The Commando family loses a life-long member
April 2, 1927-December 2022
Victorian Commando Association members were saddened to learn of the death in late December of Rita Drakopoulos, aged 95. Rita was the widow of the 2 Commando Company CSM, Warrant Officer George “Taffy” Drakopoulos, who drowned in the tragic Rip incident in 1960.
On the evening of February 17, 1960, 2 Commando Company set off in various army watercraft on a training exercise from Point Lonsdale to Point Nepean, simulating a raid which involved them crossing the infamous Rip at the entrance to Port Phillip.
The weather changed unexpectedly and kayaks, Zodiacs, DUKWs (amphibious vehicle) and safety craft capsized or were swept out to sea through the Port Phillip heads, encountering massive seas. The DUKW of “Taffy” Drakopoulos and Eddie Meyer sank. Both men were in the water for hours and died before they could be rescued. (Elsewhere, Roger Wood selflessly helped his fellow commandos up a rope ladder on the Italian liner Toscana to safety from their Zodiac inflatable, only then to be flung into the sea and lost somewhere beyond the Rip.)
Taffy had transferred into 2 Commando Company in October 1955, one of the very early members. Rita and Taffy were great friends with several of the “originals” of the fledgling company. After Taffy’s loss many of his unit friends gave great support to Rita and her family, including continuing the building of the family home.
The Commando family. Rita with, from left, then 2 Company OC Major Chris Wallis, Major Steve Pilmore, David Drakopoulos, Denis Kelly, Dona Drakopoulos and Helen Kelly at the 2006 service.
When Taffy died, Rita was aged 32 with two young children, David and Denise.
David said Rita was a “brave little bugger” and all the family agreed that the word that summed her up was “selfless”. He said Rita looked after the interests of all of her family ahead of her own.
Rita’s early forebears were from the Faroe Islands in the North Sea, between Scotland and Iceland and were of Viking ancestry. Her closer ancestors were convicts on the Second Fleet that went to Norfolk Island and were then cruelly sent empty-handed to Tasmania.
Rita was a draft technician at the Fishermans Bend aircraft factory during the later war years. She was then a geriatric nurse for 25 years, managing the physical demands of her tasks better than many of her bigger colleagues, David recalled.
In 1986, the 2 Commando Company memorial rock, inspired by David Waterston, was dedicated at the unit headquarters at Fort Gellibrand. The original plaque recorded the names of the six unit members who had died in training, including Taffy. Rita and her family caught up with former comrades of Taffy for the first time in many years.
At the time, only three years after the Victorian Commando Association was formed, president Roman Stuczynski said: “There were many familiar faces, a few tears and emotions … from now on (Rita) will not be short of friends.”
In January 2000, thanks to the sterling work of many association members and supporters, Association patron General Sir Phillip Bennett unveiled a memorial at Shortlands Bluff at Queenscliff, overlooking the Port Phillip Heads – the Rip. It was dedicated to Eddie Meyer, 41 Amphibious Platoon, Roger Wood and Taffy. Rita and her family attended, and she later wrote to president John Addison, “It’s impossible for me to describe my feelings, but you all gave me a day to remember forever”.
Every year since, Rita and her family members attended the annual Rip memorial service, held in February. Some years there were four generations – she was a great-grandmother. She was often supported by her brother-in-law, Dennis “Ned” Kelly. Dennis was a WWII air force veteran who parachuted from his bullet-riddled Lancaster aircraft over German-occupied France and finally escaped with the help of partisans. He was later awarded the French Legion of Honour.
Rita found the annual Rip commemorations most supportive and enjoyed catching up with those who had known Taffy during their service together. The wife of a former unit member who also went through the Rip incident once remarked to Rita that she, Rita, was fortunate to have a gathering each year to remember Taffy. Rita replied it was very comforting, and she enjoyed and appreciated catching up with Taffy’s old friends each year, especially as they recounted memories of him.
The association and members kept in touch and Rita was a guest at anniversary functions. She was also bestowed honorary membership of the association to make it easier for her to stay in contact and receive correspondence and publications.
President John Addison earlier presented to Rita a bayonet, beautifully mounted on a polished timber stand crafted by Richard Godden. It was retrieved from the Rip in 1960 and was passed on to the association by Queenscliff fisherman Lewis Ferrier, who was involved during the Rip episode.
Rita Drakopoulos with her son and daughter David and Denise, cousins Denis and Helen Kelly and grandchildren, prepare to place flowers on the Rip memorial at Shortlands Bluff in Queenscliff.
Before the 50th anniversary of the Rip incident in 2010 Rita sat with president Peter Beasley and other members in interviews at Portsea for an article for The Age.
Rita’s last attendance at the Rip service was early last year. Her son David said she died peacefully in her sleep in hospital and by her wishes had a private cremation. She finally joined Taffy, her only life partner, when her ashes were placed beside his at the Springvale Botanical Cemetery.
All association members offer their sincere sympathy to David, Denise and all members of Rita’s extended family.
Barry Higgins had help with this tribute from Rita’s son David and her granddaughter Dona Drakopoulos.