IT WAS PRETTY AWFUL AND I LOST SOME GOOD FRIENDS

Basil Fish, Navigator
617 Squadron


Basil was for many years an active member of the Surrey Aircrew Association branch in Leatherhead, living in the adjacent village of Fetcham, before moving to Suffolk and eventually North Yorkshire. In 2010 he wrote to the editor "Frank, many thanks for your message re the 'Stories'. I have always been somewhat reserved about this sort of thing. Particularly so as my sole Squadron experience was from July 44 right up to the end of the war - with 617 and on 'special' duties as it were. It was pretty awful and I lost some good friends. Let me know if it is really necessary." Hence other sources have been used. The editor is grateful to Dr Robert Owen, Historian of 617 Sqn Association.

Basil died on 26 February 2020. His funeral took place Monday 16 March 2020 at Harrogate Crematorium, Wetherby Road, Harrogate.

BASIL FISH

source: Dr Robert Owen, Association Historian, writing in the 617 Sqn Association Newsletter Apres Moi

In November 1941, after twelve months at Manchester University, during which time he became a member of the University Air Squadron 19 year old Basil Fish enlisted in the RAFVR. He was accepted for Pilot/Observer training, but continued studying for his BSc while completing his Initial Training Wing requirements. In the summer of 1942 he was mobilised and sent to No. 42 Air School, Port Elizabeth, South Africa and completed his navigator’s course in August 1943.

Returning to the UK he was sent to No. 8 Advanced Flying Unit, on Anglesey where, he later recalled: “We thought we knew it all until we returned to England, and then we all had to re-educate ourselves for serious flying over here.” On 17 March 1944, Basil was posted to No. 17 Operational Training Unit where he took the next step towards an operational career with Bomber Command, teaming up with a New Zealander pilot Arthur Joplin,. After two months flying Wellingtons, the crew transferred to No. 1660 Conversion Unit at RAF Swinderby, to acquire a flight engineer and master the complexities of four engined bombers before transferring to No. 5 Lancaster Finishing School at Swinderby, where they finally converted to their operational type.

On completion of this course the crew were surprised to learn that they were to be posted to No.617 Squadron which normally only took experienced crews who had completed a tour of operations. However, at this point as an experiment, a few new crews who had demonstrated above average ability were being posted directly to the Squadron. The intention was that they should learn by example and osmosis - in effect being fast tracked to a level of operational expertise.

Basil and the crew arrived at Woodhall Spa in mid-August 1944, initially feeling rather overwhelmed and unsure as to how they would be received as a “sprog” crew. Their concern was unfounded. After initial wariness they found themselves absorbed into the routine of extensive practice and training in order to achieve the precision for which the Squadron was renowned. It was a steep learning curve, but they found support and encouragement from the “old lags”.

Their first operation came a fortnight later, no easy “milk run” but a daylight attack against various vessels in the harbour of the heavily defended port at Brest with 1,000lb bombs. All seemed to go well, but they were unable to observe any results owing to smoke and spray.
The crew had insufficient experience to participate in the Squadron’s next operation, an attack on the German battleship Tirpitz, flown from an advanced base in Russia. By October, however, they were sufficiently practised to carry the 12,000 lb Tallboy deep penetration bomb, although their first attempt to drop one, a daylight operation to attack the sea wall at Walcheren on 3 October, was thwarted as they approached the target. ‘Tallboys’ were in extremely short supply, and needed to be conserved whenever possible. The Squadron was positioned at the end of an attack by other aircraft of Bomber Command. On arrival the target was seen already to be breached and their bomb was brought home. Four days later they got their first opportunity to release ‘Tallboy’ during an operation against the Kembs barrage, on the River Rhine, near Basle. The attack was made in two parts – an initial high level force to cause confusion and distract the defences, followed by six aircraft coming in along the river at 600 feet. Bombing from 7,500 feet in the first wave, the crew reported a very near miss close to the barrage.

