Farewell to a Norfolk hero who was Britain’s oldest surviving prisoner of war
PUBLISHED: 09:42 12 August 2014 | UPDATED: 10:29 12 August 2014
He was a brave Norfolk war hero believed to have become Britain’s oldest surviving prisoner of war, and Sergeant Reginald Drake’s family are making sure his part in the fight for freedom will never be forgotten.
"He deserves to be remembered for what he did for the country"
Sgt Drake, from Norwich, spent four years held captive by the Germans – including time at the infamous Stalag Luft III camp in the run up to the ‘Great Escape’ of 1944 – after his Blenheim bomber was struck down during a raid in 1941.
The airman – whose funeral was held on Friday – rarely spoke of what he had endured during the Second World War, but his family has pieced together his war records so that his bravery can be forever remembered.
Sgt Drake’s daughter Helen Britton, 58, said: “Over the years my father never really wanted to talk about the war that much.
“He was a very quiet and stoical man and I think that was due to the effect the war had on him.
“But last year we read about Alfie Fripp [the previous oldest surviving PoW from the Second World War who died last year aged 98] and we knew that Dad was of a similar age to him and that he was a PoW for much of the war as well.
“Before he passed away he told us a little bit about his part in the war and we have managed to find out more information from genealogy website Forces War Records.”
Sgt Drake, an airman with 226 Squadron based at RAF Wattisham, Suffolk, crewed Blenheim bombers on raids on mainland Europe in the aftermath of the Dunkirk evacuation of 1940.
He survived one near miss in 1941 when the crew managed to return their badly-damaged bomber back to base. However, during a bombing raid on the German-controlled docks of Rotterdam, in Holland, his aircraft crash-landed.
The Blenheim bomber was struck by anti-aircraft flak and made a belly-landing in a field.
Mrs Britton said: “He found himself to one side of the crashed plane and he told us he overheard the other two crew members saying, ‘I think Reg has had it this time’.
“He got up, walked around to the other side of the aircraft and tapped them on the shoulder and said ‘I am still here’.”
While the three-man crew survived, all were taken prisoner.
Mrs Britton said: “I remember when Dad and I drove back from a Christmas service at our local church a few years ago and Silent Night had been one of the carols. He told me it reminded him of his first Christmas in captivity when they apparently had little food and were frozen and the German guards sang Silent Night outside their cells to taunt them.”
Sgt Drake endured the horrific forced marches across Eastern Europe as the Germans moved prisoners from the Russians who were advancing from the east.
Walking for days on end with little or no food, weak and ailing men were often beaten or bayoneted by their guards.
He had an incredibly fortunate escape on one occasion when the Allied PoWs were strafed by British fighter planes which mistook them for Germans.
About half of the men, including Sgt Drake, dived for cover in a ditch on one side of the road. Many of the men who sheltered on the opposite side were killed.
Sgt Drake was moved to Stalag Luft III at Sagan, Poland, in May 1942, where he spent 11 months. In July 1944 he took part in a forced march west from a prison camp at Heydekrug in Lithuania to Thorn in Poland.
After the war Sgt Drake worked as a local government officer at Norfolk County Council.
He had met his wife Vera before the war and they had to wait until 1945 to get married.
The couple lived at Waterloo Park Avenue, off Aylsham Road, and had three children; Clive, 66, Richard, 63 and Helen, six grandchildren and a great-grandchild.
Sgt Drake, who more recently lived at Harriett Court, Lakenfields, in Norwich, enjoyed good health until he developed pneumonia shortly before his 100th birthday and died a week later on July 21.
His funeral was held on Friday at Christ Church, in New Catton.
Mrs Britton said: “I believe that Dad, after all his experiences of war, was very happy to have a wife whom he adored, and family, and that providing stability for all of us was the cornerstone of his life.”
Tim Hayhoe, managing director of Forces War Records, said: “Following a lifetime of silence on the subject, Reg Drake’s daughter got in touch with us for information that her father had kept to himself.
“We found out the previous oldest PoW died in January 2013 - he was a little over a month older than Reg Drake and the chances of there being anyone else between those two are fairly low.”
He added: “You can’t underestimate the debt this country owes people like Reg.
“After the fall of Dunkirk, bombing raids on mainland Europe were the only way Britain could strike back at Germany for a while until the desert war and the eventual invasion of France.
“Bomber Command was one of the riskiest jobs of the war. Reginald Drake would have seen a lot of colleagues either killed, wounded or taken prisoner when he volunteered for it.”
“We’re losing a tangible link to the past every time someone like Reg passes away. It’s wonderful to think someone who spent five years of his life, at a relatively tender age, suffering deprivation in the hands of the enemy not only survived the war but went on to lead such a long and happy life.
“Now he deserves to be remembered for what he did for the country.”
It is thought that Ernest Taylor, from Christow, Devon, is now Britain’s oldest PoW still alive.
Mr Taylor, who was held by the Japanese at the notorious Changi camp in Singapore in World War Two, has just turned 100.
• Share your wartime memories of Norwich. Write to Letters, Prospect House, Rouen Road, Norwich NR1 1RE.