The Airmen's Stories - Sgt. H W W Berridge
Horace Walter William Berridge was born on 23rd June 1912 in London. After leaving school he went into the printing trade, later volunteering for the RAFVR in April 1939. He enlisted as an Airman u/t Air Gunner/Wireless Operator passing out just prior to the outbreak of WW2.
After his initial training, he was promoted to Sergeant and posted to 'B' Flight of 219 Squadron at Catterick in September 1940.
His first sortie was in October from Redhill on an 'X Raid' (looking for unidentified enemy aircraft) with his pilot, Sgt Ernest Grubb, flying Blenheim L1374, this sortie earning him the entitlement to wear the Battle of Britain Clasp. By December 1940 the squadron was fully re-equipped with Bristol Beaufighters and Berridge re-trained as a Radar Operator (later known as a Radio Observer) teaming up with F/O John Topham, who referred to him as ‘Wilbur'. This night-fighting partnership would last over three years, ranking them 7th in line to all night-fighting 'aces' during WW2.
'Johnny' Topham had already scored a kill on the 15th August when he claimed a Ju88 as a probable off Flamborough Head, but the new team would have to wait until the night of 13th March 1941 for their first enemy aircraft to be destroyed in partnership. At 2140hrs Topham and Berridge took off from Tangmere in Beaufighter R2131 and gained height to patrol at 14000ft. The control room at Durrington, West Sussex had spotted a blip on their screen approximately 5 miles north of Selsey Bill and sent them to investigate. Berridge confirmed this on his AI set and Topham then had a visual of a He111 approximately 1 mile ahead and below them. When he got within 100 yards of the enemy, Topham opened fire for one second expending some 41 rounds. Both of them then saw further incendiary and explosive ammunition hitting the port engine and fuselage making clouds of smoke to trail behind. A large part of the fuselage underneath the port wing was then seen to fall away. This damage resulted in the aircraft hitting the sea 3 miles south of Bognor Regis (it was possibly from 7/KG55 operating from Chartres).
Another He111 was claimed as destroyed by the team just north of Worthing on the night of 14th June, this one was recorded at the time as being shot down into the sea but later confirmed as landing on fire and burnt out at Snailham Farm, Guestling, East Sussex. This aircraft was later identified as 6N+FK of 2/KG100, ObFw Wiersbitzky, Lt Schmidt, Fw Schick and Fw Braun all being taken prisoner.
Topham and Berridge took off from Tangmere at 2336hrs in Beaufighter T4639, climbing to 15000ft and patrolling over the Durrington area. Sgt. Berridge soon made a 'contact' on his AI set which was confirmed by Topham who saw the enemy aircraft silhouetted and showing exhaust flames. According to his combat report Topham 'fired a total of 186 - 20mm rounds into its fuselage, resulting in brilliant green and orange flashes being seen, with pieces of the aircraft falling away, leaving a trail of white sparks behind, and being lost from view'.
In January 1942 Berridge was commissioned whilst Topham gained a DFC on the 3rd March and was also credited with a Do17 being destroyed (in company with F/Lt. Strange) on 25th April.
Berridge and Topham teamed up again on the 8th May when they destroyed another He111, this time 3 miles north of Brighton. Taking off from Tangmere at 0140 hrs, Durrington Control had spotted a 'bogey' in the area and vectored the Beaufighter from East to West, when control was passed to Kenley. Kenley then picked up a second 'bandit' at 12000ft travelling south, Wartling Control also spotted the same enemy aircraft and joined in the chase. The Beaufighter was given many rapid changes of vector as the bandit was taking violent evasive action all along the coast and then it turned north, back in the direction of Brighton. Finally, Berridge established contact on his AI set and Topham saw
four red dots of light slightly to port (the engine exhausts) which he lined up in the ring sights and gave a short burst on his cannons and machine guns. The enemy aircraft was seen to be enveloped in a terrific flash of fire and fell to the ground blazing.
Jim Crofts MBE was a senior controller at GCI Wartling at the time and recalled in 1994 that he was on duty throughout this interception and heard Topham saying 'he was going in for the kill'. A few seconds after hearing Topham on the R/T, the entire electrical system failed and they were left in the dark. Unknown to them the stricken He111 from 7 Staffel/KG100 had crashed into the power cables at Patcham, Brighton at 0255hrs cutting power all along the coast. Lt Oepen, Utfz Luksch, Uffz Markl, Uftz Kuttner and Uffz Driessen were all killed and later interred at Brighton Borough Cemetery, Bear Road.