Tirpitz had been brought south to Tromso following the previous attack and was now within range of aircraft operating from Scotland. Now a proven crew, their next two operations were directed to finally despatch this vessel. On 29 October they were part of a force of aircraft from Nos. 9 and 617 Squadrons which detached to Lossiemouth where they refuelled before heading for the Arctic Circle. After a flight of nearly 7 hours they reached their target. The weather was clear, but as the Squadron made their bombing run a layer of low cloud moved in. Despite this, the crew released their ‘Tallboy’, as did some of the other aircraft, but the cloud had prevented accurate aim.

Tirpitz was not so favoured when the squadrons returned on 12 November. The leading bomb aimers were able to see the battleship clearly and soon it was surrounded by smoke and spray into which following crews including Basil’s dropped their ‘Tallboys’. By the end of the attack, after at least two hits and several near misses, Tirpitz had rolled over to port, and capsized. There was insufficient depth of water for her to sink beneath the waves, but as the aircraft turned for home sight of her dark red keel confirmed the success of the operation. The long flight home was exacerbated by headwinds and after discussion it was deemed prudent for Basil to plot a course to Sumburgh in the Shetlands where they refuelled before finally returning to Woodhall.

December saw a return to land based targets, with two attempts, along with other aircraft of Bomber Command, to breach the Urft Dam, near Heimbach. Once again the weather was against them. On the first attack on 8 December not only was the weather against them, but heavy flak struck their aircraft, forcing them to limp back and put down at the nearest UK airfield, Manston, in Kent. Three days later they tried again, only to see their ‘Tallboy’ overshoot the target.

After one more daylight attack, against the R-boat pens at IJmuiden the Squadron found themselves detailed on 21 December 1944 for a deep penetration night attack against an oil refinery at Politz, near Stettin (Szczecin) in Poland. For four of the crew, including the pilot, it would be their first night operation over Germany and to make things more difficult there was the expectation of poor weather on return to the UK necessitating possible diversion to other airfields at the end of an eight hour flight. The outward flight was uneventful and the crew reached the designated area, but found that the target marking appeared haphazard. After releasing their ‘Tallboy’ against a nominated marker they headed for home, setting course for their designated diversionary base in Scotland, which would have not only the advantage of clear weather, but would also shorten the length of the flight. Soon afterwards the wireless operator reported that they were being ordered to return to Lincolnshire. Basil recalculated their course, but as they crossed the coast it became apparent that Lincolnshire was still shrouded in fog. A further message instructed aircraft to land at the first available airfield.

It seemed that crew were in luck, for very soon they saw a glow through the murk which was identified as the airfield at Ludford Magna. That this was visible was solely due to the fact that it was one of a small number of airfields equipped with FIDO – using burning petrol to disperse fog on the runway approach enabling aircraft to land in such conditions. Joppy homed in on the glow and circled, calling up and asking permission to land. There was no reply. The crew were now in a perilous position. Other aircraft would also be circling, increasing the risk of collision, and their fuel state prevented diversion to any fog free airfield. They needed to land as soon as possible and were also aware of the rising ground of the Lincolnshire Wolds beneath. A few minutes later, while still circling, a sudden shudder ran through the aircraft as the port wing brushed a hillside. Joppy immediately called for more power. The aircraft was still airborne, but only just, and would not remain so for long. After a further bump, a horrendous noise and violent shaking, then everything became still.

The Flight Engineer, Frank Tilley was shouting, “Get out!” but when he tried to move Basil found his feet were trapped. Despite concussion and a bleeding head wound, he managed to extract himself from the wreckage and get clear. After removing the Wireless Operator’s smouldering mae west, Basil went back to the shattered nose of the aircraft. Seeing his pilot trapped in his seat, Basil managed to drag him clear of the burning aircraft. Realising that two of the crew were still unaccounted for, Basil ventured back towards the flaming wreckage, regardless of exploding ammunition and fierce heat. Peering into the flames he saw, one, possibly two bodies, but despite his determined efforts the heat was too intense and he was forced to retreat.

