Goodbye to a true giant of the skies

Monday 10 August 2015

Picture Credit: Twitter/@RNZNews

One of my lifelong heroes died this week. Squadron Leader Les Munro, pictured below, the last surviving Dambuster pilot, passed away peacefully at the age of 96.

Seventy years ago, the odds of him surviving his 20s stood at around 50-50 at best. At barely 24, Munro was already a veteran bomber pilot by the time he and his crew volunteered for the dams raid.

He’d flown dozens of long-range missions deep into Germany and Italy. When the Nazis surrendered, roughly half of Bomber Command crews had been wiped out.

It was by far the most dangerous job of the war. I have always been fascinated by how these preposterously young men kept their nerve. To know that every time you took off on a mission you had a very good chance of “getting the chop”, as aircrews insouciantly put it.

(Imagine if every time your holiday jet left the runway, you knew you had only an even chance of getting to your destination alive?)

What was their secret? “Les was almost freakish in his ability to tune out danger,” says John Nichol, the Tornado navigator who was shot down during the first Iraq war.

(Nichol and Munro would later become firm friends.) “He knew the risks perfectly well but he simply rose above them. He once said, ‘I was a fatalist. Whatever was going to happen would occur come what may. If I was killed… well, so be it. I never thought, ‘Come tomorrow I might not be alive.’ It didn’t worry me.”

In fact Munro very nearly “got the chop” on the dams mission. His Lancaster was badly shot up by anti-aircraft fire near the Dutch coast as he climbed to about 40 feet to clear sand dunes (which demonstrates how almost suicidally low the pilots were flying as they thundered across the North Sea) and to his deep chagrin and disappointment, he was forced to turn for home.

For the rest of his life this deeply modest, reserved man said he was “embarrassed” to be included in commemorations of the raid’s success (at the cost of almost half of the attacking force’s lives – 56 of 133 aircrew didn’t come back).

Such men rarely discussed the risks they were taking, although sometimes there was an inadvertent mention. Geoffrey Wellum, the Spitfire ace, says that when he flew into his first dogfight in the Battle of Britain and was immediately on the receiving end of a German fighter’s cannon shells, he shouted out: “Christ! This is BLOODY dangerous!”

Exactly the same reflex response Munro heard his fellow Antipodean pilot Dave Shannon yell over the intercom while rehearsing the hair-raising corkscrew dives, twists and turns which had to be mastered before attacking the dams.

It was all, in truth, beyond dangerous. But boys (Wellum was 19) like these somehow managed to train themselves not to give a damn. Giants among men, the lot of them.

Read Richard and Judy's Express column in full here.
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