Born in Carlton and raised in Glenferrie, Leslie Howard Manning was the youngest of five children. The son of a Flinders Lane rag trader, Les was brought up by his mother Elsie after losing his father to illness when he was three years old. A student at Murrumbeena Primary School, at 14 he left school to help supplement the family’s income as the Great Depression took its toll, finding employment in local factories before working in his uncle’s Malvern bakehouse.
As a youngster his greatest joy was to head to Punt Road to barrack for the Richmond Football Club and his love of ‘the Tigers’ would be a lifelong passion. In the late 1930s he married. For a time he and his wife Molly were employed as live-in domestic staff by the Lord Mayor of Melbourne, before their son Huan was born in 1938.
On 14 October 1939, Les enlisted. He was 26. As one of the original volunteers of the second AIF, and a member of the 2/7th Infantry Battalion, in April 1940, he left Melbourne for the Middle East. The 2/7th went into battle for the first time in January 1941 as Britain took the attack to the Italians in the Western Desert and the battalion later saw action at Bardia and Tobruk.
By mid-April 1941 Les was in Greece. The 2/7th had joined other Australian units as part of ‘Lustre Force’ – the Allies’ ultimately doomed campaign to defend Greece from invasion by Germany. Within days of their arrival, having been deployed to Thessaloniki, the 2/7th joined the Allied withdrawal as German forces pushed south. Les was evacuated from Kalamata on 27 April with most of his battalion on the transport Costa Rica. The ship, crammed with hundreds of troops, was bombed and sunk off Crete. Les and his fellow diggers were among those saved by accompanying destroyers. Originally en route to Alexandria in Egypt, they were taken to Crete to bolster the island’s defences.
In anticipation of the island’s invasion, the 2/7th was deployed to defend the northern coast near Souda Bay. The invasion of Crete began on 20 May with German airborne forces quickly overrunning the island’s defenders in the west. As the battle unfolded, a counterattack involving the 2/7th on the outskirts of Chania 27 May momentarily halted the German advance. The ‘Battle of 42nd Street’ as it came to be known bought time for thousands of troops to begin crossing the White Mountains to the evacuation beach on Crete’s south coast. Having fought in the rearguard, Les’s battalion would be the last to reach the beach and were unable to escape.
As the Germans rounded up the thousands of troops that remained at the evacuation point after the Allied surrender on 1 June, like many left behind, rather than throw in the towel, he headed into the hills with two mates, keen to avoid capture. After six days on the run, after an unsuccessful effort to commandeer a small boat, he was captured.
So began four years of grim incarceration; first in the Skines POW camp on Crete, before being transported via Athens and Thessaloniki by train in overloaded cattle trucks to Stalag XIIIC, near Hammelburg in Bavaria. Made to work in nearby towns, the ‘lost years’ saw Les assigned to hard labour on farms, mines and railways, with infrequent Red Cross parcels offering the only glimpse of hope. Les’ POW camp was liberated by American forces in April 1945.
Two months later Les returned to Melbourne to pick up the pieces of his life. He found employment – as a security guard in the Elizabeth Street office of the State Savings Bank of Victoria, but he also found his marriage was over, and estrangement from his son would follow.
Les healed, and in 1953 he married again, to Alma Deering – the love of his life. With the money he had saved from his demobilisation, he purchased a plot of land in Bentleigh and built a home at 53 Richards Street. Son Gary was born in 1954 and a daughter, Lynda, followed two years later. In 1957, the same year as the birth of his second daughter Wendy, Les was offered the job of caretaker for the State Savings Bank, and by the late 1950s the family had moved to Malvern.
After working for more than 30 years for what became the State Bank of Victoria, in retirement he played bowls, savoured the fortunes of his beloved Richmond Football Club, and was an active member of the 39ers Association. In 1989 he and Alma moved to the Wantirna Retirement Village in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs.
In recent years, as one of the dwindling number of Victorian veterans of the Battle of Crete, Les became an adopted and much-loved honorary member of Melbourne’s Cretan community and was a regular guest of honour at the Cretan Village at Wantirna. He described his connection with the Melbourne Greek community as one of the most precious experiences of his life.
Remembered by his children and grandchildren as a modest, loving and supportive father and grandfather, with a unique and quirky sense of humour, the importance of family to Les was absolute. He will be sorely missed by all who knew him.
Les Manning died on 18 October at the age of 104 at Knox Private Hospital. He is survived by his wife Alma, children Gary, Lynda and Wendy, and six grand-children. He is also survived by his son Huan.
Les’s funeral and memorial service will take place on Friday 10 November at Alison Monkhouse Funeral Home, cnr Burwood Highway and Stud Road, Wantirna at 2.00 pm.