20 December 1917 – 28 August 2011
‘Five days after the outbreak of war, Drake and his colleagues of No 1 Squadron flew their Hurricanes to a French airfield to provide support for the British Expeditionary Force. Throughout the bitter winter of the “Phoney War” there was little action, but on April 19 1940 Drake met the enemy for the first time. His formation attacked a flight of Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighters and, in the ensuing melee, Drake claimed one, the first of many successes.
When the Blitzkreig was launched on May 10, No 1 Squadron was thrown straight into battle, its Hurricanes trying to provide support for RAF bombers that were suffering terrible losses. In three days, Drake, always a highly aggressive pilot, shot down three Dornier 17s and shared in the destruction of another.
Three days later he had just succeeded in setting a Dornier on fire when he was attacked from the rear; despite being wounded in the back, he managed to bail out of his blazing Hurricane. After a spell in a French hospital he returned to England to be reunited with the survivors of his squadron. He admitted that the situation on the French front was “total chaos”.
Drake spent much of the Battle of Britain training fighter pilots but, after badgering old friends, he was allowed to join No 213 Squadron, flying out of Tangmere. On October 10 he probably shot down a Bf 109 before heading to Gravesend to join a reconnaissance flight whose job was to fly over the English Channel looking for incoming German raids. Flying a Spitfire, he shared in the destruction of a bomber and damaged a number of others. In December he was awarded a DFC.
The son of an English doctor who had married an Australian, Billy Drake (a direct descendant of Sir Francis Drake) was born on December 20 1917. After attending a number of schools that failed to cope with his lively temperament, he was sent to be educated in Switzerland — a country he came to love greatly, not least for the opportunities it gave him for skiing. On seeing an advertisement in Aeroplane magazine, he joined the RAF just before his 18th birthday and was commissioned a few months later having qualified as a pilot.
Drake joined No 1 Squadron and flew the elegant Fury biplane fighter. In late 1938 the squadron received Hurricanes, and nine months later it arrived in France.
In October 1941 Drake left for Freetown, Sierra Leone, as a squadron leader to command No 128 Squadron and to provide defence for the nearby naval facilities. Vichy French bombers occasionally strayed into the airspace, and on December 13 he intercepted one which refused his orders to land; with some regret he shot it down.
Life in Sierra Leone was too quiet for the restless Drake, and his efforts to see more action paid off at the end of March 1942 when he left to join a Kittyhawk fighter bomber squadron in the Western Desert. Two months later he was given command of No 112 (Shark) Squadron, and so began a period of intense action during which Drake accounted for more than 30 enemy aircraft, 15 of them during strafing attacks against enemy landing grounds.
On June 6 he was leading his squadron on a bombing attack over Bir Hacheim in support of the Free French. Spotting four Bf 109s, he dived on them; all four were shot down, one of them by Drake. The French commander signalled “Bravo! Merci pour le RAF!” to which the RAF commander responded: “Merci pour le sport!”
Over the next few weeks Drake destroyed at least five aircraft on the ground, and in mid-July he was awarded an immediate Bar to his DFC, for a raid on Gazala which “grounded the German fighter force for three days”.During the retreat to El Alamein, Drake was in constant action, destroying at least three more aircraft in the air and two on the ground. After a brief respite, operations gathered momentum again, and in September and early October he added to his score as he attacked enemy airfields; among his victims in the air were two Italian Macchi fighters.
In the latter part of October, Drake claimed a German bomber and a fighter. Over the next few days he destroyed more fighters, two Stuka dive bombers and two transport aircraft on the ground. At the end of October, two months before he was rested, he was awarded a DSO. During his time in command of No 112 he had destroyed 17 aircraft in the air with two others shared, a total exceeded in North Africa only by one other pilot, the Australian-born Group Captain Clive “Killer” Caldwell.
After six months in a staff post Drake was back on operations commanding a Spitfire Wing in Malta. Providing escort to USAAF bombers attacking Sicily, he claimed two enemy aircraft destroyed on the ground; and on July 7 he shot down an Italian fighter, his 25th and final victim in air combat (having shared in the destruction of three others). He added an American DFC to his decorations.
