By Lord Ashcroft KCMG PC. Follow him on Twitter here.
There is some sad news from New Zealand this morning: Les Munro, the last surviving pilot from the Second World War Dambusters mission, has died after a short illness. He was 96.
I only had the privilege of knowing Les very late in his long and extraordinary life, but my deepest condolences go out to his family, his friends, the New Zealand Bomber Command Association and to his entire home nation where he was, rightly, much revered.
John Key, the Prime Minister of New Zealand, summed up the feelings of his country when he tweeted: “Really sad to hear of Les Munro’s death, New Zealand has lost a remarkable man who led a remarkable life.”
Out of the 19 pilots who flew on the famous 1943 raid to destroy three dams in Germany’s industrial heartland with “bouncing bombs”, Squadron Leader Les Munro had been the last one alive until now. Eight of them were killed during the mission, making up part of the total of 53 out of the 133 crew who were killed.
I only got to know Les as a result of a strange twist of fate. After visiting the Bomber Command Memorial in London in 2013, Les decided to sell his medals/decorations in order to help pay for the upkeep of this special monument.
However, as someone who has tried to champion bravery for many years and as an original benefactor of the Bomber Command Memorial, I came up with an offer that I considered at the time to be a “win-win situation”.
I offered to donate £75,000 to the Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund, which is responsible for the upkeep of the Bomber Command Memorial, in return for Les gifting his medals/decorations to a museum in New Zealand.
I was delighted when Les accepted this offer in March of this year and I was even more thrilled and honoured to be invited to New Zealand the following month for a special ceremony when Les gifted the medals to the Museum of Transport and Technology (MOTAT).
The presentation took place in a hand-over ceremony at the museum’s Aviation Display Hall in the presence of John Key and in front of one of the few remaining examples of the Avro Lancaster aircraft, made famous as a successful bomber by RAF Bomber Command during the Second World War.
I still treasure the photograph that was taken of Les, me and others at the hand-over. I have a huge fondness for the people of New Zealand and I was delighted to have helped both Les and the country find a solution to a problem that had grabbed the attention of the nation amid fears that the medals/decorations might leave New Zealand.
During the short time that I had the privilege to know Les, I felt he was so typical of many of the war heroes that I have met over the years: he was incredibly modest about his bravery and his contribution to the war effort, believing he was simply doing his duty. However, we all owe Les and men like him an enormous debt: they gave, or risked, their lives for their country and for wider freedoms.
Make no mistake, Les Munro was a true war hero – one of those people who deserve to be described as “the bravest of the brave”. He was also a tremendously generous, warm-hearted individual and he will be greatly missed by all who knew him.
> Those who want to know more Les’s remarkable life should read this article and the watch the video of the medals’ presentation.