Interview with Basil Fish

Title

Interview with Basil Fish
1027-Fish, Basil

Description

Basil Fish volunteered for the RAF in 1941 from Manchester University where he was a student and a member of the University Air Squadron. He was posted to 617 Squadron at RAF Woodhall Spa. On one flight his aircraft crashed on return and although injured Basil was the only member of the crew who was able to carry on his flying career and became a spare bod in the squadron. He took part in the attack that sunk the Tirpitz.

Temporal Coverage

Language

Type

Format

00:16:28 audio recording

Rights

This content is available under a CC BY-NC 4.0 International license (Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0). It has been published ‘as is’ and may contain inaccuracies or culturally inappropriate references that do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Lincoln or the International Bomber Command Centre. For more information, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/4.0/ and https://ibccdigitalarchive.lincoln.ac.uk/omeka/legal.

Contributor

Identifier

SHarriganD[Ser#-DoB]v29

Transcription

Interviewer 1: This is an interview given on the 14th of May 2011 with Mr Basil Fish at Thorpe Visitor Centre regarding his experiences in World War Two.
BF: Still alive is it?
Interviewer 1: Yes. Yes. It’s fine. So when did you join the RAF, Basil?
BF: Well, I was at University in Manchester and they formed an Air Squadron. This was 1941 and I preferred flying or the thought of flying to studying civil engineering so the answer to your question really is I volunteered in November 1941.
Interviewer 1: And where did you do your training?
BF: Well, we then, the initial training really was from Ringway in Manchester but this was the University Air Squadron and we then at the end of that term, the summer term I actually joined the Air Force proper with the princely rank of Leading Aircraftsman and we were, we went down to what was called arcy darcy [laughs] Aircrew Recruiting Centre down in London and from then onwards we were trained for whatever membership of the crew yweou were best suited for.
Interviewer 1: And you came to be navigator.
BF: In my particular case because I knew that two and two made four instead of five they made me a blinking navigator [laughs]
Interviewer 1: Did you have hopes of being a pilot or were you quite happy as a navigator?
BF: I, I resented if you like not being a pilot because since then of course I’ve gained my private pilot’s license and then had several hours in but at the time I was quite upset actually. But as I say I knew that two and two made four and not five. I should have said two and two make five and then I would have been a pilot you see [laughs]
Interviewer 1: And you did your, you crewed up at an OTU. Where would that have been?
BF: We did the ITW. That’s the Initial Training Wing.
Interviewer 1: Yes.
BF: At university. I was at Manchester University. So I joined with the princely rank of leading aircraftsman and then we were given what I call the real training, the flying training and we were sent out to South Africa. And believe it or not it took seven weeks to get there by boat. And then we qualified with our wing and we qualified as navigator. We thought we knew it all until we came back to England and then of course we had to, if you like re-educate ourselves to flying. Serious flying over here in Britain. Then it was what? 1942.
Interviewer 1: And you then went to —
BF: We then, we did [pause] let me just get my facts right. We did the initial training and then we went to what they called OTU, Operational Training Unit where the flying was becoming more serious and we were flying Wellingtons and that was at Swinderby and Syerston. And then after that we for reasons I just don’t know we went straight to 617 Squadron. Now, in those days people on 617 were very experienced airmen. They’d been on operational flying and that sort of thing. And as a crew when we went along never having seen a shot fired in anger I wasn’t quite sure how we were received. But after a few weeks you know it was we were part of the, part of the squadron and I stayed with them ever since. Well, for the rest of the war I should say. And then it was a toss of either going back to university and getting my degree or staying on in the Air Force. After a lot of if you like heart-searching I decided to go back to university and that then was in 1945 1946.
Interviewer 1: Where were you first stationed with 617?
BF: Well, do you mean operationally?
Interviewer 1: Yes.
BF: Here. We were the first if you like non-experienced crew or one of the first non-experienced crew to come to Woodhall Spa and that’s where I spent the rest of my Air Force career. At Woodhall Spa.
Interviewer 1: A happy time in spite of what you were doing?
