RAF flyer who survived being shot down
RAF flyer who survived being shot down
Born: November 7, 1920; Died: April 22, 2014.
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HARRY Fisher, who has died aged 93, was believed to be the last surviving member of a seven-crew RAF Stirling bomber shot down over France in April 1944. His pilot and upper mid-gunner went down with the plane, but Leith-born Pilot Officer Fisher, at the time a 23-year-old navigator and wireless operator, had just enough time to bail out by parachute.
He was captured by the Germans, grilled by the Gestapo, threatened with a firing squad but ultimately saved by the French resistance. The four crewmen who baled out with him, who also owed their later lives to the resistance, have since died.
Mr Fisher never forgot that he owed his life to those Free French fighters, known as the maquis, who famously fought the Germans "from the shadows," not only liberating their own country but saving the lives of countless allied airmen and soldiers, unfortunately losing similar numbers of their own to Nazi firing squads.
Pilot Officer Fisher was with RAF 218 Squadron (nicknamed the Gold Coast Squadron because it had been "adopted" by the Governor of Queensland, Australia, during the war), which became part of 3 Group, RAF Bomber Command, in the thrust to subdue, from the air, Hitler's reeling and retreating ground forces, Formally, he was a wireless operator and air gunner but bomber crews were trained to double up -- fly, bomb, shoot, navigate, whatever.
It was seconds after 2202 hours on the night of April 22, 1944, that the 218 Squadron Stirling bomber (EH942) took off from RAF Woolfox Lodge, just off the A1 in Rutland with Squadron Leader Cecil Poulter in the cockpit. They were part of a bomber stream of more than 180 aircraft, including Halifax bombers, Lancasters, Stirlings and Mosquitoes to make them feel secure. Despite 218 Squadron having lost so many mates earlier in the war, the mission didn't seem like a big deal. Zap some Nazi railway sheds and marshalling yards at Laon, northern France, turn around, get home, have a couple of pints, have a nap, don't take your boots off and be ready to go again.
"After successfully bombing our target, we were attacked by enemy aircraft, " Mr Fisher late recalled in reminiscences for the Saltire Aircrew Association. "Both the port inner & outer engines were ablaze and we had lost altitude to about 10,000 feet. There was no way we were going to make it back to base and the order was given to bail out. I made my way to the forward escape hatch only to find it open, and the Navigator and Bomb Aimer had already gone. I looked up at our Pilot S/L Poulter and received a tap on the shoulder indicating to me that it was time to go! I naturally thought the pilot would be following me but he was either too badly injured or lost control of the aircraft. He went down with the plane. The injured Mid-Upper Gunner also died in the crashed plane, and the five other members of the crew, including myself, parachuted into France to meet differing fates.
"I landed at midnight, in a field near the village of Vic-sur-Aisne, situated between Compiegne and Soissons. After hiding my parachute and Mae West in tall grass, I followed the railway line for almost two kilometres to a farmhouse but the family were too frightened to let me in. However, the young couple at the next farmhouse answered my door-knocking and kept me overnight. The following morning, they made contact with Allied sympathisers at another farm, where I discovered our Bomb Aimer was already being given shelter. For ten days, we hid in a mushroom cave and food was brought to us at this hide-out. We were then taken by farm cart, hidden under straw, to the house of a resistance Leader in Vic-sur-Aisne where we were vigorously interrogated." That interrogator turned out to be Gabriel Cochet, who would become a much-tortured but eventually-revered resistance hero. He explained to Mr Fisher that a lot of German spies were knocking on French farmhouse doors pretending to be downed British airmen. In later years, Mr Fisher would laugh at the resemblances to the TV sitcom 'Allo 'Allo!
