Billy Fisk, the first American pilot to die in WWII, was an Olympic double gold medalist who sacrificed his life for an ideal, not a Nation.
” Never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few.”
This famous declaration, from a speech by Sir Winston Churchill, has become revered as one of the most important in British history. But it is often forgotten that amongst the glorious ” few” were pilots who were not British or even subjects of the Empire. In total 595 were foreign pilots from 13 other nations comprising 20% of the RAF’s total fliers. Without them, the Battle of Britain may have taken a very different course, as the attrition rate amongst British pilots was so considerable it is doubtful they could have maintained air superiority over the Luftwaffe alone.
The Olympian Blue Blood
William Meade Lindsley Fiske III (4 June 1911 – 17 August 1940) was the USA1928 and 1932 Olympic champion bobsled driver. He later became one of 11 American pilots who flew with RAF Fighter Command between 10 July and 31 October 1940, thereby qualifying for the Battle of Britain clasp. Tragically he also became the first American pilot to die in World War II.
Billy was born into a wealthy New York banking family in 1911. His family were blue-bloods. They could trace their American roots right back to the Mayflower, and this affluent upbringing brought him many opportunities. By the age of 16, he was a veteran of the Cresta Run in St Moritz and this early affinity with speed and risk made him a logical, if youthful, choice to drive one of the American bobsleighs at the 1928 Olympics. Fiske was assigned to USA II. His number two was an Englishman, ironically passing himself off as an American, by the name of Clifford ‘Tipper’ Grey. Fiske became the youngest man to win a Winter Olympic gold. For 64 years, he remained the youngest man to ever win a gold medal at the Winter Olympics.
“I have done the right thing.”
Fiske, a lifelong Anglophile, moved to England after the Olympics, to study economics and history at Trinity Hall, Cambridge and subsequently married an Englishwoman. He became great friends with the actor David Niven, and when Britain declared war, Fiske became one of the first to volunteer. He wrote of his motives
“The English, have been damn good to me in good times so naturally, I feel I ought to try and help out in bad if I can. There are absolutely no heroics in my motives, I’m probably twice as scared as the next man, but if anything happens to me I at least can feel I have done the right thing.”
However the US government strongly disapproved of their citizens entering the war, so Fiske used forged Canadian papers and his contacts to get into 601 Squadron based at Tangmere, Sussex.
The Millionaires Squadron
601 squadron was one of the most prestigious outfits in the RAF.- the so-called “Millionaires’ Squadron. It gained its nickname for filling its ranks mainly with the ‘well-heeled’. Like the adventurer Fiske, most of these affluent young pilots had little regard for the rigid discipline of the regular service; they lined their uniform tunics with bright red silk and wore blue ties rather than the regulation black. They played polo on brand-new motorcycles, drove fast sports cars, and most of the pilots owned their own private aircraft.
This frivolous attitude translated to his flying and Ed Murrow, the American broadcaster, claimed that Fiske had scored six hits in his one-month spell in 601. This apparently included an incident where Fiske, having run out of ammunition, forced an enemy aircraft into a barrage balloon.
“The Best Pilot I have ever known.”
On the 16th August 1940, the Battle of Britain was at its height. That day the German Air Force launched over 1,700 sorties against airfields and radar stations in the South of England hoping to destroy British air capability. Fiske became isolated hunting down a Stuka bomber and got into a dog fight with three Merchesmit fighters. His cockpit in flames and with his hands and ankles burnt, instead of bailing out, Fiske nursed his Hurricane home and in one final piece of breathtaking skill, glided over a hedgerow to the airfield.
Medics rushed to the burning aircraft where Fiske was trapped. His flight commander remembered ‘I taxied up to it and got out. There were two ambulancemen there. They had got Billy Fiske out of the cockpit, but they didn’t know how to take off the parachute, so I showed them. Billy was burned about the hands and ankles.”
His desperately needed aircraft was saved, and flying again within days, but the next day Fiske died of his wounds and shock.’ He was just 29. He became the first American pilot to die in WWII and the eighth RAF pilot to be killed in fighting on that day.
Fiske’s Flight Commander, Sir Archibald Philip Hope, 17th Baronet, stated;
Unquestionably Billy Fiske was the best pilot I’ve ever known. It was unbelievable how good he was. He picked up so fast it wasn’t true. He’d flown a bit before, but he was a natural as a fighter pilot. He was also terribly nice and extraordinarily modest, and fitted into the squadron very well.
Remembered by the British Nation
On 4 July 1941, a plaque was unveiled in the crypt of St Paul’s Cathedral. The inscription simply but poignantly reads: ‘An American citizen who died that England might live’.
During WWI more American troops were incapacitated by venereal disease than by German bullets. To see how the Government dealt with this sensitive issue read my story on The American armies war on VD
The Black American serviceman was treated much differently in the UK than he was accustomed to back in the USA. This lead to friction and a deadly riot when black and white GI’s went to war against themselves. Find out how this deadly riot was covered up by the Authorities for years in Black soldiers in WWII the Battle of Bamber Bridge