Episode 8: Their Finest Hour, The Battle Of Britain
The final instalment looks to the skies for the Battle of Britain and the RAF's struggle to prevent a Nazi invasion in the darkest days of World War II when Britain stood alone.
The Battle of Britain
by the Royal Air Force - Battle of Britain Memorial Flight
Of the 55,573 members of Bomber Command who lost their lives, it is important to remember that some 17000 of them were foreign nationals, many from far flung corners of the Empire who joined up to fight against Hitler’s awful tyranny. The vast majority were from the Empire: Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders, Indians and South Africans, but included Poles, Free French, Norwegians and Americans. Without their selfless sacrifice there can be no doubt that Bomber Command would not have been able to sustain such operational tempo.
Squadron Leader Les Munro during his service It has been my tremendous privilege to meet some of those who travelled across the world to fight for us in our hour of need and none more illustrious than Squadron Leader Les Munro CNZM,DSO,QSO,DFC,JP, the last surviving pilot from the Dams Raid. Les typifies those who came to the aid of the ‘Mother Country’ and I am sure that reading his words you will remember the debt that we owe to them all.
After the war, Les returned to his native New Zealand where he still resides, the father of 5, grandfather to 11 and recently a great-grandfather. We were honoured that he was able to join us last year for the 65th anniversary of the Dams Raid when he kindly agreed to write this introduction.
As a result of my attendance at the Derwent Dam function last year I met Al Pinner for the first time and again the next morning at Coningsby when I spent a very enjoyable 2-3 hours at the Memorial Flight. During those meetings with Al he asked if I would consider writing the introduction to this issue. This I feel privileged to do.
I had completed some 18 months of training, initially in Canada, gaining my wings and Commissioned on the same day, 27th February 1942, and following a fortnights leave and eight days at ‘Y’ Depot, Halifax, departing by sea for England on 20th March 1942. Training continued on Oxfords, Wellingtons, Manchesters and Lancasters until in December 1942 I was posted to 97 Squadron based at Woodhall Spa to undertake operations against Germany, the purpose for which I enlisted in the RNZAF on 17th April 1940.
I quickly got an introduction to main force bombing operations, of my next five operations four were to Essen(2) and Berlin(2) bombing from 21000 to 24500ft. It was the middle of winter and many of the trips were over ten tenths cloud with the resulting difficulty of seeing the target.
Les Munro It would have been about 20th March 1943 that the Squadron received a circular letter from 5 Group Headquarters calling for volunteers from crews nearing the end of their first tour of operations or commencing their second to form a new Squadron to undertake a special operation. No details of the latter were given. After discussing the circular with my crew it was agreed that I should volunteer. I did so with the result that we were on our way to Scampton on the 25th March 1943.
It was only a matter of days before all crews were undertaking intensive low level training involving cross country routes that generally included runs over the Lakes and Reservoirs of the Lake District. I had two close calls during training which could well have had disastrous results.
The first one was when flying down the North Sea at low level at night in rather hazy conditions when all of a sudden there appeared immediately ahead of us a convoy of ships. I quickly requested the Wireless Operator to fire off the colours of the day. In the light cast by the flares I could see a number of Barrage Balloons attached to the various ships by cables. I immediately pulled back on the control column and with the good fortune of “Lady Luck” went shooting up through the balloons and cables and cleared the convoy without hitting either. The convoy remained silent with the ships giving off a ghost like appearance.
The second one was when flying across the fen country southwest of the Wash a seagull was a bit slow in avoiding this monster intruding over its habitat and hit the front screen to my left of dead centre, smashed a hole in the screen and came through the cockpit like a cannon ball between the Flight Engineer and myself, hit the curtain shielding the Navigator’s compartment and ended up as a rather messy lump of flesh and feathers on the cockpit floor. Again luck was on my side! If it had hit the screen only a matter of about 18 inches to the left it would have hit my head and face with disastrous results. At the height at which I was flying maybe one crashed plane and no survivors!!