Mr Fisher was first helped by French resistance fighters and Basque sympathisers to walk over the Pyrenées mountains to theoretically-neutral Spain. But he got shot at and caught by German soldiers who had mysteriously taken control of areas inside Spain's borders, thanks to a sympathetic Spanish dictator called Franco. "We were asked questions such as "Where was your base?" Which type of aircraft were you flying and where was your target? Where were you shot down and who helped you?" Predictably, my replies were, "I can not give you that information" and quoting the Geneva Convention on the requirement to give only number, rank and name. And then I heard the lines to be caricatured many times in the future but were extremely threatening and sinister given the situation of airmen being captured in civilian clothes .. we have ways and means of making you talk!" We were threatened with torture and the firing squad but we never revealed any details of the people who had helped us."
As a prisoner on a train, Mr Fisher, in ragged civilian clothes, recalled a German Luftwaffe officer walking into their compartment. "On being told we were RAF airmen, he replied: 'I thought perhaps you were.' He gave us a cigarette each and said 'Good Luck!' Had we witnessed an example of the special bond between flying types?"
In 1945, Mr Fisher became a founding member of the Royal Air Forces Escaping Society (defunct since 1995), set up to help people from the French resistance but by no means all French, who had helped so many British and other allied airmen to freedom. Honouring what they called "the Helpers," the Society had the Latin motto Solvitur Ambulando ("Solved by Walking).
Harry Fisher was born in Leith on November 7, 1920. He attended Leith Academy, one of the oldest schools in Scotland, first at Leith Links (now used by Leith Primary School) and later in a new building on Duke Street (now part of Queen Margaret University). After leaving school, he got a job as a bond clerk at J G Thomson & Co Ltd, wine and spirits merchants based in Leith. It was the start of a lifetime of work involving whisky. He signed up for the RAF soon after the outbreak of war and qualified as a P/O (Pilot Officer), navigator and wireless operator, initially on four-engined Wellington bombers with a seven-man crew -- pilot, navigator, bomb-aimer, flight engineer, wireless operator, mid-upper gunner and rear gunner.
After the war, Mr Fisher, eventually given the rank of Flight-Lieutenant, went back to the whisky industry, notably with the famous Grant's family in Scotland's "whisky country." He settled in Elgin and around 1960 was appointed export manager of their Glenfarclas distillery at Ballindalloch, Banffshire, not far from Elgin. It was a key job at a time when Scotch whisky, notably single malt, had not yet made major inroads in world markets, especially in the U.S.
During the 1970s, Mr Fisher often travelled abroad with John L.S. Grant, 5th generation owner and current chairman of Glenfarclas, to seduce whisky drinkers worldwide away from bourbon, Irish whiskey, gin, vodka and the most trendy spirits of the epoch. Mr Fisher would also accompany Mr Grant to Andalucia, Spain, to seek out the best sherry casks in which to store their whisky.
"On one sales trip to Europe, Harry asked if we could 'stop off To visit some friends,.' " Mr Grant said. " Turned out he wanted to visit the war graves of his pilot and gunner. On another occasion, Harry and I were visiting our Glenfarclas distributor in Italy, who asked Harry had he ever been to Italy before. 'Not really,' Harry replied without a glimmer of anything. Mr Fisher had, of course, "visited" Italy many times but only to "visit" damage, from the air, on vital installations of the Nazis and their Italian allies.
Although never one to boast about his war stories, in 1987 Mr Fisher joined the Scottish Saltire Aircrew Association which meets regularly in the Iron Horse on West Nile Street, Glasgow and in the Murrayfield Hotel in Edinburgh. The association's website contains many of his stories, squeezed out of him with some reluctance. It was thank to the Saltire Aircrew Association that Mr Fisher discovered the identify of the Luftwaffe Messerschmitt ME-109 pilot, a certain Oberst-Leutnant Dietrich Schmidt, who had shot his Stirling down in 1944. The war was long over and no grudges were held.
As things turned out, Harry Fisher died exactly 70 years after he set off on that fateful bombing mission.
Harry Fisher's wife Barbara, from Edinburgh, is thought to have died in 2002. He had no children but is survived by two sisters and extended family including his niece Evelyn Bannatyne.