Realising that he was the only survivor capable of summoning assistance, Basil made the other casualties as comfortable as possible and set off into the pitch black, fog shrouded night. With visibility down to a few feet and nothing to indicate a direction in which help might be found Basil struggled across fields and through hedges, eventually finding a track which he followed, leading to a farmhouse. Hammering on the door he roused the occupant, who then led him to the nearby village of Tealby and the nearest telephone, from where Basil was able to summon assistance for the four injured survivors. He led them back to the wrecked aircraft, homing in with blasts on his whistle which were answered by the others.

The least injured, Basil received only seven days leave followed by a medical which, by the middle of February 1945, cleared him to return to operational duties. Now without a crew, Basil was likely to become a “spare bod” – flying with whichever crew might need a replacement navigator – never an enviable position. However, he was fortunate in that his return to operations coincided with that of Australian F/O Bill Carey, recently returned from Sweden following a forced landing there following the October Tirpitz operation. Carey’s regular navigator had not returned to the crew and Basil became his replacement for ten further operations, mainly against German rail viaducts, until Carey was taken off operations at the end of March 1945.

Basil then transferred to the crew of F/Lt Stuart Anning, concluding with S/Ldr Gray Ward, leading the squadron’s final raid, on 25 April 1945 against Hitler’s redoubt at Berchtesgaden. It was Basil’s 24th operation.

Basil relinquished his commission as a Flying Officer in April 1946. He returned to Manchester University to complete his degree in Municipal Engineering before embarking on a successful international career as a civil engineer. At the age of 60, while working in Africa he returned to the air and qualified for his private pilot’s licence, some 40 years after gaining his navigator’s badge on the same continent.

Basil was a regular attendee at Association gatherings until prevented by ill-heath, although contact was still maintained and in 2018, to commemorate the 74th anniversary of the sinking of Tirpitz, members of the current Squadron presented him with a framed image of one of their Lightning aircraft.


FLYING OFFICER  C.B.R. FISH BSc, CEng, FICE

source: 617 Squadron - The Dambusters at War"  (Patrick Stephens, 1986)

In October 1940, at the age of eighteen, Basil Fish went up to Manchester University from Queen Elizabeth's Grammar School, Blackburn, Lancashire, to read civil engineering. In early 1941, he joined the first Air Squadron to be formed at the university and, on 3 November 1941, when just nineteen, he enlisted in the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve at Padgate. He was accepted for pilot/observer training, but was returned to university to continue combined studies for his BSc degree and Initial Training Wing for the Royal Air Force. In the summer of 1942 he obtained the first part of his degree.

He also passed the Initial Training Wing examination and entered the RAF full-time. He was directed to navigator training and sent to South Africa to follow this course. On 21 August 1943 he qualified as an Air Navigator at No 42 Air School, Port Elizabeth. He returned to the United Kingdom and was posted on a course at No 8 Advanced Flying Unit, RAF Mona, Anglesey and in April 1944 he was posted to No 17 Operational Training Unit at RAF Silverstone, Northamptonshire, where he crewed with a New Zealand pilot, Flying Officer Arthur Joplin from Auckland. The crew continued through the bomber training schedule via No 1660 Heavy Conversion Unit, RAF Swinderby and then to No 5 Lancaster Finishing School at RAF Syerston, to be posted in mid-August 1944 direct to join 617 Squadron at Woodhall Spa.

There was much to learn and absorb, especially the proper use and demands of the Stabilized Automatic Bomb Sight and the dominant role that accurate bombing played in the lives of all 617 aircrew. At the end of August their bombing results on the Wainfleet Bombing Range reached the standard required of crews operating with 617. On 27 August 1944, the crew carried out their very first bomber operation, a daylight raid in the 'gaggle' formation favoured by 617, against the U-Boat pens at Brest.

Their operations were to include two of the Tirpitz raids, the Kembs Barrage across the Rhine near Basle, the E-Boat pens at Ijmuiden, Holland and two operations against the Urft Dam in Germany before the crash on their ninth operational sortie left Basil the only member of the crew able to continue his operational career.

