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The Airmen's Stories - P/O G J Drake

 

Born on the 27th July 1920 in Kroonstad, in the province of Pretoria, South Africa, George James Drake was the son of the local stationmaster having two brothers Eric and Arthur and a sister Edna. He matriculated at Paarl Boy’s High School in 1938 and was a member of the Paarl Branch of the St John Ambulance Association. He always wanted to fly and tried to enlist into the South African Air Force but was unsuccessful. Determined to fly, George Drake worked his way to England on a merchant ship and joined the RAF on a 6 year short service commission on June 12th 1939. By August 5th he was promoted to Acting Pilot Officer on probation.

With his training completed at RAF Osbourne and now graded as a Pilot Officer on probation, Drake arrived for the 10th course at 5OTU Ashton Down, near Stroud on the 23rd March 1940. He was to be one of many other newly promoted officers who were also destined to fly in the Battle of Britain. Amongst Drake’s colleagues on the course were Pilot Officers AWN Britton, PCB St John, PC Lindsey, CW Passey, SB Parnall and Sergeants D Kirton and JJ Whitfield. All of these pilots were successfully passed out on the 20th April and undertook further training, converting to flying either Hurricanes or Spitfires. Drake was chosen to fly Hurricanes and then posted to 263 Squadron on the 21st April, at which time the squadron was still flying Gloster Gladiators!

The Russo–Finnish War had entered its third month by this time and the Finnish Air Force had been using Gladiators supplied by the RAF, sent in batches on board neutral merchant ships. As a result of this 263 had been ordered to fly to Norway to assist the allied troops in their attempt to recapture the port of Trondheim. As the Finnish Air Force had been flying Gladiators it was felt that this would ease the problem of spares and supplies if a squadron using similar aircraft were sent. On the 24th April eighteen Gladiator Mk 2’s from 263 landed on the frozen surface of Lake Lesjaskog in Norway, the first sortie against the Luftwaffe taking place the next morning.

On the 25th April Drake, along with eight other officers, four Warrant Officers, four Flight Sergeants and 262 other ranks left RAF Filton under the command of Flt Lt T Rowlands en route to Dr Watson’s College Edinburgh to await further instructions. By the afternoon they had been taken by lighter to the SS Ulster Monarch lying in the Firth of Forth, setting sail at 23.30 hrs. After two days at sea they returned to Scapa Flow staying overnight in huts. On the 1st May the party were embarked on the SS Orion sailing for an undisclosed destination. In the meantime the rest of the squadron in Norway had come under attack for two days from the Luftwaffe, who eventually bombed the harbour at Andalsnes and the airfield at Lesjaskog, destroying most of the remaining Gladiators. The squadron was ordered to return to Scotland, by way of the French freighter Cape Blanc, re-equip with replacement aircraft and return to Norway, this time going further north to Narvik. After surviving various dive-bombing attacks the ship finally arrived at Scapa Flow on the 1st May. By 1000 hrs on the 3rd May the party on board SS Orion (which included Drake) had been taken off by lighter and transported to RAF Turnhouse. This party remained at Turnhouse until the 18th May whilst the rest of the squadron was engaging the Luftwaffe in Norway!

On the 19th May the rear party at Turnhouse embarked on the SS Monarch of Bermuda, sailed along the River Clyde and anchored at Gourock with many other vessels. Throughout this time 263 carried out scores of sorties in Norway, with the pilots showing severe signs of tiring. On the 26th May the rear party disembarked from the SS Monarch of Bermuda and returned to Turnhouse by bus. Although the Squadron Operational Books don’t show any further entries relating to this rear party, it’s possible that Drake and his colleagues found themselves waiting somewhere in order to partake in the campaign in Norway.

