Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris, in charge of Bomber Command, had long argued that heavy bomber attacks were sufficient to win the war without troops on the ground. He had begun to demonstrate the destructive power of his force, with the relatively modest success at Lubeck which had led to the ‘Baedecker’ raids. He now wanted to take his plan to the next level.
There remained the problem of the first-class target, the major industrial town round which the enemy was bound to concentrate effective and heavy defences. So far all that the Lubeck and Rostock attacks had proved was that we could saturate the passive defences of a town by concentration of attack; it remained to be seen whether the active and passive defences of a vital industrial area could be similarly overcome.
I was convinced that a force of 250-300 aircraft was wholly inadequate to saturate the then existing defences of a major industrial town of half a million or more inhabitants. But if we attacked with a larger force, supposing that we could get one, should we be able to organise it in such a way as to get a really high concentration over the target?
The means to overcoming the defences was to employ an unprecedented number of aircraft. Harris thought he could find them.
At the time Churchill was under pressure to open a second front to take pressure off the Russians. Harris briefed Churchill that Bomber Command was now approaching the position where they could inflict serious damage on Germany – provided they threw everything at it. Churchill agreed with the plan as a means of demonstrating that Britain was hitting back directly at Germany. The scheme was not without significant risks, risks that Churchill was prepared to accept – he acknowledged that a casualty rate of 10% might be sustained.
So on the 30th May 1942 the RAF launched the first of the ‘thousand bomber’ raids, a devastating attack on the city of Cologne in which more than a 1000 aircraft were deployed.
In the event the casualty rate was much lower than feared. The figure of over 1000 aircraft was only achieved by using every available aircraft in Bomber Command including those in the Training wing, with partially trained crew.
Amongst the crews taking part this night was 20 year old Flying Officer Eric Manser who was piloting Avro Manchester L7301. This aircraft was lacking a mid upper turret and was considered a ‘second line’ aircraft. Nevertheless it was pressed into service on this night to make up the numbers. The crew were supplied with two gas operated Vickers Machine Guns which they were supposed to poke through the skin of the aircraft if they came under fighter attack from above. In the event they were not needed – but the aircraft fell victim to flak.
Flying Officer Manser was captain and first pilot of a Manchester aircraft which took part in the mass raid on Cologne on the night of May 30th, 1942.
As the aircraft was approaching its objective it was caught by searchlights and subjected to intense and accurate anti-aircraft fire. Flying Officer Manser held on his dangerous course and bombed the target successfully from a height of 7,000 feet.
Then he set course for base. The Manchester had been damaged and was still under heavy fire. Flying Officer Manser took violent evasive action, turning and descending to under 1,000 feet. It was of no avail. The searchlights and flak followed him until the outskirts of the city were passed. The aircraft was hit repeatedly and the rear gunner was wounded. The front cabin filled with smoke; the port engine was over-heating badly.
Pilot and crew could all have escaped safely by parachute. Nevertheless, Flying Officer Manser, disregarding the obvious hazards, persisted in his attempt to save aircraft and crew from falling into enemy hands. He took the aircraft up to 2,000 feet. Then the port engine burst into flames. It was ten minutes before the fire was mastered, but then the engine went out of action for good, part of one wing was burnt, and the air-speed of the aircraft became dangerously low.
Despite all the efforts of pilot and crew, the Manchester began to lose height. At this critical moment, Flying Officer Manser once more disdained the alternative of parachuting to safety with his crew. Instead, with grim determination, he set a new course for the nearest base, accepting for himself the prospect of almost certain death in a firm resolve to carry on to the end.
Soon, the aircraft became extremely difficult to handle and, when a crash was inevitable, Flying Officer Manser ordered the crew to bale out. A sergeant handed him a parachute but he waved it away, telling the non-commissioned officer to jump at once as he could only hold the aircraft steady for a few seconds more. While the crew were descending to safety they saw the aircraft, still carrying their gallant captain, plunge to earth and burst into flames.
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
The citation for the Victoria Cross awarded to Flying Officer Leslie Thomas Manser 66542 Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve (Deceased) No. 50 Squadron.
All of his crew parachuted to safety, only one of them was taken prisoner whilst the others evaded capture and made it back to Britain. It was their testimony that led to the award of the V.C. in October 1942.