Canadian-born Battle of Britain pilot dies in England

News Article / November 1, 2016

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Squadron Leader (retired) Percy Beake was one of only two known living Canadian-born Battle of Britain pilots. With his passing, Squadron Leader (retired) John Hart, who lives in British Columbia, is Canada’s last known living Battle of Britain pilot. Look under “Related Links” to read Mr. Hart’s story.

From RCAF Public Affairs

Percy Beake, a Canadian-born Spitfire pilot who served during the latter stages of the Battle of Britain, and as a commander of a Typhoon squadron in support of the D-Day landings and the campaign in Normandy, died in June 2016.

Until earlier this year, Mr. Beake and his wife, Evelyn, who were married for 75 years, lived together in a care home in the large village of Saltford, between the cities of Bath and Bristol, in Somerset, England. Mr. Beake died just five weeks after his wife.

Percival Harold Beake was born on March 17, 1917, in Montreal, Québec, to English parents. The family subsequently returned to Britain, where Mr. Beake attended Bristol Grammar School. He joined the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve in April 1939 and began training as a pilot.

In September 1940, after completing his training on Spitfires, he joined No. 64 Squadron in Yorkshire, before the squadron moved to Biggin Hill and then to an airfield in Norfolk. He flew patrols in the final stages of the Battle of Britain.

In June 1941 he asked to join a squadron at Biggin Hill in order to see more action. Flying Spitfires with No. 92 Squadron, he participated in many sweeps and escort missions over northern France. Returning from one of those sorties, he crash-landed in a field in Kent, having run out of fuel.

In July, Messerschmitt Bf 109s attacked him over the coast of France and damaged the radiator of his Spitfire. Shortly afterward, the aircraft’s engine seized and he was forced to bail out. Trapped in the cockpit, he flipped the aircraft over and fell clear, falling to the sea 18 miles south of Dover. He climbed into his dinghy but search aircraft failed to find him in the misty conditions. When he was finally picked up by an air-sea rescue launch, he was suffering from hypothermia, and was given a week’s leave.

On September 24, Bf 109s engaged Mr. Beake’s formation over France and in the ensuing fight he managed to damage one. He came off operations in April 1942, and served as an instructor at a fighter school.

In December, he was made flight commander of No. 193 Squadron. On the October 16, 1943, the Brazilian Ambassador to England visited Royal Air Force Station Harrowbeer to present No. 193 Squadron with nine rocket-firing Hawker Typhoon aircraft which had been paid for by the Fellowship of the Bellows of Brazil. The Fellowship of the Bellows was an international group formed during the conflict to collect funds for the purchase of aircraft for the RAF. Acting Squadron Leader Beake attended the presentation ceremony.

Over the following months, Squadron Leader Beake’s squadron attacked shipping, flew standing patrols over the south coast of England and dive-bombed V-1 sites under construction in the Pas de Calais. On February 8, 1944, during a sweep over Brittany, he shot down a Focke Wulf 190, and in May he was promoted to the substantive rank of squadron leader to take command of No. 164 Squadron.

Squadron Leader Beake was a seasoned fighter pilot when he took over command of No. 164. Operating from airfields on the south coast of England, he and his pilots attacked targets on the Normandy coast in preparation for the Allied invasion. On D-Day, the squadron was particularly busy, and on its third sweep over the beachhead, Squadron Leader Beake shot down a Focke Wulf 190 – the squadron’s first air-to-air success – about 13 kilometres east of Caen.

On July 17, 1944, the squadron moved to an airstrip at Sommervieu, near Bayeaux, in Normandy, from where it flew sorties directed by a ground controller, attacking enemy armour and troop concentrations. The Typhoons inflicted severe damage on the retreating German forces in support of the Canadian Army, but the squadrons’ losses were high.

Squadron Leader Beake guided his squadron through fierce battles around Falaise and the rapid Allied advance into Belgium that followed. In late summer 1944, he was mentioned in dispatches; in September, he was rested, and awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. The citation describes him as a “first class leader whose great skill, thoroughness and untiring efforts have contributed materially to the successes obtained”.

After his time with the squadron, Squadron Leader Beake joined the staff of the Fighter Leader’s School as an instructor. He was released from the RAF in January 1946. He resumed his career in the animal feed manufacturing business with Robinson’s, which became part of British Oil & Cake Mills and, later, Unilever. He became the manager of the feed mills at Selby and then in Exeter.

On October 16, 2009, Brazilian Air Attaché Colonel Cesar Estevam Barbosa visited RAF Harrowbeer to unveil a plaque commemorating the 1943 gift of nine Hawker Typhoons to No. 193 Squadron. Squadron Leader (retired) Percy Beake attended the ceremony.

In 2015, 71 years after his service during the liberation of France, the government of France appointed Squadron Leader (retired) Beake to the Legion d’honneur. He received the medal accompanying the honour from the French Consul to England.

Percy and Evelyn Beake are survived by two daughters, four grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

With files from the Exeter Express and Echo.

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