On the night of 8/9th June they intercepted and engaged a Ju88 over Bembridge, Isle of Wight. Taking off from Tangmere at 2359hrs they climbed to 11000ft when Berridge made a contact on his Mk4 AI set. Topham closed in to 150yds and opened fire from astern as the enemy turned 5 degrees to starboard. Firing 286 rounds of 20mm cannon and 455 rounds of .303 into the aircraft, two lines of strikes were seen travelling from the nose to halfway along the fuselage. The Ju88 was seen to crash into the sea at Nettlestone Point, north of Bembridge, by the AA Battery. The Beaufighter received a violent bump as though pieces were flying into it from the enemy aircraft, knocking Berridge off his seat and damaging the AI and R/T sets. Berridge managed to get the AI set working again and they were sent on another chase by Durrington Control. Contact was made and the Beaufighter followed the enemy aircraft in violent turns down to 3000ft when contact was lost. On landing at 0130hrs inspection of the Beaufighter revealed that the underside of the fuselage and gun inspection panel had been ripped open.
Berridge was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross on the 23rd June, the citation reading:
This Observer has participated in many night-fighting sorties against the enemy and has taken part in the destruction of 3 enemy aircraft. He has shown great skill and determination.
Within two weeks Berridge would be in the air again with Topham searching for the enemy. Taking off from Acklington aerodrome in a Mk VI Beaufighter at 0115 hrs on the 6th July, Topham was ordered to climb to 15000ft just south of Amble in order to look for an unidentified aircraft. Whilst Berridge searched on his AI set, a visual on a Do217 was made by Topham some 25 minutes later. He closed in on the enemy aircraft to within 250yds when he opened fire with the cannons, expending 483 rounds combined with a further 1732 rounds of .303. Hits were observed on its tail and mid-fuselage, causing it to dive steeply to port. Topham followed the aircraft down and saw a yellow-orange flash about 3 to 4 miles to the south, followed by 10 small fires on the sea which burnt for about half a minute. Lieutenant Stamp of 313 Coastal Battery at Amble watched the whole incident and confirmed this by a report to Acklington DIO at 0156hrs seeing the Do217 shot down in flames and crashing into the sea.
At 0020hrs on the 26th July they took off from Acklington and soon accounted for two Do217s destroyed, the first losing its tail after a devastating attack delivered by Topham. After catching fire and twice turning completely over, the enemy aircraft broke off in a steep dive. The second interception attracted return fire from the Dornier's dorsal gunner but Topham closed in to 200yds and opened up with accurate cannon and machine-gun fire. The raider turned to port with flaming debris dropping off and was later seen to explode out to sea.
Berridge and Topham gained their eighth and final victory with 219 Squadron on the night of 19th September, when they brought down another Do217 into the sea off Tynemouth. Their initial interception had been followed by an unusual amount of enemy evasive action, with long jinks to port and starboard, but at length Topham was able to open up at 200yds range with a six-second burst of cannon and machine-gun fire. The enemy aircraft seemed to burst into flames and dive straight into the sea at 2210hrs. This whole incident was witnessed and confirmed by the local police at North Shields and the Coastguard at Blyth.
During this combat the windscreen of the Beaufighter became covered in glycol and the front hatch opened, necessitating Berridge climbing over the racks of ammunition and with great difficulty managing to refasten the hatch door, Topham finally getting the Beaufighter back to Acklington at 2315hrs.
In October 1942 he was promoted to Flying Officer and received his second DFC on the 20th October, the citation reading:
Flying Officer Berridge is a highly efficient Observer. He has at all times displayed great devotion to duty and set an example worthy of attainment. Since being awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross he has achieved much success.
News of their magnificent partnership was rapidly spreading through Fighter Command and into the newspapers, crediting them with 'taking the blue riband of night-fighting' from G/Capt. 'Catseyes' Cunningham and F/Lt. Rawnsley. It also emerged that Topham had been wearing a Luftwaffe 'Mae West' taken from the wreckage of one their victims as a good luck charm.
In January 1943 Topham was promoted to Wing commander and in October was given command of 125 (Newfoundland) Squadron operating with Mosquitos. Meanwhile Berridge had been posted to 157 Squadron at Predannack, also flying Mosquitos, teaming up with F/Lt. Beale and F/Lt. Doleman engaged on Ranger sorties. He was also Navigator to the Commanding Officer, W/Cdr. VJ Wheeler MC DFC. During this attachment Berridge claimed 8 locomotives destroyed.
