Billy Drake: Second World War fighter pilot who became one of the RAF's most valued aces - Obituaries - News - The Independent

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

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.

News
Paper trail: the wedding photograph found in the rubble after 9/11 – it took Elizabeth Keefe 13 years to find the people in it
newsWho are the people in this photo? It took Elizabeth Stringer Keefe 13 years to find out
Arts and Entertainment
Evil eye: Douglas Adams in 'mad genius' pose
booksNew biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Sport
FootballFull debuts don't come much more stylish than those on show here
News
i100
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
Kim Kardashian drawn backlash over her sexy swimsuit selfie, called 'disgusting' and 'nasty'
fashionCritics say magazine only pays attention to fashion trends among rich, white women
Arts and Entertainment
TVShows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Arts and Entertainment
Hit the roof: hot-tub cinema east London
architectureFrom pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
Travel
travel
News
The ecological reconstruction of Ikrandraco avatar is shown in this illustration courtesy of Chuang Zhao. Scientists on September 11, 2014 announced the discovery of fossils in China of a type of flying reptile called a pterosaur that lived 120 millions years ago and so closely resembled those creatures from the 2009 film, Avatar that they named it after them.
SCIENCE
Life and Style
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Matisse: The Cut-Outs exhibition attracted 562,000 visitors to the Tate Modern from April to September
art
Life and Style
Models walk the runway at the Tom Ford show during London Fashion Week Spring Summer 2015
fashionLondon Fashion Week 2014
News
Kenny G
news
News
peopleThe black actress has claimed police mistook her for a prostitute when she kissed her white husband
Life and Style
techIndian model comes with cricket scores baked in
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Energy Markets Analyst

£400000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: Energy Markets An...

Junior Web Analyst – West Sussex – Up to £35k DOE

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum Plus excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions...

Nursery Manager

£22000 - £23000 per annum: Randstad Education Bristol: We are currently recrui...

Web Analyst – Permanent – Up to £40k - London

£35000 - £40000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: We are currently r...

Day In a Page

Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week