The Airmen's Stories - P/O W M L Fiske
William Meade Lindsley Fiske III was born on 4th June 1911 in Chicago, the son of a wealthy banking family whose ancestors had gone to America from Suffolk in the seventeenth century.
His early schooling was in the US but he went to university in England, at Trinity Hall, Cambridge, arriving in 1928 to study Economics and History. His studies were interweaved with sport of all kinds though his major accomplishment was winning, at the age of 16, a gold medal at the 1928 Winter Olympics at St Moritz, Switzerland (below).
This was for leading the US bobsleigh team to victory and he would lead the team again in 1932 at Lake Placid, New York.
In 1936 the Games were held in Garmisch-Partenkirchen in Germany but Fiske relinquished his team place as he wanted nothing to do with the Nazi regime.
Golf was another major interest and this added to what we would now call his 'celebrity status' as he travelled to and from tournaments in his British Racing green 4.5-litre Bentley (below).
Working for the family firm Dillon, Reed and Co., he was sent by them to their London office in 1938. Here he combined work with taking flying lessons (there is evidence that he had undergone flying training while at home in the US too), qualifying in the same year.
On 8th September 1938 he married Rose Bingham, formerly the Countess of Warwick, at Maidenhead Register Office (above).
Early in 1939 the firm recalled him to New York.
Tension was already high following the German takeover of Austria and Czechoslovakia and on 3rd September England would declare war on Germany following that country’s invasion of Poland. One of Billy’s English friends in New York anticipated being called up and arranged a passage to England on the Aquitania for 30th August. This friend, William Clyde (also known as Billy), was already a pilot and member of the reserve RAF unit 601 (County of London) Squadron, Auxiliary Air Force. He is pictured below (photo courtesy Jack Riddle).
Above: Billy Clyde
Billy Fiske opted to join him and on arrival enlist in the RAF. He was under no obligation to do so and in fact risked severe penalties should the US authorities choose to pursue and charge him with ‘fighting for a foreign power’.
Also at that time the RAF was not interested in recruiting non-British and non-Commonwealth citizens and Billy had to weave a complex story in order to pass himself off as Canadian.
Despite being a pilot already he had to follow the military training programme and was posted to 10 Elementary Flying Training School at Yatesbury, Wiltshire followed by a stint at 2 FTS Brize Norton. While here he lodged his wife nearby at Minster Lovell.
Above: Fiske is seated centre, front row.
On 12th April 1940 he was commissioned as Acting Pilot Officer and on 12th July was posted to his friend Billy Clyde’s unit, 601 Squadron, Auxiliary Air Force, at Tangmere, Sussex. It is fair to assume that this posting was the result of some more string-pulling by Fiske, who is pictured below.
Fiske should have felt immediately at home as 601 had a history of recruiting from the members of Whites Club in St. James, London’s clubland. Fiske was a member and would have already met many of his future squadron colleagues there. Several of the squadron's core members had private means and came from prestigious families, leading 601 to be called 'The Millionaires Squadron'.
Above: Fiske's groundcrew, their names regrettably unknown. His Hurricane has the early war black/white underside to aid identification. The 601 Squadron 'Flying Sword' badge is carried plus the aircraft code letter 'H' to aid head-on identification when on the ground.
But apparently Fiske was preceded by a playboy image and there was some doubt that he would be able to pull his weight. But within days his engaging character and above-average flying skills ensured that he was fully accepted. Unusually he had been posted to 601 without having flown a Hurricane and his first flight in one was on the 14th July. He had only accumulated eleven hours on this aircraft when he flew his first operational sortie on 20th July.
Further patrols ensued and on 13th August he claimed a Ju88 shot down.
On 16th August 601 Squadron was scrambled to intercept a formation of Ju87 Stuka aircraft that were in fact heading for 601's base at Tangmere. Individual combats broke out as the Stukas dropped their bombs and headed out to sea over Pagham harbour.
