Les Manfield

Welsh rugby international
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The Independent Online

Les Manfield, rugby player and schoolteacher: born Mountain Ash, Glamorgan 10 November 1915; married (one son, one daughter); died Mountain Ash 2 November 2006.

The Welsh rugby international Les Manfield was one of the few players to represent his country on either side of the Second World War. He won the first of his seven caps in a victory against Scotland at the Arms Park, Cardiff, in February 1939, before heading out to Egypt to serve as a navigator in fighter planes.

He had the First World War fighter pilot Ira "Taffy" Jones to thank for getting him into the air. In 1939 Manfield became a PT instructor at RAF St Athan after giving up his job as a schoolteacher, but wanted to get into the thick of the action. Invited to play for an Ira Jones XV in a special rugby game at Richmond, Manfield greatly impressed his fellow countryman. "Is there anything I can do for you?" asked Jones after the game. "Get me into a bloody plane," said Manfield.

His 6ft 3in frame was more suited to playing at No 8 for Cardiff and Wales than to fitting into the cockpit of a fighter plane. So large was the man mountain from Mountain Ash that in training he had to put his parachute on his knees. His first assignment as a navigator was in Egypt with 104 Squadron. The crews stopped on the way at Malta and he got his briefing under the wing of the plane on the landing strip. "When you get to Cairo, turn right at the pyramids and the base is just in front of you." That base was the airstrip being built for the El Alamein push.

Manfield's time in Egypt was a mixture of bombing raids and special operations, flying secret agents behind enemy lines. There was also a bit of time for rugby. Just to prove the war had not blunted his playing skills, Manfield captained Cairo Welsh to a 22-3 St David's Day win over England in 1945 and a month later a 6-3 triumph over a Rest of the Empire XV at Alexandria.

Manfield hated the heat and the flies in Egypt and regularly resorted to reading from the Bible his mother had given him. On a raid over Tobruk on 5 October 1942, Manfield's plane had to turn back because the flak was so heavy. They weren't hit, but their second engine failed and they had to ditch into the Mediterranean. "It was like hitting a brick wall," recalled Manfield. All bar the rear-gunner emerged safely from the crash landing.

The four survivors found themselves in a dinghy in pouring rain and 15ft seas. To make matters worse, the fumes from the fuel made them violently sick and they found that the rations in the life-raft had been stolen. They were adrift for two days before being found by an MTB boat. Manfield was flying again within a couple of days. In a six-week period 104 Squadron lost 126 men.

His work with the Special Operations Unit earned Manfield the DFC in 1943, for his pinpoint accuracy in leading his pilots to the exact marks for the drops.

Less than a year after he had led Cairo Welsh to their victory over the Rest of the Empire, Manfield was facing the New Zealand Army side - for Wales at the Arms Park - although the 6-3 margin was reversed on this occasion. He also figured in five uncapped wartime internationals between 1940 and 1942 and seven "Victory Internationals" in 1946.

A schoolboy international from Mountain Ash Grammar School, Manfield had declined a trial for England to play for Wales. A hugely powerful player, he figured in the last two games Wales played before war was declared and then in the wins over the touring Australians for both club and country in the 1947/48 season. He played throughout Wales's 1948 championship campaign.

Manfield returned to teaching after the war, first at Cowbridge Grammar School, then at Mountain Ash Grammar School, where he ended as deputy headmaster.

Rob Cole