The Airmen's Stories - F/O B M Fisher
In St. John’s churchyard, Eton, there stands an unassuming Cornish grey granite headstone in the form of a cross. It bears the simple inscription: ‘Basil Mark Fisher, Flying Officer R.A.F.V.R, Killed
in Action Battle of Britain, 15th August 1940, Aged 23’.
Alongside are two further war graves: a young Sergeant Pilot killed in a raid over Düsseldorf, the other a casualty of the Battle for Normandy.
The grave hides a poignant Eton story, and one of the Battle of Britain’s most enduring tragedies.
Antony George Anson Fisher and his younger brother Basil were born on 28th June 1915 and 8th October 1916 respectively.
Their father George Kenneth Thompson Fisher (1879 - 1917) was serving as an officer with the 4th Battalion, Norfolk Regiment at the start of WW1 and sailed on 29th July 1915 with the battalion from Liverpool to Gallipoli. He took part in the landing at Suvla Bay (8th/15th August 1915). Awarded a Military Cross (gazetted 15th March 1916) and a Mention in Dispatches (gazetted 9th September 1916), he was invalided back to the UK with dysentery.
Recovered, he rejoined his Regiment in Egypt on 18th March 1917.
On a night patrol on 2nd/3rd September 1917 he was fatally wounded by a Turkish sniper. He is buried in Gaza War Cemetery.
His two sons were brought up by their widowed mother Janet (nee Anson) (below) and the brothers remained extremely close throughout their childhood.
Antony joined Eton College in 1928, to be followed by Basil in 1930, both boarding in Jourdelay's House. Of modest academic ability and reserved to the point of shyness (apart from when it came to dancing), Antony took great pride in his younger brother’s considerable achievements at Eton. Basil was extrovert and popular amongst his peers, and quickly established himself as an excellent sportsman.
By the time he left the school, Basil had captained the Oppidans in the 1934 Wall Game, and helped Eton to a resounding success against Harrow at Lord's in 1935 as wicket keeper (both below).
He was also President of Pop, a prestigious prefects' society (below).
Basil’s great friend at Eton was Nicholas Elliott, son of the Head Master, and they were almost inseparable. On one memorable occasion, Basil accompanied the Elliott family on a holiday to Kenya, travelling by Sunderland flying boat from Southampton to Africa, via Lake Como and the Nile.
Above: Basil and Elliott, thought to be setting off on their Kenya trip.
Basil, accompanied by Nicholas Elliott, followed Antony to Trinity College, Cambridge; he took Modern History and Languages, and Antony read Engineering. The brothers lived a carefree
and privileged life of the pre-war generation – speeding through the Cambridge countryside in their sports cars, with gregarious Basil dragging Antony to parties and social events. Later the
brothers moved into a flat in Mayfair, and lived in some style.
However, the brothers took their academic studies seriously, Antony considering a career in business, Basil as a diplomat. Both brothers joined the University Air Squadron and were commissioned into the RAFVR in
1938. Avid fliers, they purchased their own Vega Gull aeroplane – partly to impress girlfriends – which they flew around Europe. The plane was, however, rented out three weeks out of four to pay for its upkeep (below).
At the outbreak of war, the brothers therefore had some 200 hours on their flying licenses, whereas some young pilots had as few as nine before they flew into combat. When their mother Janet died just before war, Antony and Basil grew ever closer.
Once war was declared, the brothers were called to full-time service, and posted to 111 Squadron after completing mandatory training; Antony in March 1940 as a Pilot Officer at Wick, Basil in May as a Flying Officer, the squadron was then at Croydon. 111 Squadron were regularly on patrol during the Dunkirk evacuations, and thereafter provided fighter cover for merchant shipping in the English Channel.
Above: Basil Fisher, second from right, in front of a Harvard training aircraft.
Basil was victim of a ‘friendly fire’ incident on 10th July 1940, mistaken by a Spitfire as hostile, and his Hurricane was fired upon, ripping holes in the tail plane and sending bullets through the petrol tank and wings. However, he managed to nurse his aeroplane home, physically unscathed.
