Billy Drake: Second World War fighter pilot who became one of the RAF's most valued aces

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Billy Drake was one of the most illustrious RAF and Allied "aces" of the Second World War.

Equally conversant with Hurricanes, Spitfires, Kittyhawks and Typhoons, Drake fought in many theatres with various squadrons all over Europe and North Africa, notching up an impressive 25 enemy kills.

Reserved about his RAF career and never one to seek publicity, Drake was always a self-deprecating character. He once described himself and his chums as "a lot of playboys as against the very professional organisation [it is] now." However, Britain owed much to this group of "playboys" for their gallantry and heroism. No 1 Squadron rewrote the rules of aerial combat and developed techniques and crucial aircraft modifications that were vital to success in the Battle of Britain.

Born in London on 20 December 1917, to an English father and Australian mother, Billy Drake was raised and educated in Switzerland. Following a ride in a flying circus bi-plane as a child, he harboured a desire to fly from an early age. His father's passion for clay pigeon shooting aided young Drake's hand-eye coordination. In his late teens, he responded to an advertisement in his favourite magazine, Aeroplane, requesting trainee pilots and joined the RAF; he was commissioned a few months later having qualified as a pilot.

In May 1937, Drake joined No 1 Squadron, a group of 16 pilots from all over the Commonwealth who effectively were left to their own devices. Within days of Nazi Germany's invasion of Poland, on 1 September 1939, and Britain and France's declaration of war, the squadron was posted to Neuville-sur-Ornain, near Reims in France. From here, over the next month, patrols were undertaken over the coastal ports as ships carrying the British Expeditionary Force to the continent sailed across the Channel.

After initial skirmishes with the Luftwaffe, Drake and his colleagues saw little action during the bitterly cold months of the "Phoney War". At that time, the Allies were not equipped with sophisticated radar, so pilots had no early warning in the event of aerial attack. The first sign of an enemy aircraft was often the condensation trail the aircraft left as it swept through the moisture-rich sky. Thereafter, squadrons were scrambled and action plans were developed en route.

In spring 1940, following one such contrail, Group Captain Drake's formation of Hawker Hurricanes attacked a squadron of German Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighters, whereupon he scored his first victory. Shortly afterwards, on 10 May 1940, Germany's Blitzkrieg was launched and within a few days Drake had successfully downed three Dornier bombers and shared in the demise of another. During this period, the Allies were heavily outnumbered by the Luftwaffe; the squadron were being scrambled up to four or five times a day to halt the onslaught.

During another sortie, Drake had to abandon formation after he realised his aircraft was not equipped with an oxygen supply for high-altitude flying. He was instructed "to piss off and go home". Upon turning, he saw three Dorniers and being in a good position to attack broke all the rules. He opened fire and shot one down but then found himself under fire. Within seconds he was hit, covered in petrol and his cockpit was ablaze. He successfully bailed out and landed in the countryside.

Due to the back and leg injuries sustained, Drake had a spell in a French hospital before returning to England. Thereafter, he flew reconnaissance missions over the English Channel during the Battle of Britain. He recalled, "I would land, grab a cup of tea and I'd be shouting, 'Fuel her up – let's go again'."

After some arm-twisting, Drake was allowed to join No 213 Squadron, flying Spitfires out of Tangmere, Sussex. Soon after, he was awarded a DFC for his part in the destruction and downing of a number of bombers and fighters.

Drake later commanded No 128 and No 112 (Shark) Squadrons in North Africa and on the Mediterranean island of Malta. While leading Shark, he accounted for more than 30 enemy aircraft, 15 of which were destroyed on airfields. In June 1942, Drake was awarded an immediate Bar to his DFC for a raid on Gazala in the Western Desert, which "grounded the German fighter force for three days." Many of his fellow pilots became casualties. "You accepted that they could be shot down, and if they were, bad bloody luck. That's war," he explained. "You'd go up to their room and see if there was anything you could borrow."

By October 1942, during his time in command, Drake 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. For this he was awarded the DSO and later added an American DFC.

Drake was involved in the bombing of German V-1 sites in the Pas-de-Calais and, due to his experience, became an instructor in England before being sent to the US Command School in Kansas; he then returned to join the staff of the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force.

After the war, Drake served in Japan, Singapore and as the air attaché in Switzerland, where he indulged his passion for skiing and led the RAF ski team. He retired in 1963 as commander of Chivenor Royal Air Force base in Devon.

Upon retirement, Drake spent 20 years in the Algarve, Portugal, where he managed properties and ran Billy's Bar. In 1993, he returned to live in Teignmouth, Devon.

Drake, known for wearing a cravat in the colours of English Epsom Derby winner Hyperion, later recalled, "By God, we had a good time. That's not to say we behaved in the way Hollywood likes to portray Battle of Britain pilots. Of course, there were a few randy ruffians who would chase any girl. But generally we all had girlfriends, and we didn't use the war as an excuse to sleep with them. We were gentlemen."

Billy Drake, pilot; born London 20 December 1917; married twice (both dissolved, two sons); died Teignmouth, Devon 28 August 2011.