RAF hero who was the only fighter pilot to be awarded the Victoria Cross during WW2


It may come as a surprise to many readers that despite the heroic tales about how the young pilots of the RAF took on the mighty Luftwaffe in the summer of 1940 during the Battle of Britain, only one pilot – and the only pilot of RAF Fighter Command – was awarded the Victoria Cross during the Second World War.

James Brindley Eric Nicolson was born on April 29, 1917, in Hampstead, north London. He joined the RAF and began flying training at the de Havilland School of Flying, White Waltham, and passed out on November 16, 1936.

After completing his training at No 10 Flying Training School at Ternhill flying Hawker Hart and Audax biplanes, he was posted in July 1937 to Sutton Bridge for gunnery training. He managed to squeeze his 6ft 4ins frame into the cockpits of his aeroplane and succeeded in gaining his wings.

He joined No 72 Squadron in August 1937, and was then posted as a flight commander to No 249 Squadron in May 1940. On August 16, 1940 (the same day RAF Tangmere was heavily bombed by the Luftwaffe), his Hurricane was shot down by German Bf 109s over Southampton.

Wounded in the left foot and with a Perspex splinter through his left eyelid, he prepared to abandon his aircraft.

A German Bf 110 appeared ahead of him and he returned to his seat and, in spite of the flames in the cockpit, continued to fire at the enemy fighter until it became impossible to remain in his aeroplane.

Newspapers quoted him later as saying: “I’ll teach you manners, Hun!” as he attacked.

He bailed out with a wounded foot, severely burned parts of his face and hands, and with his left eyelid almost severed.

To add to his problems, near the ground he was fired upon by members of the Home Guard and was further wounded in the buttocks by shotgun pellets.

While in hospital he sent a message to his wife Muriel: “Shot down. Only slightly hurt.” When Muriel gave birth to their son shortly after, she sent him a message: “Nicolson Junior baled out safely 9.15 this morning.”

For this action, Nicolson was recommended for the Distinguished Flying Cross by his Station Commander, but the remarks of Air Vice Marshal Keith Park, AOC No 11 Group, concluded with the following: “For this outstanding act of gallantry and magnificent display of fighting spirit, I recommend this officer for the immediate award of the Victoria Cross.”

In November 1940, he learnt that he had indeed been awarded the Victoria Cross, the only VC to be awarded to a member of Fighter Command in the Second World War.

When told about his award, Nicolson wired his wife: “Darling. Just got the VC. Don’t know why. Letter follows. All my Love, Nick.”

Muriel (they married a year before the war broke out) was so excited about the telephone call at the farmhouse she forgot the wording until the follow-on telegram arrived.

The announcement was published shortly after: “The king has been graciously pleased to confer the Victoria Cross on the undermentioned officer in recognition of most conspicuous bravery: — Flight Lieutenant James Brindley NICOLSON (39329) — No. 249 Squadron.

“During an engagement with the enemy near Southampton on 16th August 1940, Flight Lieutenant Nicolson’s aircraft was hit by four cannon shells, two of which wounded him while another set fire to the gravity tank.

“When about to abandon his aircraft owing to flames in the cockpit, he sighted an enemy fighter. This he attacked and shot down, although as a result of staying in his burning aircraft he sustained serious burns to his hands, face, neck and legs.

“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.”

He received his medal at Buckingham Palace on Monday November 25 1940.”

The Birmingham Daily Gazette (November 26, 1940) stated that while at Buckingham Palace an ‘alert’ was sounded. Nicolson left in the car and ‘he changed taxis while crossing London in order to escape from the newspapers’.

His and Muriel’s nine-week-old son was christened James Gavin Kendall Nicolson on Sunday, December 1, 1940.

Fully recovered by September 1941, James was interviewed in hospital by a journalist.

He said: “I hope to be back at my station in a day or so.” With his leg in plaster, he was with two other RAF officers in a car ‘when the steering in the RAF car he was driving broke down’ and he ended up back in hospital.

The nurse on the ward said: “Squadron Leader Nicolson is a good patient. He keeps the other patients amused all the time. “There is no depression on this ward now. We shall be sorry, in a way, to see him go.”

Nicolson was posted to India in 1942 after being involved in a road accident. The following year £3,050 damages were awarded against him for the car accident near Baldock on December 15, 1941.

The plaintiff was Harry Alma Woodruff, of Welwyn, Herts – a passenger who suffered back, neck and head injuries. The driver, Thomas Bashford, was killed (the delay between the accident and court case might explain Nicolson being posted to the Far East).

Between August 1943 and August 1944, Nicolson was Squadron Leader and C.O. of No 27 Squadron, flying Bristol Beaufighters over Burma. During this time he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (August 1944) ‘for consistently showing himself to be a courageous and enterprising leader’.

Promoted to Wing Commander, he was killed on May 2, 1945, during an attack on a Japanese gun position at Rangoon in an RAF B-24 Liberator from No. 355 Squadron,
in which he was flying as an observer. The No1 engine ‘gave trouble and caught fire’, the bomb load was jettisoned but the other engine caught fire and ‘the order was given to prepare for ditching’ and the Liberator crashed into the Bay of Bengal.

Two crew survived. Nicolson’s body was not recovered.

He is commemorated on the Singapore Memorial. Newspapers in December 1945 reported in his will he left £212.

Nicolson’s Victoria Cross was sold by his widow in the late 1980s and is displayed at England’s Royal Air Force Museum in Hendon.





Source link

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *