Recently, I sent Les Munro, a 95-year-old retiree living in Tauranga, a cartoon of a World War II bomber, flying through a barrage of searchlights and exploding shells from anti-aircraft guns. The pilot is saying to his bomb-aimer, "I hate this job, I do my best and I get nothing but flak!"
I knew he would be one of the few people alive who would find this both amusing and ironical.
I interviewed Munro in 2009. He is without question one of New Zealand's great World War II heroes and is the last surviving pilot from the famed RAF Dambuster raid. He is back in the news this week having decided to auction in London his medals and flight logbooks to raise money to assist in the upkeep of the Bomber Command Memorial Fund in London. He hopes his decorations might raise about $100,000 to help in the upkeep of a memorial that contains names of many New Zealanders including a number of his mates.
As Squadron Leader Munro, he had a lucky war. In 1942, his first operational sortie over Dusseldorf turned into a disaster for the RAF, with 38 aircraft lost. Munro and his crew, still combat greenhorns, survived. Three nights later 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.
Selected by Wing Commander Guy Gibson because of his exceptional flying skills as a night bomber pilot, Munro joined a newly formed squadron for a very secret special operation. The New Zealander 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 territory. Nineteen Lancasters set out from Scampton in Lincolnshire. Led by Gibson, 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. However, there was an unsustainable casualty rate for the RAF - nearly half the squadron's crews were lost in action. Munro returned safely despite his Lancaster being hit by gunfire.
At the end of the war Munro returned to New Zealand, having completed 57 bombing sorties.
He is recognised by the RAF as one of Bomber Command's most successful bomber pilots and received the DFC and the DSO from King George VI while on active service. It is these medals, which also include the New Zealand Order of Merit, that are now coming up for sale by London auctioneers Dix Noonan Webb.
I would like to hope that these important pieces of historic memorabilia will be purchased by the Government or a generous Kiwi and given a permanent display space in the Auckland War Memorial Museum as both a visual inspiration and reminder to all young New Zealanders of the stuff that real heroes are made of.
• An earlier version of this story contained an error, referring to King George IV instead of King George VI.