John Manners lived at Bearwater, Hungerford, for the last decade or so of his life. He was a popular raconteur and a keen member of the Hungerford Historical Association and the Hungerford Probus Club.
The following is based on information kindly supplied by John Manners's son Errol Manners, given as a tribute at the funeral service:
Born in 1914 into a naval family in the first months of the first world war. He was two years old when his father fought at the battle of Jutland. He went to Dartmouth as a cadet at the age of 13 and did tours of the West Indies as a midshipman before being sent to the China Station in 1937 Returning to England shortly after war was declared.
Early in the war he was appointed First lieutenant to Eglington then being built in Newcastle where he met my mother when she was acting in the Newcastle Repertory Company.
He wrote that that his family, coming from a staid line of empire builders, were rather intrigued about such an adventurous step. But my mother’s family had also served, and her father had been killed at Gallipoli just before she was born.
It was with the Harwich Escort force where his war really started.
Every two months they had a much-looked forward to boiler clean where the ship was out of action for 5 days and they knew roughly the time in advance, so they arranged to get married in London. To his surprise his father appeared at the wedding having just come into Liverpool with his convoy the day before. There they are in the picture on the back of the order of service.
His father, a retired admiral had been recalled to convoy duty at the outbreak of war. He completed 52 ocean convoys and was knighted for his services.
On their wedding night they booked into the Hyde Park Hotel and were having supper in the restaurant when there was an almighty earthquake. They were moved to the other side of the restaurant. They later learned that it was the second largest bomb to have been recovered unexploded, they would have been in the crater if it had gone off.
Six months after in Harwich a bomb destroyed the flat that they were renting whilst they were in the bathroom, the rest of the house collapsed, and he was reported killed only to turn up in his pyjamas at his ship! My mother lost all her clothes- a wartime tragedy! My sister Diana was christened in the upturned bell of the Eglington – burly coxswain grabbed her insisting it was his privilege seized her from my mother’s arms – she doesn’t seem to have suffered too much
His next appointment was to HMS Eskimo, their last first lieutenant had been washed overboard. Eskimo was one of sixteen tribal class destroyers built just before the war the best of their kind.
Eskimo joined the next great Malta convoy, Operation Pedestal, the biggest and most important of the war, it included two battle ships, 7 cruisers, 24 destroyers and three aircraft carriers. Everything was ranged against it, U-boats, fighter aircraft, bombers, they were determined to stop it. as they approached Sicily and the enemy airfields huge squadrons of bombers descended and torpedoes were everywhere, they suffered crippling losses, three damaged ships eventually staggered into Malta and then against all the odds the oil tanker OHIO limped in supplying fuel to the spitfires there for just long enough for the tide of war to turn in our favour.
Then he was back in Scapa Flow guarding the big ships when Churchill popped up to visit them. They realised something big was brewing, It was the convoy PQ 18 with about 40 vital merchant ships which had to be escorted to Russia, the formidable escort was under the command of Admiral Robert Burnett known throughout the Navy as ‘Bullshit Bob’. The Eskimo was one of 25 destroyers and the enemy was expecting them.
They were harried by U Boats and then there was what my father described as one of the most horrifying sights of the war when along the whole horizon, aircraft were flying just above the waves wing-tip to wing-tip below radar cover, this was the German ‘golden comb’ attack when each plane released two torpedoes, 110 in all, at the same moment. Eight ships were hit, a fifth of the convoy was lost. There were further attacks with further losses.
No washing or shaving for a fortnight, the surviving merchant ships limped into Murmansk. 43 ships set out of which 13 were sunk, so 30 arrived, that was considered a success.
Churchill called it the worst journey in the world.
After a rest they realised another big operation was brewing so they got all their artic gear together only to be sent to the Mediterranean! For Operation Torch and the Africa landings.
At one point they had to escort a mysterious “Mr Lion” to another ship to be taken to Malta for a morale boosting visit for a day. He was of course, the King.
Next was the Sicily Landings. Early one morning a bomber scored a direct hit on Eskimo making a neat hole in the upper deck about 3 or 4 yards away from my father and exploding in one of the fuel tanks causing huge flames to shoot up at each corner of the pom pom deck, he thought the end of the world had come!
Miraculously his crew survived but the flames shot along a passageway killing half the stern gun crew and the ammunition supply party.
