Obituary: Nigel George Drever. Spitfire pilot and Great Escape POW

Spitfire pilot and Great Escape camp POW, Nigel Drever. Picture: Contributed
Spitfire pilot and Great Escape camp POW, Nigel Drever. Picture: Contributed
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Born: 19 January, 1920 in Edinburgh. Died: 16 July, 2016 in Reading, aged 96

The extraordinary courage of men like Nigel Drever epitomised the young aircrew singled out by Winston Churchill when he made his legendary House of Commons speech, now shorthand for The Few, in August 1940.

The Battle of Britain was raging with fighter pilots and bomber squadrons unstintingly taking to the skies day after day, night after night to defend the country and attack the enemy. The life expectancy of a Spitfire pilot was a shockingly short four weeks. Over the course of the war Bomber Command would lose more than 55,500 airmen.

Drever had already been in action early that summer during the Battle of France and subsequently survived Britain’s worst maritime disaster, the sinking of the troopship Lancastria which went down with the loss of thousands of lives.

He would go on to serve in the Battle of Britain before being shot down over France and held captive in Stalag Luft III POW camp where he helped to dig The Great Escape tunnels. Finally he was forced to endure the Death March from Poland in the brutal cold of January 1945 as the Germans fled the advancing Soviets.

When Churchill praised those undaunted and unwearied airmen, the horrors of what still lay ahead were unfathomable but his words embodied the sacrifice of the young fliers: “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”

Nigel George Drever was born in Edinburgh but brought up in Dundee and attended the city’s Harris Academy. Family circumstances meant he had to leave school early but a glowing report from his headmaster and this recommendation saw him join the RAF in May 1939. He was granted a short term commission as an acting pilot officer on 5 August, less than a month before Second World War broke out.

On completing his training he joined 98 Squadron, based in France flying Fairey Battle aircraft. But on 17 June, 1940, following the British retreat from Dunkirk and the fall of France, the squadron was evacuated and headed home on the SS Lancastria, a former Cunard liner requisitioned as a troopship.

More than 800 RAF crew were packed into the lower hold, thousands more soldiers were also aboard along with an unknown number of civilian refugees. Not long after the vessel left the port of St Nazaire she was bombed by the Luftwaffe.

Drever recalled his escape from the bowels of the ship: “It was the longest climb of my life, up one ladder, up another behind other airmen who were going so slow it seemed we would never see the light of day…I saw people bumping into each other as they scrambled on the upturned hull so I literally walked off alongside the propeller into the sea. The two lifeboats were almost waterlogged and I was forced away from them.”

Drever, one of the lucky ones rescued after several hours in the water, attributed his survival to having learned to swim in the cold, rough seas off Orkney.

Of 98 Squadron, 75 airmen were officially reported lost and a further 15 believed to have died. It’s not known exactly how many died but it ran into thousands, making it Britain’s worst maritime disaster.

Still just 20, Drever was posted to 4 Ferry Pilot Pool in July 1940 and joined 610 Squadron that September, flying Spitfires in the Battle of Britain.

As Churchill acknowledged, the young airman and his colleagues faced mortal danger daily in the air but, looking back on it decades later, Drever recalled matter-of-factly that there had been no time for fear: “You were going like hell and you don’t have time to start thinking about anything like that. We never thought we would die.”

But by 5 March, 1941, he had come close to it when he was shot down by a Messerschmitt Me 109 while escorting Blenheim aircraft to Boulogne. With the plane ablaze, he flipped the aircraft over and pushed off the cockpit cover. By the time he baled out he was so close to the ground that his parachute landed partially open in a tree where he was left dangling. He was quickly captured and held in a number of prison camps before being transported to Stalag Luft III, near Sagan in Lower Silesia.

The camp, for RAF officers, was the scene of constant escape plans, the most famous of which featured in the 1963 film The Great Escape. Although built on sandy soil to deter any underground digging, three tunnels were excavated in an ingenious construction campaign utilising ordinary items around the camp, including empty Klim tins (Milk spelled backwards) to create a ventilation pipe. Two of the tunnels, named Tom and Dick, were discovered by the German guards but work on the third, Harry, continued from its base under a stove in barrack 104.

Drever was one of the volunteer diggers who were divided into five teams of four working round the clock. The excavation, lit by electricity and reinforced by thousands of bed boards filched from the barracks, featured a railway for tunnel carriages and a couple of stops – Piccadilly Circus and Leicester Square. When it reached 111metres long, they began to build an exit shaft but the sandy walls often collapsed.

Drever once spoke about being caught in a collapse, recalling struggling for breath as comrades dragged him free by the ankles. The incident is said to have been featured in the film.

The whole operation was masterminded by Squadron Leader Roger Bushell and the secret X Committee who planned to get 200 men to freedom. By January 1944 the tunnel was ready and the men drew lots for a place on the escape list. Drever was unsuccessful, which he said was really just as well: on the night of 24 March the 77th man to emerge was spotted and shot. Fifty of those who made it out were recaptured and executed on Hitler’s orders. Only three escapees made the home run.

It was the biggest escape from Stalag Luft III but ended with horrific consequences. Drever was soon to endure further misery when, as the Soviet troops approached, his captors forced the POWs to march east to Spremberg, in deep snow and appalling sub-zero conditions. Many perished by the wayside before they were finally liberated by American soldiers the spring.

After demob he emigrated to Africa and became a plantation manager in Tanganyika. A keen member of the Caledonian Society when he lived there, he would celebrate Burns Night with specially imported haggis and Scotch. He later lived in Malta before moving to Andorra where he ran the Whisky Club café and delighted the locals with his demonstrations of the Gay Gordons.

He settled back in the UK and is survived by Carol from his first marriage, Angus and Clair from his second marriage, his grandchildren and one great grandchild.