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Remains of brave pilot 'Missing in action' discovered 30+ years later - P/O George Drake, aged 19

In 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. Above image courtesy of Dudley Schnetler (nephew).

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, it 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. See his profile below:-

Pilot Officer George Drake was 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.

With his training completed at RAF Osbourne and now graded as a Pilot Officer on probation, Drake arrived at 5 OTU Aston Down on 23rd March 1940. 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.

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. 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.

607 Squadron was ordered to make a head-on interception of 40/60 He111s and Do17s that were flying at 12000ft in two vic formations over the sea eight miles east of the Tyne. In a short but fierce engagement six He111s and two Do17s were confirmed destroyed, five He111s 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 the twenty pilots of 607 squadron 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 Ju88s and Do17s flying north in several formations of five in a vic formation. As the squadron turned to attack the bombers, a force of about 40/50 Me109s dived at them from 19000 feet. Blue Section was ordered to attack the bombers from underneath with Green Section carrying out a rearguard action. 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/Os 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.

S/Ldr. Harry Welford remembered the battle vividly:

We were well and truly bounced by Me109s 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”.


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

Text and photos courtesy of the Battle of Britain monument and 'The Battle of Britain - Then and Now', ed. Wilfred Ramsey pp440-441).

©Simon Muggleton 2004

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