BF: Yes, I adopted the attitude I really wasn’t going to come out, you know with ten fingers and ten toes. It just didn’t happen. But we were a very very close knit squadron and I stayed there and I did I think twenty four operations in in total until the end of the war. Then I applied for early release to go back to university and in those days they were jolly glad to get rid of air crew quite honestly.
Interviewer 1: Who was your commanding officer here?
BF: We had, first of all it was a chap called Tait. Willie Tait and then, Willie Tait who was a wing commander. It was then taken over by Group Captain Fauquier. Very unusual for a group captain to be in charge but he was a very, what shall I say? He seemed to be a fierce man but he had a heart of gold I found actually. So the answer to your question is William Tait, then Group Captain Fauquier.
Interviewer 1: Would you like to tell us about any of your operations or —
BF: Well, there’s one operation which I shall never ever forget and that was about our eighth and flying conditions were very very poor. Low cloud. Poor visibility and we were actually, take off was postponed on more than one occasion and we eventually took off. I forget what the target was quite honestly. And on the way back we pranged and we lost two of the crew. We were all injured one way or another but I managed to be able to walk which was an absolute blessing because I could then sort of walk and eventually we got the, the help that we needed. And I carried on flying after I’d been hospitalized for a while and unfortunately I was the only member of the crew who could actually fly. Who was fit enough to fly I should say.
Interviewer 1: So you then had to fit in with another crew.
BF: Correct. I became what was known as a spare bod. In other words, if they wanted a navigator I was the spare. Like having a spare tyre on a car I suppose. And I flew with some very interesting people actually [laughs]
Interviewer 1: Can you tell us about any of them? Or your experiences?
BF: Well, the one experience that sticks in my mind I’d better not mention names but the pilot was, he was a squadron leader chap and a very nice fellow and I knew it was a publicity stunt but we were actually going over, we were flying over Hitler’s hideout at the end of the war and the pilot did a demi run. It wasn’t satisfactory. Very hard to see the target where Hitler was and then we did another dummy run and still we couldn’t find the target and he said, ‘Well, what do you think, Guys?’ I said, ‘What do I think? I think we ought to get the hell out of here.’ [laughs] And do you know what he said? ‘You’re dead right.’ [laughs] And that was it. That was my very last. I think that was my last operational trip.
Interviewer 1: How did you feel when you came to the end of that period in your life and then a completely different —
BF: Very very relieved.
Interviewer 1: Yes. Did you miss the comradeship of the posting?
BF: Yes, I did actually. Being, being a member of a crew, particularly the first crew you’re one of the family. Rank doesn’t matter. It doesn't matter who you are or what you’re doing you’re part of a team. A team of seven. That I do, well I did miss because your first crew is, what was that saying? Your fondest crew.
Did you, how did you feel about when you were with the other crews? Did you —
BF: Well, I knew my stuff let’s put it that way and the people I flew with were very experienced, particularly the pilots were very experienced. It was, it was a job. A job of work really. That’s what —
Interviewer 1: Did, did you know at the time the prestige of being with 617?
BF: No is the answer. I was perhaps too junior. I mean Gibson was, you know the originator and then we had Cheshire and people like that who were extreme and Willie Tait was a wonderful commanding officer. I was very happy there. Let’s put it that way. Or not unhappy might be a better way of putting it.
Is there anything else you’d like to add? [pause]
Interviewer 2: Well, if I may I’d like to ask you about one or two other 617 people that you may have served with. Did you know Micky Martin at all? Was he at the squadron?
BF: No.
Interviewer 2: He’d gone by the time you had arrived.
BF: Yes, he’d —
Interviewer 2: And Shannon too had gone by that time?
BF: That is correct.
Interviewer 2: Yes. I see. That’s alright. We know that very often navigators remained in their, at their table during the bombing run. Very few of them actually looked away. Did you actually have a look at what was going on around you or did your duties keep you calculating all the time?
BF: Once my calculations had been done and I’d given the information to the, to the bomb aimer because he then was the, if you like, in charge. The bomb aimer.
Interviewer 2: Yeah.
BF: I would often actually leave my table, my navigation table just to see what was going on. And I can’t remember whether I did it every time. I doubt I did it every time because when you see what’s going on there you are just jolly glad to get back and not see it.
Interviewer 2: Yes. And were any of your operations in daylight?