After returning to England in December 1943, Drake commanded a Typhoon Wing and attacked the German V-1 sites in the Pas de Calais. With his great experience of fighter and ground attack tactics, he was sent to instruct at the RAF’s Fighter Leaders’ School. Despite being in a training appointment, he frequently absconded for a day to take part in attacks against targets in France. His operational career finally came to an end in August 1944, when he was sent to the US Command School in Kansas before returning to join the staff of the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force.
Drake spent the first few years after the war in operational headquarters, first in Japan and then in Singapore, but his great love was the fighter environment. In 1949 he was posted to the Fighter Leaders’ School as a senior instructor, an appointment much to his liking and where he converted to jets. This was followed by his appointment as wing commander at Linton-on-Ouse near York, where he commanded three Meteor fighter squadrons.
In 1956 Drake became the Controller of Fighter Command’s Eastern Sector. But he still found time to persuade colleagues to allow him to fly their fighters two or three times a month. Two years later he left to be the air attaché in Berne, Switzerland, spending the next three years in the country, a period he enjoyed greatly.
Returning to England in 1962, Drake took command of the RAF’s fighter training base at Chivenor in Devon, where he flew the Hunter. A dedicated fighter pilot who had little interest in administration and staff work, he recognised that his flying days would soon be over. He thus decided to retire, leaving the RAF in July 1963.
Drake went to live in Portugal, at a time when the Algarve was starting to become popular as a holiday destination, and acquired several properties there. He contracted cerebral meningitis, which forced him to give up drinking (something he did not regret), but none the less established Billy’s Bar. Initially this venture was successful, but in 1993 he decided to return to England.
Billy Drake was held in high estimation in the RAF as one of its most colourful and successful fighter pilots, and as a man who led from the front and inspired all those who flew with him. His great professionalism was accompanied by an infectious enthusiasm for life and mischievous sense of humour .
His great passion was skiing. He captained the RAF ski team, and made annual trips to the home of one of his sons in Switzerland, taking to the slopes until he was in his early nineties.
He was twice married (both dissolved), and is survived by two sons of his first marriage.’ (Obituary courtesy of the Daily Telegraph)
‘168 Gp Capt Billy DRAKE DSO DFC* with at least 20 e/a destroyed, was a Londoner born in 1917 with an Australian mother and English doctor father, who flew pre-war Furies on No. 1(F) Sqn and HURRICANES in the BRITISH EXPEDITIONARY FORCE’s AIR COMPONENT in the BATTLE of FRANCE, accounting for Bf-109s, a He-111 and Do-17s before baling out, after being shot down by a Bf-110 and wounded with shell splinters. After an operation and return to UK and recovery, he was posted through 213 Sqn to 421 Flight’s SPITFIRE Is, as a Flt Cdr on low level FIGHTER RECONNAISSANCE in October 1940, again damaging, partly and probably destroying several enemy aircraft. In 1941, Billy was posted to 53 OUT at Heston and then CFI at Llandow before being sent as OC 128 Sqn Hurricanes in Freetown, where he shot down a Vichy intruder Martin 167F. In April 1942 he flew KITTYHAWKS in the WESTERN DESERT as OC 112 Sqn and scored many victories (bar to DFC and DSO) before crash landing after being hit on 11Dec42, then being promoted to Wg Cdr on the AFME staff. In June 1943, posted to MALTA, he took over as Wing Leader of the Hal Far Wing’s SPITFIRE Vs, operating over SICILY and ITALY (US DFC). Posted back to Britain, he was Wg Ldr of 20 WING TYPHOONS in the lead up to Normandy invasion and CFI at Milfield Fighter Leaders School. After selection for the US Staff School at Fort Leavenworth with Peter Brothers, Billy served at SHAEF HQ for the final six months of the war in Europe on the Operations Staff. Post-war with a permanent commission and a Bracknell Staff College course, he was sent to join the OCCUPATION FORCES in JAPAN before Malaya and Singapore and returning to join the Central Fighter Establishment as CFI of the Day Fighter Leaders School. After being Wg Cdr Flying at Linton, then Air Attaché tour in Berne, his final tour was as Gp Capt CO of RAF Chivenor, the Hunter OCU. (ARP)’
REEL 1 Background in GB and Switzerland, 1917-1936: family; early education and interest in aviation; character of education at schools in Switzerland; hobbies; flight with Alan Cobham’s Flying Circus. Recollections of enlistment and pilot training with RAF in GB, 1936-1937: parent’s attitude to his joining RAF; selection interview; training with Avro Cadet with Air Service Training at Hamble including spinning, elementary aerobatics and navigation; instructors; kitting out; move to 6 Flying Training School; ground instruction, flying tests and blind flying; near failure of Chief Instructor’s Flying Test, 1/1/1937.
