Group Captain Billy Drake DSO DFC and Bar
Group Captain Billy Drake DSO DFC and Bar
Born: December 20th 1917. Died: August 28th 2011 Age 93
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 10th, 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 20th 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 13th 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 6th 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 7th 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 U.S. 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.
Reprinted with the kind permission of the Daily Telegraph obituaries column.
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Article prepared by Barry Howard.