Auction Catalogue

25 March 2015

Starting at 10:00 AM


Orders, Decorations, Medals and Militaria to include a Fine Collection of Napoleonic Medals

Washington Mayfair Hotel  London  W1J 5HE

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№ 596 x


25 March 2015

Hammer Price:

A press release regarding the withdrawal of this lot from auction can be found at the following URL:



It was a travesty that it took some 67 years before the loss of 55,573 lives in Bomber Command during World War Two was finally recognised by the unveiling of an appropriate memorial at Green Park, London.

I served with many of those named thereon, a Roll of Honour that includes the 1,679 New Zealanders who travelled 12,000 miles to serve in Bomber Command in support of the struggle for freedom and democracy. During his visit to the U.K. in 2013, Prime Minister John Key visited the Memorial to lay a wreath in their memory.

Today, the Memorial is under the guardianship of The Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund, a leading welfare charity that continues to assist New Zealanders who served in the R.N.Z.A.F. and R.A.F. - since 2011 the charity had spent nearly £60,000 on 32 cases in New Zealand.

The Memorial is a magnificent tribute to Bomber Command’s fallen and is a real credit to Robin Gibb - who kick-started the fund raising appeal - and to the architect Liam O’Connor and the sculptor Philip Jackson.

My reasons for donating my medals and my flying log books to the R.A.F. Benevolent Fund and, more particularly, the Bomber Command Memorial, were prompted by my visit to the memorial in May 2013 - with the feelings of the descendants of those 55,573 in mind, I could not help but think of the cost of its ongoing maintenance for future generations.

Before the war, I had only a casual interest in aircraft. I used to look at commercial planes flying past my farm on which I worked on their scheduled routes. Following the outbreak of war I gave thought to the options available and decided that my preference was to be a pilot - to be in control of my own destiny.

Thus ensued my operational career in 97 Squadron and, of course, in 617 Squadron, initially under Guy Gibson but afterwards Leonard Cheshire. I had a great personal regard for Cheshire, an outstanding human being blessed with a droll sense of humour. He flew with me on D-Day during “Operation Taxable”.

I have often been asked how I felt when a crew did not return from an operation, with some questions directed specifically to the losses of the Dams Raid. In respect of the latter I would make the point that we were only together for a matter of six weeks. We were extremely busy training for the raid and the circumstances were not really conducive to the development of close friendships. The situation changed somewhat after the Dams Raid as quite a number of originals continued to survive successive operations and I became quite friendly with several of these. One of these was Micky Martin, for whom I was privileged to be Best Man at his wedding many months later.

When fellow officers that I knew relatively well were lost on operations, I would feel a brief period of sadness but that had to be quickly relegated to the background of my thoughts. There was a job to do and the loss of a colleague could not be allowed to influence how I carried out that job. My duty as the Captain of Aircraft was to carry out the next operation without emotional distraction and to ensure that I did so to the best of my ability with the safety of my crew paramount. Grief could not be allowed to distract from duty.

For my own part, I consider myself a fortunate survivor, ‘Lady Luck’ having sat on my shoulder on several occasions. Yet I think that I left New Zealand on the basic premise that if I was going to cop it, so be it. I am first and foremost a fatalist - what will be, will be.

I have never regretted my service in the war. It may have supplanted a period in my life when I normally would have been formulating and fashioning my future career, but on the other hand my war service moulded me as a man: it gave me the confidence in my own ability and, very importantly, it taught me to get on with my fellow men and to value comradeship.

It is because of that sense of comradeship - and the equal importance of the act of remembrance - that I now part company with my medals and flying log books for the benefit of the Bomber Command Memorial in Green Park, London.

Squadron Leader Les Munro, C.N.Z.M., D.S.O., Q.S.O., D.F.C.

Sold by Order of the Recipient
for the Benefit of the Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund

‘From New Zealand came Les Munro, ex-97 Squadron. Like all New Zealanders, he was a most charming fellow, with an excellent operational record. He was one of those types who can always be relied on to do the right thing at the right moment. There he was, standing quietly, and drinking slowly and thinking a lot.’

Guy Gibson, V.C., referring to his first meeting with Munro in
Enemy Coast Ahead.

‘The man I most admired would without a doubt be Leonard Cheshire. I had a great personal regard for him, he was an outstanding person, self-effacing, quietly spoken, with a droll sense of humour. Always friendly and approachable, and taking a genuine interest in all those under his command. He was a deep thinker and, as later events unfolded, spent much thought on ways and means of improving marking and bombing methods with the result that 617 became highly efficient in destroying individual targets. Leonard flew as my second pilot on the D-Day window spoof operation, code named “Operation Taxable”.’

Les Munro reflects upon the qualities of Cheshire, V.C.

The important C.N.Z.M., Q.S.O., Second World War D.S.O., D.F.C. group of eleven awarded to Squadron Leader J. L. “Les” Munro, Royal New Zealand Air Force, the last surviving “Dambuster” pilot

Having won his D.F.C. for a tour of operations in 97 Squadron, including three trips to the ‘Big City’ which were memorable for ‘a mass of fires, weaving searchlights and bursting flak’ - Munro volunteered for 617 Squadron in March 1943

As quoted, in his wartime memoir
Enemy Coast Ahead, Guy Gibson, V.C., described Munro as ‘one of those types who can always be relied upon to do the right thing at the right moment’: exactly what the New Zealander did on the night of the Dams Raid when his Lancaster’s communications were crippled by flak

Leonard Cheshire, V.C., under whom Munro regularly flew as Deputy Leader, considered him a vital component of 617 Squadron’s ‘backbone’, a member of the ‘old firm’ who displayed ‘indomitable and cool courage’ on countless occasions and whose accurate marking was directly responsible for the destruction of many vital targets - the aircraft works Albert and the Michelin works at Clermont Ferrand among them

In fact, the Dams Raid aside, Munro flew another 35 trail-blazing sorties in 617 Squadron, often leading-in the attacking force amidst curtains of flak, a case in point being the strike on the E-Boat pens at Le Havre and Boulogne when his Lancaster was yet again damaged by enemy fire: small wonder he attributed his survival to numerous visitations from ‘Lady Luck’