By the 2nd June 1940 the situation in Norway was getting worse and consequently General Auchinleck commanding the allied Forces was ordered to evacuate Norway. Between the 2nd and the 6th June many personnel were taken by ship from the coast of Norway. The Monarch of Bermuda along with the Arandora Star was once again employed to move the squadron from Norway to Scotland. By the 7th June, 263 and 46 Squadrons were ordered to fly their remaining aircraft on board the aircraft carrier HMS Glorious. During the afternoon of the 8th, Glorious was sunk by the German battle-cruisers ‘Scharnhorst’ and ‘Gneisenau’, many pilots and aircrew being lost. By the 10th June, the remaining members of 263 Squadron had arrived back at Drem and all personnel were granted leave on instructions from 13 Group. On the 13th June Drake was posted from 263 to 607 Squadron, which was stationed at Usworth. The squadron had been sent there after returning from France in May, to rest and re-equip with Hurricanes, having previously flown Gladiators during the Battle of France. Drake was given Hurricane P2728 to fly, this particular aircraft being allotted to 607 on the 6th June, and sadly he was later to be killed in it. Although only 19 at the time and with his boyish face he seemed to be too young to be pitched into battle but was soon accepted by the other squadron members.

S/Ldr. Harry Welford, one of the other pilots from 607, later recalled Drake being, “very keen and inquisitive and always interested in how we ‘Brits’ thought and lived”.

On the 13th August 1940 the German High Command launched Adler Tag but was not yet fully aware of the operational structure of Fighter Command’s airfield network, nor were they aware of the means by which the radar reporting chain operated and informed Fighter Command. The resistance to raids in the South of England during July and early August convinced the German Intelligence Service that the RAF had deprived the North of its fighters and AA guns to provide this resistance. What the German High Command did not realise was that there were in fact many battle tested veterans of the Battle of France and Dunkirk at airfields in the North of England, amongst whom was 607 Squadron.

At 1000hrs on Thursday 15th August, 72 He111’s from 1 and 111/ KG26 took off from Norway having been briefed to bomb industrial targets at Newcastle, Sunderland and Middlesbrough along with attacks on Dishforth and Usworth airfields. They were accompanied by 34 Me110’s from 1/ZG76, with 2 Staffeln of He115 seaplanes acting as a feint to attract northwards any defending fighter squadrons. Radar screens of the northern controllers suggested a heavy raid on Edinburgh. At the same time an important convoy of 28 ships, code named ‘Arena’, had sailed from Hull around midday and needed protection. 13 Group Controller was able to send 72 and 605 Squadrons initially with 79 and 607 to back them up. Five sections of 607 took off at 1315 hrs from Usworth, P/O Drake flying his Hurricane P2728 as Yellow 3 of ‘A’ Section, in company with F/O WE Gore DFC (Yellow 1), Sgt Burnell-Philips (Yellow 2).

This was the first ‘scramble’ that 607 had undertaken since the dog-fights in France, and they gave a good account of themselves. The squadron was ordered to make a head-on interception of 40/60 He111’s and Do17’s that were flying at 12000ft in two V formations over the sea eight miles east of the Tyne. It was a short but fierce engagement with six He111’s and two Do17’s confirmed being shot down, five He111’s and one Do17 claimed as ‘probable’ and five aircraft damaged by the squadron. There were no losses suffered by 607 and they landed 30 minutes later. In all 75 German aircraft were lost from the three Luftflotten that day, the Luftwaffe naming it ‘Black Thursday’.

On the 1st September 1940 15 Officer Pilots along with 5 Sergeant Pilots received orders to fly south to 11 Group Area, arriving at Tangmere Airfield in Sussex during the afternoon. They were met by the tattered remnants of 43 Squadron which had suffered many casualties from the frequent dogfights they had been engaged in. On Sunday 8th September 607 flew their first patrols during the day and only had enough time to refuel before being ‘scrambled’ for an evening patrol which transpired to be uneventful.

