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Dmitry Yudo aka Overlord, jack of all trades
David Lister aka Listy, Freelancer and Volunteer

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Low Bridge Ahead!

In April 1892 Christopher Draper was born in Cheshire. He would lead an eventful life, centred on flying. He first became interested in flying in 1909 when Louis Blériot flew across the Channel. Lacking the funding to obtain a flying licence he wrote to a friend of his father, the ex-MP and insurance broker Joseph Hoult. This gentleman gave the young Draper £210 on the strict conditions he told no one about the gift. 
Hoult worked in the insurance industry, giving cover to ships during war time. He also donated a large sum of cash to attempt to get Liverpool ready for the First World War, and during that conflict was one of the opening backers of the idea for making payments to merchant captains who rammed and sunk U-boats (for further reading either see the piece on Bell's Submarine, available here or here). 
Now that Draper had the money he obtained his pilot's licence, however he was now unemployed. He then took up a short service commission with the Royal Navy starting in January 1914. After the war broke out Draper was stationed in Scotland for anti-submarine patrols and home defence. During this time, he flew a seaplane under a bridge over the Firth of Tay. 

Later on in the war Draper and his squadron were sent to France. As he was picking up his Sopwith 1 1/2 Strutter from the Sopwith works he saw a low footbridge between the hangars of the works and a nearby race course and promptly flew under it. 
During his time overseas he had quite a few encounters, including forcing down Werner Voss. He also spent time bombing enemy airship sheds, and balloon busting. In total he would get twelve victories during the war. Some of his pilots after the event describe a great many patrols where no enemy was sighted, which have led some to consider Draper lacking the warrior instinct to fight. However, he clearly would fight if called upon to do so. He also didn't take well to discipline. 
Draper was transferred back to Britain after a blazing row with one of his commanding officers. It wouldn't do his prospects any harm however. At the end of December 1917 he was promoted to Major and proceeded to command Naval Squadron Number Eight. On the first of April the RNAS became merged with the RFC and became the RAF, Naval 8 became No 208 squadron. Most of the pilots and ground crew kept calling it 'Naval 8'. Major Draper refused to change his uniform from the black naval dress to the new RAF blues. Equally he kept referring to himself as a Major, not a Squadron Commander. 
A week after this amalgamation the Germans launched their spring offensive and tore through the front lines. At the time No 208 was stationed at La Gorgue supporting the Portuguese troops to their front. At about 0400 the Squadron was roused by the sounds of heavy fighting at the front line. This was somewhat muffled by the dense fog that lay over the aerodrome. Slowly heavy shelling began to pick up hitting nearby towns and villages. Soon French civilians were fleeing past the squadron's position, followed closely on their heels by Portuguese troops, who had no visible officers and had abandoned their arms and equipment. Draper ordered the planes moved out of the hangars and dispersed, and for the squadron to begin packing. 
Most of the Squadron asked to be allowed to try and take off in the dense fog, however Draper refused seeing the risks were too great. He ordered all the aircraft collected in one point at the centre of the airfield so that a single officer with a motorcycle could remain and fire the aircraft and escape should the Germans overrun their position. With these precautions in place Draper attempted to contact his HQ, however, the phone lines were down so the switchboard was ordered to pack and leave. The ammunition supply column and the ground crew had lost a lot of their equipment but had gotten most of their personnel out. The squadrons mounts were fired and the last personnel left by 1130. It says much of the disparity between the Germans and the Allies considering the fact that No 208 was fully re-equipped and flying again within 48 hours. 
After the war Draper tried to become a second-hand car sales man, but this venture soon folded and he became a test pilot. In 1920 he was part of the RAF aerobatics display team, and took part in the first Hendon air show in 1921. He resigned in October. For the next few years he became an actor and stunt pilot. However, by 1930 he was unhappy with the treatment of war veterans (at the time the world was in the grip of the great depression so everyone's situation was looking bleak). He rented a Puss Moth and set out to make a demonstration by flying under all 14 of the bridges over the River Thames. Due to the weather conditions he only managed to fly under two. 
 His action did have positive benefits, it was caught on film and Draper received more offers of employment and had a more successful acting career from then on. In 1932 Draper was invited to take part in the 'Aces of the Air' tour. In Germany he was introduced, and spent half an hour talking to a German politician named Adolf Hitler. As Hitler was a veteran Draper was quite vocal in his views about how the British government was lacking in supporting veterans. 
When back in the UK Draper was written to by a German doctor asking him to spy for the Germans. Draper immediately reported this series of events to MI6, and thus became a double agent. This lasted for another four years before the Germans just simply stopped responding. 
During the Second World War Draper re-enlisted in the RAF and spent a lot of time in Coastal Command and Africa. 
 After the war Draper was once again upset about the discrimination against people over the age of 45. As part of the Over 45s Association, Draper decided it was time for another protest. He rented an Auster and decided to fly under all eighteen of the bridges over the Thames. He managed fifteen aborting on three due to the wind conditions. When interviewed afterwards about the aborts on some of the bridges Draper retorted 'I only had one engine you know!' 
Draper was arrested for disturbing the peace. He fully expected to have his pilots licences revoked and declared: 
'I did it for the publicity. For 14 months I have been out of a job, and I'm broke. I wanted to prove that I am still fit, useful and worth employing. They tell me I can be jailed, possibly for six months. It was my last-ever flight- I meant it as a spectacular swansong.' 

At court he was only fined ten guineas. His protest also served its cause creating much more publicity for the older person, and generating a wave of offers of jobs to the Over 45's Association. Draper kept his licence until 1964, and in his career flew seventy-three types of aircraft with some 17,000 hours flight time. Draper died in 1979 aged 86. 

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