Air Marshal Sir Alfred Ball DSO DFC
Born: January 18th 1921, Rawalpind, India. Died: January 25th 2012 Age 91
One of the RAF’s outstanding reconnaissance pilots in WW2 and later filled senior national and international appointments.
Ball joined No 1 Photographic Reconnaissance Unit (PRU) in May 1941. His early targets were the Channel ports, but he was soon ordered to photograph targets deep inside Germany in his single-engine, unarmed Spitfire.
In October that year he took off for the Continent but flew into a thunderstorm. At 25,000ft the aircraft became uncontrollable and, when he attempted to bale out, the canopy jammed.
Such was the turbulence that he was thrown through the canopy; recovering consciousness at 3,000ft, he opened his parachute and landed in Norfolk.
A month later his unit was ordered to Cornwall to fly daily sorties to Brest to monitor Scharnhorst and Gneisenau.
The German fighter force became familiar with the tactics of the high-flying Spitfires and set up patrols to intercept them.
Ball — always prepared to be innovative — devised his own tactics to deal with the threat and on the afternoon of February 11 1942 photographed the German capital ships still at Brest — the last sighting of them before they sailed a few hours later on their audacious “Channel Dash” home.
From Cornwall he flew sorties to the Spanish border photographing the French Biscay ports.
Assessed as an exceptional reconnaissance pilot, he was awarded a DFC.
On promotion to squadron leader, Ball was made commanding officer of No 4 PRU and in October 1942 left for Gibraltar to provide support for Operation Torch.
Within days his unit was flying operations from Maison Blanche in Algeria and encountering the latest German high-performance aircraft.
Losses to the enemy mounted, and the 22-year-old Ball sought a meeting with Air Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder, the Air C-in-C, to plead for the latest Spitfires. Tedder listened patiently, then dismissed Ball and told him to carry on. A few days later three of the latest Spitfires arrived.
Early in 1943 Ball was sent to photograph a crucial target in Tunisia prior to a large-scale attack by the Army.
When he was at 24,000ft four Focke Wulf 190s closed in on him, and he repelled eight attacks before he finally escaped. He was forced to land his damaged aircraft at a forward airfield, where he commandeered a Spitfire and flew back to base with his film. Within hours, the Army mounted a successful attack.
For his work in North Africa, Ball was awarded a DSO and a US Air Medal.
The DSO citation described him as a “fine leader who displayed brilliant airmanship”.
The only child of Captain JAE Ball, MC, chief engineer of the Bengal Nagpur Railway, Alfred Henry Wynne Ball was born at Rawalpindi on January 18 1921. He was educated at Campbell College, Belfast, before going to the RAF College Cranwell in 1939. Having seen his parents only rarely, he grew up self-sufficient and independent-minded — characteristics that were to be evident throughout his life.
Commissioned in December 1939, he completed his training as an Army co-operation pilot before joining No 13 Squadron in northern France.
After the Blitzkrieg on May 10 1940, he flew road searches but soon realised that employing peacetime techniques in the face of intense German fighter activity was suicidal, and flew the rest of his sorties at treetop height.
After suffering heavy losses, the squadron’s Lysanders were withdrawn to England, but Ball had to find his own way back; he commandeered a lorry, and, with 20 airmen aboard, drove to Cherbourg, from where they escaped by ship.
Ball volunteered for the photographic reconnaissance role, which required experience on the Spitfire.
He therefore persuaded a friend to allow him to fly three sorties, and at his interview told the squadron commander he was an “experienced Spitfire pilot”. To his surprise and delight, he was accepted.
After returning from North Africa in July 1943, Ball was given command of No 542 Squadron, equipped with Spitfires and based at Benson in Oxfordshire.
His most urgent task was to photograph the building of the V-1 launch sites in the Pas de Calais.
Before the Normandy invasion he photographed enemy dispositions and movements and, after the landings, identified targets ahead of the Army’s advance into Germany.
On his final Spitfire sortie, his engine failed when he was at 38,000ft over Cologne.
