The last surviving Dambusters pilot has spoken of an overwhelming sense of responsibility to preserve the memory of the RAF Bomber Command who fought and died in World War II, as he gifted his war medals to an Auckland museum.
Standing tall in front of one of the last remaining examples of an Avro Lancaster Bomber, veteran Squadron Leader Les Munro, 94, said it was "comforting" to know his gallantry medals would remain in New Zealand, and be on display in close proximity to the type of war plane in which he flew all but one of his missions.
The veteran this morning gifted the medals, along with his flying log book and other memorabilia, to the Museum of Transport and Technology (Motat), after they were saved from auction by British businessman and World War II enthusiast Lord Ashcroft.
Mr Munro said he had felt compelled to put his treasured war memorabilia up for auction to raise money to help with the maintenance of the Bomber Command Memorial in London after visiting the site in 2013.
"Why should I worry about this?," he asked the gathered crowd, including 12 veterans of the RAF Bomber Command. "And then I remembered the 617 Squadron lost 130 men on the 15 and a half months that I spent with them. That's an abnormal loss for an ordinary squadron, greatly in excess of what a normal squadron would lose.
"I then thought of the 1679 New Zealanders that travelled 12,000 miles to fight for King and country, for freedom and democracy, and gave their lives in pursuit of those objectives. I also thought of the $30,000-plus that our own Bomber Command Association donated to the erection of that memorial, and that our own veterans have an interest in the preservation of that memorial."
It was his "underlying concern" that the memorial would suffer through lack of investment in maintenance, and that future generations, in particular Kiwi visitors to London, would not get the chance to see it in good condition.
He described it as a "heavy burden of responsibility" on the RAF Benevolent Fund that's charged with the upkeep of the memorial, and was hoping to raise a $2 million endowment fund.
His medals and memorabilia were set to go under the hammer at London auction house, Dix Noonan Webb, before Lord Ashcroft stepped in and offered to donate 75,000 pounds ($150,000) to the fund.
"I'm aware that there was much concern that my medals would leave New Zealand," Mr Munro said. "However, that possibility has now been averted by the very generous actions of Lord Ashcroft."
The British philanthropist choked up as he presented the memorabilia to the war veteran, saying: "I'm sorry if I sound a little emotional. I'm a hard-hearted businessman, but this is my passion."
The comment came after Lord Ashcroft told how hearing of his father's experience in the D Day landing at Normandy as a boy had sparked a life-long interest in WWII, which had led him to become an avid Victoria Cross collector, and an author of a number of books on the subject.
"I'm very proud, because of that background and the connections I've had over the years, to have brought this project to fruition," he said.
"It's a great pleasure, not only to have met Les, but to bring his medals back to New Zealand and present them back to him in order that he may donate them to the museum."
Motat's chief executive Michael Frawley said he was "deeply grateful" to Mr Munro for agreeing to gift his memorabilia to the collection. The museum intends to develop an exhibition highlighting the efforts of Kiwi Bomber Command members, in particular 617 Squadron, did during the war.
The ceremony was also attended by Prime Minister John Key, who described Mr Munro as a "true hero".
It was an "incredibly generous step" to donate the medals, Mr Key said to the former squadron leader.
"It would have been easy for you to keep the medals in your family, and I think that would have been an obvious step to take," he said.
"But you made the incredible contribution of your medals, for the very point you made in your speech, to reflect on the sacrifice, particularly by those who never returned, for their services to Bomber Command, and ensure their sacrifice is remembered. And that's an act of incredible generosity and selflessness."
As the ceremony finished, members of the crowd could be heard saying, "what a wonderful man", and "incredible".
Speaking after the ceremony, Mr Munro said he was "not really" sad that the medals were leaving his family, as each of his six children had miniatures of the medals and copies of the logbook. He quipped that it "solves the problem" of who would have inherited them when he dies.
• The term 'Dambusters' refers to the Royal Air Force squadron 617, which was involved in Operation Chastise against German dams during World War II.
• The squadron included Royal New Zealand Air Force, Royal Australian Air Force, and Royal Canadian Air Force personnel.
• It was formed for the specific task of attacking three major dams that produced power to the Ruhr industrial region in Germany: the Mohne, Eder and Sorpe.
• The plan was given the codename Operation Chastise and was carried out on May 17, 1943.
• The squadron was tasked with dropping Barnes Wallis' 'Bouncing Bombs' on the German dams.
• The bombs were designed to be dropped at a specific altitude and speed, spinning backwards at more than 500rpm, to skip over the surface of the water before reaching the dam wall, allowing the bombs to run down the side of the dam's underwater base and explode against the dam, bypassing the German defences.
• The squadron flew modified Avro Lancaster Mk IIIs, known as B Mark III Special,
• The 617 Squadron's badge, approved by King George VI, depicts the bursting of a dam in commemoration of Operation Chastise.
• Squadron Leader Les Munro is the last remaining Dambuster from the original mission. He was last night awarded the French Legion of Honour for his bravery and commitment in World War II, adding to his list of honours.