Born in New Delhi in 1922, Flying Officer Leslie Thomas Manser, (66542) posthumously earned himself the Victoria Cross for an act of bravery in his Avro Manchester, over Cologne on the night of May 30th, 1942.
As a young child, he moved with his family to Radlett, Hertfordshire, England, was educated at St. Faith’s, Cambridge and Cox’s House Aldenham, Hertfordshire. Following this, he decided to join the Armed Forces. Attempts to enlist in both the Army and Royal Navy were unsuccessful, however, in August 1940, he approached the Royal Air Force and was quickly accepted.
Manser was commissioned as a pilot officer in May the following year and after further training, was posted on 27th August to 50 Sqn at RAF Swinderby, Lincolnshire, operating Hampdens.
His first experience of war, came very quickly. As a copilot, he was to join over 100 other aircraft in the Frankfurt raid only two days after his arrival. Further action saw him fly over prestigious targets such as Berlin, Hamburg and Karlsruhe before being posted twice to Finningly and then back to Swinderby, this time as an instructor.
Following a brief service with No. 420 (R.C.A.F.) Sqn, again on Hampdens, Manser returned to 50 Sqn, this time operating from Skellingthorpe, Lincolnshire. It was here that he experienced for the first time, the ill-liked Heavy Bomber, the Avro Manchester. Manser flew a number of missions on this type including a leaflet drop over occupied Paris on April 8th. His skill as a pilot soon earned him promotion to the rank of Flying Officer just five days before his 20th birthday on May 6th 1944.
With high losses and increasing ‘failures’, bomber command was coming in for its own criticism and despite some success, Harris was making enemies at home as well as overseas. It was now that he created his master plan “The Thousand Plan” code named ‘Operation Millennium’. This would involve over 1,000 British bombers, attacking one major German city in a single night. Churchill, impressed with the idea, gave Harris full support and the wheels of Operation Millenium were put in motion. Aircraft and crews were pulled from every available source, many being taken from training units where crews were only partially trained and inexperienced.
Orders were finalised on 26th May, and an initial date for the attack set for the night of the 27/28th May, the target would be Bremen. However, continued unfavourable weather conditions made Harris’s first choice unsuitable and then at midday on the 30th May, 1942, Harris issued the order to strike, that night, against his second choice of target – Cologne.
The immense armada, which consisted of: Whitleys, Wellingtons and Hampdens, Stirlings, Halifaxes, Manchesters and Lancasters made up a force of 1,046 bomber aircraft along with an assortment of night fighters in support.
On the morning of 30th, Manser and another pilot were instructed to collect two Manchesters from Coningsby, Lincolnshire. As many of these aircraft were drawn from reserves and training squadrons, it was inevitable that many would be in poor condition. Manser’s was no exception, it had no mid upper turret and a sealed escape hatch.
When the order came and Manser took off, his aircraft L7301 ‘D’ Dog, an Avro Manchester Mk1, with a full bomb load of incendiaries, was now difficult to manoeuvre and he was unable to reach an altitude of more than about 7,000 ft. Hoping the main bomber force would attract the greater concentration of flak, he decided to continue on.
They soon arrived over the target area and being lower, they were subjected to an immense barrage of anti-aircraft fire. Many of these shells struck the aircraft causing fires within the fuselage and the port engine. Careful nursing and a cool head by Manser, enabled them to eventually extinguish the fire which had now spread along the entire wing.
Struggling to maintain any height and keep the aircraft airborne, the crew threw out whatever they could to lighten the load. with little power, the aircraft lost considerable height and Manser finally ordered the crew to bail out. Knowing his crew would not survive jumping as the aircraft swung and moved awkwardly, he fought to maintain level flight for as long as possible. Refusing his own parachute over his crew’s safety, he held it just long enough for them to get out. The bomber finally crashed a few miles from the Dutch border near to Bree 13 mi (21 km) north-east of Genk in Belgium and burst into flames with Manser at the controls, he was just 20 years old. Manser’s bravery came out following debriefing of the crew members, five of the six having made it home through the resistance network.
Manser’s crew on that flight were:
Sergeant Baveystock (2nd Pilot)
Pilot Officer Horsley (Wireless Operator)
Sergeant Naylor (Rear Gunner)
Flying Officer ‘Bang On’ Barnes (Navigator / Bomb Aimer – Captured following jumping at low-level)
Sergeant King (Second Wireless Operator)
Sergeant Mills (Front Gunner)
Leslie Manser’s courage and self-sacrifice led to him being posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross. On 23rd October 1942. The citation for the VC read:
“In pressing home his attack in the face of strong opposition, in striving, against heavy odds, to bring back his aircraft and crew and, finally, when in extreme peril, thinking only of the safety of his comrades, Flying Officer Manser displayed determination and valour of the highest order.”
Other members of the crew: Barnes, Horsley, Baveystock, Mills and Naylor all received immediate awards of the Distinguished Flying Cross or Distinguished Flying Medal.
Today Manser’s memory lives on. A Primary School (The Leslie Manser Primary School) was opened in 1981 on what was the old RAF Skellingthorpe airfield. On 31st June 2004, a Memorial to F/Off. Leslie Manser was unveiled in Stamprooierbroek near Molenbeersel, Kinrooi in the north-east of Belgium. He is buried at Heverlee War Cemetery Leuven, Flemish Brabant (Vlaams-Brabant), Belgium. Plot: 7.G.1.
Manser’s VC is on display in the Lord Ashcroft Gallery at the Imperial War Museum, London.
The following personal message from Sir Arthur Harris was sent to Leslie Manser’s Father:
Accept from me personally and on behalf of my Command and my Service, Salutations upon the signal honour, so well indeed merited, which his Majesty the King has seen fit to confer upon your gallant son. No Victoria Cross has been more gallantly earned. I cannot offer you and yours condolence in personal loss in circumstances wherein your son’s death and the manner of his passing must so far surmount, by reason of the great services he rendered this country and the last service to his crew, all considerations of personal grief. His shining example of unsurpassed courage and staunchness to death will remain an inspiration to his Service and to him an imperishable memorial.
Arthur T. Harris Air Marshal R.A.F.”