The ships side was partly broken but the explosion had been cushioned by the fuel, the engines were out of action. The bomb killed 15 men and they were committed to the deep in accordance with the usual naval custom, my father conducted the burial service- the dead were lashed into their hammocks with a shell to weigh them down. A sloping mess table was rigged up on the quarter deck and they slid down to their watery graves.
There were also 15 further badly burned seamen who were landed as soon as they were towed into Malta, but all died of pneumonia a few days later.
His memoirs, like those of his brothers, tell you the facts, they don’t dwell on the awful reality behind them. The blood, the limbs, the smashed brains and the screams. They spare us that.
They managed to patch the ship together in Malta, my father took command of this semi-wreck and it limped back home via Gibraltar for some well-earned leave, he was mentioned in despatches.
He was then appointed to the Viceroy and joined the ‘Rosyth Escort Force’, protecting convoys along the east coast supplying London with munitions, fuel and food. Harried by E- boats and mines dropped by aircraft
In calm weather suddenly one of the merchant ships, the Athelstan, was rent by two explosions, too deep for mines so they guessed correctly it was a U-boat. They set off Depth charges set to exploded at 100 feet, they went in for a second and third attack then a fourth, the Athelstan meantime sank. There was some evidence of oil and a loud explosion.
Some days later they returned and dropped a further depth charge and a dingy container popped up containing 72 undamaged bottles of brandy! One bottle was put in a cask and sent to Winston Churchill. It was the last U Boat of the war to be sunk by a surface ship.
My father was awarded the distinguished Service Cross for this, for “gallantry, determination and skill while serving in HM ships”
As the war came to an end my father took Viceroy to Norway to disarm the German army there and crown prince Olaf was entertained in the wardroom.
Just last November my father was delighted to receive “the Norwegian Governments medal of commemoration 1939-1945” for his part in the liberation,
In 2012 The Russian Government too recognised his contribution on the Russian convoy by awarding him the Ushakov medal – the Russian ambassador kissed him on both cheeks and gave him a bunch of flowers and a bottle of vodka.
My father also played Hockey at club level and Rugby but it was cricket at which he really excelled, I have his albums and there is a wonderful match photo of the Admirals versus Dartmouth cadets in 1930 which shows my 16-year-old father seated next to Admiral of the Fleet, Lord Jellicoe. Victor of Jutland (which his father also fought in).
The cadets gave the admirals a good drubbing, Father scored the equal highest score of 38 not out and caught one of the admirals, Jellicoe was out for a duck- perhaps not a wise career move!
He played for the Hood in the West Indies and whilst serving on the Royal Yacht he was available for a season of cricket back in England.
He was selected for Hampshire playing his first game in August 1936, at the age of 21.
He scored 81 on his debut and in that year, he topped the Hampshire batting averages, the cricketer described him as ‘a bold and aggressive batsman who should go a long way if his early promise is fulfilled’.
But his Naval career intervened as he was sent out to the China Station. But before going he became a member of the MCC in 1937 as a playing member, strictly speaking you had to have played 12 first class matches and he had only played 7 or 8, they bent the rules- it would have been a brave clerk who refused as he was proposed by his father and sponsored by two other fighting admirals.
Perhaps not the worst of Adolf Hitler’s crimes was that he wrecked my father’s cricketing career!
He had saved up his leave so that he could have a good season of cricket in 1940 but war was declared, and my father missed ten consecutive summers of cricket, his prime years.
In 1947 After the war he finally played again for Hampshire against Kent scoring 121 in his first game, 11 years after his previous appearance, it was his only appearance that summer.
It was only when he was appointed Naval Liaison officer at Sandhurst that he could play with any regularity and then only 2 days a week here and there.
He played for the combined Services hitting 147 against Gloucester and the next summer he scored 123 against the New Zealanders and two years later 75 against the South Africans.
He was one of the last two amateurs to play for Hampshire.
He returned to sea in 1953 missing, to his great regret, a match against the Australians and played no more first -class cricket.
He continued to play in non-first-class matches for the Free Foresters, the Forty Club and MCC and in 1979 at the age of 63, he played his last game for the Wiltshire Queries.
Another significant achievement was the recording of disappearing country crafts. A project that started with articles in Country life and other journals and culminated in four books illustrated with his photos. His archive has been preserved at Reading University and in Scotland.
