Dambuster of the Day No. 127: Cyril Anderson

Plt_Off_Cyril_Anderson lo resCyril Anderson in Pilot Officer’s uniform, photographed in the summer of 1943. [Pic: Dominic Howard]

Flt Sgt C T Anderson
Pilot

Lancaster serial number: ED924/G

Call sign: AJ-Y

Third wave. Did not reach Sorpe Dam because of navigation problems, flak damage and weather conditions. Returned with mine intact.

Cyril Thorpe Anderson was born in Wakefield on 9 December 1913, the son of John and Gertrude Anderson. He was one of three children. He went to Lawefield Lane School and then on to a grammar school in the town. After leaving school he was an apprentice engineer at Rhodes and Son and became a qualified fitter at British Jeffrey Diamond.
Anderson joined the RAF in 1934 and served as ground crew. When the war started, he volunteered for aircrew and was selected for pilot training in August 1940. He qualified as a pilot in 1942.
In the final stages of training he crewed up with all the six men with whom he would fly on the Dams Raid: Robert Paterson (flight engineer), John Nugent (navigator), William Bickle (wireless operator), Gilbert “Jimmy” Green (bomb aimer), and Eric Ewan and Arthur Buck (gunners). They were posted together from 1654 Conversion Unit at Wigsley to 49 Squadron at Fiskerton in February 1943.
Anderson’s first two operations were the usual trips as 2nd pilot, when he flew with Sgt B A Gumbley and his crew on trips to Nuremberg and Cologne on 25 and 26 February. (Gumbley, a New Zealander, would join 617 Squadron later in the war. He took part in a number of raids including the attacks on the Tirpitz but was shot down in March 1944, and died along with his crew.)
The crew’s first operation together was an attack on Essen on 12 March 1943. After a successful bomb drop, they lost power in one engine on the way home. Their second trip was to St Nazaire on 22 March.
At this point, it seems that the request from Group HQ to send a crew to the new squadron being formed at Scampton was received by 49 Squadron. The CO nominated Bill Townsend and his crew, who had mostly nearly finished their tour, and therefore fell precisely into the category of “experienced crews” which had been demanded. He then chose to add Cyril Anderson to the posting, for reasons that have never been explained.
Anderson, with just two operations under his belt, did not demur from the request, but asked to gain some further experience in 49 Squadron before moving. He and his crew were therefore sent on three operations in the next five days, flying to Duisburg on 26 March and Berlin on both 27 and 29 March.
Anderson and his wife Rose had got married in 1939 , and their only son Graham was born in December 1942. Sadly he did not survive infancy, dying at just four months old earlier in March.
With just seven operations to his name, Anderson was one of the small coterie of inexperienced pilots who took part in the Dams Raid. The others with fewer than ten operations were Vernon Byers, Geoff Rice, Lewis Burpee and Ken Brown. There is no doubt that Guy Gibson was not happy with the fact that he had been given men who did not meet the criteria he had imposed, but he had no option but to go ahead with them. In the event, although they all proved that they could handle the tough training regime, he placed them all towards the end of Operation Chastise’s battle order.
So it was that Anderson and his crew were the last to take off on the Dams Raid, leaving the ground at Scampton at 0015. Having crossed the coast AJ-Y encountered heavy flak north of the Ruhr, and was forced off track. By then the rear turret began to malfunction, which meant that it was difficult to deal with searchlights. These caused it to divert off track again five minutes before it reached Dülmen. At 0228, the wireless operator William Bickle received the signal “Dinghy” which directed the aircraft towards the Sorpe Dam. (Some documents claim that it had first been ordered to attack the Diemel Dam, but this is not certain.) By now, mist was rising in the valleys which made the identification of landmarks almost impossible.
So it was that at 0310, after consulting his crew, Anderson decided that with dawn approaching and a rear turret not working he should turn for home. Rather than risk following the briefed return routes, he decided to go back the way he had come, crossing the coast at the Schelde estuary. AJ-Y landed at Scampton at 0530, its mine unused.
The next morning, Anderson was photographed along with the rest of the pilots who returned outside the Officers’ Mess, but the crew did not remain long on the squadron, and packed their bags that afternoon. Gibson was not happy with Anderson’s explanation. In particular, he was dismissive of Anderson’s account of the valleys being filled with mist. He himself had found his way from the Möhne to the Eder, after all. But this doesn’t take into account the fact that Gibson had left the area before 0200, more than an hour before Anderson had turned back. Hindsight suggests that he was poorly treated.
Anderson and his crew returned to 49 Squadron. Just over a month later, on 21 June, all seven, still together, resumed their operational career with an attack on Krefeld. By then Anderson had been commissioned.
They flew on 14 more operations after this, but on 23 September they failed to return from an attack on Mannheim. Subsequent research has shown that their aircraft was shot down by a night fighter near Offenbach, as they headed home. Their aircraft was seen flying over the village church trailing fire and crashed into a field. The spot is now marked by a memorial.
Five of the crew were recovered from the wreckage and were buried by the local Catholic priest Fr Jacob Storck on 26 September. The bodies of the other two members of the crew (one was Gilbert Green, the other was not identified at the time) were possibly thrown from the aircraft during the explosion and found later. According to Fr Storck, they may have tried to bail out. They were buried on 28 September.
After the war they bodies of all seven were exhumed and identified. They were then taken to Rheinberg War Cemetery, where they remain today.
Cyril Anderson’s gravestone bears a heartfelt inscription chosen by his wife Rose: “In my book of memory is marked the happy story of a love deep and true.”

