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Lees, Ronald Beresford (1910–1991)

by Mark Lax

This article was published:

Ronald Beresford Lees (1910-1991), air force officer, was born on 27 April 1910 at Broken Hill, New South Wales, fifth of seven children of Australian-born parents John Thomas Lees, hotelier, and his wife Eliza Jane, née Moyle. Lees was educated in Adelaide at Prince Alfred College and at the Collegiate School of St Peter where he was a prefect and captain of boats. Standing almost six feet (183 cm) tall, with piercing blue eyes, he was light on his feet and had a cheerful demeanour.

After taking private flying lessons at Parafield airport, Lees joined the Royal Australian Air Force at Point Cook, Victoria, on 15 January 1930 and graduated as a pilot later that year. He was one of five officers to be offered a short service commission in the Royal Air Force (RAF); it turned into a thirty-five-year career. Lees’s first operational posting was in March 1931 as a pilot officer to No. 29 Squadron based at North Weald, Essex, England. On 24 August 1931 at the parish church, North Weald Bassett, he married his childhood sweetheart Rhoda Lillie Pank.

Lees was a natural pilot and, being rated as exceptional by his seniors, went to Egypt in May 1935 as a flying instructor. By June 1936 he had been offered a permanent RAF commission. Two months after promotion to squadron leader in October 1938, he was placed in command of No. 72 Squadron, which flew the new Spitfire fighter. In 1940 the unit covered the British Expeditionary Force’s evacuation from Dunkirk, France. On 2 June Lees’s flight intercepted a formation of German Stuka dive-bombers and he shot one down.

Although posted in July to a ground job at group headquarters, Lees continued to fly with his old squadron during the Battle of Britain. On 2 September he was shot down early in the fighting and crash-landed. Later that day his aircraft was badly hit and he crashed again, being wounded in the arm and leg. In the following month he was awarded a DFC for ‘his leadership and efficiency in numerous combats.’ A Bar to the DFC followed in December 1941. The historian of No. 72 Squadron later recorded: ‘it was difficult to envisage the squadron under any other’s command . . . there could be no replacement’ (Elliott, 36).

From January 1941 Lees commanded RAF Coltishall and from September held the rank of acting group captain. In September 1942 he was posted as commander of No. 324 Wing in Tunisia for the Allied invasion of French North-West Africa. He continued to fly and on 25 November shot down an Italian bomber. He spent the next three years in the Mediterranean theatre and oversaw RAF participation in Operation Avalanche, the Allied invasion of Italy. During this period, he was also A.D.C. to King George VI.

Appointed CBE in May 1943 and CB in January 1946, Lees was mentioned in despatches three times. On 1 January 1946, he was appointed officer commanding RAF Bassingbourn, during which time he personally flew the Duke of Gloucester, Prime Minister Attlee, and other VIPs to post-war talks. He was promoted to substantive group captain in 1947 and air commodore in 1953. In 1949 he had been re-appointed A.D.C. to King George VI, and, until 1955, was A.D.C. to Queen Elizabeth II.

Lees’s post-war career was with RAF Fighter Command, first as a sector controller and culminating as air officer commanding the Second Tactical Air Force in RAF Germany. In July 1960 he was promoted to air marshal and became the deputy chief of air staff. Appointed KCB in 1961 and commander-in-chief, RAF Germany on 25 June 1963, he retired on 3 February 1966. Notwithstanding his rank, Lees treated everybody with respect and was at ease with anyone, whether they were labourers or royalty.

Returning to Australia, he became a grazier near Albury, New South Wales, before settling in Adelaide in 1981. Survived by his wife, son, and daughter, he died on 18 May 1991 at Monreith Private Hospital, Toorak Gardens, and was cremated at Centennial Park Crematorium, Adelaide.

Research edited by Brian Wimborne

Select Bibliography

  • Barrass, Malcolm B. ‘Air of Authority: A History of RAF Organisation.’ 2013. Copy held on ADB file
  • Elliott, Deacon. ‘72 Squadron World War II, Dec 1939-1940.’ Unpublished manuscript, RAF Museum, Hendon, England
  • Lees, Ronald. Interview by the author, 8 August 2013
  • London Gazette. No. 34976, 22 October 1940, 6136
  • London Gazette. No. 35393, 26 December 1941, 7299
  • London Gazette. No. 36033, 28 May 1943, 2430
  • London Gazette. No. 37407, 1 January 1946, 6
  • London Gazette. No. 42370, 10 June 1961, 4145
  • Shores, Christopher. Those Other Eagles. London: Grub Street, 2004

Citation details

Mark Lax, 'Lees, Ronald Beresford (1910–1991)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2014, accessed online 29 November 2022.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, (ANU Press), 2021

View the front pages for Volume 19

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