Billy Fiske

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Billy Fiske
Birth nameWilliam Meade Lindsley Fiske III
Born(1911-06-04)4 June 1911
Chicago, Illinois, U.S.
Died17 August 1940(1940-08-17) (aged 29)
Chichester, England
St Mary and St Blaise churchyard in Boxgrove, Sussex
Allegiance United Kingdom
Service/branchRoyal Air Force Volunteer Reserve
Years of service23 March 1940 – 17 August 1940
RankActing Pilot Officer
UnitNo. 601 Squadron RAF
Battles/warsWorld War II
RelationsJennison Heaton (brother-in-law)
Sports career
Medal record
Men's bobsleigh
Representing the  United States
Gold medal – first place 1928 St. Moritz Five-man
Gold medal – first place 1932 Lake Placid Four-man

William Meade Lindsley Fiske III (4 June 1911 – 17 August 1940) was an American combat fighter pilot and Olympic bobsledder. At the 1928 and 1932 Winter Olympics, Fiske won gold as driver for the US bobsledding team, also acting as the American Olympic flagbearer in 1932.

When World War II broke out in 1939, Fiske traveled to the UK and joined the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve, claiming to be Canadian in order to be permitted to enlist. He would participate in the Battle of Britain, before being killed in action on 17 August 1940. After Jimmy Davies, Fiske was the second American-born pilot killed in action during World War II, but Fiske has the distinction of being the first American-citizen pilot to be killed in action during World War II.[1][2] His plaque was unveiled in the crypt of St Paul's Cathedral, London. The inscription reads: An American citizen who died that England might live.

Between his Olympic career and his military service, Fiske was instrumental in the early development of the Aspen ski resort. Fiske and his partner built the first ski lift and lodge in the remote Colorado mountain town. Others would continue their work after the war.

Early life[edit]

Fiske was born in Chicago in 1911, the son of Beulah and William Fiske, a New England banking magnate. He attended school in Chicago, and then went to school in France in 1924, where he discovered the sport of bobsled at the age of 16. Fiske attended Trinity Hall, Cambridge in 1928 where he studied Economics and History.[3]

In 1936 Ted Ryan, an heir of Thomas Fortune Ryan, brought some photographs of mountains near Aspen, Colorado, to Fiske. They had been given to Ryan by a man trying to interest him in investing in a mining claim. Fiske and Ryan, however, saw in them ideal terrain for downhill skiing, and the ski resort the pair had been talking about establishing in the United States, similar to those in the Alps where Fiske had competed in the Olympics.[4]

Fiske and Ryan visited Aspen, then a faded mining town decades removed from its boomtown years in the 1880s. Many of the abandoned properties around town were available for very low prices. Fiske bought an option on one, and he and Ryan had blueprints drawn up for a ski lodge. For the next season, they hired guides, including Swiss ski champion André Roch, then studying at Reed College in Oregon. The lodge opened at the end of 1937, and a few weeks later the Boat Tow, an early ski lift, opened. These events are considered the beginning of skiing in Aspen.[4]

Fiske then worked at the London office of Dillon, Reed & Co, the New York bankers. Fiske married Rose Bingham,[5] Countess of Warwick, in Maidenhead.[6]

Bobsled career[edit]

In 1928, as driver of the first five-man US Bobsled team to win the Olympics, Fiske became the youngest gold medalist in any winter sport (he was not eclipsed until 1992 by Toni Nieminen), aged just 16 years[7] at the 1928 Winter Olympics in St. Moritz, Switzerland. His American team-mates were Geoffrey Mason, Nion Tocker,[8] Clifford Gray and Richard Parke.[9]

Fiske competed again at the 1932 Winter Olympics at Lake Placid, New York, USA, where he carried the United States' flag at the opening ceremony. The format of the race was altered to a four-man team, but again Fiske and his team-mates, Clifford Gray, Eddie Eagan, and Jay O'Brien[10] took gold.[11]

Fiske was invited, but declined to lead the bobsled team in the 1936 Winter Olympics in Garmisch-Partenkirchen in Germany. It is believed by some that this decision was due to his disagreeing with the politics in Germany at the time, which may also explain his later decision to join the war effort in 1940.[12]

Fiske was also a Cresta Champion, and was well known for jumps from the Badrutt's Palace Hotel's bar chandelier in St. Moritz.[13]

World War II[edit]

Shortly before the outbreak of World War II, Fiske was recalled to the New York offices of Dillon, Reed & Co, but on 30 August 1939 he returned to England aboard the Aquitania accompanying a bank colleague who was also a member of No. 601 (County of London) Auxiliary Air Force Squadron. Fiske was one of seven US aircrew personnel who fought in the Battle of Britain, although due to the neutrality of the United States, Fiske pretended to be a Canadian. He joined the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve and was promoted to the rank of Pilot Officer on 23 March 1940.[14]