Thanks to Dom Howard for help with this article.

More about Anderson online:
All the Anderson crew are commemorated on Dominic Howard’s excellent website. Each of the crew has their own page with biographical details, there is a complete list of the operations undertaken by the whole crew and a full account of their final flight on 23 September 1943.
Entry on 49 Squadron Association website.

KIA 23.09.1943

Rank and decorations as of 16 May 1943.
Sources:
Richard Morris, Guy Gibson, Penguin 1995
John Sweetman, The Dambusters Raid, Cassell 2002

The information above has been taken from the books and online sources listed above, and other online material. Apologies for any errors or omissions. Please add any corrections or links to further information in the comments section below.

Dambuster of the Day No. 126: Raymond Wilkinson

Wilkinson R

Sgt R Wilkinson
Rear gunner

Lancaster serial number: ED886/G

Call sign: AJ-O

Third wave. Only aircraft to attack Ennepe Dam. Mine dropped successfully, but failed to breach dam.

Raymond Wilkinson was the only child of Christopher and Margaret Wilkinson and was born on 1 September 1922 in South Shields on Tyneside. His father was a miner. Wilkinson worked briefly as a joiner’s apprentice before joining the RAF in 1941. He qualified as an air gunner in the summer of 1942 and was posted to 49 Squadron where he became one of Bill Townsend’s core crew, along with Dennis Powell, Lance Howard and fellow gunner Doug Webb. He flew on more than twenty operations before the crew were transferred to the new 617 Squadron in March 1943.

As AJ-O flew low across the Dutch and German countryside on the way to its target, Wilkinson was credited with shooting out some searchlights near Ahlen and he was awarded the DFM for his role on the raid.

In July 1943, he flew with Bill Townsend on two of the raids on Italian targets, and then in September he was posted as tour expired. He was sent to a conversion unit for a spell as an instructor, along with his mid-upper gunner colleague Doug Webb. The pair moved on to other training roles but just over a year later, in October 1944, they both came back on operations with 617 Squadron. By then Wilkinson had been commissioned.

He joined the crew of the Australian pilot Flt Lt Arthur Kell, and his first operation of this new tour was an unsuccessful attack on the Tirpitz, moored in a Norwegian fiord, which took place on 28 October. Both 617 and 9 Squadrons were armed with Tallboys and set off from Lossiemouth in Scotland on a trip which took more than twelve hours. In very bad weather, the ship was hit by several bombs but was not sunk. After the war it emerged that it had in fact been badly damaged and was no longer seaworthy, but this was not apparent to the Allies. So a similar force set off from Lossiemouth on 12 November to attack it again and once more Wilkinson was in the Kell crew. They dropped one of the four Tallboys which landed directly on the ship. The combined effect was spectacular, although it was not confirmed until the following day when reconnaissance showed the Tirpitz had capsized, with the bottom of the hull visible above the water.

Wilkinson has the unique honour of being the only person to have taken part in both the Dams Raid and the final successful attack on the Tirpitz. He flew on some other seventeen operations before the end of the war, including the raids on the U Boat pens at Ijmuiden and the Bielefeld viaduct.