Above: Basil and Antony (colourised by Richard James Molloy).
15th August 1940 dawned cloudy; it would be just another day in the South of England, where the population had become familiar with the sight and sound of furious dogfights between the RAF and Luftwaffe since the Battle had begun in July. However, it was a day that was to see the fiercest fighting of the Battle so far, which Anthony Eden, the Secretary of State for War, would later describe as “one of the critical days of the war”.
The Luftwaffe flew 2,000 sorties that day, attacking across the Channel, targeting industrial sites, ports and airfields, across a front of 500 miles; so many plots appeared on radar, that operators could not distinguish between incoming formations. A Daily Express reporter watching the vast horde wrote that numbers were so great “as to make an aluminium ceiling to the sky”.
The day became a disaster for the Germans – referred to as ‘Black Thursday’ – with the loss of sixty-two aircraft. 15th
August 1940 witnessed the first daylight raid on north-eastern England, the first fall of bombs on a London suburb, with every squadron in south-east England in operational combat at some point during the day.
Both Fishers were in action in the early afternoon over Kent.
Then at around 17.45 hours, the call came again “Treble-one Squadron Scramble!”.
High over Selsey Bill, the squadron made determined head-on attacks against a formation of enemy aircraft comprising Ju88 bombers and their fighter escort, Me110s. The Hurricanes
of 111 Squadron tore into the bombers, and – in an action possibly unique in the history of the RAF – the two Fisher brothers jointly attacked and destroyed one of the Ju88s near Thorney Island.
Only seconds later, triumph was superseded by tragedy, as Basil’s Hurricane P3944 was hit by return fire from one of the bombers. Flying alongside his brother’s stricken plane, Antony offered what protection and encouragement he could in the melée of the ongoing battle. However, any relief Antony felt on watching Basil bale out was replaced by the horror of seeing his brother’s parachute on fire. As the fire intensified and burnt through the harness straps, Antony helplessly witnessed Basil freefall to his death. Basil hit the ground near Selsey gasholder at 5.51 p.m., and his Hurricane was seen to dive, swoop, turn and bank erratically several times before crashing into a barn at Greenwoods Farm.
Somehow, Antony composed himself sufficiently to return to Croydon, but was only on the ground for minutes – possibly insufficient time for the Squadron Commander to be given the news of Basil’s death – when the squadron was again scrambled to intercept a further raid at around 19.05 hours. Another intense air battle ensued, but when 111 Squadron returned to their base at Croydon, they found it ablaze. Having lost his brother only an hour or so previously, Antony found both the Officers’ Mess, and the quarters he had shared with Basil, a pile of smouldering rubble. Both his and Basil’s personal possessions, including their flying logbooks, had been destroyed.
Several of the brothers’ groundcrew were also killed in the attack on Croydon, and the adjutant later recorded that Pilot Officer Antony Fisher was unable to file a combat report for the day, being placed on leave suffering a nervous breakdown.
Following the death of his sibling, Antony had a mere few days - whilst suffering from extreme trauma himself - to make decisions about Basil’s funeral. The only place that Antony could think to have his brother buried was at the heart of the school that Basil had loved so well, and where he had shown such promise only a few years previously. Flying Officer Basil Mark Fisher was laid to rest on 20th August 1940 in Eton St. John’s, with military honours. The event - being a private family ceremony, and taking place during the summer holiday - passed unmarked in official College records.
However, on that day - the same day that Churchill gave his ‘Few’ speech to the House of Commons - there appeared an obituary in The Times:
"It is difficult to write with restraint about the death of Basil Fisher. Perhaps his most salient characteristics were an extreme modesty and an almost childlike integrity which survived the buffeting of youth and early manhood. His attitude was never influenced by the affection he
inspired…Yet he inspired a respect which was all the greater because he never laid claim to it. Once he had made up his mind he was hard to move and the doggedness with which he stuck to his examination work, which was often uncongenial, is witness to his tenacity and sense of duty. But beyond this there was about him a simplicity and an unworldly charm that will remain an imperishable memory with all who knew him. As ever, war takes the best".