Fiske undertook his flying training at No. 10 Elementary Flying Training School at RAF Yatesbury, Wiltshire, before moving to RAF Brize Norton, Oxfordshire, for advanced flying training. As an American citizen, he "duly pledged his life and loyalty to the king, George VI,"[6] and was formally admitted into the RAF. In his diary, a joyous Fiske wrote, "I believe I can lay claim to being the first U.S. citizen to join the RAF in England after the outbreak of hostilities."[15]

On 12 July 1940, Fiske joined No. 601 Squadron RAF, a Hawker Hurricane unit, at RAF Tangmere, West Sussex, the so-called "Millionaires' Squadron", carrying out his first sorties with the squadron on 20 July, when he flew two patrols.[16] On 16 August 1940, in the midst of the Battle of Britain, No. 601 Squadron RAF were scrambled to intercept a squadron of German dive-bombers. Fiske was flying Hurricane serial number P3358.[6] The Squadron destroyed eight Junkers Ju 87 Stukas, but after just 15 minutes of flying time, a German gunner put a bullet through Fiske's fuel tank.[17]

With his aircraft badly damaged and his hands and ankles burnt,[18] instead of bailing out, Fiske nursed his Hurricane home, gliding over a hedgerow to the airfield. Although he landed his aircraft safely back at Tangmere, Fiske had to be extracted from the aircraft by ambulance attendants. Shortly after, his fuel tank exploded. Fiske was taken to the Royal West Sussex Hospital in Chichester for treatment, but he died from surgical shock shortly afterwards, on 17 August.[19][20][21] Fiske was 29 years old.[6]

Fiske's funeral took place on 20 August 1940. Six members of Tangmere's ground staff carried Fiske to his final resting place. His coffin, covered in the Union Jack and the Stars and Stripes, was borne on a bier to Boxgrove Priory Church and buried.[6]

Of Fiske's role in the Battle of Britain, Bill Bond, founder of the Battle of Britain Historical Society, wrote:

...although Billy made several sorties he didn't shoot anything down, so that his impact on the battle in that respect was negligible, but he is most definitely still very much a hero in our book.

Fiske's Flight Commander, Sir Archibald Philip Hope, 17th Baronet, added:

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.[22]

The grave of William Meade Lindsley "Billy" Fiske III

Memorials and tributes[edit]

William Meade Lindsley "Billy" Fiske III stained glass window at Boxgrove Priory

Fiske is buried in St Mary and St Blaise churchyard in Boxgrove, Sussex.[23] The inscription on his gravestone reads simply: He died for England.[24] The funeral was publicized for propaganda purposes.[25] A memorial stained glass window was dedicated to him on 17 September 2008 at Boxgrove Priory.[26] At the dedication service, a number of former colleagues attended and his green Bentley car was on display.[27] Fiske is listed on the Battle of Britain Monument in London and the Battle of Britain Memorial, Capel-le-Ferne.[citation needed]

On 4 July 1941, a plaque was unveiled in the crypt of St Paul's Cathedral, London. The inscription reads: An American citizen who died that England might live. The decision to unveil this plaque on American Independence Day was probably a political one; the United States had not officially joined the war and the British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, was keen to popularise Fiske's story.[28] The plaque was unveiled by Sir Archibald Sinclair, the Secretary of State for Air. He said at the ceremony:

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.

Other tributes to Fiske include a memorial tablet dedicated to him in the crypt of the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, New York. The United States Bobsled and Skeleton Federation also created the Billy Fiske Memorial Trophy as a posthumous tribute to him. The trophy is awarded to the national champion four-man bobsled team each year.[29]

In addition to a 2005 documentary (American Warrior: Billy Fiske), Red Valley Productions performed a new play based on his life called Billy Fiske: King of Speed at the Alexandra Theatre, Bognor Regis from 20–25 July 2010.[citation needed]