Wilkinson had met his future wife, Iris Riordan, a WAAF who worked as a telephonist shortly before the Dams Raid. They married in 1944 and they attended the Royal Premiere of The Dam Busters in 1955. They moved to Australia some time later, and he died in Noble Park, Victoria on 27 July 1980.

Survived war. Died 27 July 1980.

Rank and decorations as of 16 May 1943.
Sources:
Richard Morris, Guy Gibson, Penguin 1995
John Sweetman, The Dambusters Raid, Cassell 2002

The information above has been taken from the books and online sources listed above, and other online material. Apologies for any errors or omissions. Please add any corrections or links to further information in the comments section below.

Further information about Ray Wilkinson and the other 132 men who flew on the Dams Raid can be found in my book The Complete Dambusters, published by History Press in 2018.

Dambuster of the Day No. 125: Douglas Webb

Dougles-Webb-Dambuster-617-Douglas Webb with his parents, Edward and Daisy Webb, and (left) his then fiancée, Anne Jones, photographed outside Buckingham Palace on 22 June 1943. [Pic: Yahya El Droubie]

Sgt D E Webb
Front gunner

Lancaster serial number: ED886/G

Call sign: AJ-O

Third wave. Only aircraft to attack Ennepe Dam. Mine dropped successfully, but failed to breach dam.

Douglas Edward Webb was born in Leytonstone, London on 12 September 1922, one of the two children of Edward and Daisy Webb. After leaving school, he worked briefly for Ilford and then for the London News Agency in Fleet Street, as a photographic printer. He joined the RAF in 1940, as soon as he had turned 18, as he wanted to be an air gunner.
After a substantial delay, he began training in 1942 and qualified as a gunner later that year. He was posted to 49 Squadron where he became one of Bill Townsend’s core crew, along with Dennis Powell, Lance Howard and fellow gunner Ray Wilkinson. He flew on some 25 operations before the crew were transferred to the new 617 Squadron in March 1943.
As with all the front gunners on the Dams Raid, Webb was normally stationed in the mid-upper turret, but that had been removed in the modified Lancasters. He thought that he was going to be busy in this unaccustomed role, so he scrounged an extra 1000 rounds of ammunition for each gun from the squadron armoury.
The third wave was scheduled for take off more than two hours after the second, so Webb filled some of the time having a bath. He recalled later that he was convinced that he wasn’t going to come back, and that he wanted to “die clean”.
Fortunately, his premonition didn’t come true. From his seat in the front turret, he was able to see how dangerous the German defences were (he saw the shooting down of Burpee in “a bloody great ball of fire”), and also appreciate the airmanship of his skipper as Townsend flew as low as he dared. And his decision to bring extra ammunition proved vital, since without it he would have run out during the trip.
Webb was awarded the DFM for his role on the raid. He didn’t believe this at first, suspecting he was being set up as part of some elaborate joke. Having checked, he then found a shop where he could buy the appropriate medal ribbons. Due to an administrative error, his actual medal was engraved “E Webb”, missing out his first name.
In July 1943, he flew with Bill Townsend on two of the raids on Italian targets and was then loaned to George Holden’s crew for another. In another stroke of fortune, he did not remain on the Holden crew, as in September they were all killed on the disastrous attack on the Dortmund Ems canal.
Webb was now tour expired, and he was posted to a conversion unit for a spell as an instructor, along with his rear gunner colleague Ray Wilkinson. The pair moved on to other  training roles but in October 1944, they both came back on operations with 617 Squadron. He flew his first operation of this new tour in December, and went on to fly on about another ten before the end of the war. During this last phase of the war, Barnes Wallis’s “Tallboy” bomb came into production, but in order to carry this 12,000 lb monstrosity, the Lancasters had to be modified. The mid-upper gunner was often left behind, so Webb’s opportunities to fly were reduced. Later, when the 22,000 lb Grand Slam became available, the wireless operator was also dropped. There is some evidence that at that time some aircrew carried on flying, even though they were officially not required, so it is possible that Webb was actually present on 617 Squadron’s last wartime operation, an attack on Hitler’s mountain lair on 25 April 1943. His colleague Ray Wilkinson and Len Sumpter, another Dams Raid participant, both flew on this sortie, making them the only two people to take part in 617 Squadron’s first and last wartime operations.
After demobilisation in 1946, Webb rejoined the London News Agency as a staff photographer. He went on to work in the film industry as a stills photographer and then opened his own studio in Soho, where he specialised in theatrical and film portraits. In 1948, he took some of the first professional nude pictures of the model and actress Pamela Green, thereby beginning an association which would last almost 50 years.
Webb had a prolific life in stills photography, cinema and television. His television work included the title sequences for Special Branch and The Sweeney for Thames Television. In the latter, the famous enlarged fingerprints were those of Pamela Green.
Although they were never married, Webb and Pamela Green became life partners and in 1986 when Webb retired, they moved to the Isle of Wight together.
Douglas Webb died on 8 December 1996 in Yarmouth, on the Isle of Wight. Pamela Green stayed in the area, appearing in various TV documentaries and giving talks to the local WI, in which she was an active member. She died on 7 May 2010.

