The last surviving pilot from the mission has died. Here's why his work mattered
The last living pilot who participated in the Dambusters operation in May of 1943 died on Tuesday, the BBC reports. Les Munro, a New Zealander who continued to take to the skies even in old age, was an impressive survivor from the start: the renowned World War II mission—in which Royal Air Force planes attacked German dams—sent out more than 100 flight crew, of whom only about half returned. (Two non-pilot crew members survive today.)
But why was that particular mission so important?
As TIME reported in the week that followed, the mission was “one of the most daring and profitable exploits of the air war against Germany” because the industrial region around the Ruhr valley was seriously hurt after the loss of the dams caused the river to flood:
The biggest damage was done to railway communications. Actual industrial damage was secondary but no less important: entire townships of workers’ homes rendered completely uninhabitable; power stations destroyed; telephone and power lines ripped out; water supplies for the big industries reduced for at least a year, until the dams could be repaired and the reservoirs refilled after the slack water season.
The bombing of the dams was no stunt by the R.A.F., but the result of careful planning and painstaking training. There were three reasons why it has not been done before: 1) the logical time was when the rivers were in flood, the dams full, the dry season approaching; 2) big four-engined planes were needed, flown by experienced crews who had had weeks of specialized training and study of the target (bombing the dams was pinpoint work from the lowest altitude); 3) for maximum effect, flood disaster had to be carefully timed in the Allies’ general bombing program. Experts considered that the best moment was when really heavy bombing had already disorganized Ruhr industry to a substantial extent, and when rescue and construction services were already overstrained.
About a decade later, the work of Munro and his compatriots was illustrated by the British movie The Dam Busters. The real hero of the movie, TIME noted in its review, was a new type of bomb that, if dropped at the right height and speed, would “bounce for 600 yards along the water to the dam wall, sink 30 feet and detonate.”
Read more from 1943, here in the TIME Vault: Loosing the Flood