REEL 2 Continues: sight of world altitude record holder Sqdn Leader Swain at RAF Netheravon; opinion of Hawker Fury; accident on returning from training camp; opinion of pilot skills; gunnery training. Recollections of period as pilot with 1 Sqdn, RAF in GB and France, 1937-1940: wish to fly fighter aircraft; posting to unit at RAF Tangmere; emphasis on formation flying and lack of tactics; briefing from British Air Attache in Berlin on German Air Force tactics, 1938; emphasis on aerobatics; relations with fellow officers; mess life and sport; operating two season flying routine; encouragement to visit other RAF airfields; story of experiencing contrails; on stand by during Munich Crisis, 11/1938.
REEL 3 Continues: converting onto Hawker Hurricane at Brooklands; opinion of Hawker Hurricane; impressions of Squadron Leader Patrick ‘Bull’ Halahan; role of squadron leaders and flight commanders; relations with Flight Lieutenant ‘Johnnie’ Walker and Flying Officer Prosser Hanks; memories of Flying Officer Leslie Clisby, Flying Officer Paul Richey, Flying Officer ‘Killy’ Kilmartin, Flying Officer ‘Pussy’ Palmer and Pilot Officer ‘Boy’ Mould; relations with NCO pilots; move to Le Harve area, 9/1939; memories of French liaison officer Jean ‘Moses’ Demozay; accommodation during winter, 1939-1940; lack of ground control; move to Vassincourt; shooting down of Messerschmitt Me 109, 19/4/1940 Recollections of operations as pilot with 1Sqdn, RAF during Battle of France, 5/1940: start of German attacks, 10/5/1940; reaction to first day in action; move to Berry-au- Bac.
REEL 4 Continues: Prosser Hanks’ leadership during first patrol, 12/5/1940; bailing out of aircraft during attack on Dornier, 13/5/1940; medical treatment received from French; evacuation to chateau; aid from girlfriend in Paris; evacuation to GB; adaptation of armoured seat to Hawker Hurricane; discovery of his Hawker Hurricane, 2003; wounds and clothing worn. Period as flying instructor with 6 Operational Training Unit, RAF Sutton Bridge, 6/1940-10/1940: posting to unit; degree to which combat experience; amusing story of dogfighting with Polish pilot. Aspects of operations as pilot with 421 Flight, RAF, 10/1940-2/1941: role of flight to shadow German formations; reasons for being summoned to see Air Vice Marshal Keith Park; requesting Supermarine Spitfires; estimating numbers of German formations; opinion of Keith Park and his tactics; introduction of new tactics.
REEL 5 Continues: tactics employed by flight; relations with Air Vice Marshal Trafford Leigh Mallory. Period as instructor at 53 Operational Training Unit at RAF Heston, 2/1941-9/1941: introduction of new fighter tactics; correct distance to open fire at; memories of Group Captain Ira ‘Taffy’ Jones; problems of training instructors; characteristics of fighter pilots; memories of Johnnie Kent. Aspects of operations as pilot with 128 Sqdn, RAF in Sierra Leone, 10/1941-3/1942: posting to unit; operating from West Africa; influence of Air Vice Marshal Keith Park on his leaving unit; shooting down of Vichy French aircraft, 12/1941. Period as pilot with 260 Sqdn in Middle East, 4/1942-5/1942: flight to join unit; contracting malaria; opinion of Curtiss P40 Kittyhawk. Recollections of operations as commanding officer of 112 Sqdn, RAF in North Africa, 6/1942-1/1943: taking command of squadron; changes in desert air war; origins of unit insignia; role as squadron commander.