More about Webb online:
Entry on Wikipedia
Article on Pamela Green tribute site (warning – contains nudity!)

Survived war. Died 8 December 1996.

Rank and decorations as of 16 May 1943.
Sources:
Richard Morris, Guy Gibson, Penguin 1995
John Sweetman, The Dambusters Raid, Cassell 2002

The information above has been taken from the books and online sources listed above, and other online material. Apologies for any errors or omissions. Please add any corrections or links to further information in the comments section below.

Dambuster of the Day No. 124: Charles Franklin

13_-_franklin_cPic: 49 Squadron Association.

Sgt C E Franklin DFM
Bomb aimer

Lancaster serial number: ED886/G

Call sign: AJ-O

Third wave. Only aircraft to attack Ennepe Dam. Mine dropped successfully, but failed to breach dam.

Charles Ernest Franklin was born in West Ham, London on 12 November 1915, one of the seven children of Albert and May Franklin.
He joined the RAF in 1940, and qualified as an observer. In April 1942, he was posted to 49 Squadron. Altogether, he flew on 28 operations in this squadron, some of the time with Bill Townsend but also with other pilots. Unusually, he was recommended for the DFM before he had finished his first tour, with the citation noting his “marked singleness of purpose in his determination only to bomb the correct target, involving has it frequently has done several runs to identify it positively before releasing his bombs.” The award of the medal came through two days after the Dams Raid itself.
In March 1943, Franklin was offered the chance to transfer to 617 Squadron with the rest of Townsend’s crew. He took his place in the bomb aimer’s compartment on the raid, but had to wait until the crew reached the Ennepe Dam sometime after 0300. His job was made much more difficult as a result of the violent shudder caused by the rotating mine, with the result that it took him three dummy runs before he got the line and distance correct. His fourth attempt was successful, and the Upkeep was dropped at 0337. The dam, however, was not breached.
Despite this, Franklin was commended for his efforts and received a Bar to his just-acquired DFM for his work on the night. Only 60 Bars to the DFM were awarded during the whole war, and Franklin’s was the only one given to a 617 Squadron airman. He travelled to Buckingham Palace to receive it, and was photographed outside with Bill Townsend and four of the rest of the crew.
The Dams Raid was Franklin’s first and last operation in 617 Squadron. In July he was posted on a bomb aimer’s instructors course and then at the end of August 1943, he went to a conversion unit as an instructor. During this time, he was commissioned.
He returned to operations in July 1944 with 83 Squadron. He flew on a handful of operations with Flt Lt J Meggeson, but was then taken sick and did not complete this tour.
After the war, Franklin moved to Birmingham and set up a successful catering business with his parents. There was a flurry of publicity about him in 1955 when his name was omitted from the initial guest list for the Royal Premiere of the film The Dam Busters, but this was rectified in time and he was able to attend. He died on 25 January 1975, and his funeral was attended by a number of his ex-crewmates. It was widely covered in the press, and a series of photographs taken for the Daily Mirror can be seen in agency archives.

More about Franklin online:
Picture of Bill Townsend, George Chalmers and Doug Webb at Franklin’s funeral, February 1975
Auction details for his medals in September 2000 (contains a biography)

Survived war. Died 25 January 1975.

Rank and decorations as of 16 May 1943.
Sources:
Richard Morris, Guy Gibson, Penguin 1995
John Sweetman, The Dambusters Raid, Cassell 2002

The information above has been taken from the books and online sources listed above, and other online material. Apologies for any errors or omissions. Please add any corrections or links to further information in the comments section below.