After a very brief spell in hospital, Basil was back on 617 and flew further operations with Flying Officer Bill Carey, Flight Lieutenant 'Stew' Anning and Squadron Leader Ward, his last and twenty-fourth operation being the Berchtesgarten raid on 25 April 1945. He had been recommended for commissioning by Group Captain Johnny Fauquier, the 617 commanding officer, and duly became a Pilot Officer on 21 April 1945. He moved to RAF Waddington with 617, to commence training for Tiger Force - the scheduled Bomber Command contribution to the war against Japan. For a while he was also employed on assistant Squadron Adjutant duties.

With the Japanese surrender in August 1945, the Tiger Force concept was abandoned. Basil had been under considerable strain since the crash of December 1944 and after the cessation of hostilities, was given a short spell of hospitalization and a period of leave during which his promotion to the rank of Flying Officer was gazetted. Towards the end of 1945 Basil decided to apply for accelerated demobilization, in order to prepare for the resumption of his studies at Manchester University. This was subsequently granted and his official demobilization was notified to him on 19 April 1946. In October that year, Basil commenced his third and final year at University, obtaining a BSc in Municipal Engineering in June 1947.

Basil then worked for various British international building and civil engineering contractors in different parts of the world before joining the Anglo-American Corporation in 1970 as Managing Director of one of their companies in Zambia. Shortly thereafter, he became the Senior General Manager of the Corporation's Group of Companies on the Copper Belt. He travelled extensively throughout the world on both business and pleasure. He took up flying again in 1982 and obtained a private pilot's licence in April 1982, within four months of his sixtieth birthday. He holds both a Zambian and South African private pilot's licence, each with night ratings and, in April 1985, Basil succeeded in qualifying for the award of a full British private pilot's licence at the age of sixty-two.

He has logged several hundred flying hours as a pilot in various parts of the world, on business and pleasure. Due to his wife's poor health, Basil ceased working abroad and returned to live in in Surrey, though consultancy work took him overseas occasionally. Basil has a son and a daughter, both married and who have rewarded him with a total of three grandsons and one granddaughter.


FROM THE Dambusters blog March 5 2020

I’m sorry to have to report the death on 26 February 2020 of Flg Off Basil Fish, one of the few remaining wartime members of 617 Squadron.

Charles Basil Renshaw Fish was born in Bury, Lancashire, in 1922. He went to Queen Elizabeth’s Grammar School in Blackburn and then on to Manchester University to study engineering. He joined the university air squadron in 1941 and then decided to put his studies on hold for the war and volunteered for the RAF. He undertook part of his training in South Africa and qualified as a navigator in 1943. He then crewed up with a young pilot from New Zealand called Arthur Joplin.

The crew were trained first on the Short Stirling heavy bomber, but then moved across to the more versatile Lancaster. They were then astonished to find that their first operational posting was to 617 Squadron, based at Woodhall Spa. This was a special duties squadron and normally only took on experienced crews who had already survived a tour of 30 operations. However, as an experiment, some new crews who had demonstrated above average ability were posted directly to the Squadron.

They arrived on the Squadron in mid-August 1944, at first feeling rather overwhelmed. Their concern was unfounded since they were soon absorbed into the routine of extensive practice and training in order to achieve the precision for which the Squadron was renowned. It was a steep learning curve, but they found support and encouragement. The crew’s first operation came on 27 August 1944, no easy “milk run” but a daylight attack against shipping in the heavily defended port at Brest.

Two more operations followed and then on 29 October the crew found itself on an operation to attack the Tirpitz, flying from Lossiemouth in Scotland. Although the battleship was damaged, it seemed from photo reconnaissance to be still afloat, and so a second operation was launched a fortnight later. On this occasion, Joplin’s crew dropped their own bomb into the smoke and observed one direct hit and two near misses. The Tirpitz was seen to capsize later, before the force left the area.