On one of his sorties to the heavily defended Antheor Viaduct, he marked the target from 300 feet, while on the eve of D-Day, with Leonard Cheshire as his 2nd Pilot, he displayed immense skill in carrying out the ‘spoof’ “Operation Taxable”: here, then, further evidence of an exceptional operational career that was finally curtailed on the orders of the A.O.C. - immediately on Munro’s return from the crucial “Tallboy” attack on the V.3 site at Minoyecques, where, needless to say, ‘a nightmare of flak’ had greeted the ace aircrews of 617

New Zealand Order of Merit, Companion’s (C.N.Z.M.) neck badge, silver-gilt and enamel, hallmarks for Birmingham 1997, the reverse officially engraved, ‘J. Les Munro’, with its Thomas Fattorini fitted case of issue; Distinguished Service Order, G.VI.R., silver-gilt and enamel, the reverse of the suspension bar officially dated ‘1944’; Queen’s Service Order (Q.S.O.), silver, gilt and enamel; Distinguished Flying Cross, G.VI.R., the reverse officially dated ‘1943’; 1939-45 Star; Air Crew Europe Star, clasp, France and Germany; Italy Star; Defence and War Medals 1939-45; New Zealand Service Medal 1939-45; New Zealand 1990 Commemoration Medal, mounted court-style as worn where applicable, good very fine or better (11) £40000-50000

To be sold with the recipient’s original Flying Log Books (2), comprising Royal New Zealand Air Force Pilot’s Flying Log Book (Form 414), covering the period August 1941 to November 1943, including the signatures of Guy Gibson and Leonard Cheshire, and Royal Canadian Air Force Pilot’s Flying Log Book (Form R.95 / R.A.F. Form 414), covering the period December 1943 to July 1945, with additional entries for flights undertaken at Gisborne Aero Club in February-March 1947, including several further Cheshire signatures, the former with unstitched interior binding and both worn as a consequence of age. An important official record of 617 Squadron’s operations.

C.N.Z.M. Queen’s Birthday Honours 1997.

London Gazette 28 April 1944. The original recommendation for an immediate award states:

‘Squadron Leader Munro has completed 20 operational sorties since the award of the D.F.C.

During May 1943, he was detailed for the attack of the Mohne Dam (sic), but his aircraft was heavily engaged and severely damaged by A.A. defences while crossing the enemy coast. The intercommunication system of his aircraft was severed and he thus had no option but to return to base. This was a real and bitter disappointment to him.

Squadron Leader Munro’s very distinguished and successful operational record has resulted in his well earned promotion to Deputy Leader for the operations of 617 Squadron. He has taken part in many attacks at a low-level and these have included such targets as the Antheor Viaduct, St. Etienne, Albert and Clermont Ferrand.

This officer has on many occasions returned to base with his aircraft severely damaged by flak. During the recent attack against Albert, the leader of the operation was unable to release his marker bombs and Squadron Leader Munro was called upon to mark the target. He had only sufficient bombs for one attack but they fell directly on the aiming point and an operation which looked like being abortive was thus turned into an outstanding success. His indomitable and cool courage and his great qualities as Captain of Aircraft have enabled him to perform similar duties with unfailing success and in consequence he has been directly responsible for the destruction of many important targets in occupied Europe.

Squadron Leader Munro’s unfailing devotion to duty, gallantry and great qualities of leadership have been an inspiration and an example to the whole Squadron. He is therefore strongly recommended for the immediate award of the D.S.O.’

Q.S.O. Queen’s Birthday Honours 1991.

London Gazette 11 June 1943. The original recommendation states:

‘This officer has completed 21 successful sorties as Captain of Aircraft. Many of his attacks have been made against the most heavily defended German towns and include three sorties against Berlin and three against Essen. In addition, he has also taken part in long range attacks on Italy and elsewhere.

Flight Lieutenant Munro has pressed home all these attacks with great courage and determination and his leadership has set an example for all the other captains in the unit.’

Early days

John Leslie “Les” Munro was born in Gisborne, New Zealand, on 5 April 1919 and was brought up on nearby “Marshlands” sheep station. His father, a Scotsman, had emigrated to New Zealand in 1903, where he was to be employed as a shepherd for the rest of his life.

Munro attended Ormond Primary School and Gisborne High School, but owing to the depression, his parents were unable to keep him at the latter establishment for more than two years. Instead, he found work on a small dairy farm - ‘my memories of my early life were of the tough economic conditions my parents went through in the late twenties and the thirties.’

Later still he was offered a share milking job on a mixed farm at Patutahi, where after two years he took over full management and was similarly employed at the time of his joining the Royal New Zealand Air Force in July 1941.

Pilot training - first sortie - first close call

Munro reported to No.1 Initial Training Wing at Levin in early July 1941, prior to training on Tiger Moths at No. 2 E.F.T.S. at New Plymouth, and going solo after 6 hours and 10 minutes flying. Embarked for Canada towards the end of the year, he went on to qualify for his “Wings” and was commissioned Pilot Officer in February 1942.

In July 1942, Munro arrived at No. 29 O.T.U. at North Luffenham, where he trained on Wellingtons and was fortunate to survive a crash-landing. In his own words:

‘This was on the night of 13-14 September 1942 when O.T.Us were co-opted to make up numbers for an attack on Bremen. We had gone on a similar operation to Dusseldorf three nights earlier. The operation on the night of the 10th had gone without a hitch but on the 13th we struck problems. During the day we took the plane that we had been allocated for the operation up for a customary Night Flying Test. The result of the test led me to question the capacity of the Wellington to carry a bomb load to any great height, for it seemed to lack power and on landing I complained about its lack of power.
On take off that night I got the plane off the runway to a height of about 30 feet and despite full power could get it no higher. It was pitch black that night and I couldn’t see any of the countryside around us. After clipping the tops of some trees the plane settled down gently in the middle of a paddock on our track, caught fire and burnt out with the 500-pounders exploding at intervals - by which time myself and crew were well clear. In retrospect a clear indication that ‘Lady Luck’ was going to be on my side.’