The Billy Fiske Foundation is currently working with the Wandsworth Council to finalise a site in Nine Elms Park near the U.S. embassy in London for the Billy Fiske statue. Artist Jenna Gearing was commissioned to create the work of art, which is sculpted in bronze. [30]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ Lang 1989, p. 106.
  2. ^ "Battle of Britain - Roll of Honour." Archived 17 May 2015 at the Wayback Machine RAF. Retrieved: 6 January 2013.
  3. ^ "Front Court -- Meet the athletes". Trinity Hall, University of Cambridge. Retrieved 14 August 2020. Trinity Hall Olympians have competed in disciplines ranging from athletics, cycling and skiing to, perhaps unsurprisingly, rowing and, more surprisingly, the bobsleigh. Bobsleigh champion, Billy Fiske's short life was packed with action. Born in 1911 in New York, Fiske was educated in Europe and, aged 16, captained the US bobsleigh team to win gold at St Moritz in 1928. He repeated the victory at the Lake Placid Olympics in 1932, where he carried the flag, and declined a third opportunity in 1936. In 1928 he arrived at Trinity Hall to read Economics and History, and subsequently joined (by a subterfuge) the RAF in 1939 at the start of World War II as its first American pilot. He died of injuries sustained in battle in 1940, the first American to die in the war.
  4. ^ a b Lund, Morten and Mary Hayes. "Skiing Comes to Aspen: Visionaries and Teachers." Skiing Heritage Journal, Issue 2, 1997, pp. 16–18.
  5. ^ "Rose (Bingham), Countess of Warwick." Collections. Retrieved: 20 June 2010.
  6. ^ a b c d e Fiske, Hugh. "Pilot Officer W.M.L. (Billy) Fiske: 601 Squadron, Royal Air Force, Volunteer Reserve." Archived 11 February 2006 at the Wayback Machine The Fiske Papers, 2010. Retrieved: 11 January 2012.
  7. ^ "Runnings." Retrieved: 20 June 2010.
  8. ^ Gjerde, Arild et al. "Nion Tucker: Biography." Sports Reference LLC, 2009. Retrieved: 31 March 2009.
  9. ^ "Bobsled." Archived 6 January 2017 at the Wayback Machine Retrieved: 20 June 2010.
  10. ^ "Bobsleigh." Archived 20 June 2009 at the Wayback Machine Retrieved: 20 June 2010.
  11. ^ "Fiske." Retrieved: 20 June 2010.
  12. ^ "Winter Olympics." Retrieved: 20 June 2010.
  13. ^ Bowman, Martin, RAF Fighter Pilots in WWII, Barnsley: Pen & Sword Publishing, 2015
  14. ^ "No. 34831". The London Gazette. 16 April 1940. p. 2248.
  15. ^ Kershaw, Alex. "Billy Fiske". World War II Magazine, Volume 25, No. 4, November/December 2010, p. 36.
  16. ^ name"Kershaw"
  17. ^ Urquhart, Janet. "The History Channel profiles Billy Fiske: Pilot's life included a local chapter." The Aspen Times, 18 February 2005. Retrieved: 27 July 2011.
  18. ^ "Battle of Britain." Archived 23 July 2008 at the Wayback Machine Retrieved: 20 June 2010.
  19. ^ "Day by day: 17 August 1940". The Battle of Britain Memorial. Archived from the original on 23 September 2020. Retrieved 14 August 2020. Today saw the death of Pilot Officer Billy Fiske of No 601 Squadron, one of the American volunteers to fly with the RAF in the Battle. Fiske's Hurricane had been hit by return fire from a Ju 87 over Bognor Regis the day before and had forced-landed back at Tangmere on fire. At the time the airfield was being bombed, but groundcrew carried him clear. He had appeared to be recovering in hospital before his death from burns and shock.
  20. ^ "Americans in the Royal Air Force - Pilot Officer Billy Fiske - Battle of Britain". Royal Air Force Museum. Retrieved 14 August 2020. Fiske landed safely, but received severe burns. He was taken to St. Richard's Hospital, Chichester, were it seemed he would recover quickly. However, on 17 August Pilot Officer Fiske died of shock. He was buried at Boxgrove.
  21. ^ "Battle of Britain London Monument - P/O W M L FISKE". Retrieved 14 August 2020. On 16th August 601 was scrambled to intercept a formation of Ju87 Stuka aircraft ... 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. ... Fiske died the next day at the hospital. He was 29 years old.
  22. ^ Hough 2005, p. 188.
  23. ^ "Cemetery Photos" "Boxglove (SS. Mary and Blaise) Churchyard." Archived 16 June 2011 at the Wayback Machine Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Retrieved: 20 June 2010.
  24. ^ "Pilot Officer Billy Fiske RAF." Archived 15 August 2013 at the Wayback Machine Retrieved: 20 June 2010.
  25. ^ Cull 1995, pp. 89–90 and illustration.
  26. ^ "Billy Fiske Memorial Window, Boxgrove Priory." Archived 10 February 2009 at the Wayback Machine Battle of Britain London Monument. Retrieved: 20 June 2010.
  27. ^ "Billy Fiske Window." Archived 7 July 2011 at the Wayback Machine Retrieved: 20 June 2010.
  28. ^ White, Duncan. "The fast life of Billy Fiske: Amazing American Winter Olympic legend who died an RAF hero in Second World War." The Observer, 3 February 2002. Retrieved: 20 June 2010.
  29. ^ "Hall-of-Fame 2010-Inductees". United States Bobsled and Skeleton Federation. Archived from the original on 21 January 2014. Retrieved 14 August 2020. Pretending to be Canadian, American citizen Fiske joined the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve in 1939. Fiske was one of the first American pilots to be killed in action when a German gunner shot his aircraft during the Battle of Britain. The USBSF created the Billy Fiske Memorial Trophy in honor of him, which is awarded to the US 4-man national championship team annually.
  30. ^ "Future Fiske Statue".


External links[edit]

Billy Fiske Foundation[1]

Churchman's Cigarettes card

Olympic Games
Preceded by Flagbearer for  United States
Lake Placid 1932
Succeeded by