Obituary: Flight Lieutenant Harry Fisher, airman and distillery director

Born: 7 November, 1920, in Leith. Died: 22 April, 2014, in Edinburgh, aged 93

Harry Fisher: RAF airman who fought with the French Resistance after being shot down on a mission
Harry Fisher: RAF airman who fought with the French Resistance after being shot down on a mission

HARRY Fisher, who has died aged 93, was an RAF airman who fought bravely with the French Resistance and defied threats of the firing squad after being shot down on a bombing mission in the Second World War. He spent the rest of his life in gratitude to the French people who sheltered him and in particular to the Maquis leader who was tortured and imprisoned by the Gestapo for helping him and other Allied airmen.

Fisher’s flying career ended on 22 April, 1944, when his Stirling aircraft of No 218 (Gold Coast) Squadron was hit by enemy fire on a raid against the railway marshalling yards at Laon, in northern France.

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The wireless operator/air gunner only ended up on the doomed flight after being assigned a different crew following his recovery from a broken leg playing football. The skipper, Squadron Leader Cecil Poulter, tapped Harry on the shoulder and pointed to the escape hatch, urging him to jump from the badly damaged and blazing aircraft.

Poulter, who had dropped a rank to continue flying, struggled to control the stricken bomber and allow some crew to escape, but his unselfish act cost him his own life. After hiding his parachute and Mae West life-jacket, Harry was treated with suspicion by local civilians until he convinced a French underground leader he was a genuine RAF officer evading capture.

He stayed in a series of safe houses and at one point hid in a cart, peering at German soldiers from beneath a pile of straw. His group made it to the Pyrenees mountains but on the border with neutral Spain were fired upon and captured by a German border patrol before being taken to a village for interrogation.

Fisher recalled: “We were lying in the cell when the door opened and an immaculately dressed German officer, jackboots and all, walked in. In perfect English he asked, ‘Who is the English officer here?’ “As no-one else moved, I rose to my feet and said, ‘I am,’ only to be told: ‘Stand to attention when you speak to a German officer!’”

Gestapo interrogators demanded to know who had helped and sheltered him but he gave nothing away, citing the Geneva Convention requirements to supply only name, rank and number. “I then heard the lines that were to be caricatured many times in the future but were extremely threatening and sinister. I quote verbatim: ‘Huh! So you won’t talk. Well, it is not my job but 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 helped us.”

His brief period of captivity had lighter moments, illustrated by a train journey to a civilian jail in Toulouse. “We were in a compartment with armed German guards when the door opened and a Luftwaffe officer came in. He looked at us and said in English, ‘Who are you?’

“The German soldiers were obviously unhappy but were limited in what they could say. On being told we were RAF airmen who had been shot down, he replied, ‘I thought perhaps you were.’ He took out a pack of cigarettes, gave us one each and said, ‘Good luck,’ before leaving. Had we witnessed the special bond between flying types?”

Fisher spent 75 days in “what appeared as a nightmare prison; 250 grams of stale black bread and two bowls of weak cabbage soup with always the threat to shoot.” But with the Allies pushing south after D-Day, the Germans evacuated the prison, leaving the men locked in their cells until French Maquis fighters freed them. Fisher, who had lost three stone in weight, wolfed down hot food left on the stove by the departing enemy.

However, the danger was not yet over as the first former detainees to rush out the gates were machine gunned by fleeing Germans. Fisher fought on with the Maquis until September 1944 and accompanied them on missions to blow up bridges and railway lines. “An aircrew member like me who could never hit anything with a rifle at the best of times!” he recalled.

“At one point we were driven through the streets of Toulouse in an open truck by the Maquis, who were shouting, ‘Anglais et Americains’ while the people lined the streets cheering and shouting. Allied troops had still not arrived and the Maquis were in full control. I had been given a pass stating I was a British officer liaising with the Maquis.

“At this time, we witnesses what happened to traitors or females who had collaborated with the Germans. They were stripped to the waist, had their head shaved and were paraded through the streets and humiliated.”

On 3 September, an RAF special duties Hudson aircraft made a pre-arranged night landing and Fisher was told to be at the rendezvous. “With engines still running, boxes and crates were chucked out,” he said later. “To the utter amazement of the crew, I scurried quickly across the grass towards the plane. ‘Where the hell have you come from?’ was all they could utter. One minute later, before being spotted, we were taking off across the field.”

Fisher returned to Scotland for rehabilitation and his mother, who had been told only that he was missing, discovered he was still alive. He became a member of the Caterpillar Club, for those who survived thanks to their silk parachutes, and the RAF Escaping Society. Fisher and his comrades were feted by the French in 1995 when they paraded up the Champs Elysees and later had dinner at the RAF College, Cranwell, when the society was wound up due to its ageing membership.

Fisher also took part in the famous Peenemunde raid on 17 August, 1943, when 40 RAF planes were lost destroying the German base from which unmanned V1 and V2 rockets had been bombing London indiscriminately.

After the war he returned to France to personally thank the French farmer and Resistance leader, Gabriel Cochet, who had helped him after his plane was shot down. It later emerged that the farmer had been betrayed for helping RAF aircrew and suffered brutal torture and captivity in German concentration camps. Cochet had never breathed a word of his suffering to Harry.

Harry Fisher was born in Leith in 1920, one of seven children of a wine merchant in the Kirkgate. He attended Leith Academy but left at 14 to work after his father died, joining the wine and spirit merchants, JG Thomson, as an office junior until enlisting in the RAF aged 20. He assured his mother he would remain ground crew, as it was safer than flying.

He resumed his civilian career after the war, moving to Elgin after becoming export manager with Glenfarclas distillery. He retired as export director aged 65 and the company’s managing director, John Grant, arranged a lunch at which he could meet his old friends in the trade. A remarkable coincidence transpired.

Mr Grant said: “I decided that the company should present him with some vintage port from the year of his birth, 1920, and went to Percy Fox in London for this. “The gentleman in charge of these items happened to be wearing an RAF Escape Club tie. I remarked that this was a retiral gift for one of his club members, Harry Fisher. ‘I haven’t seen him since we were in jail together in Marseilles,’ was the response.

“Well, I had to get him, Bill Knaggs, to come north with the port for lunch. Before the presentation I mentioned to Harry that if he had been honest with his CV and mentioned he had a jail record, I doubted my father would have employed him. “Shock all round and a fierce denial by Harry, to which I said, ‘Harry, I can prove it – and I have found your cell-mate who will confirm it!’ At this point Bill appeared with the port and an emotional reunion, followed by a good lunch, took place.”

Fisher’s wife, Barbara, died in 1999. They had no children together and lived latterly in Trinity, Edinburgh. His niece, Evelyn Bannatyne, said: “Harry was a very fun-loving person and was the sort of uncle who would tease you. He never spoke about his wartime experiences for many years and his mother had been told he was missing, presumed dead.”

Jack Burgess, of the Scottish Saltire Aircrew Association and a wartime Liberator pilot, said: “Harry was a loyal and regular member who was very well respected. To his dying day, Harry referred to his great respect and gratitude to the French and Belgian Resistance helpers who risked their lives and cruel imprisonment by the German Gestapo for helping RAF aircrew who had been shot down.”