REEL 6 Continues: use of pilot messes; accommodation; water rationing and insistence on pilot’s shaving; flying kit worn including scarf; imposing leadership on squadron; character of airstrips; airfield defence; problems with sand; reasons for taking off line abreast; further details of Curtiss P40 Kittyhawk and its role as ground attack aircraft; reaction to squadron taking over ground attack role; evolving ground attack techniques; targets and heights operated at; numbers of aircraft operated.
REEL 7 Continues: method of controlling operations; navigating over desert; briefing of pilots; technique for attacking German airfields; attack of German airfield and destruction of large number of Messerschmitts Me 109s, 6/1942; method of escorting light/medium bombers; method of moving squadron between airstrips; attacking soft targets and armoured vehicles; close support for Free French at Bir Hakheim; leading squadron in the air; question of casualties; importance of leader experience; discussion of tactics; dealing with pilot stress and effects of fatigue.
REEL 8 Continues: opportunites to attack Axis aircraft; personal claims; attacking Junkers Ju 87 Stukas; impressions of aerial combat; role of wing man; opinion of Italian pilots; importance of radio transmission discipline; method of turning squadron to face attack; role of squadron leader in combat; claims by Joachim Marseilles to have shot him down; attitude towards German pilots; last combat with squadron and forced landing; use of personal markings and aircraft; importance of good eyesight. Period with Headquarters, Middle East and 203 Group in Middle East, 1/1943-4/1943: posting, 1/1943; leading group of Bristol Blenheims from Kenya to Cairo. Aspects of operations commanding Krendi Wing in Malta, 6/1943-10/1943: background to taking command; role as wing leader.
REEL 9 Continues: reactions to effect of supercharger kicking in on Supermarine Spitfire Mk IX; incident of having problem judging height; gunnery practice during voyage from Malta to GB aboard HMS Rodney. Aspects of operations as commanding officer of 136 Wing, RAF in GB, 12/1943- 4/1944: taking command of unit, 12/1943; impressions of Hawker Typhoon and use of bombs and rockets; problems with Hawker Typhoon engines including forced landing at RAF Biggin Hill; attacking V1 targets; attack on Cherbourg and subsequent recriminations; posting to Fighter Leaders’ School at RAF Milfield, 4/1944-9/1944. Period at US Command and General Staff School at Fort Leavenworth, 10/1944-1/1945: posting to staff school; opinion of American pilots; brotherhood of RAF pilots.
REEL 10 Continues: Aspects of period as staff officer with SHAEF Headquarters at Rheims, 3/1945-6/1945: duties; borrowing Sir James Robb’s personal Supermarine Spitfire; opinion of Eisenhower; sight of German officers arriving to surrender; dealing with returning RAF POWs; organising fly past for Marshal Zhukov’s visit; taking part in victory flypast. Various postings with RAF, 1945-1963: visit to Hiroshima; posting to Malaya; posting to Day Fighter Leaders School at RAF West Raynham; flying Gloster Meteors; mass take offs as wing leader at RAF Linton-on-Ouse; question of reason for Gloster Meteor accidents; loss of wing leaders during Korean War; appointment as deputy chief of intelligence, 2nd Tactical Air Force; taking former German pilot in jet aircraft; intelligence duties; duties at Air Attaché in Switzerland.
REEL 11 Continues: amusing story of attempting covert spying mission; flying English Electric Lightening; role of station commander at RAF Chivenor, 1962; attitude to serving with RAF. Story of encounter with officer in mess at RAF Tangmere, 1937.
(Both photos via the excellent resource that is Aircrew Remembered)
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