Air Commodore Ronald 'Ras' Berry: Battle of Britain Veteran
May 3 1919 - September 2000
Spitfire pilot who at the height of the Battle of Britain shot down three Messerschmitts in one day
AIR COMMODORE RONALD 'RAS' BERRY, who has died aged 83, made his reputation as a Battle of Britain fighter pilot, shooting down three Messerschmitts in a day.
In 1940 Berry, still only 23, was with No 603 Squadron, equipped with Spitfires, when it was ordered south as losses in the Battle of Britain mounted. On August 31 he was on the second scramble of the morning, and found himself "in the thick of a mass of wheeling, milling Me 109s, which were protecting their big brothers, the Heinkel and Dornier bombers.
"The squadron split up and in seconds I was in a dogfight with a 109. The turn got tighter. The question was which of us would straighten up - would the 109 roll over and disappear or stay long enough for me to get a bead on him? He left it too late. I got in a long burst, then another, and he burst into flames . . . Another 109 crossed below and in front. I rolled over and followed him. He never saw me.
'I gave him a long burst as I closed rapidly on his tail. There was a long trail of smoke and flame and he went straight into the ground.' Berry was scrambled again in the early evening, and spotted 'a large beehive of fighters around a straggling clutter of bombers and some flashes on the ground where bombs were falling'.
'Mad after seeing those bombs fall,' Berry chased a 109 heading east and shot it down on to mudflats at Shoeburyness, Essex. Circling, he saw the pilot standing beside his wrecked aircraft and shaking his fist. This, Berry noted afterwards, was 'a satisfactory ending to an eventful day'. For this action he was awarded the DFC and was hence known as 'the mighty atom'.
Ronald Berry was born in Hull on May 3 1917. After attending Hull Technical School he joined the City Treasurer's department and learned to fly in his spare time with the RAF Volunteer Reserve. After the outbreak of war his first posting, in November 1939, as a volunteer reserve sergeant pilot, was to 603 (City of Edinburgh) Squadron, based at Turnhouse in Scotland.
Flying with this dashing Auxiliary Air Force unit, made up mostly of peacetime weekend fliers, Berry began to hone his skills in some of the Second World War's earliest fighter actions. He was soon commissioned as a pilot officer. Shortly after the action for which he won the DFC, Berry was given weekend leave to marry in Hull on Saturday and honeymoon in London during Sunday air raids before resuming operations at Hornchurch on Monday.
Towards the end of the year, he had the unexpected experience of encountering the Italian Air Force on one of its rare and costly excursions over Britain and shooting down a Fiat CR 42 biplane fighter off Dover. Following the Battle of Britain, Berry was rested as fighter controller at Turnhouse.
In 1941 he was promoted squadron leader and at Hornchurch took command of No 81 Squadron, whose pilots had returned from Murmansk after leaving their Hurricanes as a gift for the Russians whom they had been training. The squadron was re-equipped with Spitfires and carried out offensive sweeps across the Channel.
From November, it covered the Operation Torch landings in north-west Africa. Based at Maison Blanche, Algiers, it supported the subsequent campaign. Berry then took over No 322 Wing comprising Nos 81, 152, 154, 232 and 242 Spitfire squadrons.
By the close of the Tunisian campaign in May 1943, he had accumulated a score of 14 enemy aircraft destroyed, 10 shared, nine probables, 17 damaged and seven destroyed on the ground. He was awarded a Bar to his DFC, and then a DSO.
Berry concluded his wartime service as wing commander flying at a Spitfire operational training unit. He was recognised as one of the leading fighter pilots of his day. After the war, he formed the Central Fighter Establishment at Tangmere, commanded RAF Acklington and served at No 12 Group as wing commander operations.
In 1947, Berry took command of the Air Fighting Development Unit at West Raynham. In the early 1950s, he was posted on an exchange to the United States Air Force with which he flew many types at the air proving ground. He returned as wing commander plans at Fighter Command and in 1954 attended the Joint Services Staff College.
When the former fighter leader, Air Chief Marshal Sir Harry Broadhurst was appointed to lead Bomber Command, he sent for Berry to command No 543, one of the new Valiant nuclear deterrent squadrons. Along with other former Fighter Command stars, Berry spearheaded Broadhurst's effort to give, as he noted, 'a jerk to Bomber Command by bringing in a few fighter people like myself'.
In 1959 Berry was appointed director of operations navigation and air traffic control at the Air Ministry. In 1965, Berry was one of 13 serving group captains and one air commodore who had fought in the Battle of Britain chosen to march at the head of Sir Winston Churchill's funeral procession.
Reclaimed in this period by Bomber Command he briefly commanded RAF Lindholme and had a spell at the Board of Trade until he retired in 1969 to live quietly - his wife having developed multiple sclerosis - at Hornsea on the east Yorkshire coast. Berry was appointed OBE in 1946 and CBE in 1965. He married, in 1940, Nancy Watson; they had a daughter.
Reprinted with the kind permission of the Daily Telegraph obituaries column.
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Article prepared by Barry Howard.