Ball was able to coax the engine into giving short bursts of power during the long glide to England, and he broke cloud at 600ft over the Thames Estuary, scraping into the airfield at Eastchurch.
On promotion to Wing Commander in September 1944, he took command of No 540 Squadron to fly Mosquitos to targets in Norway and deep inside Germany.
On October 7 1944 Lancaster bombers attacked a vital dam on the Rhine just north of the Swiss border, and Ball was sent to photograph the damage.
As he flew over the target at 200ft he was attacked by four fighters, later reporting: “We held our own to begin with, but soon things got a bit tricky. I decided to disappear into the Swiss mountains.”
This appeared to work, so he ventured out again; but the fighters were waiting, and he ducked back into Switzerland. He then tried to give the impression of departing by flying west, using the hills to mask his route. The ruse failed, and the German pilots closed in for another attack — so Ball made his third detour into Switzerland. Eventually he managed to escape and return to base.
Ball remained with No 540 for the rest of the war, flying into eastern Germany to photograph rail traffic and troop movements in addition to regular sorties to Norway, photographing U-boat sanctuaries.
At the end of the war he was mentioned in despatches for a second time.
In January 1946 Ball left for the Middle East to take command of No 680 Squadron (later No 13). Flying Mosquitos, the squadron carried out survey work over Palestine, Egypt and Iraq.
On one occasion, while Ball was in Haifa, terrorists sprayed the room he was in with machine-gun fire, but he escaped injury.
After converting to the Canberra jet in 1953, Ball commanded the reconnaissance wing at Wyton, taking a Canberra to the Pacific to monitor an American atomic test, and flying photographic sorties along the East German border.
After a period at HQ Bomber Command and on the British Defence Liaison Staff in Washington, he was appointed in February 1962 to command the V-bomber base at Honington, Suffolk, flying the Valiant and the Victor.
On promotion to Air Commodore in November 1964, Ball left for Aden as air officer administration.
His arrival coincided with a significant increase in terrorism, which included attacks against civilians, and security issues occupied much of his time.
It was also announced that British forces would leave their large base in two years time, and Ball became deeply involved in the early stages of planning a very complex withdrawal operation.
On leaving Aden at the end of 1966 he was appointed CB.
After attending the Imperial Defence College, he held a series of senior appointments at the MoD. He was Assistant Chief of Staff of the Automatic Data Processing Division at SHAPE Headquarters in Belgium.
In 1975 Ball left for Ankara to take up the post of UK Representative of the Permanent Military Deputies Group at the Central Treaty Organisation (CENTO).
With some member countries facing political and economic difficulties, political guidance for military planning had, for a number of years, been lacking. Ball aimed to improve this situation, and made some progress, notwithstanding the withdrawal of British forces from the region.
On his return he was expecting to retire, but the untimely death of a senior RAF colleague resulted in his appointment for two years as Deputy C-in-C at RAF’s Strike Command, where he supervised the day-to-day activities of the many operational units.
He was appointed KCB in 1976.
After retiring in 1979, Ball spent four years as military affairs adviser with International Computers.
He maintained close links with his wartime photographic reconnaissance colleagues and rarely missed the annual reunions at Benson.
He was particularly proud to be Honorary Air Commodore of No 2624 (County of Oxford) Royal Auxiliary Air Force RAF Regiment Squadron.
Of slim build and always immaculately dressed, Ball was a man of great energy. Known to his staff as ‘Fiery Fred’, he could be a hard taskmaster – but he was equally hard on himself.
He had a strong sense of humour, was good company, and showed skill on the golf course and at the bridge table.
He married, in 1942 (10 weeks after they met), Nan MacDonald. She died in 2006, and he is survived by their daughter, and by their sons, all three of whom served as officers in the RAF.
Reprinted with the kind permission of the Daily Telegraph obituaries column.
If you have additional information or photographs to add to this Obituary please contact us.
We also seek to commemorate all those not published by The Daily Telegraph and would be pleased to receive your contributions.
Article prepared by Barry Howard.