b. 11/05/1922 New Delhi. d. 31/05/1942 Bree, Belgium.
Leslie Thomas Manser (1922-1942) was born on 11th May 1922 in New Delhi, India , the son of T. J. S. Manser, a civil engineer in Post and Telegraphs. On the family’s return to England, he attended St Faith’s School, Cambridge and Cox’s House, Aldenham, Hertfordshire, when his family took up residence in Radlett, Hertfordshire. On leaving school Manser applied to enlist in the Army but was rejected. He next attempted to join the Royal Navy, only to be turned down again. Determined to “join the war”, he then applied to join the RAF and, to his delight, he was enlisted as a potential pilot on 14th August 1940.
Completing his initial training, he was commissioned as a Pilot Officer on 6th May 1941, and six days later went to the No 2 School of Air Navigation, Cranage; then joined No 14 OTU, Cottesmore for final operational training and crewing-up, flying Handley Page Hampden bombers. On 27th August he joined his operational unit, 50 Squadron, flying Hampdens from RAF Swinderby, and two nights later undertook his first operational sortie as second pilot to Pilot Officer Ford on a bombing raid against Frankfurt.
Flying six more sorties in the following 8 weeks, all in Hampdens, Manser was sent to 25 OTU, Finningley on 7th November 1941 for a month; then posted back to 14 OTU, Cottesmore on 9th December as an instructor. Impatient to return to operations, he applied to rejoin his squadron but, on 21st March 1942 was sent instead to 420 Squadron at Waddington – a Canadian unit operating Hampdens. His stay was brief, however, and on 3rd April, he finally rejoined 50 Squadron, now based at Skellingthorpe, Lincolnshire and in the throes of exchanging their Hampdens for the new Avro Manchester twin-engined heavy bombers.
The squadron’s first sortie with Manchesters came on 8th April, a mission to Paris dropping propaganda leaflets instead of bombs, in which Manser firsf flew the Manchester. He flew five further sorties in April and May but, like many other Manchester captains, had a few technical issues.
On 6th May, Manser was promoted to Flying Officer, and was being recognised as a skilled pilot and competent captain. During the last week of May came rumours of a “special” operation, though its objective was guesswork. By the morning of 30th May, 15 crews had been detailed on the night’s operations order, but these did not include Manser’s crew. Instead, he was told to go to RAF Coningsby and bring back two Manchesters to Skellingthorpe, and then prepare to stand by in readiness for possible last minute inclusion in the night’s task. When he returned with the Manchesters, he was included in the night’s attack on Cologne.
On 30th May 1942 over Germany, Flying Officer Manser was captain and first pilot of an Avro Manchester bomber (serial L7301/'D' -Dog) which took part in the first 1,000 bomber raid of the war; the raid being against the city of Cologne. He bombed the target successfully from 7,000 feet, but his aircraft was hit repeatedly, in an effort to escape he took violent evasive action, which reduced his altitude to 1,000 feet. By this time the rear gunner was wounded, the front cabin full of smoke and the port engine overheating. The port engine then burst into flames and took some time to extinguish, reducing airspeed to a dangerously low level. The crew made preparations to abandon the aircraft, by then barely controllable and a crash inevitable. The aircraft was by now over Belgium and Manser ordered the crew to bale out, but refused the offer of a parachute for himself. He remained at the controls and sacrificed himself in order to save his crew. As the crew parachuted down they saw the bomber crash in flames into a dyke at Bree, 21 km North east of Genk in Belgium.
With the exception of the navigator, Barnes, who injured himself when he came to earth and was taken prisoner, the other crew members were hidden by local villagers and taken to Liege. Within the next few weeks, they were smuggled to Gibraltar; from where they flew back to England. After their interrogation in England, the full story of Manser’s last endeavours to save his crew came to light, and he was posthumously awarded the VC on 20th October 1942. Manser was laid to rest in Heverlee War Cemetery, Leuven, Belgium.
The VC was presented to his widow at at investiture on 3rd March 1943; but in a small ceremony at RAF Waddington, attended by most of Manser’s crew, Cyril Manser, Leslie’s brother, presented the VC on loan to 50 Squadron. The medal eventually returned to the family and in 1992, at a Christie’s auction in London, was purchased by Michael Ashcroft, and now forms part of the Ashcroft Gallery at the Imperial War Museum.
LOCATION OF MEDAL: LORD ASHCROFT GALLERY, IMPERIAL WAR MUSEUM, LONDON.
BURIAL PLACE: HEVERLEE WAR CEMETERY, BELGIUM.
Leslie Manser's medal on display at Lord ashcroft Gallery, Imperial War Museum, London
Cemetery Plan courtesy of Kevin Brazier
PLOT VII, ROW G, GRAVE 1.
St Clements Danes Church, Aldwych-
Bomber Command, Lincoln (Brian Drummond)