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Last surviving Dambuster pilot whose later bombing raids in France helped secure the bridgehead after D-Day

Tom Culshaw
Written by Tom Culshaw

Squadron Leader Les Munro, Dambuster pilot – obituary

Last surviving Dambuster pilot whose later bombing raids in France helped secure the bridgehead after D-Day

Squadron Leader Les Munro

Squadron Leader Les Munro Photo: PA

Squadron Leader Les Munro, who has died aged 96, was the last surviving pilot to have taken part on the Dambusters raid, which attacked the Ruhr Dams in May 1943.

Munro’s Lancaster was one of the first to take off on the night of May 16. Their target was the Sorpe Dam. Flying at very low level over the Dutch island of Vlieland, the bomber was badly damaged by anti-aircraft fire. The radios and electrical system were disabled but, crucially, so was the intercommunication system between members of the crew. Without this it was impossible to carry out the precise attack from a height of 60 feet, so with great reluctance, Munro turned for his home base at Scampton, near Lincoln, still with his “bouncing bomb” on board.

The raid against the Ruhr dams was successful, with the main targets, the Mohne and Eder Dams, both breached. But the cost was high with eight of the 19 Lancasters failing to return, with the loss of 53 airmen. The leader of the operation, Wing Commander Guy Gibson, was awarded the Victoria Cross.

A Lancaster of 617 Squadron (PA)

John Leslie Munro was born on April 5 1919 at Gisborne, New Zealand, where his Scottish father had emigrated in 1903. He worked as a farmer before joining the Royal New Zealand Air Force in July 1941.

He trained initially in New Zealand and then in Canada, where he completed his qualification as a pilot. On arrival in England he trained on bombers before joining No 97 Squadron, which had recently been re-equipped with the Lancaster.

After an operation to drop mines in the sea-lanes to German occupied ports, Munro attacked industrial cities in Germany during the so-called “Battle of the Ruhr” when Essen, Dusseldorf and Cologne were among his targets. He also flew on two raids to Berlin and attacked targets in Italy. He and his crew were approaching the end of their tour of operations (30 sorties) when volunteers were called for to form a new squadron for a “special operation”. Munro discussed it with his crew and they agreed to apply. A few days later, on March 25, they arrived at Scampton to join “X” Squadron on its formation, later to become No 617.

Soon after leaving No. 97 Squadron, Munro was awarded the DFC for “pressing home his attacks with great courage and determination”.

Within days of arriving at Scampton, all the crews were practising intensive low-level flying including runs over lakes and reservoirs when high-tension cables, barrage balloons and birds were an ever-present hazard. During a trial flight with the “Upkeep” bouncing bomb designed by Barnes Wallis, Munro was flying below the prescribed height of 60 feet when a great plume of water made by the bomb as it made its first bounce damaged the tailplane of his Lancaster.

Les Munro (centre at front) with his crew in front of Lancaster ‘W for William’, which they flew on the Dam Busters raid (REX FEATURES)

After the Dams Raid, Munro remained on No 617. The squadron suffered further heavy losses and morale was badly affected. Under the leadership of its new commanding officer, Wing Commander Leonard Cheshire, Munro was made a flight commander. The other two flight commanders were Dave Shannon, an Australian, and the American Joe McCarthy and these three, under Cheshire’s inspiring leadership , created one of the most effective squadrons to serve in Bomber Command. Cheshire described his three flight commanders as “the backbone of the squadron”. Of the three, the slow speaking, taciturn New Zealander was the least flamboyant, but his rock steady dependability and utter reliability were an inspiration to his young crews.

Cheshire was dissatisfied with the marking of targets by the Pathfinder Force and he developed his own low-level marking technique that proved highly successful. Munro dropped flares from high level and Cheshire dived beneath them to accurately mark the targets for the following bombers.

On the eve of D-day on June 5 1944, No 617 flew Operation Taxable, a complex flight requiring extremely accurate flying, navigation and timing. Munro, with Cheshire as his co-pilot, was flying one of the lead aircraft, which flew a series of orbits as it advanced across the English Channel towards the Pas de Calais dropping window (reflective metal strips) to simulate an amphibious landing force approaching the area. This deception created doubt in the Germans’ minds as to where the Allied landing was taking place and delayed the despatch of reinforcements to Normandy.

After the landings, the squadron flew in support of troops establishing the bridgehead. On the night of June 8 , it had a spectacular success when Munro dropped one of the new 12,000-lb “Tallboy” bombs, which completely destroyed the Saumur railway tunnel.

On the following nights he dropped “Tallboys” on the E-boat pens at Le Havre and Boulogne before attacking the V-weapon sites at Wizernes and Mimoyecques. After this latter raid, his 55th, heand his fellow flight commanders were “retired”. He had recently been awarded the DSO, his citation concluding with the words, “His achievements have been worthy of the greatest praise.”

Les Munro leaning out of the cockpit of Lancaster ‘W for William’ (REX FEATURES)

Munro finished the war in command of a Bomber Defence Training Flight. He returned to New Zealand and left the RNZAF in February 1946 as a squadron leader.

Munro made a major contribution to community life in New Zealand and was Mayor of Tekuiti from 1978 to 1995. He was awarded the Queen’s Service Order in 1981 and appointed Commander of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 1997 for “services to local government and community”.

Munro retained strong links with his old squadron and made a number of trips to the United Kingdom on special anniversaries. He was present when the Queen dedicated the Bomber Command Memorial in Green Park in 2012. Earlier this year he placed his medals with an auction house to raise money for the maintenance of the memorial. At the last minute, Lord Ashcroft stepped in to stop the sale, offering to donate £75,000 to the memorial’s upkeep if Munro gifted his medals to the Museum of Transport and Technology in Auckland.

Les Munro on a visit to the Bomber Command Memorial in London in 2013 ( Adrian Brooks/Imagewise)

Les Munro’s wife Betty predeceased him and he is survived by four of their five children.

Squadron Leader Les Munro, born April 5 1919, died August 4 2015