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

 

Born on 27th July 1920 in in Kroonstad, in the Free State province, 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 12th June 1939. By 5th August he was promoted to Acting Pilot Officer on probation.

 

Above image courtesy of Dudley Schnetler (nephew).

 

With his training completed at RAF Osbourne and now graded as a Pilot Officer on probation, Drake arrived for the 10th course at 5 OTU Ashton Down on 23rd March 1940.

Drake’s colleagues on the course included 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 selected to fly Hurricanes and then posted to 263 Squadron on 21st April, at which time the squadron was still equipped with Gloster Gladiators.

263 was ordered to Norway to assist the allied troops in their attempt to recapture the port of Trondheim. On 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 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 F/Lt. T Rowlands en route to Dr. Watson’s College in Edinburgh to await further instructions.

By the afternoon they were taken by lighter to the SS Ulster Monarch lying in the Firth of Forth, setting sail at 2330 hrs. After two days at sea they returned to Scapa Flow staying overnight in huts.

On 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 1st May. By 1000 hrs on 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 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 approaching complete exhaustion.

On 26th May the rear party disembarked from the SS Monarch of Bermuda and returned to Turnhouse by bus. Although the Squadron ORB makes no further mention of this party, it’s likely that Drake and his colleagues were still on standby for a move to Norway.

 

By 2nd June 1940 the situation in Norway had deteriorated to the extent that evacuation was ordered by General Auchinleck, C-in-C Allied Forces. Between 2nd and 6th June many personnel were taken by ship from the coast of Norway. The Monarch of Bermuda along with the Arandora Star were assigned to the squadron.

On 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 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 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 assiged Hurricane P2728, this particular aircraft being allotted to 607 on 6th June, and was still sadly flying it when killed. Although still only 19 and with boyish features he 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 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. They were unaware that there were in fact many battle tested veterans of the Battle of France and Dunkirk at airfields in the North of England, including 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 indicated a heavy raid on Edinburgh. At the same time Convoy Arena, an important convoy of 28 ships 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) and Sgt. Burnell-Philips (Yellow 2).

607 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. In a short but fierce engagement six He111’s and two Do17’s were confirmed destroyed, 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 1st September 1940 607, with twenty pilots on strength, received orders to fly south to 11 Group, arriving at Tangmere during the afternoon. They replaced 43 Squadron which had suffered many casualties. On Sunday 8th September 607 flew their first day patrols and only had enough time to refuel before being ‘scrambled’ for an uneventful evening patrol.

On Monday 9th September, at about 5 pm, a force of 300+ enemy aircraft with fighter escort crossed the 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 and at 1730 607 Squadron 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”.

 

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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 David Buchanan, 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 22nd November 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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