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 United States but he went to university in England, at Trinity Hall, Cambridge, arriving in 1928 to study Economics and History. His relished 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. This was with the US bobsleigh team and he would win another gold 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 4.5-litre Bentley.
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 8 September 1938 he married Rose Bingham, formerly the Countess of Warwick, at Maidenhead Register Office but early in 1939 the firm recalled him to New York.
Tension was already high following the German takeover of Austria and Czechoslovakia and on 3 September Britain 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 30 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. 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 undertake military training and was posted to 10 Elementary Flying Training School at Yatesbury, Wiltshire followed by a stint at 2 FTS Brize Norton. On 12 April 1940 he was commissioned as Acting Pilot Officer and on 12 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.
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‘.
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 14 July. He had only accumulated eleven hours on this aircraft when he flew his first operational sortie a week later.
Further patrols ensued, and on 13 August he claimed a Ju88 probably shot down.
On 16 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 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 so they were advised to take him to Chichester Hospital. There his chances of survival were deemed as slim due to the severe burns to his lower body.
Fiske died the next day at the hospital. He was 29 years old.
On the 4 July (American 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”.
At a a Royal Auxiliary Air Force Service held at the National Memorial Arboretum on 21 June 2023, a Memorial Stone was dedicated in Billy Fiske’s name at the Royal Auxiliary Air Force Memorial. At the same time, Honorary Group Captain Sir Peter Rigby of 601 Squadron placed a Cross at the Memorial in memory of Billy.
601 Squadron and RAuxAF Foundation (RTWM)