The obituary bears the signature ‘C.A.E’, which the author assumes to be Claude Aurelius Elliott, then Head Master; it is highly likely that Claude Elliott would have attended Basil’s funeral.
Antony Fisher did not fly operationally again but served as a flying instructor before returning to Fighter Command, renamed Air Defence Great Britain in 1943.
Concerned by the poor gunnery skills of RAF pilots, he examined film footage from aircraft combat cameras and realised that many pilots either ignored the basic principles of gunnery or simply did not know them. He knew that success with a gun depended on ‘laying off ’when firing, in order to allow for the movement of the target.
The result of his deliberations was the ‘Fisher Trainer’, a ground-based
system which enabled recruits to fire at a simulated target that moved as it might in battle and to record their success. This was later superceded by the camera gun, which enabled pilots to aim at real targets and subsequently to analyse the film footage with an instructor.
For this work he was awarded the AFC (gazetted 1st September 1944) and was released from the RAF as a Squadron Leader in 1945.
Fisher worked in the City before taking up dairy farming in Sussex, this ended when his herd was destroyed by foot-and-mouth disease in 1951. He next studied mass poultry farming techniques in the USA and brought them back to the UK, resulting in the very successful Buxted Chicken Company.
In 1955 he founded the Institute of Economic Affairs, which greatly influenced Britain's economic policy under Mrs. Thatcher. He was also active in the Atlas Economic Research Foundation, the Centre for Independent Studies, the Fraser Institute and the Institute of Economic Affairs.
Antony Fisher never recovered from the death of his brother; it exacerbated the bouts of depression from which he suffered, and - whilst he named his firstborn (born a year to the day after Basil’s funeral) ‘Basil Mark Fisher’ - thereafter Antony preferred to call his son ‘Mark’, and rarely spoke Basil’s name, or of what had occurred on 15th August 1940.
Antony sent both his sons to Eton, and (Basil) Mark Fisher remembers an occasion during a tutorial with DH Macindoe, his classical tutor, a former schoolfriend of Basil, and a member of the opposing College Wall Game team during the 1934 match on St. Andrew’s Day.
Mark had not been paying attention during the lesson, and by his own admission was not giving it his all. Macindoe called him up to his desk and said: “Fisher, your Uncle did not give up his life for you to muck about - step closer.” And with that, he picked up a huge leather-bound thesaurus and dropped it on Mark’s head. In due course, Mark
Fisher learned to be hugely grateful, and cites this incident as a turning point in his life.
Antony Fisher was knighted in June 1988 and died in San Francisco on 8th July of that year from heart disease.
Until his own death, Antony continued to pay for a local gardener to maintain Basil’s grave in Eton, and expressed some anxiety as to what would happen to the grave thereafter. His son, Mark Fisher, continued to pay the gardener for some years, until the bills ceased to come.
In 2014, Kate Pierce, Head of German at Eton College saw three war graves from her window and encouraged her tutor group to help
clear them, with no idea that one was the grave of an OE. Six months later, Sarah Warren (School Librarian), during a piece of research found Basil’s grave and Kate’s wreath upon it; thereafter, they have looked after Basil’s grave together.
Members of the Fisher family visit the grave on 15th August each year in a continuing act of remembrance. Basil’s headstone makes no mention of the fact that he had attended Eton, and yet he is believed to be the only OE war casualty buried within the bounds of the College. Nicholas Pierce won the F Block Birchall Prize for Community Service during lockdown for his work maintaining the grave, representing a new generation of Etonians who have come to appreciate the sacrifice of their forebears.
Basil Mark Fisher is commemorated on the Eton War Memorial in the Colonnade, and on the Eton Town War Memorial.
(With grateful thanks to the Fisher Family, and from the original text by Sarah Warren, Eton College School Librarian).
The webpage of his brother Antony can be seen here.
Above: Basil's Leaver book (found in barn and restored to the family in 2017).
Above: Antony's sons Mark and Michael.