Dambuster of the Day No. 123: George Chalmers

Buck Palace group ©PH loresTwenty of the aircrew decorated for the Dams Raid line up outside Buckingham Palace on 22 June 1943. Left to right: Leonard Sumpter, Harlo “Terry” Taerum, Jack Buckley, Fred “Spam” Spafford, Richard Trevor Roper, David Maltby, Edward “Johnny” Johnson, Harold “Mick” Martin, Dudley Heal, Guy Gibson, Sidney Hobday, David Shannon, Bertie “Toby” Foxlee, Joseph McCarthy, Stefan Oancia, John Fort, Daniel Walker, Leonard Chambers, Douglas Webb, George “Jock” Chalmers. [Pic: Peter Humphries]

Flt Sgt G A Chalmers
Wireless operator

Lancaster serial number: ED886/G

Call sign: AJ-O

Third wave. Only aircraft to attack Ennepe Dam. Mine dropped successfully, but failed to breach dam.

George Alexander Chalmers was born on 12 February 1921 in Peterhead, Aberdeenshire. As a Scot, he was often known by the nickname “Jock”. He was educated at Aberdeen Academy before working briefly at a local Crosse & Blackwell factory. He joined the RAF in 1938 as a boy entrant.
He qualified as a wireless operator/air gunner before the outbreak of war, and was posted first to 10 Squadron in Dishforth. Early in the war, he took part in leaflet-dropping operations over Germany. In August 1940 he transferred to 7 Squadron and later that year to 35 Squadron, where he completed a first tour of operations during 1941.
After about a year in various training jobs, he asked to go back on operations and was posted to RAF Scampton. He was posted in as a supernumerary, without a crew, and told Mick Martin that he would prefer to be allocated to an all-NCO crew if possible. Martin was a bit taken aback by this (perhaps knowing that there were very few of these in the new squadron) but it turned out that Bill Townsend was without a wireless operator, so Chalmers was fitted in there. Townsend’s crew did not remain all-NCO for long – by the time of the Dams Raid, Lance Howard had been commissioned, and Townsend followed shortly afterwards.
On the raid, Chalmers was conscious that he stood “watching history from the astrodome, although everything happened so quickly (at 100ft) that incidents came and went almost before the mind could appreciate them”. When they reached the Ennepe Dam, Chalmers started the rotation of the mine, which caused the aircraft to shudder violently, so everyone was very relieved when it was released. Chalmers himself was able to watch the subsequent explosion from the astrodome.
He was awarded the DFM for his role on the Dams Raid, where the citation noted that he had by then flown on 44 operations. He was commissioned himself at the end of June 1943, shortly after attending the investiture in London. There he was flattered when the Queen, who was conducting the investiture, identified him as coming from Peterhead.
Townsend and some of his crew finished their tour in September 1943, but the irrepressible Chalmers carried on. He flew first with the new squadron CO, Leonard Cheshire, but then transferred to the crew of Plt Off Bernard “Bunny” Clayton, an experienced pilot who had been posted from 51 Squadron to 617 Squadron in July 1943 with a CGM and DFC to his name.
He finally came off operations in July 1944, at the same time as all of the other Dams Raid personnel still flying in 617 Squadron. He was awarded the DFC later in the year, having flown in 66 operations. The citation concluded: “Throughout his long and arduous operational career, this officer has displayed outstanding courage and devotion to duty.”
Chalmers stayed on in the RAF until 1954, on an extended service commission. When he left, he joined the Ministry of Defence in Harrogate, working on the technical specifications for RAF services, and developed a specialist knowledge of aircraft refuelling procedures.
George Chalmers retired in 1984. He had married his wife Alma during the war, and they had nine children. He died on 6 August 2002.

More about Chalmers online:
Obituary in the Daily Telegraph

Survived war. Died 06.08.2002

Rank and decorations as of 16 May 1943.
Sources:
Richard Morris, Guy Gibson, Penguin 1995
John Sweetman, The Dambusters Raid, Cassell 2002

The information above has been taken from the books and online sources listed above, and other online material. Apologies for any errors or omissions. Please add any corrections or links to further information in the comments section below.

