Stars bow to hero of missions impossible

Les Munro, above and right, flew 57 bombing sorties over Europe during World War II and put his survival down to 'Lady Luck'. Photo / Bay of Plenty Times
Les Munro, above and right, flew 57 bombing sorties over Europe during World War II and put his survival down to 'Lady Luck'. Photo / Bay of Plenty Times

The last surviving pilot from the famed World War II Dam Buster raids has emerged from retirement in Tauranga to advise Peter Jackson on his new movie. Peter Bromhead meets him.

There is a macho glamour to the image of the leather-jacket-clad bomber pilot, hurling his heavy payload low across the forests and farmland of wartime Germany to lead the assault on Hitler's dams.

Oscar-winning Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson is remaking the 1955 Dam Busters movie, using hitherto classified War Office documents to reveal new details of the raids.

Tom Cruise has visited Masterton to inspect the replica Lancaster bomber the movie crew has built in a hangar there, prompting speculation he could star as pilot Guy Gibson - accompanied by the contentiously named dog "Nigger".

This month, there is even a new PlayStation and XBox game out, Heroes over Europe, allowing this generation's war junkie to imagine himself as a pilot in the cockpit of an Allied plane.

Yet, as retired Tauranga farmer Les Munro discloses, there was little glamorous about it. How does he know? Unlike Tom Cruise and the teenage gamers at their consoles, 90-year-old Munro did it for real.

He knows the knot of fear in the stomach that no computer game can ever replicate. He knows what it is to lose friends to enemy fire.

And, worst of all, he knows what it is to lose his own son who, in a tragic irony, died in a low-flying topdressing plane crash years after the war.

It is now 70 years since the beginning of World War II. This week in 1939, the number of New Zealanders volunteering for the Special Force hit 15,000; enlistment also began for the 28th Maori Battalion.

To many of these young men, the distant European war must have held the same attraction computer games have to today's generation. They were soon to discover a different reality.

ALL IN all, Squadron Leader Munro had a lucky war. In 1942, his first operational sortie targeting Dusseldorf had turned into a disaster for the RAF, with 38 aircraft lost. Munro and his crew, still combat greenhorns, survived.

Three nights later, on a moonless night, they took off to raid Bremen fully armed with 500lb bombs. Engine problems meant his Wellington bomber failed to climb above 15m on take-off and, after clipping trees, Munro crash-landed in complete darkness in a paddock.

With an engine on fire, the crew escaped just before the bomber's payload blew up.

The closest Munro came to injury happened when returning from a sortie on Berlin. He ran into heavy flak outside Hamburg and had to put his Lancaster into a corkscrew dive to escape the searchlights and bombardment. He later found shrapnel from an enemy shell lodged in his flying boots.

But the Dam Buster raids took the hazards to new levels.

Munro is a modest man, who tends to down-play his role in the legendary 617 Squadron. But this New Zealander was one of the RAF's most experienced bomber pilots, who led the Lancaster formations on many of their hazardous missions."

After volunteering to join the specially-formed squadron, Munro spent weeks with his crew honing their low-flying skills and practising dropping a new type of "bouncing bomb" before finally taking off on the night of May 16, 1943 to attack the great dams that fed the industrial Ruhr valley.

"Operation Chastise", as it was called, was not just another air raid. The sortie had to be carried out at treetop level, flying in darkness through difficult, heavily-defended terrain.

The Lancaster aircraft had been specially modified to carry the weapon, called an "Upkeep". It was the invention of the British scientist, Barnes Wallis, noted before the war for his development work on the R100 airship design.

During 1942 and 1943, Wallis had studied ways of destroying German dams by skipping a weapon across lake surfaces that would strike and roll down concrete structures before sinking and exploding by use of a hydrostatic fuse at a depth of 10.6m of water.

To be successful, the weapon had to be dropped in a spinning motion from 18m over water, at an angle of seven degrees from the horizontal, while flying at 220m/ph (354km/h). This was an extraordinarily difficult feat to achieve in a heavy bomber which was not designed for low-level attacks or equipped with today's modern electronics.

Nineteen Lancasters set out from Scampton in Lincolnshire. Led by Wing Commander Guy Gibson, 24, the squadron was divided into three groups.

Munro was part of the second wave of five aircraft, flying into enemy territory on a northerly route via the Dutch coast.

Only eight of the 19 planes reached one of the three targets and released their bombs. Two pilots breached the Mohne and Eder Dams.

Operation Chastise was considered a remarkable success for the RAF. The raid unleashed a torrent of water of almost biblical proportions into the Ruhr's industrial area, sweeping away factories, railways and houses in a wave of destruction.

Albert Speer's report on the damage to Germany's industry made a deep impression on the Fuhrer. However, there was an unsustainable casualty rate for the RAF - nearly half the squadron's crews that took part were lost in action. Munro was one of the lucky ones to return safely, despite his Lancaster being hit by gunfire.

Yet Munro believes one of his most important sorties was a "spoof" operation on D-Day involving precise flying in a pattern formation over the North Sea, dropping bundles of metallic strips every five seconds.

This fooled the Germans that an invasion was imminent from Pas-de-Calais rather than Normandy's coastline, saving countless lives.

HOW DID a backblocks Kiwi farm boy manage to end up flying Lancasters in the RAF's most elite bomber squadron? Munro smiles and remarks in a slow, measured tone: "Well that was also a bit of a mission."

Turned down originally by the RNZAF because of poor school marks, he had to continue farming while studying by correspondence until he made the grade for pilot training.

He was eventually posted to No 2 Elementary Flying Training School at RNZAF New Plymouth, and began basic flying on de Havilland Tiger Moths. He flew solo after 11 days of training. Given a choice of flying fighters or bombers, Munro chose bombers and was posted to Canada.

After promotion to pilot officer he completed further training on twin-engined Wellington bombers in Britain, before being promoted to flying officer and posted to 97 Squadron at Woodhall Spa, Lincolnshire. There, he began operational duties on Lancaster bombers and volunteered for 617 Squadron.

Munro received the DFC and the DSO from King George IV while on active service.

At the end of World War II Munro returned to New Zealand, having completed 57 bombing sorties. He is recognised by the RAF as one of Bomber Command's most successful pilots in World War II.

On his return home, Munro trained as a rural valuer. From the early 1960s to 1996, he farmed in the King Country, where he and wife Betty raised five children. Involved in local body and community work, he was elected Mayor of Waitomo in 1989.

But tragedy also struck: his eldest son John, a 35-year-old father-of-two, died in a top-dressing flight accident. A quarter century on, Munro still has difficulty talking about the loss. And he can only put his own survival down to one thing: "Lady Luck".

A FEW YEARS ago, Peter Jackson and Christian Rivers, his directing sidekick, met the five surviving pilots of the original mission. Now only one remains: Les Munro.

Munro has visited the new Dam Busters movie studio in Wellington and is chuffed a New Zealander is developing the remake. But these rumours that Tom Cruise could play Guy Gibson?

The two are said to have in common a diminutive stature and an over-sized self-confidence. Munro just laughs, and refrains from comment.

- Herald on Sunday

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on red akl_n6 at 19 Apr 2014 05:43:14 Processing Time: 1387ms