TRIBUTES have been paid to the last surviving Dambusters pilot after his death aged 96.
Les Munro was part of the famous 617 Squadron of the RAF which carried out the “bouncing bomb” raid to destroy dams in Nazi Germany during the Second World War.
Squadron Leader Munro died this morning in hospital in Tauranga in the Bay of Plenty in New Zealand, his friend Ron Mayhill said.
He was a “fine man” and will be much missed, Mr Mayhill, President of the New Zealand Bomber Command Association said.
He had been unwell for around a week but his death still comes as a shock, the 91-year-old added.
“This is a surprise and a real disappointment,” he told the Press Association.
“He was a fine man, not just because he was famous as part of the Dambusters but as a man and as a person he was a very fine person.
“He got decorations in civil as well as military life. He was a justice of the peace, he was a local councillor, he was a mayor.
“His life was all about service.”
The original crew of 617 Squadron carried drum-shaped bombs which bounced over water and exploded at the base of dam walls.
The squadron gained its epithet after its first raid, for which it was initially formed, to destroy dams in the Ruhr valley in Nazi Germany.
Today, RAF pilots fly at least 250ft above ground, but the original Dambusters flew at only 60ft, often at night.
Earlier this year Sqn Ldr Munro sold his medals to Tory peer Lord Ashcroft, with the money going towards the maintenance of the Bomber Command Memorial in London.
Speaking at the time he said: “I am content that I have achieved my goal of doing all I can to ensure that the men of Bomber Command who lost their lives during the Second World War will be remembered with pride for generations to come.”
He added that he had been “touched” by the interest generated from the sale.
In 2008 a Lancaster bomber, similar to the one used by the RAF’s 617 Squadron, flew over the Peak District to mark the squadron’s 65th anniversary.
Sqn Ldr Munro attended the flypast and said he was emotional as he returned to the Derwent valley where he relived memories of the daring raid.
He said: “In a way it’s very emotional. I’m not one to get emotional about things but it’s very nice to be back here. I’m very pleased to have had the opportunity to attend.
“It does surprise me that people of subsequent generations take part in things like this, but it’s up to the individual how they react.”
Sqn Ldr Munro, a grandfather, had a “special aura”, according to close friend Peter Wheeler.
“To lose someone is always difficult, but to lose someone like Les, who had a special aura, is pretty tough,” said the administrator for the New Zealand Bomber Command Association.
“In our association the youngest is 89. We look to people like Les and we think they are invincible. But we have a feeling in bomber command that they could have died 70 years ago.
“He was a great friend and he gave great service to the country, not only when he was in the air force. After the war he became a farmer, he was a councillor. He was always ready to give his time.”
Lord Ashcroft said: “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 warm-hearted individual and he will be greatly missed by all who knew him.
“I only had the privilege of getting to know Les late in his extraordinary life, but he was a wonderful character and, like so many brave war veterans, he was extremely modest about his courage and all his considerable achievements.
“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.”
New Zealand prime minister John Key also paid tribute to Sqn Ldr Munro, saying: “Really sad to hear of Les Munro’s death, New Zealand has lost a remarkable man who led a remarkable life.”
His death yesterday, from heart problems, leaves just two surviving crew members of the Dambusters raids - Canadian former front gunner Fred Sutherland, who served in the Royal Canadian Air Force and retired as a Flight Sergeant, and Briton George Johnson, a bomb aimer who retired as a Squadron Leader.