Attending a Heavy Conversion Unit at Wigsley from September to December 1942, Munro converted to Lancasters.

No. 97 Squadron - “Jesus Christ, have we just come through that!”

Posted to 97 Squadron in early December 1942, Munro flew his first sortie - a ‘gardening’ trip to the Gironde - on 2 January 1943. As it transpired, this was the only occasion he ever recalled having felt fear:

‘For some reason that I have never been able to fully explain, when we arrived at the dropping area and circled to get into position to drop the mines, I felt fear - it was a very dark night, no lights showing anywhere, with the hills of the coast looking ominous. Were we in the right place? Would we be suddenly fired on by flak? These thoughts flashed through my mind and I felt fear for the first and only time in my operational career. There were many subsequent times during the operations I carried out that the circumstances could have generated fear but I was always too busy extricating the plane from potentially dangerous situations and concentrating on getting the plane clear and crew back to base to feel fear.’

Munro continues:

‘The weather during my time on 97 Squadron had a major influence on the nature of the operations we carried out. It was the middle of winter and much of Europe was covered in ten tenths cloud which made visual identification of targets impossible. To keep the German population awake at nights and to affect their morale, Bomber Command adopted a policy of the P.F.F. dropping flares and markers on top of the clouds over the German cities with the main bomber force dropping its bombs on these markers.’

In January 1943, Munro twice flew sorties to Berlin and Essen, in addition to a strike on Dusseldorf. In the following month he completed no less than eight operations, including two strikes against Cologne, in addition to the long haul to Milan and Turin.

During another visit to the ‘Big City’ on 1 March 1943, Munro’s Wireless Operator, Sergeant Percy Pigeon, came forward to the cockpit as their Lancaster departed the target and was duly shocked by the mass of fires, weaving searchlights and bursting flak: “Jesus Christ! Have we come through that?”

By the end of March, Munro had returned to Essen for a third time and attacked Hamburg and Stuttgart. His final operational outing with the Squadron was a sortie to St. Nazaire on the 22nd. He was recommended for the D.F.C.

Meanwhile, having discussed the matter with his crew, Munro had volunteered for a new squadron due to carry out a special operation and, in the last week of March, reported to R.A.F. Scampton. All of his crew, with the exception of the Rear Gunner, joined him there; so, too, the ex-97 crews skippered by David Maltby and the American, Joe McCarthy.

No. 617 Squadron - “Operation Chastise”: the Dams Raid

As described above, Guy Gibson and Munro first met in the Officers’ Mess at Scampton, the former stating in his subsequent wartime memoir
Enemy Coast Ahead that Munro ‘was one of those types who can always be relied upon to do the right thing at the right moment’; recognition surely of the difficult but courageous decision taken by the New Zealander on the night of “Operation Chastise”.

Meanwhile, however, six weeks of intensive training ensued, Munro joining ‘B’ Flight under Henry Maudslay and quickly developing his skills at low-level flying:

‘I became quite proficient at flying well below tree top height. It was exhilarating flying just a matter of feet above the ground at 200 m.p.h. plus. It was important, however, to become adept at judging the speed at which you approached objects or natural features on the ground and allowing sufficient time to gain the necessary height to clear them.’

The Squadron’s aircrew now turned their attention to low-level flying at night, Munro having another close call when he escaped collision with barrage balloons and cables over a North Sea convoy. Next up came the lakes, Derwent Water being the most popular venue to carry out practice runs - ‘One problem we faced on moonlight nights was when ground haze was present. Under these conditions the horizon tended to disappear and there were several close calls when pilots nearly flew into the water.’

A crucial element of success for the pending Dams Raid relied upon pilots being able to maintain level flight at 60 feet (in order to drop Barnes Wallis’s Upkeep - or ‘bouncing bomb’ - to best effect). A solution having been found to the problem - by means of a pair of Aldis Lamps fitted to the underside of the fuselage, the beams of which intersected when the aircraft was at that height - Munro and his fellow pilots carried out numerous test runs over Scampton.

Then came a trial run with inert Upkeeps off Chesil Beach:

‘Through some pilots flying at the incorrect height and / or airspeed the splash from the Upkeeps when they hit the water was high enough to hit the aircraft and six of the 12 were damaged, mainly in the rear turret area. I was one of the guilty ones with Harvey Weeks, my Rear Gunner, being jammed in his turret and unable to get out until we landed at base.’

The Dams Raid was but days away, but as a result of these trials Barnes Wallis was able to calculate the final airspeed and height required for the successful delivery of the Upkeep; moreover, owing to the supreme effort made by 617’s ground crew, all but one of the damaged Lancasters were ready for the raid on the night of 16-17 May 1943.

Munro, piloting ‘W for William’ AJ-W (ED921-G), was allocated to the northern wave of the attacking force, detailed to attack the Sorpe Dam. The wave comprised five Lancasters, the others captained by Barlow, Byers, McCarthy and Rice. Owing to timing issues relating to Gibson’s own wave, and the distance to the northern wave’s target, the task of leading off the prospective Dambusters from Scampton fell to Flight Lieutenant Barlow at 2128 hours: one minute later, a spurt of blue smoke from Munro’s Lancaster’s port-inner engine marked the commencement of his own part in “Operation Chastise” - ‘Munro’s Lancaster was rolling, picking up speed, and then it was low in the air, sliding over the boundary, tucking its wheels up into the big inboard nacelles’ (
The Dam Busters by Paul Brickhill, refers).

Another intention of the Sorpe Dam raiders was to split the German defences and effectively draw enemy attention away from the attacks on the Mohne and Eder Dams. Subsequent events amplify the hazardous nature of said intention: Barlow’s Lancaster was hit by flak, struck high tension wires and crashed near Haldern; Byers, in ‘K for Kathy’ was also shot down by flak, having veered off course over Texel; Rice and his crew had a remarkable escape, their Upkeep having been torn from their Lancaster when it hit water during the low-level approach over Vlieland - he made a wheels-up landing back at Scampton; in fact, only McCarthy reached the Sorpe Dam, where he carried out a successful attack before undertaking a difficult landing back at Scampton on account of flak damage.