Fiske's Hurricane P3358 was hit, presumably by return fire from a Stuka's gunner, but though the engine had stopped Fiske was able to glide over the airfield boundary and make a wheels-up landing. The aircraft immediately burst into flames. Two ground crew, Corporal GW Jones and AC2 CG Faulkner, drove an ambulance over to the aircraft, unstrapped Fiske and lifted him out. They had to extinguish a fire in his lower clothing before placing him on a stretcher and driving to the Medical building. Minutes earlier this building had received a direct hit and was extensively damaged.
Interviewed in 2003, the Medical Officer, the late Flying Officer Courtney Willey explained that he was inside and had been crushed by the chimney breast falling on him. Injured, but saved from a fatal blow by his tin helmet, he emerged from the ruins to be confronted by Jones and Faulkner bringing the stretcher bearing Fiske to him. With both eardrums punctured by the blast, Willey had to convey to them by sign language to take Fiske to Chichester Hospital. He first administerd a dose of morphine but said in 2003 that he was very pessimistic about Fiske's chances of survival due to the severe burns to his lower body.
Fiske died the next day at the hospital. He was 29 years old.
For their conduct that day Willey was awarded the Military Cross and Jones and Faulkner the Military Medal. Willey (above) was most unusual (being non-aircrew) in having his portrait drawn by Cuthbert Orde. Geoffrey Faulkner is pictured below.
(F/O Willey was captured by the Japanese in Singapore in 1941 and endured years of deprivation as a prisoner. He and one other doctor were responsible for over 1000 prisoners but had little equipment or medicine. On occasion he stole drugs from the Japanese, if caught he would have been beheaded.)
Fiske's funeral took place on 20th August 1940 at Boxgrove Priory Church, just across the (now) A27 from Tangmere. Fiske's colleagues being in action, as they were most days, the coffin was borne into the churchyard by six members of the ground staff at Tangmere.
On the 4th July (Independence Day) 1941 a tablet in his honour was unveiled in the crypt of St. Paul's Cathedral, the Secretary of State for Air Sir Archibald Sinclair saying "Here was a young man for whom life held much. Under no kind of compulsion he came to fight for Britain. He came and he fought, and he died".
Below: his wings are displayed below the plaque.
On 23rd September 2002 Fiske's now pitted and illegible headstone was replaced and re-dedicated (below).
On 17th September 2008 a memorial window was dedicated within Boxgrove Priory. This project was driven by the 601 Squadron Old Comrades Association and in particular the late Reggie Spooner and Jack Riddle, the latter flew with Billy in the Battle and knew him well. For photographs click here
The American volunteers that flew with the RAF in the Battle are the subject of a book "The Few" by Alex Kershaw ISBN 978-0-718-14746-4
In 1980 Fiske's fellow pilot from 601 Squadron, Gordon Neil 'Mouse' Cleaver wrote to an enthusiast enquiring about Fiske (transcript below).
St. James Street
June 25 1980
Dear Mr. Hendrick,
The reason for this late reply to your letter of April 30 is that I have been over here in London having a bit of heart trouble fixed, pace-maker etc, and have only just had a batch of mail forwarded in from Paris.
Re Billy Fiske, he was one of my best and oldest friends, his father worked in Europe and Billy was brought up and educated over here (at one time he held the Cambridge (university) - London record in the old pre war 8 litre Bentley !!), and he knew all the 601 boys already before the war.
So when he joined the RAF straight off at the outset (incidentally being deprived of his U.S. citizenship) we got him posted to 601 as soon as he finished his initial training. He was shot down over Tangmere, he was on fire but thought it was just a glycol leak vapourising and didn't bail out. Of course the moment he touched down it went up in flames, he died of burns 48 hours later.
I was at the unveiling of the plaque in St Paul's by the Secretary of State for Air. His words as far as I can remember them may interest you. He said "Here was a man who being of a neutral country was under no obligation to fight in our war, but the pilots of 601 were his friends. In peace time he had gamed with them and he had played with them, and when the stakes got high he stayed with them".
He was buried as you say in Boxgrove, Sussex.
He was never at Biggin Hill or had any connection with the Eagle Squadrons. I did have a snapshot of myself and Billy, but I think I gave it to his niece I'll look when I get back to Paris.
Yours sincerely, Neil Cleaver