Sqn Ldr Les Munro DSO DFC

MUNRO CREW loresLes Munro and the 617 Squadron crew with whom he flew on the Dams Raid. Back row, L-R: Les Munro (pilot), Jimmy Clay (bomb aimer), Bill Howarth (front gunner), Harvey Weeks (rear gunner). Front, L-R: Grant Rumbles (navigator), Frank Appleby (flight engineer), Percy Pigeon (wireless operator).

Sad news arrived this morning of the death in hospital in New Zealand of Les Munro, the last pilot to take part in the Dams Raid.
John Leslie Munro was born in Gisborne on the North Island of New Zealand on 5 April 1919, the oldest of three children. His family had a sheep station a few miles outside town. It emerged in about 1999 that his mother had another child, a daughter born in 1913, in an earlier relationship but had given her up for adoption.
Munro was educated in local schools, but left at 14 to work in farming. When the war came he waited until 1940, when he was 21, to volunteer for the RNZAF. He wanted to be a pilot. but he was told that his educational qualifications were ‘insufficient for pilot training’ and that he would have to be a gunner. Not to be put off, he spent the next 12 months studying at home, doing a maths course before reapplying. This time he was successful and he was enlisted into the RNZAF in July 1941.
After initial training in New Zealand Munro was sent to Canada to complete bomber training and qualified as a pilot in February 1942, receiving a commission at the same time. After arriving in England, and the usual delays that followed, he was sent for further training.
The core of the crew who would fly with Munro throughout most of his career began to be assembled at their Operational Training Unit, when navigator Jock Rumbles and wireless operator Percy Pigeon first teamed up with him. While still at the OTU, in September 1942, they undertook two operations. The second of these, when they were scheduled to attack Bremen, nearly ended in disaster, when their Wellington’s engines lost power shortly after take off and they crashlanded in a nearby field.
Munro moved onto heavy bomber training at the end of September 1942, along with Rumbles and Pigeon, and they were joined by flight engineer Frank Appleby and gunner Bill Howarth. All five joined 97 Squadron at Woodhall Spa in December 1942, to begin operational flying. Their first operation on 8 January 1943 was minelaying, followed on 13 January by an attack on Essen.
Some 17 further operations would follow in the next ten weeks, but in that time the crew flew with no fewer than eight different bomb aimers. Then, towards the end of March a new opportunity presented itself when a letter from 5 Group went up on the squadron noticeboard. Munro called his crew together and told them there had been a call for volunteers to form a new squadron.
Most of the crew decided that they would go to the new squadron, but they were still without a regular bomb aimer, and the rear gunner chose not to accompany them. So they were joined by bomb aimer Jimmy Clay and rear gunner Harvey Weeks, who had both almost completed their operational tours with another crew.
Two other 97 Squadron crews, captained by David Maltby and Joe McCarthy, had also been selected for the new squadron. Guy Gibson had telephoned McCarthy, whom he had met while McCarthy was training, and asked him to join the new squadron, but it seems that he did not previously know either Maltby and Munro. Munro is fairly sure that they were all transported from Woodhall Spa to Scampton on a crew bus, probably on Thursday 25 March 1943, and that there was a large gathering in the Officers Mess that evening.
With hardly any time to settle in, the crews were put to intensive low level flying training, flying on borrowed Lancasters while the special ones for the Dams Raid were being assembled. Munro’s training went smoothly enough, although he and his crew had a near miss when flying low over the North Sea they suddenly saw a naval convoy ahead and had to climb steeply to avoid it.
As the detailed plans for the raid were being put together, both Les Munro and Joe McCarthy were originally placed in the first wave, the nine crews tasked with attacking the Mohne and Eder Dams. However, about five days before the actual operation, Gibson and the other planners decided to beef up the second wave, who would attack the Sorpe Dam, and placed Munro and McCarthy there instead. This wave, with further to travel, were in fact scheduled to leave Scampton before the first wave and so Munro’s AJ-W was the second aircraft to take off on Operation Chastise, at 2129 on 16 May 1943.
All went well for the first 85 minutes, and on reaching the Dutch coast near Vlieland the mine was fused. But then the aircraft was hit by flak. Munro and front gunner Bill Howarth  say that this was fired from a land battery, but bomb aimer Jimmy Clay recorded that it was a flak ship which spotted them. Whichever it was, it did severe damage. The intercom was put out of action, the master unit for the compass was destroyed and the tail turret pipes damaged.