For his own part, Munro reached the enemy coast at the island of Vlieland at 2256 hours, at which point the Upkeep was fuzed - ‘I clearly remember seeing the breakers and the sand dunes of the coast ahead of me and gaining height to clear them.’ In the gloomy moonlight, his Bomb Aimer, Jimmy Clay, thought he saw an aircraft to starboard skim the water and send up a plume of spray - it was probably Byers in ‘K for Kathy’. Moments later, on turning south-east to cut across and down over the Zuider Zee, ‘W for William’ was hit by flak shell that blew a substantial hole in the side of the fuselage and severed the intercom and electrical lines. Munro, unaware of the extent of the damage, called over the intercom to see if his crew were all right. The earphones were dead. He instructed his Wireless Operator, Percy Pigeon, to check on the Rear Gunner, Harvey Weeks, and to assess the damage. Luckily no-one had been killed or wounded, but in respect of the damage Pigeon’s report was conclusive: “No radio. No intercom. Flak’s smashed it.”

Nonetheless, Munro flew on for several more miles, anxious to explore the possibility of restoring communications. There was however no such possibility. His Front Gunner, Howarth, is quoted in John Sweetman’s
The Dams Raid: Epic or Myth - Operation Chastise:

‘The intercom had been put out of action, also our VHF for communication with the other aircraft in the wave; the master unit for our compass was destroyed and ... the tail turret pipes were damaged. This meant we could not speak to each other in the plane - essential for calling out height and speed and direction in case of fighter attack and navigation instructions. We could not speak to the other planes in the wave, and were left with one rather unreliable compass, and very little defence against fighters. By the time the damage had been assessed, we were well into the Zuider Zee, and our pilot Les Munro decided we had little chance of success if we went on, and decided to turn for home.’

Jimmy Clay, is also quoted:

‘A hole was torn in the fuselage amidships, the master compass unit demolished and our intercom completely dead. Les kept on a south-easterly course for a while. Then Frank Appleby, the Flight Engineer, passed a short note down to me. It said as far as I remember: “Intercom U/S - should we go on?” No doubt Les had been considering the position. I wrote: “We’ll be a menace to the rest.” Had it been a high-level operation there would have been time to make up some sort of signals between the Bomb Aimer, Flight Engineer and Pilot which may have worked. But on a quick-moving, low-level operation like this and with other aircraft in close proximity Les could neither give nor receive flying instructions from the Navigator [Jock Rumbles] nor bombing instructions from the Bomb Aimer ... [and the Rear Gunner would have been completely isolated] ... A few minutes later we altered course for home and so ended ‘W for William’s’ effort in respect of this particular operation.’

The real situation differed somewhat from Clay’s version. On receipt of Percy Pigeon’s advice that the intercom could not be restored, Munro made the decision to abort the mission and a note was handed around to that effect.

A reciprocal course having been set for home, Munro brought ‘W for William’ over the English coast at Mablethorpe at 0016 hours and landed back at Scampton about 20 minutes later, his fuzed Upkeep still aboard: in spite of ill-informed suggestions to the contrary, an official order to ditch unused Upkeeps was not issued - it would have been much easier for Munro to have done so. Instead he jettisoned fuel to lighten the load.

Another cause for debate was whether ‘W for William’ had been hit by a flak ship or from a land-based emplacement. Munro firmly believed it was the latter - ‘We were still over the sand dunes when we were hit, a flak ship would not have been in that position.’

In so far as supporting the contention that “Chastise” was a worthwhile enterprise, Munro is firmly on side:

‘In the early nineties much to the concern of surviving members that took part opinions were expressed in certain sections of the media that the operation was not successful, that the end result did not justify the means, with the loss of eight planes and crews. I strongly disagree with that view. I maintain the raid was very successful in the operational sense, both the primary targets, the Mohne and the Eder were breached and the Sorpe damaged. In considering this issue it is acknowledged that the Air Ministry in deciding that the Dams should be attacked did not anticipate that the Germans would be capable of repairing the breaches as quickly as they did and in that respect maybe it was not a complete success. But never the less the breaching of the Mohne and the Eder caused major devastation to infrastructure such as factories, roads and bridges, electricity installations, etc., and did affect the German War effort. But very importantly I believe the result of the operation gave a tremendous boost to the morale of the British people which was somewhat low at the time and it was certainly successful in that respect.’

Four weeks after the raid, the announcement of the award of Munro’s D.F.C. for services in No. 97 Squadron appeared in the
London Gazette.

No. 617 Squadron - Beyond the Dams

Following the Dams Raid, Munro recalls ‘the Squadron went through somewhat of a hiatus period. We gained the impression that Bomber Command didn’t know what to do with this special squadron.’ No further operations were flown for two months, Guy Gibson departed for the U.S.A. and Canada to undertake a lecture tour and Wing Commander George Holden assumed command. However, training flights continued apace.

One such low-level training flight over the Lincolnshire fens nearly ended in disaster when a seagull hit Munro’s cockpit windscreen almost dead centre - ‘it came through like a cannonball dead between Frank Appleby, my Flight Engineer and myself ... and ended up as a rather messy lump of feathers and flesh on the cockpit floor. Here again luck was on my side. If it had hit the screen dead in front of me and hit me on my face and head, I shudder to think what might have happened at such a low height.’

Finally, on 15 July, two waves of six aircraft were detailed to attack the electricity transformer and switching stations at Aquata Scrivia and San Polo d’Ensa in Italy. Munro was assigned to the latter target from whence he and his fellow pilots made for Blida in North Africa:

‘I had inadvertently lost some height as we tried to identify the target due to ground mist and when the 500lb bombs exploded the plane received a sprinkling of bomb fragments with the result that Jimmy Clay was hit by a fragment on the tip of his nose and my port tyre was punctured. Naturally I was unaware the tyre was punctured until on landing - and after travelling about 100 yards or so - the plane commenced a ground loop which I endeavoured to counter act as much as possible with port engine power. Some authors have stated that the tyre was punctured as a result of the rough runway, it wasn’t that at all!’