He loved travelling, touring the Balkans on a motorbike in the 1950s always with a jacket and tie and my mother on the back and I joined him on a wonderful seven week trip to Russia in 1974 by caravan, one of his regrets is that he never published his account of it.
After his wife, Mary’s, death he made an annual visit to Australia to escape the winter and continued travelling there alone until he was 103.
The Church was an anchor of his life until the end, and for many years he was Church Warden of St Peters in Great Cheverell.
After leaving the Navy he was Bursar of Dauntsey’s School.
Having lived so long, he was the last of many things, the last living destroyer commander of the war, the only remaining pre-war first-class cricketer and the senior member of the MCC. For many years he was allocated a special seat in front of the pavilion at Lords, a group of seats known as Death Row!
The following is based on the obituary published in The Times, 16 Mar 2020:
Lieutenant-Commander John Manners was a distinguished wartime naval commander and the oldest surviving first-class cricketer, commended for his dashing strokeplay.
In April 1945 John Manners was in command of the destroyer HMS Viceroy, protecting a convoy of merchant ships off the coast of Northumberland. Among them was SS Athelduke, carrying a cargo of 12,600 tons of molasses. Without warning, two explosions rocked Athelduke and she began to sink.
Suspecting that a German submarine was lurking near by, Manners took immediate action and Viceroy dropped her depth charges. After several large explosions oil was seen on the surface.
Several days later, Manners and Viceroy returned to the scene. Further exploratory depth charges yielded German documents and a grey cylinder containing 72 bottles of brandy. One was placed in a handmade wooden casket and sent to Winston Churchill, who appreciated the “interesting souvenir”. U-1274 was later confirmed as sunk. Manners was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his efforts but put it down to “a lot of teamwork”.
Born in Exeter in 1914, John Errol Manners was the son of Admiral Sir Errol Manners and Florence Maud (née Harrison). Descended from a long line of “empire builders”, as he put it, Manners followed his father into the Royal Navy, entering Dartmouth College at the age of 13.
Many of the attributes demanded of the cadets — tenacity, imagination, coolness, courage — might have applied equally to first-class cricketers. Manners would exhibit them both at sea and at the crease.
By the mid-1930s the young naval officer was well-regarded as an amateur cricketer. A promising right-hand batsman and seam bowler, Manners captained the Royal Navy side in a two-day match against the Army at Lord’s in July 1936. Although the tie ended in a draw, his performance caught the eye of Colonel Christopher Heseltine, president of Hampshire County Cricket Club, whose personal recommendation clinched a place for him in the side.
Manners made his first-class debut against Gloucestershire at the United Services Ground in Portsmouth, while serving on the Royal Yacht. He scored 81 runs before being dismissed by the off-spinner Reg Sinfield. “I cracked a ball hard into my foot,” he recalled, “and it trickled slowly back on to the stumps.” Over the following weeks Manners was selected for matches against an Indian touring side, as well as Surrey and Yorkshire, for whom Hedley Verity claimed nine wickets.
As an amateur, Manners could only play when his naval service allowed, and the outbreak of war meant an extended hiatus for his Hampshire career. His sister, Angela Cartwright, and his brothers Captain Rodney Manners and Lieutenant-Commander Errol Adrian “Sherard” Manners also served in the Royal Navy. Their father was made commodore of more than 50 ocean convoys.
When hostilities commenced, Manners was serving in HMS Birmingham, stationed at Singapore. Returning to Britain in early 1940, he was appointed first lieutenant of a new destroyer, HMS Eglinton. She was part of an escort force based at Harwich, responsible for protecting North Sea convoys against German mines and small surface craft known as E-boats amid the fog.
While stationed in the northeast, John met Mary Downes, an actress with the Newcastle Repertory Company. They would soon marry. He recalled that his family was “intrigued” by his “adventurous” choice. The wedding took place during a few days of hurried leave in October 1940, while Eglinton underwent boiler cleaning. John’s cricketing alter ego was surely pleased by the location of the ceremony: All Saints Church in St John’s Wood, barely a full toss from Lord’s.
During a one-day honeymoon at the Hyde Park Hotel, the couple had a narrow escape when a bomb landed near by but did not explode. Later that year the building in Harwich in which they rented a flat suffered a direct hit while Manners was on leave. Four people were killed but John and Mary climbed from the rubble unscathed.