BF: That’s a very difficult question to answer but I would say without fear of contradiction that all the operations I did probably eighty percent were during daylight.
Interviewer 2: Could you tell us what it was like to see a group of Lancasters flying close together? It must have been quite an experience and quite frightening in some respects.
BF: Comforting.
Interviewer 2: Was it? Yes. How close were they?
BF: Well, not close enough to collide. I mean that was the pilot’s job [laughs] and it was, it was pretty good in formation. Actually formation flying. Don’t forget I mean on that squadron the pilots in particular were very experienced indeed.
Interviewer 2: Yes. Yes. Yes. Of course. I mean we do read of collisions and and we know that Bomber Command normally flew at night. It must have taken a little bit of practice to fly in formation in daylight.
BF: Yes. But at least you could see what was happening.
Interviewer 2: Yes.
BF: As it were and I can’t remember any if you like encounters which, which were worrying.
Interviewer 2: No.
Interviewer 1: Were you on the Tirpitz missions?
BF: Yeah.
Interviewer 1: On all three or —
BF: No. The first one I don’t, the first one on the Tirpitz the squadron flew over to Russia and just being brief it was a disaster because the weather was bad and all that sort of thing. Then we came back and the very thought of doing that trip from Britain never really entered anyone’s head and somebody got the bright idea. So we flew up from Lincolnshire to Scotland and we actually could just about manage to go to Tromso and back from Scotland. So it was, and that we started out at night and of course we flew during the day and then we came back and it was it was the longest trip I can ever remember. And as a navigator you’re flying over water and we were at low level so you had very very few aids. It was hard work.
Interviewer 2: I’m sure.
Interviewer 1: When 617 were practicing for the dams raid a lot of them were frightened that it was for the Tirpitz. And yet when the Tirpitz raid came about they seemed to have relaxed themselves about it and just went for it. Did you feel like that or did you —
BF: Well, it’s when you’re in the Air Force and you’re asked to do a job you do it you know.
Interviewer 1: Right.
BF: Because you have no choice. It’s as simple as that. We didn’t actually know what the target was although we had a pretty good idea. We didn’t know what the target was. We didn’t officially know what the target was until we actually had briefing and we were briefed, a final briefing was at night but the pilots and the navigators always had a pre-breifing and when we learned what it was I wasn’t particularly surprised. And then the main briefing was late that night I think. Whatever the day it was and, I’m sorry what was your question?
Interviewer 1: Did you —
Interviewer 2: Were you nervous preparing for the Tirpitz raid as the originators had been for the dams raid when they thought it was going to be the Tirpitz?
BF: I [pause] you’re not worried. I mean quite, it sounds a bit dramatic but I never really expected to survive the war. It’s as simple as that you know. It was always going to be the other man who got killed and not you, you see. It sort of kept you going. Apprehensive would be the right, not frightened, apprehensive. You had a job to do, you’d been trained to do it and it was a question of getting out there and doing it.
Interviewer 1: When did you know that it had been successful and she had been sunk as it were?
BF: When we got back we had a forced landing. We’d been hit with flak but eventually when we got back to, we did a landing at, a forced landing at one of the Scottish aerodromes and we stayed overnight and we came down the following day and I knew then how successful it was because the Undersecretary of State for Air, I’ve forgotten his name now had come out to the squadron.
Interviewer 1: Sinclair.
BF: Archibald Sinclair. And we were given forty eight hours leave. Well, that’s all the mattered. Forty eight hours leave [laughs]. And that’s when we knew. Well, we knew actually. We knew that when we left the Tirpitz we knew it was a goner because we actually saw it.
Interviewer 1: Ah. Well, I think we ought to finish on that very successful note and thank you very much Mr Basil Fish.
BF: It has been my pleasure. I have been a little apprehensive about what we were going to do.
Interviewer 1: More worried about this then the Tirpitz. I know.
BF: Well, there you are.
Interviewer 2: We could listen to you call day. I think really we could. It’s just the pressure that you’re needed elsewhere and you’ve got other commitments but I found that absolutely fascinating and moving.

Citation

Claire Bennett and This Interview was recorded by Aviation Heritage Lincolnshire., “Interview with Basil Fish,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed May 24, 2024, https://ibccdigitalarchive.lincoln.ac.uk/omeka/collections/document/46462.

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