Obituary: Sqn Ldr Les Munro DSO, DFC, Dambuster

Squadron leader Les Munro, son of a Glaswegian sheep farmer who became a wartime legend. Picture: AP
Squadron leader Les Munro, son of a Glaswegian sheep farmer who became a wartime legend. Picture: AP
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Born: 5 April, 1919, in Gisborne, New Zealand. Died: 4 August, 2015, in Tauranga, New Zealand, aged 96.

Squadron Leader Les Munro, son of a Glaswegian immigrant to New Zealand, was the last surviving Lancaster bomber pilot of the 19 who took part in the RAF Dambusters “bouncing-bomb” raid on vital Nazi German dams in 1943. The raid was immortalized in the 1955 movie The Dam Busters and by its uplifting theme tune written by Eric Coates, still one of the most-whistled melodies in the UK today. Two Lancaster crewmen, British bomb-aimer George “Johnny” Johnson and Canadian front-gunner Fred Sutherland, are now the only survivors of the raid, sometimes described as “the original Mission Impossible”.

Munro, whose Scottish father had become a sheep farmer on New Zealand’s North Island, volunteered for the Royal New Zealand Air Force after the outbreak of war and was sent to England in 1942 to bolster RAF Bomber Command, one of 1,679 brave Kiwis to join the Command. He was eventually assigned to RAF 617 Squadron, where he volunteered for the Dambusters raid led by Wing Commander Guy Gibson, at 24 the same age as Munro. The latter remembered being the second to take off from RAF Scampton, Lincolnshire, at 2129 hours on 16 May 1943, at the controls of his Lancaster.

After the moonlit overnight raid, his was only one of 11 Lancasters –from the original 19 – who returned from what was codenamed Operation Chastise. Of the 133 RAF men who took part, 53 were killed and three were captured as POWs. It was a heavy loss for the RAF, but the successful mission knocked out key elements of the Nazi war machine in the Ruhr valley and boosted sagging morale among the British public more than a year before the successful D-Day landings brought fresh hope of victory.

The Lancasters breached the Möhne and Eder dams and damaged their third – and Munro’s own specific – target, the Sorpe dam, flooding the Ruhr valley and destroying Nazi weapons factories and other key industrial elements. But Munro and his fellow pilots and crewmen never forgot that the raid also killed around 1,600 innocent German civilians and probably some allied POWs. He said he had no time to think of that during the raid. “My only concern was to absorb my instructions, the compass bearings, that sort of thing.” He was lucky to survive, his Lancaster taking a heavy hit from a German anti-aircraft flak shell which blew a hole in his plane, destroyed his intercom, meant he couldn’t communicate with his navigator or bomb-aimer and forced him to abort their mission and return to Blighty. At first, he felt guilty at not getting to drop his bouncing bomb, known at the time as Upkeep and designed by Sir Barnes Wallis, but he was sure that continuing his mission without liaison with his navigator and bomb-aimer would be “suicide” for him and his six crew members amid thick flak and with his bomb already fused.

Rightfully, he was considered as much of a hero as those who successfully deployed their bombs. The Lancasters had flown fast and low across the Channel, flying at around 200mph only 60 feet above the water and later at treetop level as Munro steered his big plane towards the Sorpe dam.

John Leslie Munro was born on 5 April, 1919 in Gismore, on the east coast of New Zealand’s North Island, to a Kiwi mother and a Scottish father who had worked in wool mills in Glasgow and Aberdeen and emigrated in 1903 due to ill health from the mills. He ran a sheep station near Gisborne, where Les, as he soon became known, grew up and himself became a farmer. In the wake of the Great Depression, he worked on a dairy farm before managing a mixed farm at Patutahi, near Gisborne. He volunteered for the RNZAF in 1941 while Britain was struggling to prevent Hitler’s planned invasion. Sent to England, he survived a crash-landing after a training flight on a Wellington bomber.

Just over a year after the Dambusters mission, Munro took part in another operation which turned the tide of the war – the D-Day landings of 6 June 1944. He and other 617 Squadron pilots flew in Operation Taxable, a mission to dupe the Nazis into thinking the landings were to take place far north of the actual sites in Normandy.

After the war, Munro returned to New Zealand and the quiet life as a farmer, later becoming a local councillor and a mayor. “I think I left New Zealand on the basic premise that if I was going to cop it, so be it. What will be, will be.” He was somewhat embarrassed by the attention and publicity he received after the 1955 film came out. He was a guest of honour at the 70th anniversary commemoration of the raid in 2013 at the Bomber Command Memorial in Green Park, London. Earlier this year, he gifted all his war medals, flight logs, photographs and other memorabilia to the Museum of Transport and Technology in Auckland. British businessman Lord Ashcroft had bought them for £75,000 in an agreement with Munro to keep them in New Zealand but donate the money to the maintenance of the Bomber Command Memorial and to its guardians, the RAF Benevolent Fund. In his later years, Munro expressed disillusionment with war as a solution. “I have some difficulty in understanding why countries go to war to achieve objectives which should really be solved by discussion,” he said. In addition to the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) and Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC), personally bestowed on him by King George V1, Munro had ten other medals and was made a Knight of the French Legion of Honour in April this year.

Les Munro’s wife Betty (née Hill) died in 1995. His eldest son John, a pilot, was killed in 1984 at the age of 35 in an aerial “topdressing” accident, spraying fertiliser onto farmlands. Les is survived by his late-in-life partner Christine Ross, and four other children from his marriage to Betty.