Munro kept on flying for a while but sent flight engineer Frank Appleby down to the nose to check with Clay. He passed him a note: “Intercom U/S – should we go on?” Clay remembered his reply: ‘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 Bomb Aimer, Flight Engineer and Pilot which may have worked. But on a quick-moving low-level operation like this and with other aircaft in close proximity Les could neither give nor receive flying instructions from the navigator nor bombing instructions from the bomb aimer’ and the rear gunner, Harvey Weeks, was completely isolated.
Wireless operator Percy Pigeon was sent to check up on Weeks, but in doing so saw the gaping hole in the fuselage, with a host of broken wiring. He told Munro it would be impossible to fix this while airborne. So, reluctantly, Munro altered course and turned for home. When he got to Scampton he was unable to radio the control tower to tell them that he would be landing, so he went straight in. Unknown to him, another early return, Geoff Rice, was circling a severely damaged AJ-H above the runway getting his crew into crash positions. An embarrassing and dangerous incident was narrowly avoided.
Munro landed at 0036, the first crew to return from the operation. Some time later that morning, during the impromptu party that was going on in the Officers Mess, Gibson came up to him:
“Well, what happened, Les?” he asked him. Munro told him he had been hit by flak.
“Oh, you were too high,” Gibson replied.
Munro was about to protest and give his side of the story, but Gibson had already turned and walked away. It rankled with Munro, who felt that he had not been given a fair hearing. Nor did he feel that he could raise the matter again; it was the last time either of them ever mentioned it.
Although his role in the Dams Raid had come to a premature end, Munro still participated in the events that followed. He was presented to both the King and Queen during the royal visit on 27 May. Gp Capt Leonard Slee, the officer who was accompanying the Queen, didn’t seem to know his name, so Munro stepped in, not aware he was breaking some sort of protocol. ‘My name’s Munro,’ he told her. A few weeks later he was at the famous Hungaria Restaurant party in London given by Avro. Although he wasn’t decorated for the Dams Raid he had in fact just been awarded the DFC for his earlier operations in 97 Squadron.
617 Squadron went back on operations in July 1943, and Munro’s was one of the crews which took part in a raid on Italian power stations from where they flew on to Blida in North Africa. They flew a little too low and a flak hit resulted in a burst tyre and a flesh wound to bomb aimer Jimmy Clay’s nose.
These summer operations were probably not too dangerous, but the next one certainly was. This was the catastrophic raid on the Dortmund Ems Canal, which resulted in the loss of six crews out of the nine who participated on the two nights. Munro was not selected for this operation, which was extremely fortunate. However, he was back on duty straight afterwards in another abortive attack, this time on the Antheor Viaduct.
Another short gap followed, but then between November 1943 and July 1944 he undertook almost 30 more operations. He became Flight Commander of the Squadron’s B Flight and was temporarily CO of the whole squadron for some of February 1944 while Leonard Cheshire was on leave. In April 1944 he was awarded the DSO.
A month after D-Day, Munro was taken off operations, along with Cheshire, David Shannon and Joe McCarthy. AVM Ralph Cochrane, the CO of 5 Group, decided that all four were on ‘borrowed time’ and should cease immediately.
Munro spent the rest of the war in a training flight, and was finally demobilised in February 1946. He returned to New Zealand, and the business of running a sheep farm. He was active in politics for a while and became Mayor of Waitomo District, where there is now a street named after him.
In 2013 he flew to the UK for the last time, and took a full part in the 70th anniversary commemoration of the Dams Raid. He was accompanied by one of his sons and an official from the New Zealand High Commission. When I jokingly asked this official whether he was there as Les’s ‘minder’ he was quick to say that Les didn’t need any minding whatsoever. He was always forthright in his views and firm in his convictions.
Back home, Munro continued with many interviews and media appearances. Earlier this year, he made the very generous offer to sell his medals and memorabilia (which include a signed menu from the post raid dinner at the Hungaria Restaurant) to raise funds for the Bomber Command Memorial in London. He felt strongly that the sacrifice of the 55,000 aircrew who died in the war should continue to be honoured. However, the collection was saved for the Museum of Transport and Technology in Auckland by being purchased by the British peer and collector Lord Ashcroft, and will stay in New Zealand.
The collection will serve as a permanent reminder of the proud role played by the country’s aircrew in Bomber Command, and a tribute to this fine man.