On Monday 9th September, at about 5 pm, a force of 300+ enemy aircraft with fighter escort crossed the South Coast in order to fly up the Thames Estuary to bomb London for the second successive night. Twenty four squadrons of the RAF were ordered to intercept this raid by Sir Keith Park of 11 Group. At 1730 hrs 607 Squadron flying Hurricanes from Tangmere made their first contact with the Luftwaffe over Mayfield in Kent. They lined up in formation and went in before the fighter escorts could come down on them. S/Ldr. Vick was leading the patrol of twelve aircraft at 17000 feet and reported that he saw about 60/70 Ju88’s and Do17’s flying north in several formations of five in a V formation. As the squadron turned to attack the bombers a force of about 40/50 Me109’s dived at them from 19000 feet. Blue Section was ordered to attack the bombers from underneath with Green Section carrying out a rearguard action, whilst Red and Yellow Sections (P/O Drake Yellow 3) were to attack the fighters. During the ensuing dogfights P/O Drake flying Hurricane P 2728 was shot down and killed along with P/O Parnell and P/O Lenahan, whilst Sergeants Lansdell, Spyer, and Burnell-Philips were wounded.

One Dornier 17 was claimed as being destroyed by the squadron. The RAF could show 28 German aircraft destroyed on this day for the loss of 19 British fighters, from which 6 pilots were recovered. P/O’s Parnell and Lenahan were confirmed as killed in action whilst Drake was posted as ‘missing’ as his crashed aircraft was not located at the time.

Again S/Ldr. Harry Welford recalled:

We were well and truly bounced by Me109’s on that day: we lost six out of 12 aircraft; amongst these were my best friends Stuart Parnall and Scotty Lenahan and, as no more was heard of young George Drake, his death was presumed. We were shocked, we just could not take it all in. No one talked about it but we all hoped for news on George from some hospital or pub. No news came so we held back our sorrow. It was “You heard about Stuart and Scotty, rotten luck wasn’t it ?” and someone would add “…and young George Drake, bloody good blokes all of them”.

After that epitaph the matter would be apparently dismissed with the ordering of another round of drinks to avoid any further evidence of sentiment.

P/O Drake’s name was later recorded on Panel 8 of the RAF Memorial at Runnymede, in Surrey.

By 1972 members of the Ashford and Tenterden Aviation Recovery Group, chaired by Mr David Buchana, had recovered nine aircraft in the Sussex and Kent area that had been shot down during WW2. They began to receive information that a Spitfire had been seen to crash in the Goudhurst area of Kent during the Battle of Britain and some of the witnesses were still alive. The crash site was located with their help and permission obtained from the MoD to recover any aircraft remains at Bockingfold Farm, Goudhurst.

The team began digging and soon recovered the complete engine, airframe and bits of armour plate from behind the pilot’s seat. Most significantly, pieces of the aircraft were recovered that indicated that it was in fact a Hurricane - on one piece of recovered plywood the serial number P2728 was found. When an intact parachute pack was found along with personal effects including a nail file, a silver coloured cigarette case and a faded South African bank note, digging was halted and the police at Cranbrook were informed. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission became involved and supervised the excavation, certain that with the Hurricane’s serial number being known then this was probably the site of P/O George Drake’s crash. Soon after work resumed the pilot’s body was discovered at a depth of 4.5 metres in the well preserved cockpit of his Hurricane.

The case of P/O Drake was referred to HM Coroner and an inquest held in Kent on the 7th November 1972 returning a verdict ‘Killed by an Act of War’. The authorities successfully traced George Drake’s family in Boksburg near Johannesburg, South Africa, and his two remaining brothers Arthur and Eric flew to the UK for the funeral service. This was held at Brookwood Military Cemetery near Pirbright, Surrey, on November 22nd 1972. P/O George Drake was laid to rest with full military honours having a six gun salute fired by riflemen from the RAF Regiment. The presiding RAF chaplain, the Rev David Barnes, gave the address saying;-

This young man came from a part of the Empire like so many others only to die fighting for the sacred cause of human freedom. When he laid down his life, pursuing what is the basic right of every man, he was a long way from his South African home and family.

The control column, engine and personal effects from the wreck are on permanent display at the Kent Battle of Britain Museum in Hawkinge, Kent. Twenty two pilots of South African nationality were awarded the clasp ‘Battle of Britain’, eight of these being killed in action during the Battle itself.

©Simon Muggleton 2004

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