Several more operations followed and then on 21 December 1944, the squadron mounted an attack on an oil refinery at Politz, near Stettin (Szczecin) in Poland. The outward flight was uneventful and the crew reached the designated area, but found that the target marking appeared haphazard. After releasing their Tallboy they headed for home, setting course for their designated diversionary base in Scotland, which would have not only the advantage of clear weather, but would also shorten the length of the flight. However, they were then ordered to return to Lincolnshire. As they crossed the coast it became apparent that Lincolnshire was still shrouded in fog and a further instruction was received for all aircraft to land at the first available airfield.


Flt Sgt Basil Fish (top left) was the navigator in the crew of Arthur Joplin.

Back row (L-R): Fish, Flt Sgt Loftus Hebbard (bomb aimer), Sgt Frank Tilley (flight engineer), Flg Off Bob Yates (mid-upper gunner). Front row (L-R): Sgt Gordon Cooke (wireless operator), Flg Off Arthur Joplin (pilot), Sgt Norman Lambell (rear gunner). On 21 December 1944, the night the crew crashed after a raid on Politz, Hebbard and Lambell were replaced by Flt Lt Arthur Walker and Flt Sgt Jim Thompson. [source: 617 Squadron Association.]

It seemed that Joplin, Fish and their colleagues were in luck, for very soon they saw a glow through the murk which was identified as Ludford Magna airfield. This was one of a small number of airfields equipped with FIDO – burning petrol to disperse fog on the runway approach to enable aircraft to land in such conditions. Joplin homed in on the glow and circled, calling up and asking permission to land. There was no reply. The crew were now in a perilous position as they were running out of fuel.

They needed to land as soon as possible and were also aware of the rising ground beneath. A few minutes later, the port wing brushed a hillside and they crashed. Joplin was trapped in his seat while Frank Tilley, the flight engineer, had broken a leg but managed to drag himself to safety.

Fish had been knocked unconscious but coming round he managed to rescue Joplin, who had broken both legs. The rear gunner, Jim Thompson, had survived but had fractured his spine and the wireless operator, Gordon Cooke, had a fractured skull. The other two – mid-upper gunner Bob Yates and bomb aimer Arthur Walker – were both dead.

Realising that he was the least injured and the only one of five survivors with any degree of mobility Fish set off across the fields in search of assistance, having briefed Tilley to listen out for a series of whistle blasts that would signal his return. It took nearly three hours for him to locate help and bring it to the crash site, but luckily the four others were able to recover.

Fish recovered well enough from his own injuries to be back flying by February 1945. Altogether he had flown on 24 operations by the end of the war, and had been commissioned. In early 1946 he applied for early release in order to complete his degree, and went back to Manchester University. He qualified as an engineer in 1947, and worked in industry until his retirement.

For many years, Basil Fish was an active member of the 617 Squadron Association but recently he had been living in a care home near Harrogate. In 2018, to mark the 74th anniversary of the sinking of the Tirpitz, members of the current 617 Squadron presented him with a commemorative photograph of their current aircraft.

His funeral took place Monday 16 March 2020 at Harrogate Crematorium, Wetherby Road Harrogate.

[Thanks to Dr Robert Owen.]

Links

https://www.thetelegraphandargus.co.uk/news/17218787.tribute-bomber-command-airman-sank-tirpitz-battleship/

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IicM3s9Y1eI
Basil Fish, 96, a veteran of the RAF 617 (Dambusters) squadron, being feted by present-day members of the unit, on the anniversary of the sinking of the German battleship Tirpitz in 1944. He was a navigator on the raid and one of only two people still to survive.

Arthur Joplin - Last of the Few: A flying veteran learns he didn't go down alone [he was disciplined and his log book was endorsed after the crash see video with observations by John Nichol within link]
https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/91476513/last-of-the-few-a-flying-veteran-learns-he-didnt-go-down-alone

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/obituaries/2020/04/16/basil-fish-lancaster-bomber-pilot-helped-sink-tirpitz-obituary/

https://www.a-e-g.org.uk/frank-tilley---617-squadron.html

page last updated 24 June 2021: © FW Haslam for the Fish family 2021