In 1942 Manners transferred to the destroyer HMS Eskimo, in urgent need of a first lieutenant after the previous incumbent was swept overboard and drowned. In August he found himself thrust into one of the most notable episodes of the war at sea when Eskimo helped to protect a vital convoy of merchant ships laden with supplies and oil bound for Malta, dubbed Operation Pedestal. In the heat of the Mediterranean, amid constant danger from hundreds of attacking aircraft, submarines and surface craft, Manners spent days at action stations at one of the ship’s guns. He later admitted that “most of the time one did not know what the hell was going on”.
Fighting through some of the most ferocious attacks experienced by British sailors during the war, Eskimo helped to rescue 200 survivors from warships and merchantmen sunk by bombs and torpedoes. Only a few weeks later, Eskimo joined a convoy to Russia and the scorching sun was replaced by Arctic winds and ice.
While patrolling off Sicily after the Allied landings in the summer of 1943, Eskimo was hit by a bomb which passed through the upper deck only a few yards from Manners. “We were surrounded by a wall of flame,” he recalled, “and I thought the end of the world had come.” Once again, it was a lucky escape. He returned home to see his 20-month-old daughter for the first time in more than a year.
HMS Viceroy was Manners’s first permanent command, a First World War-vintage destroyer fitted with new weaponry. It meant a return to North Sea convoy duties for the final two years of the war, escorting shipping from the Firth of Forth to the Thames.
After VE Day Viceroy was sent to join Allied forces overseeing the German surrender in Norway before Manners was assigned to assist the naval personnel in the troopship Otranto on a long and uncomfortable voyage to Australia. Visiting family in Melbourne, Manners spent a fortnight on a sheep station in western Victoria, riding out to assist merino sheep stranded on tricky ground. After years of rationing, he enjoyed all the mutton he could eat.
During eighteen months in Australia, Manners took every opportunity to play cricket, including at the Sydney Cricket Ground. On one occasion he faced Stan McCabe, who scored a famous 232 during Australia’s tour of England in 1938. “The Australians thought us good chaps,” said Manners, “as long as we did not win.”
With the war over, and engaged in naval duties closer to home, Manners resumed his county career with perhaps his finest innings, scoring 121 for Hampshire against Kent at Canterbury in 1947, his only century in county cricket. Thereafter his availability was limited, although he continued to play for the Royal Navy and Combined Services sides, taking part in a dozen matches designated as first-class between 1948 and 1953, making 123 against New Zealand in 1949.
After his retirement from the navy in 1958, Manners was employed as bursar at Dauntsey’s School in Wiltshire for many years. A keen photographer, he was a contributor to Country Life and produced several books relating to country crafts in the 1970s and 80s. His collection of research and photography is held at the Museum of English Rural Life in Reading.
Manners continued to appear for several minor sides over subsequent years, once facing Colin Cowdrey while turning out for the Free Foresters. In 1979, at the age of 63, he wore his whites for Wiltshire Queries. After Mary died in 1995, Manners remained remarkably active well into his final years, often returning to Australia to visit one of his two daughters, Diana. The other was Julia, and he had a son, Errol.
Manners’s exploits on the cricket pitch remained a subject of enduring interest to cricket journalists, resulting in several articles in Wisden. An amateur from a bygone era, he owned only one pair of pads throughout his playing career. Over the course of 21 first-class matches between 1937 and 1953, he scored 1,162 runs, including four centuries.
“No player in Hampshire’s history is more intriguing,” said the cricket writer John Arlott. “Not only was he potentially prolific, but his strokeplay was brilliant.” In 2000 Manners became the oldest surviving first-class cricketer. He undoubtedly had a good innings.
Lieutenant-Commander John Manners, DSC, naval officer and cricketer, was born September 5, 1914. He died on March 7, 2020, aged 105.
- John Manners at the MCC Lords Cricket Ground, on his 100th Birthday 5 Sep 2014 (by Errol Manners)
- John Manners on the bridge (by Errol Manners)
- Depth charging U-boats (by Errol Manners)
- John Manners playing in the Royal Navy v Army at the MCC Lords Cricket Ground 1951 (by Errol Manners)
- John Manners at his wedding, Oct 1940 (by Errol Manners)