During the Second World War, several exclusive clubs were formed as a result of extraordinary action many airmen took during the war. These were the Caterpillar Club, for those who landed safely with the help of a silken parachute; the Late Arrivals Club, those who walked back to safety from behind enemy lines; the Guinea Pig club, those who faced multiple reconstructive surgeries formed by the pioneering New Zealand plastic surgeon Archibald McIndoe, and the Goldfish Club.
The Goldfish Club was founded in 1942 by C. A. Robertson who was the Chief Draughtsman of Messers P. B. Cow & Co limited, one of the largest manufacturers of Air Sea Rescue equipment during the Second World War. The club was formed to honour those who had survived after their aircraft ditched into the water, with the successful use of a "Mae West" (life vest), and a rubber dinghy, etc. The club's motto, summarising their experience, was "Gold for the value of life. Fish for the sea." By 1945, there were approximately 9000 members of the Goldfish Club.
In 1954, the Auckland Branch of the Goldfish Club was formed to incorporate the many Royal New Zealand Air Force members who had become members. Online Cenotaph has added the ditching details to many of the Goldfish Club members' records from the Goldfish Club Roll of Honour. These are some of their stories.
James Stewart Frame
Flying Officer James Stewart Frame was a member of both the Goldfish Club and the Late Arrivals Club. Frame was serving with the 221 Squadron attached to the Royal Air Force. While participating in a search for an enemy convoy off the the coast of western Crete, the port-side engine of his plane failed, abruptly stopping at 1000 feet, near the coast of El Alamein. The crew turned towards their base at Ginaclia aerodrome in Egypt. About two minutes later they suffered engine failure and belly-flopped into the ocean. All six members were able to get into the aircraft's dinghy, and fired their one and only distress signal. A Royal Navy motor launch on patrol in enemy territory in Matruh sighted it and investigated. The Navy rescued the crew and took them to Alexandria, arriving three days after they had ditched.
These events entitled the crew to membership of both the Goldfish and Late Arrivals clubs. Frame was later awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross for great skill and courage over numerous sorties.
Kenneth David Lumsden
Flying Officer Kenneth David Lumsden served with the Royal New Zealand Air Force 18 Squadron in the Pacific. On November 1, 1943, he was providing cover for the American Landing at Bougainville Island, when fighter flak caused engine failure. Lumsden and his crew belly-flopped into the ocean, and spent about four hours in a dinghy before being picked up by an American landing craft. In his ditching details to the Goldfish Club, Lumdsen wrote that his rescue "was dramatic and all but ended in disaster." He continued,
After attracting attention of a far-off vessel with my survival heliograph I waited sometime, for friendly hands to pull me aboard - This was not to be! My hopes were suddenly shattered when my rubber boat and I were completely en-circled by close range machine gun fire! What the B- Hell!! My instant reaction was to remove my flying helmet to disclose my caucasian features and red hair with arms thrust skywards to the accompaniment of the best of Kiwi oaths. The shooting stopped as quickly as it had started. The Yanks were apologetic afterwards and stressed I was more than lucky to be alive. Neither my rubber boat, nor myself was hit but my 'distress flag' has holes in it. The 'flag' (Red with a white Roundel) was the cause of the trouble. I had erroneously been issued with a European Survival Kit, which obviously was not a wise move in battle with happy trigger Americans about.
Lumsden returned to Nelson after the war, he married Lance Corporal Aubrey Pahl of the New Zealand Women's Army Auxiliary Corps, and worked for the Lands and Survey Department as a Draughtsman, his pre-war occupation.
Flight Sergeant Basil Williams was an air gunner with the 432 Squadron of the Royal Canadian Air Force. On the 22nd September 1943 he was on a bombing operation over Hanover. Enemy flak and running out of petrol meant he and his crew ditched and belly-flopped into the North Sea. The crew spent approximately 80 hours in the dinghy and were picked up by a German air sea rescue launch.
The crew were taken prisoner by the Germans, and were split up and interrogated. Williams was sent to Stalag Luft VI, in Lithuania. In mid-1944 that Stalag's prisoners of war were transferred to Stalag Luft IV, in German Pomerania. They were shovelled into two coastal coal tramp steamers and spent five days without food or water en route to Swinemunde, after which they were then taken by cattle car to a rail station near Stalag Luft IV. By early 1945 the Germans had decided to evacuate Stalag Luft IV, and on the 6th February 1945 around 6,000 airmen—among them approximately 25 New Zealanders, Williams included—were forced to march west from Gross Tychow in sub-zero temperatures for 86 days, covering more than 800 kilometres. Their march ended in May 1945, with Liberation, and the Royal Air Force launched Operation Exodus, which repatriated many prisoners by air.
Williams returned to New Zealand where he worked as a picture framer. In 1950, he married Irene Sugden whom he had met during the war whilst stationed in North Yorkshire. Flight Sergeant Williams passed away in 2016, 94 years young.
Alexander Raymond Brown and John Aston Wilkinson
Both Alexander Raymond Brown and John Aston Wilkinson were members of the Goldfish Club. The story of how they gained membership is an extraordinary one.
Sergeants Brown and Wilkinson were part of the 217 Squadron along with Lieutenant E. T. Strever of the South African Air Force, and Pilot Officer W. M. Dunsmore of the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve. Together they were part of a crew that operated from Malta in June and July of 1942. All four joined the Goldfish Club on the 28th July 1942.
The crew were shot down during an attack on an enemy convoy off the Greek island of Sapienza. The crew were forced to ditch in the Ionian Sea. Unharmed, they were able to inflate their dinghy before their aircraft sank. According to Brown, the crew spent about two hours in the water before being picked up by an Italian float plane. They were taken as prisoners to Corfu. The following day the same plane was taking them to a prisoner-of-war camp in Italy. The aircraft was piloted by an Italian corporal who became airsick. Seeing their chance, Sergeant Wilkinson distracted the corporal, knocked him unconscious, and seized his pistol. When one of the crew members reached for a Tommy gun behind the pilot's seat, Sergeant Brown picked up a wrench and threw it at the fuselage, hitting it directly, and getting the aircraft under their control. As they approached Malta, the crew were attacked by three spitfires as their motors cut out due to lack of fuel. They landed safely once more on the sea and the Italians were then taken as prisoners of war.
For their efforts, Lieutenant E. T. Strever and Pilot Officer W. M. Dunsmore were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, and Sergeants Brown and Wilkinson were awarded the Distinguished Flying Medal. The citation for these awards reads:
"Lieutenant Strever, Pilot Officer Dunsmore, and Sergeants Brown and Wilkinson were the crew of an aircraft which operated from Malta in June and July 1942. During this period they performed excellent work in attacking enemy merchant vessels and naval forces, and all displayed initiative, courage and devotion to duty of the highest order."
Bayer, K. (2016, June 8). 'National treasure' and former POW Basil Williams dies. New Zealand Herald. Retrieved from https://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=11653032
Frisbee, John L., (1997, September) Valor: Lest We Forget. Air Force Magazine, 88(9), 130.
Hanson, C. (2001) By such deeds: honours and awards in the Royal New Zealand Air Force, 1923-1999. Christchurch, N.Z.: Volplane Press.
The Goldfish Club: Roll of Honour. Auckland Museum MS-2004-32.
We have added the ditching details for those who were apart of the Auckland Branch of the Goldfish Club
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Cite this article
Pine, Madison .
Goldfish Club. Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. First published: 20 January 2020. Updated: 12 August 2020.