First published in the Mail on Sunday on 12 July 2020.
Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few,’ said Winston Churchill as the Battle of Britain reached its height in the late summer of 1940.
This desperate fight for the skies above southern England – and for the fate of Britain herself – lasted for almost four months, from July 10 until October 31.
Yet for all the bravery shown by thousands of airmen, only one individual was awarded the Victoria Cross – Britain and the Commonwealth’s ultimate gallantry award.
That man was Flight Lieutenant (later Wing Commander) ‘Nick’ Nicolson, for a single act of valour in the skies that typified the grit and fighting spirit summed up in Churchill’s words as the RAF, led by Fighter Command, sought to prevent Germany from invading.
Now, as we celebrate the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, I would ask everyone to remember the bravery of Nicolson on a hot summer’s day, August 16, 1940 – just four days before Churchill delivered his uplifting speech.
Eric James Brindley Nicolson was born in Hampstead, North London, on April 29, 1917, one of four children born to Leslie and Dorothea Nicolson.
For some unexplained reason he was called ‘Bill’ by his family, but once in the RAF he was known to one and all as ‘Nick’ – a truncated version of his surname.
The young Nicolson was educated at Yardley Court Preparatory School in Tonbridge, Kent, and, later, at Tonbridge School, where he was a fine cricketer and long-distance runner.
After leaving school in July 1934, aged 17, Nicolson was employed as an ‘experimental engineer’ by Ricardo Engines of Shoreham-by-Sea, West Sussex.
However, his interest in aviation and his admiration for the ‘aces’ of the Great War led him to volunteer for training in the RAF.
Nicolson was granted a four-year short service commission and began his pilot training in October 1936, flying solo for the first time the following month. After 24 hours of solo flying, his proficiency rating was assessed as ‘average – no special faults’.
In 1937, he was posted to No 72 Squadron at Church Fenton, North Yorkshire, where he flew Gloster Gladiators before moving on to Spitfires two years later.
On July 29, 1939, with war on the horizon, Flying Officer Nicolson, as he then was, married Muriel Kendall at St John’s Church, Kirkby Wharfe, North Yorkshire.
And in May 1940, he was posted to the newly formed 249 Squadron, serving as an acting flight commander. The next month Hurricanes replaced Spitfires as his squadron’s fighter of choice.
On August 14, 1940, with the Battle of Britain already more than a month old, his squadron moved to Boscombe Down, Wiltshire, to help in the defence of the southern counties from the Luftwaffe.
By this point Nicolson, aged 23, who was extrovert, gregarious and a natural raconteur, was considered a ‘natural’ pilot, skilled at aerobatics and a fine shot.
Just two days after moving with his squadron, Nicolson took part in his first day of individual aerial combat, an action for which he would later be highly decorated. In a blue, cloudless sky, his squadron was tasked with patrolling the area between Poole and Ringwood against a formidable force of enemy Junkers Ju 88 fast bombers.
In a day of deadly aerial duels, Nicolson’s Hurricane, known as Red One, was on its way to attack three Ju 88s when he saw that a formation of Spitfires had beaten him to it.
Abandoning his chase, Nicolson climbed to nearly 18,000ft over Southampton, with the intention of rejoining the main 249 Squadron formation, when his Hurricane was suddenly attacked and badly damaged by cannon fire. Nicolson’s position was desperate and it looked likely that he would die.
Four cannon shells had scored direct hits on his aircraft: one damaged the cockpit canopy, driving a shard of Perspex through Nicolson’s left eyelid; a second set fire to the gravity-feed fuel tank; a third devastated the side of the cockpit, shredding his right trouser leg; and a fourth hit the heel of Nicolson’s left shoe, injuring him in the foot.
Ignoring the pain from his wounds and with flames licking all around him, he put his aircraft into a right-hand diving turn. Just as he was about to abandon his Hurricane and hopefully parachute to safety, he caught sight of a Messerschmitt fighter through his undamaged windscreen.
Realising his reflector gunsight was still switched on from his earlier pursuit of enemy aircraft, Nicolson went on the offensive, pressing his gun-firing button and seeing rounds riddle the fuselage of the enemy plane.
As he glanced down, he saw burnt flesh peel from his left hand but his determination to finish the job remained undimmed. He gave the Messerschmitt one final blast from all guns.
With the flames in his cockpit growing, Nicolson knew he had only seconds left to escape but, as he pushed upwards, his head hit the buckled cockpit frame and his planned exit seemed impossible.
Nicolson made one final effort to save his life, pulling back the hood cover before unbuckling one strap and snapping another that held him in his seat. At 12,000ft, he finally managed to thrust himself into the air.
As he plunged headfirst towards the ground, he pulled the ripcord of his parachute. Yet still his ordeal continued: as the canopy opened, yet another Messerschmitt sped past him and then turned to home in on him as he dropped towards the ground.
Fearing that he was about to be machine-gunned, Nicolson let his body hang limply as if he was already dead, and the enemy pilot chose not to fire on him as he roared past.
As he descended still further towards the ground, Nicolson became more aware of the wounds he had suffered: he could see nothing out of his left eye, blood was oozing from his left foot, while his hands and parts of his face were badly burned (his left hand so badly that finger bones were exposed).
