Last week I happened across a couple of rather heart-warming photographs of Les Munro, the last surviving pilot from the Dam-Busters raid 70 years ago this May, climbing aboard the world’s last flying de Havilland Mosquito, soon after it got back into the skies over New Zealand last autumn. Like many pilots, Munro flew both the Mosquito and the Lancaster during World War 2, and was happy to get reacquainted with his old charge.
Getting into a Mossie was never easy for the two-man crew, who had to clamber up a vertical ladder and through a hatch only a fraction bigger than they were. That this gentleman, now well into his nineties, should attempt the feat and then clearly relish the chance to get airborne was rather special, I thought.
This in turn reminded me of another special old gentleman I met at Grantham railway station back in the summer of 2009. I turned around and there was none other than Richard Todd, wartime paratroop leader and star of countless matinees from the 1950s which, like any child of the Seventies, I would watch on the sofa when home from school.
Wearing what was clearly a ‘uniform’ of smart tweeds with a mustard-coloured waistcoat, he was still instantly recognisable as the hero of those monochrome adventures. We were also the only two people on the platform, and he seemed to welcome a bit of company.
We got chatting about this and that – he was waiting to collect a friend who was coming to lunch – when conversation turned quite naturally towards his best-loved role: that of Wing Commander Guy Gibson, leader of the Dam-Busters raid. And what, I asked, did he think of the forthcoming remake of the film by Lord of the Rings maestro, Peter Jackson?
“Nothing printable!” he chuckled. “Did you know that he’s building these Lancasters out of plastic… in China? You simply can’t tell that story the way it was any more. We didn’t have computer effects but we did have real Lancs – and of course there’ll be no Nigger!” At that moment the train arrived, and the great man beetled off in search of his friend. He died that same December from a cancer that he was already no doubt confronting when we met, although he was not the sort of person to let such an affliction show in public.
Mr. Todd would be astonished that we are still awaiting Peter Jackson’s remake of The Dam-Busters, some four years later. Much of the delay is because his retelling of The Hobbit has swollen to become a trilogy of high-tech movies, but there have been other reasons… not least in finding the best way to deal with Nigger – the name that Gibson, like many thousands of others, gave to his beloved black Labrador and which plays such a key role in the Dam-Busters story.
At long last, however, Jackson has built up one of his ten full-size Lancasters in all its Chinese plastic glory on a New Zealand airfield and is testing new camera equipment on it for his film. Meanwhile the script writer, British wit and Dam-Busters fanatic Stephen Fry, has indicated that a compromise has been reached on renaming Gibson’s dog. It seems that Guy Gibson himself would often shorten it to ‘Nigsy’ and this will be acceptable to all parties, so the Dam-Busters may well return in time to mark 70 years since VE Day in 2015.