Towards the end of August 1943, 617 commenced training with the SAB’s Mk. 11A bomb sight, an exercise assisted by Squadron Leader Don “Talking Bomb” Richardson, an expert who flew with each crew on their practice flights. Moreover, the Squadron transferred lock, stock and barrel to Coningsby.

Due to illness, Munro missed 617’s attacks against the heavily defended Dortmund Ems Canal on 14-15 September. They were a disaster. Five aircraft out of eight over two nights being lost, including the C.O. George Holden’s Lancaster with some of Guy Gibson’s old crew. Other prominent names among those killed were David Maltby and the Australian, Les Knight.

Micky Martin having assumed temporary command, and not notwithstanding such loss, 617 was assigned to attack the Antheor Viaduct on the 16th, the first of three attempts to take out this important structure on the main supply route between Genoa and Marseilles - it was estimated that over 14,000 tons of military supplies entered Italy each day over the viaduct. Munro’s Lancaster marked the target from 300 feet with incendiaries before completing the 12-hour-long round trip.

He made a repeat run to the same target on 11 November when, amidst light flak and searchlights, he made two dummy runs over the viaduct before dropping his bomb load - sadly, owing to a defective bomb sight, to no avail. This time, the attacking force returned to the U.K. after a few days at Blida in North Africa. It was a tough flight, Munro suffering a rare bout of air-sickness and landing back at Coningsby with only enough fuel for another 30 minutes’ flying.

Recruitment of new aircrew was meanwhile progressing slowly, 617 having gained something of a reputation as a suicide unit.

The Cheshire Era

At the end of the month Leonard Cheshire assumed command of 617. In common with fellow aircrew, Munro quickly came to admire him:

‘I had a great personal regard for him, he was an outstanding person, self-effacing, quietly spoken, with a droll sense of humour. Always friendly and approachable, and taking a genuine interest in all those under his command. He was a deep thinker and, as later events unfolded, spent much thought on ways and means of improving marking and bombing methods with the result that 617 became highly efficient in destroying individual targets.’

‘I also had great admiration for Micky Martin,’ continues Munro. ‘Micky built up a reputation as an extremely capable pilot and an expert at low-level flying. He gave much thought to improving bombing methods and techniques and together with Leonard Cheshire developed the low-level marking procedures used by the Squadron for much of its operations during the Cheshire era and the remainder of the war.’

Here, then, the commencement of the so-called “Cheshire Era”, a turning point in 617’s post-Dams Raid contribution to victory with a spate of crucial precision targets. Thus V.1, V.2 and V.3 rocket sites; E- and U-Boat pens; vital factories; the Saumur Tunnel and much besides, operations undertaken with ever improving methods of marking - at length Cheshire and three others (Dave Shannon, Terry Kearns and Gerry Fawke) used Mosquitos. Added to which the nature of 617’s bomb load continued to receive the unstinting attention of the brilliant Barnes Wallis. For the enemy, it proved to be a lethal recipe, the delivery of which was made possible by extraordinary skill and gallantry on the part of 617‘s aircrew: not least Munro, Martin, McCarthy and Shannon, who, in Cheshire’s own words made up ‘the backbone of the Squadron.’

Cheshire was not Munro’s only admirer for, according to
The Dam Busters, the slow-speaking, taciturn New Zealander ‘never even suspected that the WAAFs on the station adored him as a strong, silent man.’

Munro’s first V-weapon operation was undertaken against a V.1 site on 16 December 1943, followed by five strikes on similar targets in France in the period leading up to late January 1944. In the same month 617 relocated to Woodhall Spa:

‘To me it was like going back home as the Petwood Hotel, the Officers’ Mess for Woodhall, was my home or quarters while I was on 97 Squadron before leaving for Scampton to join 617 Squadron on its formation. It was great to be back and living in this wonderful old Victorian spa hotel and its lovely grounds. Since the war I have been back and stayed several times and each time brings back memories. The small squadron bar in which we spent many social hours has been maintained as it was in war time.’

On 12 February Munro returned to the Antheor Viaduct for a third time, a raid noted for the death of Micky Martin’s Bomb Aimer, Bob Hay, who was killed by a 20mm. flak shell.

Two days later, following the death of Squadron Leader Suggett, Munro was himself advanced to the rank of Squadron Leader and appointed ‘B’ Flight Commander. Moreover, with Cheshire away on leave, he became Acting Squadron Commander for a week. Micky Martin having been ordered off operations about this time, Cheshire now appointed Dave Shannon to the command of ‘A’ Flight and Joe McCarthy to ‘C’ Flight:

‘Thus began an outstanding era in the Squadron’s history. The Squadron commanded by an Englishman with his three Flight Commanders, all originals: a New Zealander, an Australian and an American. It became known as the ‘old firm’.’

‘Even if I say it myself,’ continues Munro, ‘this proved an outstanding team and the Squadron went from strength to strength becoming recognised as a potent strike force against individual and specific targets of importance.’

On the night of 2-3 March, Cheshire led 15 of 617’s Lancasters to the aircraft factory at Albert, Munro acting as his deputy. Arriving over the target, Cheshire’s bomb sight failed on the run-in and he called up Munro to take over, the latter placing his markers slap bang in the middle of the target - ‘I dipped my wing and could see the markers go down into the factory area; the bombing was very accurate and it seemed as if all but the second bomb fell on the target.’ In fact, as quoted in
No Passing Glory, by Andrew Boyle:

‘Within a quarter of an hour the two factories were enveloped in flames. Every bomb but one had struck home; and this exploded harmlessly well away from the town. Nearly a year later Allied bomb damage experts examined the broken shells of the buildings. The machine-tool section had been so badly smashed that the Germans had not even attempted to restore it, while output in the aircraft engine department was still only a tenth of what it had been before that one attack by 617. Cheshire wrote in his diary: ‘This factory will produce no more engines for the Hun’.’

On his next sortie, two nights later, although reduced to three engines, Munro continued to the target - the German needle-bearing factory at St. Etienne - but an accurate attack was prevented by cloud cover; so on the 10th, he and 617 returned to finish the job and, on the 15th, tackled the Aero Engine Works at Woippy.

