilot since was five hours in a Tiger Moth in Gisborne in 1946. His eldest son became a pilot but was later killed in a topdressing accident, while a grand-daughter who lives in Perth is close to completing her A grade instructor's licence.

Mr Munro's children say they are also very proud of their legendary father.

His son Graeme, who also lives in Tauranga, says his dad deserves to be recognised not only for his wartime efforts but for his dedication to the community. 'He's also had an incredible 30 years in public service, which is often overlooked.'

After the war, Mr Munro worked for the State Advances Corporation before drawing a farm in a ballot in 1960. He farmed with his family in the King Country until 1975, and during that time became involved in local and regional politics.

He served as a councillor on the New Zealand Local Government Association, and was chairman and mayor of Waitomo for 17 years until 1995, retiring to Tauranga after the death of his wife, Betty Mr Munro is sharing his retirement with partner Christine Ross, 87, who also lost her spouse, and as in years past, the couple plan to commemorate Anzac Day at the Tauranga Civic Service at Memorial Park.

'It's nice to see there's such an interest from the younger generations today in recognising Anzac Day and the loss of life,' says Mr Munro.

Les Munro Interview (Courtesy Battle of Britain TV via YouTube)

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