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The Mohne Dam in North Rhine-Westphalia on May 17, 1943, after being bombed by the No. 617 Squadron of the RAF, better known as the Dambusters, during Operation Chastise. Photo discovered in German archives after the war.
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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:

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

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Write to Lily Rothman at

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