Once again acting as Cheshire’s deputy, Munro carried out further notable marking in an attack on the Michelin Tyre Works at Clermont-Ferrand on 16 March. Such was the success of the operation that Cheshire was able to signal base: ‘Michelin’s complexion seems a trifle red’. Munro’s Lancaster had been damaged by flak, however, and he carried out his landing at Scampton with a burst tyre.

Enemy powder factories at Bergerac and Angouleme having received 617’s attention on the 18th and 20th, Munro was recommended for an immediate award of the D.S.O. on 3 April, which distinction was duly approved. As was the usual practice, a telegram was sent to his parents to advise them of the award, but with tragic consequences: ‘When the person delivering the telegram called at the back door and handed my mother the telegram, she must have feared the worst, suffered an aneurism, and collapsed on the floor, and died within a week. On receiving a letter from father advising of her death, Leonard Cheshire offered to take me off operations, but I declined, believing that to continue to fly on operations would take my mind off her loss.’

617 next attacked an Aircraft Repair Plant at Toulouse on the 5th, and a Signals Depot at St. Cyr on the 10th. On both of these operations Squadron Leader Moyna of the R.A.F’s Photographic Unit accompanied Munro and took footage of the raids in progress, including no doubt the results of his having ‘put an 8,000-pounder right on the markers’ at Toulouse - ‘In the morning a recce aircraft found the factory flattened and only an occasional crater in the fields beyond’ (
The Dam Busters, refers).

On the 18th and 20th, Munro was back in action in attacks on the marshalling yards at Juvisy and La Chapelle, both near Paris - his flares on the former target ‘lit the area beautifully’ and ‘it was eighteen months after the war before the yard was again in action’ (
The Dam Busters, refers). Over La Chapelle, he circled the target for the benefit of Air Commodore Harry Satterly, 617’s base commander who had come along for the ride, and then offered him the pilot’s seat on the return leg: the Air Commodore hadn’t flown for some time and kept wandering off course, so Munro had to politely remind him of his position.

As it happened, it was around this time that Munro finally relented to the requests of his Flight Engineer, Frank Appleby, to take a turn at the control column - ‘I was agreeably surprised to see Frank settle in to straight and level flight with only minor variation in course, so it became the norm for him to take over the controls on our return flight home and several times during these periods I would switch with the gunners to experience life in the turrets.’

Later in the same month 617 turned its attention to Germany - Brunswick on the 22nd and Munich on the 24th. Of the latter operation, Munro recalls:

‘The operation on Munich was significant in that the Squadrons low-level marking method was trialled in conjunction with a large Bomber Command force. It was a complete success causing more damage that night than all previous attacks combined and led A.O.C. 5 Group to adopt the low-level marking system for all 5 Groups subsequent operations.’

About this time, 617 took delivery of Barnes Wallis’s new secret weapon, the ‘Tallboy’ bomb, albeit under unusual circumstances.
No Passing Glory takes up the story:

‘Cheshire was driving round the perimeter track with Munro that evening for no particular reason that he can remember, and just past the ‘A’ Flight hardstandings they passed a huge tarpaulin-covered lorry cruising slowly along.

‘What’s that doing here?’ Munro murmured, not very curiously, and Cheshire, his head still full of D-Day precautions, said, ‘Lord knows. Let’s find out.’

They drove across the lorry’s bows; it stopped and they climbed out of their jeep and went back to the lorry driver. ‘What have you got in there?’ Cheshire asked.

‘Boilers for the cookhouse, sir,’ the driver said.

‘Aren’t you going the wrong way? The cookhouse is over there,’ Cheshire waved a hand to the rear.

‘Well I dunno, sir. They told me to deliver them over there.’ The driver pointed to the far side of the field.

‘The bomb dump! That’s the bomb dump. Who told you that?’ A suspicious edge had crept into Cheshire's voice.

‘That’s what they told me, sir.’

Cheshire said, ‘Let’s have a look at this, Les. Something funny here.’ He heaved himself over the tailboard of the lorry. Another tarpaulin covered a shapeless bulk in the back; he tugged a corner clear and, unbidden, a grunt of surprise came out of him. ‘My God,’ he said, ‘look at these!’

Lashed to the floor were two shining steel monsters. They were like sharks, slim, streamlined and with sharp noses. ‘Bombs,’ Cheshire said, almost in awe. ‘Wallis’s “tallboys”.’

They followed the lorry to the bomb dump and were staggered to find the dump nearly full of “tallboys”, snugged down under tarpaulins. An armament officer said apologetically, ‘They’ve been coming in at night time for the past week, sir. I was told to keep quiet about them.’

Cheshire tore back to his office, got Cochrane at Group on the secret scrambled phone and told him he had just been inspecting ‘the new boilers for the cookhouse in the bomb dump.’ He heard what sounded like the ghost of muted amusement in Cochrane’s voice: ‘Just see they’re safely in storage, Cheshire. You’ll be using them soon.’

D-Day - “Operation Taxable”

Of 617’s performance on the eve of D-Day, Munro has said: ‘I have always considered that “Operation Taxable”, designed to deceive German radar by dropping aluminium strips - or ‘window’ - as one of the most important missions ever undertaken by 617 Squadron.’

It does indeed appear to have succeeded in giving the Germans the impression that the invasion fleet was sailing towards the Pas de Calais, an ambition assisted by No. 218 Squadron, flying Stirlings in a parallel mission: the second wave of 617’s force observed German shore batteries engaging the ‘ghost’ invasion fleet.

Beforehand, however, when briefed for this D-Day operation, quite a few of 617’s pilots, Munro among them, voiced their disappointment at not having an attacking role for the opening of the second front. As a consequence, Munro greatly exaggerated his flying log book entry on returning to base:

‘It involved flying within at least nine miles of the enemy coast without fighter cover, and in conditions of bright moonlight and at a height of not more than 3,000 feet at which the aircraft was open to attack by the deadliest of weapons - light flak.’