Towards the end of the year operations with 157 Squadron began to slow down and in the spring of 1944 it joined 100 Group of Bomber Command for bomber support. Berridge contacted Topham and requested a transfer to his squadron which was endorsed. The partnership began again between 'Wilbur' Berridge and John Topham.
This was their second tour of operations and on the night of 27th April 1944 they were successful in destroying a Ju188 10 miles south of St. Catherines Point. Taking off at 0115hrs and climbing to 22000ft Berridge soon made contact with the enemy aircraft 3 miles ahead. Although their visibility was impaired by our own searchlights that had locked onto the raider, Topham was able to give a 3 second burst from his guns at point blank range from dead astern. They observed the stricken aircraft go into a steep dive and a few seconds later saw a large explosion. This was later confirmed as destroyed by the Royal Observer Corps.
The next night they were patrolling in the Solent area when they were vectored onto bandits at 3000 ft. They closed to within a mile and locked onto one of the raiders who was jinking and dropping 'window' and descending to sea level. The enemy then climbed to 500 ft and Topham was able to close the gap to 250yds when he opened up his guns for a 4-second burst. Strikes were seen on the port engine fuselage and mainplane, resulting in the aircraft doing a slow roll to port and losing height rapidly. Both Topham and Berridge were so involved in the pursuit they hadn't noticed they were now over the coast of France! Topham immediately turned northwards and lost height to 150ft observing a large red glare on the ground where the combat had taken place.
Operating out of Hurn aerodrome in a Mk XVII Mosquito on the night of 27/28th May, Berridge and Topham pursued a raider from south of Portland Bill to a few miles off the Cherbourg Peninsula. After identifying it as a Me410 Topham closed to within 200yds and fired a 3-second burst from dead astern, observing strikes on the fuselage and wing root. A very short burst of return fire came from the lateral guns of the enemy aircraft but quickly stopped. By now an 'audible banging noise' was coming from their own fuselage and it seemed an appropriate time to return to base. They claimed the Me410 as 'damaged'.
On the night of 18/19th June they flew their last successful sortie, bringing down two Ju88s in a matter of minutes. Taking off from Hurn at 2259hrs they were ordered to carry out a defensive patrol over the beachhead area when the first bandit was seen on Berridge’s Mk 10 AI set, travelling north at 8000ft. Topham closed in to within 250yds and fired a short burst from dead astern. Many strikes were seen on the starboard engine with bits flying off. Although the stricken aircraft was losing height slowly it was still flying straight and level. Topham decided to close in again and give it some more fire. Strikes were seen on the port engine and mainplane, resulting in the wing tip falling off and the aircraft turning on its back and falling vertically on fire. It hit the sea and exploded.
Within five minutes they had locked onto another Ju88 at 10000ft flying north east. Again Topham closed to within 250yds and fired a short burst. The enemy aircraft immediately exploded and went down vertically in three pieces in flames striking the sea where it continued to burn.
The partnership's score was now 12 confirmed victories with many more probables but on completion of this second tour both men were 'grounded', their last flight together being on the 9th December 1944.
Berridge (above, left, with Topham) was awarded the Distinguished Service Order on the 17th August 1945, the citation reading:
This officer has completed two tours of operational duty. Since the award of a Bar to the Distinguished Flying Cross he has flown on a large number of operational sorties, in the course of which considerable damage has been inflicted on the enemy's mechanical transport. He has also destroyed four more enemy aircraft, bringing his total victories to at least 12 enemy aircraft destroyed and others damaged. Throughout his long operational career Flight Lieutenant Berridge has displayed a fine fighting spirit, outstanding skill and great devotion to duty.
Air Marshal Sir James Robb KBE CB DSO DFC AFC Fighter Command, wrote to Berridge on the 27th August 1945 congratulating him:
Warmest congratulations on the award of your DSO. I am very pleased indeed to see that your magnificent work as Navigator/Radio Op with W/Cdr. Topham over such a long period has been recognised in this way. In the two and half years since you were awarded a bar to your DFC you have had a record of night defensive work which it would be hard to beat.
Horace Walter William 'Wilbur' Berridge was released from the RAF with the rank of Flight Lieutenant in late 1945 and awarded the Air Efficiency Medal. He sadly died of cancer in 1958, leaving his wife Doris and an adopted son living in Worthing, Sussex.
John Topham was promoted to Air Commodore post-war, serving in the Air Ministry where he was awarded the OBE in 1951. He also served as Commandant of the College of Air Warfare at Manby, Lincolnshire. His final command was Commander, Air Forces, Gulf (1966 to 1968).
He died on the 27th February 1987.
©Simon Muggleton 2009