Billy Fiske: The American Who Died For England

William "Billy" Fiske was born on 14th June 1911 in Chicago, the son of a wealthy banking family whose ancestors had gone to America from Suffolk in the seventeenth century. Billy began school in Chicago before moving to France, then went on to university in England, at Trinity Hall, Cambridge, to study Economics and History. His time in Europe offered the opportunity to enjoy winter sports in Switzerland. At an early age he mastered the Cresta Run (breaking the club record), which led him to become a skilled bobsledder and the youngest gold medalist in the Winter Olympics, at just 16 years old, during the 1928 games in St. Moritz - an Olympic record that stood for 60 years.

The American bobsled team led by Billy Fiske in St Moritz (1928)

For the 1932 Winter Olympics at Lake Placid, New York, the bobsleigh teams had been cut to four men. Fiske was again the driver for the American team, and again, they won the Olympic Gold Medal. In addition to Fiske, the motley crew assembled for the event included a cast of characters who's bios were outlined in the fascinating book, "Speed Kings" written by Andy Bull:

Clifford Gray: A failed movie star, undistinguished composer and outstanding raconteur, whose career died when he was arrested in possession of a pistol and an opium pipe. For most of his life, he was confused with his near-namesake Clifford Grey, an English composer. In fact, until the definitive answer was uncovered during the writing of Speed Kings, no one was certain which of them was really the Olympic champion.

Eddie Eagan: Born poor and raised proud, he became one of the great amateur sportsmen. He studied at Yale, Harvard, and Oxford. He was also a soldier, a lawyer, and the amateur heavyweight boxing champion of both the UK and the USA. He is still the only athlete in history to win gold medals at both summer and winter Olympics, as a boxer and a bobsledder.

Jay O’Brien: A rogue, cardsharp and fixer, he was a jockey until he got banned from the circuit. A compulsive womaniser, he married two of the biggest movie stars of his day (one claimed it was at gunpoint), and was divorced within two years both times. Then he eloped with the wife of one of the richest men in America and reinvented himself as a member of high society.

Fiske, Eagan, Gray and O'Brien. Lake Placid (1932)

Billy Fiske was naturally invited to lead the U.S. bobsled team at the 1936 Winter Olympics in Germany, but declined because of his disapproval of Hitler’s Nazi regime. That same year, his unabated appetite for adventure led him to explore the possibilities of establishing a European-style skiing destination in Colorado with colleagues Ted Ryan and Tom Flynn who hired Swiss mountaineer André Roch and Gunther Langes to survey Mount Hayden, laying the foundations for what became the ski resort of Aspen.

Billy Fiske (left) and Andre Roch in Aspen (1937)

Fiske was also a keen golf player, but his obsession with speed found an outlet in his "Blower" Bentley in which he would drive fellow golfers the 24 miles to Mildenhall in Suffolk in just 17 minutes, often reaching 110mph on the winding country roads. He took part in numerous driving rallies and competitions, including the Le Mans 24 Hour Race when he was just 19. His 1930 British Racing Green 4½-Liter Supercharged Bentley was ordered to the same specifications as Sir Henry Birkin’s. He drove it to an average speed of 121.4 miles per hour (195.4 kilometers per hour) at Brooklands’ 2¾-mile high banked track, for which he was awarded the Outer Circuit Banking Badge. 

Fiske's 1930 4½ Litre "Blower" Bentley

A committed anglophile, Fiske became a member of the exclusive White’s Club in London, where he met and socialised with many members of No.601 Squadron, Auxiliary Air Force. In 1938 he met Rose Bingham, the former Countess of Warwick, whom he later married. Encouraged by his new friends in 601 Squadron, he also learned to fly.

Billy Fiske's wife, the Countess of Warwick

In 1939, as tensions rose in Europe with the onset of World War II, the family firm, Dillon, Reed & Co., recalled Fiske to their New York office. He soon felt compelled to return to England and, despite being an American citizen, enlisted in the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve under the pretence that he was Canadian. Following his training, he was promoted to Pilot Officer in March 1940, and joined No 601 (County of London) Squadron at RAF Tangmere on July 12, 1940, just as the Battle of Britain had begun.

Billy Fiske in RAF uniform (1940)

On August 16, 1940, Billy Fiske's Hurricane was hit by gunfire during a dogfight over the English Channel. Though the engine had stopped, Fiske chose to save the much-needed plane. He glided over the airfield boundary and made a wheels-up landing. Fiske was severely burned and taken to the Royal West Sussex Hospital in Chichester for treatment. The Hurricane was later fixed to working condition, but Fiske died the following day from surgical shock. He was 29 years of age.

Billy Fiske landing his Hurricane. (Painting by John Howard Worsley) 

Billy Fiske's legacy lives on as a symbol of courage, patriotism, and selflessness. His story continues to inspire people around the world, reminding us of the extraordinary bravery exhibited by individuals during the darkest moments of history. He was buried in St Mary and St Blaise churchyard in Boxgrove, Sussex on August 20th with both a Union Jack and Stars and Stripes flag draped over his coffin. The inscription on his gravestone reads simply: "He died for England".

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