But in fairness to him and his fellow pilots there was absolutely no latitude for deviation from ground speed, compass bearing, rate of turn and timing: ‘flying in oblongs so precisely demanded all our skills as pilots and while we didn’t bomb anything it confirmed what precision flying could do - I flew my plane for the first hour of the operation before handing over to Leonard Cheshire who flew the next hour, before the second wave of eight aircraft took over.’

Munro recalls:

‘When it came for the C.O. to counter sign our flying log books at the end of the month, Harry Humphrey, Squadron Adjutant, deliberately left my book on top of the pile with it open not at the end of the month as was normal practice but at the entry for 5 June. Leonard Cheshire wrote opposite the entry: ‘Certified that Squadron Leader Les Munro is still in possession of most of his faculties after completing the operation described on this page’.’

The Saumur Tunnel

On 8 June, 617 was ordered to attack on the Saumur Tunnel in the South of France, which, if successful, would stem the flow of vital German reinforcements bound for the Normandy invasion area. Indeed the operation had been called at very short notice because of reports of a German Panzer Division moving up from the south - so much so that Munro and Shannon were summoned to action direct from playing cricket at Methringham.

Stemming the advance of enemy reinforcements aside, the raid was also significant because it was the first time 617 used Barnes Wallis’s 12,000lb Tallboys - the bomb bays of the Squadron’s Lancasters had to be modified in order to accommodate the 21-feet-long monster, ‘an almost aerodynamically perfect bomb capable of maintaining perfect trail angle and of penetrating solid masses of concrete before exploding.’

The force was supported by three Mosquitos flown by Cheshire, Fawke and Shannon and 10 Lancasters of No. 83 Squadron for flare marking purposes. The results were spectacular and the tunnel was still under repair when the area was liberated in August 1944.

Smashing the E- and U-Boat Pens

Again in support of the Normandy operations, 617 was next ordered to attack the E-and U-Boat pens at Le Havre on 14 June - the Squadron’s first daylight operation. With Cheshire marking in one of three Mosquitos, Munro was given command of 617’s 22 Lancasters, leading them over the enemy coast under heavy flak - several aircraft were hit and some of them compelled to turn for home on three engines. The Mosquitos having marked the pens accurately - and amidst exploding A.A. shells - Munro led in the remaining Lancasters, his own Tallboy falling dead on the aiming point. In fact, as revealed by post-raid photographs, the operation was a complete success, causing considerable damage to the pens and surrounding installations.

As a result, Munro and his comrades in 617 were ordered to attack the E-Boat pens at Boulogne the following day. Heavy flak met him as he led in the attack and at least seven Lancasters were damaged, including his own, but once again post-raid photography revealed a scene of devastation below: the two raids had accounted for 133 E-Boats and removed a major threat to the Allied invasion armada.

Return to the V-weapon sites

The advent of V.2 attacks launched on London and elsewhere invariably resulted in 617’s expertise being called upon once more, and it was in this capacity that Munro was employed in the final weeks of his operational career in the summer of 1944. First up was the V-weapon site at Wizernes on 22 June, but owing to cloud cover the raid had to be aborted. Two days later, again in daylight, 16 of 617’s Lancasters returned to the target, Cheshire and Fawke accompanying them in Mosquitos; three of the Lancasters were damaged by flak and another was shot down, but significant damage was inflicted on the site.

In terms of 617’s history, Munro’s next sortie - against the V-weapon site at Siracourt on 25 June - was witness to a new arrival. That morning a Mustang had been delivered to Woodhall Spa, a private gift to Cheshire from the American Air Force: with no experience on the type, Cheshire had it rapidly assembled and took-off an hour behind Munro and his comrades in their Lancasters. All were duly impressed when he caught them up and dropped two red markers from 500 feet over the target, following which Munro led in the Lancasters, himself seeing two direct hits: Siracourt was knocked out.

Having then flown a similar mission against the V-weapon storage facility at Creil on 4 July, Munro undertook his final wartime sortie, and spectacular it proved - the attack on the V.3 site at Mimoyecques on 6 July amidst ‘a nightmare of flak’. Alan Cooper’s
Beyond the Dams to the Tirpitz takes up the story:

‘The large sites continued to receive 617’s attention, but the next, at Mimoyecques, in the Pas de Calais, was slightly different. Its purpose was to house the V.3, the large guns that would fire small, relatively light shells to London - a distance of 95 miles. The shell was estimated to be about six inches in calibre with a weight of about 120 pounds packed with some 40 lbs of high explosives. The enemy might have attained a rate of fire equivalent to a salvo of 25 rounds every five minutes, and double this if the twin installation had been completed. The site was first detected in September 1943, with the construction of two railway tunnels about a mile apart.

Cheshire's Mustang, a Mosquito and 17 Lancasters headed in to the attack on the early afternoon of 6 July, and Cheshire marked the target from 800 feet in a dive attack. Although dropped on target they failed to show up at all well in daylight, but Munro led in the bombers as the sky became a nightmare of flak. Flying Officer Ian Ross’s machine was hit and so was Stanford’s. Flying Officer Lee had all four engines hit and three of his crew wounded from shell splinters and he had to jettison his bomb into the sea. Kell had an engine cut out on his first run but he turned for a second, dropping his bomb from 17,000 feet. Knilans made his run but the bombsight went u/s so he had to abort and head for home. Two other aircraft did not bomb as the crews could not identify the target.

The main hit, by Flying Officer Nick Ross, fell in the main area of the construction and caused a subsidence over an area of 160 by 120 yards. The roads and railways to the east of the tunnel entrance were completely severed. There was no chance of its being repaired and within a short while it was overrun by the advancing Allies. Later inspection of the site showed several Tallboy craters, one of which had pierced and blocked the tunnel in which labourers had been working. Several hundred of these workers were known to have been trapped in the tunnel, thinking it the safest place during an air raid.’

