The Goldfish Club

by Terry MacEwen

The Goldfish Club is an air club with rigorously strict and unique membership requirements. These requirements are so rigorous in fact, that most people wouldn’t actually want to join it. However, when you do gain membership you are certainly grateful! The reason being, membership to this exclusive air club is limited to those pilots and crew who have ditched into the sea from their stricken aircraft and have lived to tell the tale.

“This Club was founded to give recognition and life membership to airmen who have saved their lives in an emergency dingy.”

The Goldfish Club was founded in 1942 at the height of the Second World War by Mr. C.A. Robertson, affectionately known as ‘Robbie’. He was chief draughtsman at P.B Cow at the time, a company that specialised in making sea air rescue equipment, in particular the emergency dingy. Robbie was visited by many of the airmen who had been forced to ditch into the sea, and who subsequently owed their lives to the rescue dinghies that his company produced. He heard about so many harrowing experiences that these airmen had gone through, that he decided to found a club for them. The idea was that these airmen who had survived air crashes out at sea, could get together and share their unique and incredible experiences.

The crew of an RAF Air/Sea Rescue launch haul in a dinghy with two exhausted survivors from a No 166 Squadron Wellington which ditched off the French coast

The qualifications for membership included those who had parachuted into the sea from an abandoned aircraft and those who had crashed into the sea to then escape the aircraft and be saved by a dingy, life jacket or similar air sea rescue equipment.

At the time of its founding, Goldfish Club membership was limited to members of the Armed Forces and by the end of the war, membership had grown to over nine thousand people. There were even airmen in prisoner of war camps who had been captured after ditching at sea and who applied for membership from their internment camps. In those cases their membership documents were shipped to their next of kin to look after until they were released from the camps and able to return home.

The club insignia, which is stitched onto the official club badges, shows a goldfish with wings above the waves. The gold of the fish represents the value of life and the fish represents the sea, and the fact that those members must have ditched ‘into the drink’ to qualify for membership.

Embroidered badge of the Goldfish Club. Image by kind permission of JP Phillips OBE, Goldfish Club Archivist

Due to the restrictions of materials during the war, the badges weren’t able to be made with metal wire as was common at the time.

Therefore, William Hickey put out an appeal through the Daily Express for old evening-dress jackets, so that the club would have something to make the badges from. They received a fantastic response and the club were able to issue their members with their official embroidered badges. Members were also given a heat-sealed and waterproof membership card. This tradition of badges and cards remains in effect to this day.

On an RAF dress uniform, the club badge is to be worn below the pocket on the left-hand side, and for the Navy it is to be worn, for obvious reasons, on their Mae West lifejackets. The Mae West lifejackets are so named after their apparent similarity in shape to buxom American actress Mae West.

Although the original plan had been to disband the club after the war, due to the sheer number of membership requests that kept being submitted, it was decided to keep it going. Then eventually, the membership was widened to include civilian as well as military pilots.

Club Membership card. Image by kind permission of JP Phillips OBE, Goldfish Club Archivist

In 1947 Robbie left P.B Cow, but he kept administering the club at his own personal expense. The club continued to include more and more members. In fact, it became so well populated that the RAF intelligence service had to conduct investigations to ensure that no secret information was being divulged in the airmen’s reports, when they applied for their Goldfish Club membership.

One of the early members of the club was twenty-three year old flight commander Keith Quilter. He was shot down over Osaka Honshu off the coast of Japan in an air strike on 28th July 1945. He escaped his aircraft and managed to get into his dingy. Whilst paddling out to sea to avoid the Japanese fighter planes, he was found and rescued by a US submarine. And when they got him into their vessel, they were able to tell him that Japan had just surrendered.

The club received its first of two female members, Gloria Pullen, on July 25th 1989, when she ditched her 1911 vintage Bleriot monoplane into the English Channel and was then rescued by RAF helicopter. She was only two miles from the English coast when she was forced to ditch.

In 1998 Commander Jason Phillips was forced to ditch his Sea King Helicopter into the North Sea. Luckily, due to previous military training, affectionately known as ‘the dunker’ where participants are dropped into a freezing swimming pool in the dark, in an upside down helicopter fuselage and expected to follow procedure to free themselves (in preparation for the worst happening in the air) the entire crew of four survived and became members of the Goldfish Club!

Richard Branson actually declined membership after ditching into the sea from his trans-Atlantic hot air balloon.

These are just a few of the incredible survival stories of the Goldfish club’s members. In fact, many of the stories were turned into a book Danny Danziger, entitled “The Goldfish Club” and another written in 1955 by Ralph Barker appropriately called, “Down in the Drink”.

The first club reunion dinner was held at the White House Restaurant in London in 1951 and there has been an annual reunion dinner ever since. In fact, the club is still going strong today with around five hundred members currently worldwide.

Image by kind permission of JP Phillips OBE, Goldfish Club Archivist

“Money, position or power cannot gain a man or woman entry to the exclusive circles of the Goldfish Club. To become a member one has to float upon the sea for a considerable period with nothing but a Carley Rubber Float between one and a watery death.” – The Burra Record 1945

By Terry MacEwen, Freelance Writer.

Published: 24th May, 2022.

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