Les Munro The day of the Dams Raid arrived and for the majority of the crews the first indication of the target was when entering the briefing room and viewing the tapes on the wall. The actual target did not give much cause for concern but the fact that the route to the targets led through the heavily defended area of the Ruhr did. I was part of the Northern Wave of five aircraft with the Sorpe as our target. Our route was to fly due East across the North Sea and cross the Dutch Coast at the island of Vlieland. When flying down the Waddenzee side of the sand dunes of the coast my aircraft was hit by a single light shell which severed the intercom and electrical systems. Without communication at low level it was impossible to carry on and I made the decision to return to base and landed with my Upkeep still on board, but certainly not against orders as some Authors have alleged. The result of the Dams Raid has been well documented. Its success however was tinged with sadness at the loss of 8 planes and their crews.
On 30th August 1943 the Squadron moved to Coningsby and it was shortly afterwards, in fact on 14-15th September 1943 that occurred the disastrous operation on the Dortmund Ems canal when five planes were lost out of nine over the two nights, apart from the Dams Raid, the worst loss in the Squadron’s history.
It was at this point in the Squadron’s life that Leonard Cheshire took command of the Squadron. Leonard quickly gained my respect both as a man and a leader. It was not long following his arrival that a renewed sense of purpose and reason for being developed in the Squadron. In conjunction with Micky Martin, Cheshire introduced low level marking of targets by the Squadron with the result that the Squadron became highly efficient in destroying individual targets.
Les Munro Later I refer to the cosmopolitan make-up of the Squadron and this aspect is exemplified when it was restructured into three flights with Cheshire an Englishman as CO and three originals, McCarthy an American, Shannon an Australian, and myself a New Zealander as Flight Commanders. It later became known as the Cheshire era and I have always felt a great deal of satisfaction and pride in being part of that period .
Come D-Day and the Squadron carried out “Operation Taxable”, a spoof operation designed to simulate an invasion fleet on enemy radar screens and thus deceive the Germans into thinking the invasion of the continent was taking place in the general Cap d’Antifer area. It was a very important operation requiring strict adherence to airspeed, height, and course, any variation would be detected on the German radar screens and arouse suspicions.
Following D-Day the Squadron began using the 12000lb Tallboy, a smaller version of Barnes Wallis original concept of the grand slam which was used towards the end of the war. Early targets were the Saumur tunnel, and the U-boat and E-boat pens at Le Havre and Boulogne. It was on the Le Havre mission that I had the distinction of leading the Lancasters of the Squadron in formation on its first daylight operation.
It was only a month after D-Day that Cheshire, Shannon, McCarthy and I were taken off operations and so ended my operational career and my service on 617 Squadron. I have always maintained that the international and cosmopolitan make up of 617 was one of its strengths with its English majority strongly supported by men from the Commonwealth, Canada, Australia, Rhodesia and New Zealand and even two from the USA. In post war years that cosmopolitan make up resulted in a strong world wide Association with all members fiercely loyal to 617 Squadron’s history and their ties thereto.
On ceasing operations I was appointed CO of 1690 BDTF, and served in that capacity for 12 months during which I accumulated 200 hours on Hurricanes.
Squadron Leader Les Munro today Post War I have visited England on a number of occasions and each time I have had the opportunity to visit East Kirkby and go up to the cockpit of the Panton Bros Lancaster and be present when the engines were started up and listened to that never to be forgotten sound of four Merlin’s running up in unison. Also, last year I had the privilege for the second time of going up to the cockpit of the BBMF Lancaster at Coningsby. It is after such visits that I reflect back on the immediate Post War period and feel a deep sense of regret that little or no consideration was given by the powers that be to the retention and preservation of the various aircraft that served us so well during the Second World War. I believe that it is an indictment of the attitude of many that there are only two Lancasters flying in the world today. It has been a matter of great satisfaction to me that the BBMF have an airworthy Lancaster on its strength and to view it flying over the Derwent Reservoir on May 16th last year and even to be able to climb (struggling at my age) up to the cockpit brought back many memories of all those years ago! I congratulate both Ground and Aircrew of the Flight for their obvious enthusiasm and dedication in maintaining not only the Lancaster but the other planes of wartime vintage as well.
May the sight of the Lancaster, Spitfires, Hurricanes and Dakota of the BBMF over the towns and skies of the U.K. continue to give pleasure to its citizens for many years to come.
Source: Royal Air Force - Battle of Britain Memorial Flight