Royal Air Force top gun Billy Drake dies

Posted Sept. 02, 2011, at 9:12 p.m.
Last modified Sept. 02, 2011, at 10:45 p.m.

Billy Drake, a British fighter ace whose daring and skill made him one of the Royal Air Force’s most successful pilots of World War II, died Aug. 28, the Daily Telegraph of London reported. He was 93. The cause and location of death could not be confirmed.

Group Captain Drake was credited with 24.5 aerial kills — another pilot was given half of one kill — and he reportedly destroyed a dozen more enemy planes parked on the ground.

He harbored an interest in flight since a boyhood ride in a flying circus biplane. He decided to join the Royal Air Force in his late teens, after seeing a recruitment call in a magazine.

After Germany invaded Poland in 1939, Drake was sent to France, where he spent the first months of the war sitting idle. At that point, France was not equipped with sophisticated radar, so the pilots had no early alert in the event of aerial attack.

He told interviewers that the first sign of an enemy plane often was the condensation trail the aircraft left as it swept through the moisture-rich sky.

Following one such contrail, Drake scored his first victory against a German Messerschmitt fighter plane in the spring of 1940.

During another sortie not long after, he had to abandon formation after he realized his plane was not equipped with an oxygen supply for high-altitude flying. On the way back to base, he encountered several German Dornier bombers and attacked with his machine guns. He watched one bomber catch fire and crash.

Distracted, Drake didn’t notice a German fighter swooping in behind him. Seconds later, his cockpit was engulfed in flames. He bailed out and landed in the countryside.

“The French farmers thought I was a German because I was very blond in those days, so they walked toward me very cautiously with scythes and pitchforks,” he said. But after “I was able to show them my wings, they couldn’t have been nicer.”

Badly wounded by shrapnel in his back and legs, he was taken to a hospital in France and then back to England. After recuperating, he flew reconnaissance missions over the English Channel during the Battle of Britain.

“I would land, grab a cup of tea and I’d be shouting, ‘Fuel her up — let’s go again,’“ he said.

Drake later commanded units based in North Africa and on the Mediterranean island of Malta.

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.”

After the war, he served as an military attache in Switzerland and retired in 1963 as a commander at a Royal Air Force base in Devon.

Drake said he was not haunted by memories of his wartime experiences.

“You never thought about the fact you’d taken a life,” he told Britain’s Daily Express in 2004. “When you got involved in an aerial battle, it was metal versus metal.”

A descendant of British naval hero Francis Drake, Billy Drake was born Dec. 20, 1917, in London. He spent much of his childhood in Switzerland.

His father’s passion for clay pigeon shooting aided the development of young Billy’s hand-eye coordination before his military service.

Upon retirement, Drake spent 20 years in the Algarve coastal area of Portugal, where he managed properties and ran a bar. In recent years, he lived in Teignmouth, Devon. The Telegraph said he was twice married and is survived by two sons from his first marriage.

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