Yet, as he fell towards a field, he was shot at from the ground and hit in the buttocks, apparently by a Canadian soldier positioned in Southampton docks who suspected he was an enemy airman. After Nicolson landed in a field, he was unable to free himself from his parachute because of his burnt hands.
It was shortly after 1pm and his life hung in the balance: the first doctor who saw him at Southampton Hospital later that day gave him only 24 hours to live. He was even measured for a coffin.
Back at their Yorkshire home, Muriel Nicolson was six months pregnant and not well enough to travel to Southampton. It was to be yet another life-or-death situation that Nicolson, with some expert medical assistance, would have to fight alone.
Within a week, however, Nicolson felt well enough to provide a bedside combat report to Squadron Leader John Grandy, his CO, and was told that four eyewitnesses on the ground had confirmed that the enemy plane he shot at had fallen to the ground and it was therefore his ‘victory’.
Nicolson said he had eventually left his Hurricane ‘like a cork from a champagne bottle’, adding: ‘I did not pull the ripcord for some 5,000ft, not wishing to be shot, and owing to my excess speed, I left my helmet on. This saved my face.
‘I felt all my limbs on the way down and found there were no broken bones, though my thighs, hands, eyes and calves were badly burnt and my left shoe seemed badly shot up.
‘When 50ft up, just before landing, an enthusiastic individual loosed both barrels of a 12-bore into my buttocks, this added to my comforts!
‘I am glad to report I am well on the mend, but it looks as though it’s going to take a long time.’
Without a hint of self-pity and with astonishing selflessness, he ended his report: ‘All the best to you, sir, and the boys and every success you so richly deserve.’
In early September, just three weeks after sustaining his injuries, Nicolson was well enough to be transferred to Princess Mary’s RAF Hospital in Halton, Buckinghamshire, a unit specialising in the treatment of burns.
By November, he was convalescing in the Palace Hotel ‘hospital’, in Torquay, Devon. Most of his injuries had healed well, but he had no real movement in his left hand and little in his right.
Nicolson’s VC was announced in The London Gazette on November 15, 1940, though he learnt about it just before in a telegram from King George VI.
‘Now I’ll have to earn it,’ he told another patient immediately after learning he was about to become a VC recipient.
Nicolson, who genuinely felt he was undeserving of such an accolade since he had just a single victory, sent a telegram to his wife that read: ‘Darling, just got VC. Don’t know why. Letter follows. All my love, Nick.’
The short citation that came with the announcement of the VC ended: ‘Flight Lieutenant Nicolson has always displayed great enthusiasm for air fighting and this incident shows that he possesses courage and determination of a high order.
‘By continuing to engage the enemy after he had been wounded and his aircraft set on fire, he displayed exceptional gallantry and disregard for the safety of his own life.’
His telegrams of congratulations included one that read: ‘Heartiest congratulations. Delighted to see your ugly mug on all the front pages for such a good reason!’
Nicolson received his VC from the King at Buckingham Palace on November 25, just ten days after the public announcement of the decoration. He and his family celebrated the happy event with a meal at the Grosvenor Hotel.
By then, Nicolson had also celebrated becoming a father for the first time: James Gavin was born on November 16, nine days before the investiture, after which Muriel Nicolson sent a telegram to her husband that read: ‘Nicolson Junior baled out safely at 9.15 this morning.’
Nicolson was well enough to return home to Yorkshire for a visit nine weeks after James’s birth, when the boy’s christening was held at the church where the couple had married the previous year.
Although clearly unfit for flying duties, Nicolson was soon agitating for a flying post.
In February 1941 he joined the instructional staff of 54 Operational Training Unit (OTU). In September of the same year he was given the command of No 1459 Flight, Hibaldstow, Lincolnshire, a night fighter experimental unit.
Other operational postings followed and he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) for his courage and enterprise in command of 27 Squadron.
In April 1945 he joined the staff of RAF Headquarters, Burma. As the war entered its final phase, he was still hoping to fly in combat once again.
On May 2, 1945, he persuaded his RAF commanders to permit him to accompany a bomber crew of a Liberator from 355 Squadron, based at Salbani, Bengal. His role was to be an ‘observer’. However, some 130 miles south of Calcutta, while en route to its target, one of the aircraft’s engines burst into flames and the bomber crashed into open sea.
Just two Non Commissioned Officers (NCOs) survived the incident and were rescued, but the remainder of the crew perished.
WING Commander ‘Nick’ Nicolson VC DFC had died, aged 28. In a final irony, his widow Muriel was told her husband had died on VE Day 1945. His body was never recovered, but there are several memorials to his life and courage.
The Tangmere Military Aviation Museum in West Sussex has a display of Nicolson memorabilia, including the tunic and life jacket that he was wearing on the day of his VC action. The museum also has the original painting of his VC action by the war artist Robert Taylor. Nicolson’s medal group is kept at the RAF Museum, Hendon.
Nicolson remains a hero to locals in Southampton, and four years ago Sholing Junior School unveiled a plaque, designed by the pupils, in his memory.
To me, Nicolson represented the very essence of Winston Churchill’s ‘Few’: brave, determined and always looking for the next challenge. This week, of all weeks, we should remember him and his RAF comrades with pride.