Immediately on returning from Mimoyecques, Cheshire was told to report to the A.O.C.:

‘A message summoning him to Cochrane met him when he landed and he drove straight over to Group. Cochrane said when he walked in: ‘I’ve been looking at the records and I see you’ve done a hundred trips now. That's enough; it’s time you had a rest. I’ve got hold of Tait to take over.’ Cheshire opened his mouth to argue and Cochrane said, ‘It’s no use arguing ... Sorry, but there it is. A hundred is a good number to stop at.’ He went on and thanked him, quietly and with no flowery nonsense, and dropped another bombshell: ‘Shannon, Munro and McCarthy will come off too. They’ve been going continuously for about two years and it’s time they had a rest as well.’

There were, as Cheshire expected, protests from Shannon, Munro and McCarthy, but from that moment they were changed men, gayer, but in a less violent way, and only then he realized that the strain had been telling on his three durable flight commanders … They had earned a rest; all of them had D.S.Os, D.F.Cs and Bars. The Squadron gave them a send-off at which one or two (prodded perhaps by alcohol) were near tears.’

Munro was appointed to the command of 1690 Bomber Defence Training Flight at Scampton, a unit that later moved to Metheringham. It comprised single-seater fighters whose role was to carry out simulated attacks on Lancaster bombers, thereby giving pilots and aircrew valuable experience in dealing with enemy night fighters:

‘So here I was faced with converting from flying four-engine Lancasters to single-engine Hurricanes. Although on the face of it a major transition, I achieved it without difficulty.’

He went on to complete over 200 hours on Hurricanes of which 83 were at night.

Munro continues:

‘I was still on 1690 and on normal leave in London when V.E. Day occurred. This was truly a momentous occasion. On hearing by various means of the end of the war in Europe it appeared that everybody just dropped what they were doing and congregated in the streets. The West End streets close to the Piccadilly Hotel at which I was staying were just crowded with everybody hugging and kissing all and sundry and generally letting off steam and giving free reign to their emotions of pleasure at the end of the war in Europe. I must admit that I received a pretty good quota of kisses and hugs from the fairer sex on that occasion!’

In July, Munro applied for a post in Transport Command - the R.A.F. having put out a request for pilots to fly the Atlantic run - but shortly afterwards V.J. Day occurred and he felt an underlying desire to return to New Zealand to see his family. Applying for a transfer home at New Zealand House, he embarked in the S.S.
Andes on 22 September 1945 and was greeted by his sister at Gisborne Station after a long train journey from Wellington - ‘Dad had remained at home as had a boarder, one Betty Hill. Little did I know then that I would end up marrying this attractive honey blonde that greeted me rather shyly on being introduced.’

Munro continues:

‘Bet and I eventually married on 10 May 1948, and had five children - three boys and two girls, in that order. We had a happy life together over 50 and a half years until Bet’s death on 23 December 1998. We were both greatly saddened by the death of John, our eldest son, in an aerial topdressing accident on 11 November 1984.’

The post-war years

Having finally been discharged from the Royal New Zealand Air Force in February 1946, Munro attended a five and a half month refresher course in sheep and cattle farming at Massey Agricultural College at Palmerston North. On completing this course and returning to Gisborne, he was offered a job on a casual basis with the State Advances Corporation (S.A.C.) in the Gisborne office. Subsequently appointed to the permanent staff, he was posted to the Blenheim office:

‘The principal component of my work involved the valuation of farms, and the settlement of returned servicemen on them, together with the subsequent supervision of the settler’s annual budgets. The balance of my time was taken up with inspecting the farms already settled, and reporting on the standard of management, and the maintenance of farms over which the S.A.C. held the mortgage. During my time with the S.A.C., I served five years at Blenheim, 16 months back at Gisborne, four years as District Appraiser in Nelson, in charge of the Nelson, Marlborough, and West Coast Districts, and, lastly, four years in Auckland.

In December 1960, with Jack Sinclair, the Commissioner of Crown Lands in Auckland, we were inspecting Great Barrier Island to determine if the introduction of Government finance was warranted when I received notice of my appointment to the position of Assistant Supervising Appraiser at Head Office (Wellington), and also advice that I’d drawn a section of 1080 acres on the Piu Land Settlement Block on S.H. 4, some 20 miles south of Te Kuiti. After much deliberation I chose to accept settlement on the unit that I had drawn, and remained there for the next 14 years.

Beyond his career with the S.A.C., Munro came to be involved in local and regional politics, not least in his role as Chairman and Mayor of Waitomo, a post that he says he found ‘enjoyable and rewarding in most respects.’

His busy civilian career aside, Munro’s notable part in the history of 617 Squadron resulted in many reunions and invitations:

‘Len Chambers from Karamea, Micky Martin’s Wireless Operator, was the only other Kiwi on the Dams Raid. Both Len and I, together with our wives, were invited to Wellington in September 1954 to attend the Australasian premiere of the film “The Dambusters” at the Majestic Theatre. Prior to the showing of the film, Len and I - and our wives - were introduced to the then Governor General, Sir Willoughby Norrie and Lady Norrie, in the foyer of the cinema.’

In 2006, it was announced that the New Zealand film director Peter Jackson and David Frost would co-produce a re-make of the film. It has been scripted by Stephen Fry and will be directed by Christian Rivers, with input from Munro as a technical adviser.

The post-war era also witnessed Munro maintain strong links with his old comrades:

‘I made close friends during the war and these friendships endured throughout the post-war years until gradually most have passed on. I have always maintained that the cosmopolitan make up of 617 Squadron was one of its strengths, with its English majority strongly supported by men from Australia, Canada and New Zealand. In post-war years that cosmopolitan make up resulted in a strong world wide association with all members fiercely loyal to 617’s history and their ties thereto … I have over the years maintained a close contact with 617 Squadron Association and personally with many of its members. It was a rewarding experience to attend the 60th Anniversary Reunion at Lossiemouth - then home to the modern day 617 Squadron - and Woodhall Spa, our old base, on the same occasion.’

Munro was appointed to the Queen’s Service Order (Q.S.O.) in 1991 and to the Companionship of the New Zealand Order of Merit (C.N.Z.M.) in 1997.

His sense of adventure has never left him: in March 2006, he piloted a dual-control glider over Mount Maunganui as a special guest of the Tauranga Gliding Club, and in April 2008 he made his first parachute jump (attached to an instructor). He will celebrate his 96th birthday in April 2015.

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