Billy Fiske in RAF uniform

He was 16, and he was an Olympic gold medalist. At the age of 20, he won his second gold medal. At the age of 24, Billy Fiske had an opportunity to head up another US bobsleigh team, this time at the 1936 Garmisch-Partenkirchen Winter Olympics in Germany.

Fiske turned down a possible third gold medal, and he never said why. But according to The Guardian, his friend, Irving Jaffee (a two time gold medalist in speed skating at the1932 Lake Placid Games), believed it was because “Fiske objected to the treatment of Jews, like Jaffee himself, in Nazi Germany.”

As a teenager, Fiske went to Trinity College in London, England, to study economics and history, as well as drive his Bentley down the English country roads as fast as he could. In 1938, Fiske moved back to England, where he made friends with members of the British air force at the White’s Club in London, and married an English girl named Rose Bingham. He returned to New York. But when Germany invaded Poland, and Britain and France declared war on Germany two days later, Fiske felt he had to return to England.

Fiske had to deceive in order to make it to England because American passports did not allow citizens to engage in foreign militaries, and it was Fiske’s aim to join his friends from the White’s Club. Pretending to be Canadian, Fiske returned to London where he enlisted in the Royal Air Force (RAF). According to HistoryNet, “Fiske duly pledged his life and loyalty to the king, George VI, and was formally admitted into the RAF. In his diary, a joyous Fiske wrote, “I believe I can lay claim to being the first U. S. citizen to join the RAF in England after the outbreak of hostilities.”

In fact he was the first. He was also one of the first Americans to perish in World War II.

Billy Fiske fifth left
Billy Fiske fifth from the left

The Battle of Britain began on July 10, 1940 when Luftwaffe arrived in London in full daylight to bomb the British capital. As a newly trained pilot in the 601 Auxiliary Air Force Squadron at Tangmere, “there was some apprehension in 601 about ‘the untried American adventurer,” as quoted in HistoryNet. Ten days later, the rookie fighter pilot was in the air in a 601 plane to make patrols, apparently learning quickly how to maneuver the plane effectively.

Three weeks later, Fiske, on August 16, 1940, Fiske was trying to get his plane back to the base after an attack by Luftwaffe. Shot up and badly damaged, Fiske glided his Hurricane fighter plane back to the airfield, hitting the ground hard and exploding into fire. Dragged out of his plane, Fiske suffered severe burns and was rushed to a hospital. But the shock from the burns was too great, and the Olympian and American RAF fighter pilot, Billy Fiske, died the next day at the age of 29.

Cecilia Colledge
British skater Cecilia Colledge

In February 1936, there was universal expectation that Sonja Henie, aka The Ice Queen of Norway or The White Swan, would win her third gold medal in the women’s individual figure skating competition at the Gamisch-Partenkirchen Winter Olympics in Germany.

After all, Henie was just 23, and had already won the previous 2 Olympic and previous 9 world championship figure skating competitions. But up-and-comers, as always, are always nipping at the heels of champions. According to sports-reference.com, a 15-year-old Brit named Cecilia Colledge burst onto the scene by being the first female figure skater to execute a double Salchow, propelling her to victory at the European Championships only three weeks before in Berlin, Germany.

Additionally, Colledge had such strong appeal that Henie was no longer the only darling on ice. According to this article in The Independent, the powers-that-be in Nazi Germany were fans:

Sonja Henie_1936 Garmisch-Partenkirchen Olympics_Hitler
Sonja Henie at the 1936 Garmisch-Partenkirchen Olympics, meeting der Fuhrer, Adolph Hitler

The British team manager, T.D. Richardson, wrote that the 40,000 spectators who filled the outdoor stadium to capacity, included Adolf Hitler and other top Nazis. “Goering, in particular, could not keep his eyes off Cecilia. He asked me all about her on several occasions.”

After the first part of the competition – compulsory figures – Henie was ahead. But to the Norwegian’s surprise, not by much. Henie was not pleased.

In 1936 in the twin villages of Garmisch-Partenkirchen in southern Germany, Colledge was only a few points behind Henie after the school figures section. The closeness infuriated Henie, who, when the result for that section was posted on a wall in the competitors’ lounge, swiped the piece of paper and tore it into little pieces.

Fortunately, in the free skating part of the competition, Henie may have gotten the star treatment. While the first place competitor should skate last, it might follow that the second place competitor would skate second to last. Instead, Colledge was asked to skate second of the 26 total number of skater. As The Independent states, in the subjective world of figure skating, there is a distinct advantage to skating later in the day.

The early start was seen as a disadvantage, with the audience not yet whipped into a clapping frenzy and the judges known to become freer with their higher marks as the event proceeded. (Years later, a fairer, staggered draw was adopted to counteract this situation.)

Additionally, as sports-refernce.com details, Colledge’s nerves may have gotten the best of her, as she fell early in her free skate program, resulting in a good, but not great average score of 5.7. Henie, who benefited from the energy and excitement of a crowd waiting to see the Ice Queen crowned champion for a third time in a row, skated without error, well enough to maintain her hold on first, and the golden medal.

 

Sonja Henie_1936 Garmisch-Partenkirchen Olympics
Sonya Henie competing at the 1936 Winter Olympics