The last surviving pilot from the Dambusters raids has died at the age of 96. Les Munro died on Tuesday morning in hospital in Tauranga in the Bay of Plenty in his native New Zealand.
His death means there are just two survivors from the 1943 bombing raids on Germany’s Ruhr dams: George “Johnny” Johnson, from the UK, who was a bomb-aimer; and Canadian front-gunner Fred Sutherland.
In a statement, the New Zealand Bomber Command Association announced the “extremely sad news”, saying: “Our New Zealand Bomber Command Association patron, and well known Dambuster pilot, Les Munro passed away last night following a spell in hospital with heart problems. So, so sad. He was a mighty man.”
Along with Leonard Chambers, who died in 1985, John Leslie Munro was one of two New Zealand members of the Dambusters crew. He joined the Royal New Zealand air force in 1941, qualifying as a pilot the following year.
On 16 May 1943, as part of 617 squadron, Munro piloted a Lancaster bomber in Operation Chastise, later immortalised as the Dambusters raids. Although Munro’s aircraft suffered flak damage and was forced to turn back before it could carry out its attack on the Sorpe dam, the raids were successful in devastating the Möhne and Edersee dams.
The effects of the so-called bouncing bombs caused catastrophic flooding in the Ruhr valley, destroying hydroelectric power stations and factories. More than 1,600 people on the ground are thought to have been killed.
Of the 133 crew members who took part in the raids, 53 were killed. Munro was among those who were awarded the Distinguished Service Order for his part in the attack.
New Zealand prime minister John Key led the tributes on Tuesday, calling Munro “a remarkable man who led a remarkable life”.
Air vice-marshal Mike Yardley, head of the New Zealand air force, also paid his respects:
Saddened to hear of the passing of SQNLDR Les Munro CNZM, DSO, QSO, DFC, JP. The last WW2 617 SQN Dam Buster.
After the war, Munro returned to New Zealand and later became mayor of Waitomo district, on the north island.
Earlier this year, Munro announced his intention to sell his war medals, hoping to raise £50,000 for the upkeep of the Bomber Command memorial, which commemorates the 55,573 men who died in the second world war bombing campaign. Lord Ashcroft, the Tory peer who endowed London’s Imperial War Museum with the world’s largest collection of Victoria Cross medals, donated £75,000 to the memorial to allow Munro instead to donate his gallantry awards to the Museum of Transport and Technology (Motat) in Auckland.
At a ceremony at Motat in April, Munro handed over his gallantry medals, flight logbooks and other wartime memorabilia. “I am comforted by the thought of my medals being situated in close proximity to the Lancaster at Motat as I flew all but one of my operations in these planes,” he said. “I appreciate very much indeed that they will have some relationship.”
Following news of Munro’s death, Motat signalled its sadness, calling him “a true gentleman and hero”.