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. [Pic: 617 Squadron Association.]
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.
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.
The funeral will take place at 1340 on Monday 16 March at Harrogate Crematorium, Wetherby Road Harrogate HG3 1DE
[Thanks to Dr Robert Owen.]