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The Airmen's Stories - F/Lt. J B Nicolson


James Brindley Eric Nicolson was born in Hampstead on 29th April 1917. His father was a businessman. 'James' had been a traditional first name in the family for many years and 'Eric' was used as a tribute to a relative who had served in the Great War. The future pilot greatly disliked the name 'Eric' and dropped it in later life. He was known as 'Bill' in his family and became 'Nick' in the RAF.

Nicolson attended Tonbridge School from 1930 to 1934, on leaving he was 6ft 3in. and went to work for Ricardo Engineering. He joined the RAF on a short service commission and began his elementary flying training at 13 E&RFTS, White Waltham on 12th October 1936.

Nicolson was posted to 10 FTS, Tern Hill on 16th January 1937 and joined 72 Squadron at Church Fenton on 7th August.

He married Muriel Caroline Kendall of Kirby Wharfe, Yorkshire on 29th July 1939 in Tadcaster.

He went to 249 Squadron, then reforming at Church Fenton, on 16th May 1940 as a Flight Commander. P/O TF Neil became a friend on the squadron. In later life Neil’s memories of Nicolson’s personality and appearance included, 'dark, unruly hair', 'somewhat dishevelled', 'a self confessed expert on pretty well everything', 'congenial', 'an endless talker and mimic'.

Nicolson was detached from 249 to AFDU Northolt from 5th to 14th June for an Air Fighting Instructors’ Course.

On 16th August Nicolson, leading Red Section, was shot down in a surprise attack by Me109s over Southampton. Wounded in the left foot and with a perspex splinter through his left eyelid, Nicolson prepared to abandon his burning Hurricane, P3576.

As he did so a Me110 appeared in front of him. Nicolson slid back into his seat and fired at the enemy fighter. His cockpit was now a mass of flames and he was being burned but he continued firing until it became impossible to remain and he baled out at 12,000 feet. Nicolson's hands were severely burned, parts of his face also, his eyelid was all but severed and his wounded foot was becoming ever more painful. Near the ground he was fired on by LDV volunteers and wounded in the buttock by shotgun pellets.

Nicolson landed at Millbrook and was treated at the scene by a doctor and nurse who happened to be nearby. Nicolson dictated a telegram to his pregnant wife in Yorkshire saying 'Shot down. Very slightly hurt. Full particulars later. All my love, Nick'.

He was placed on a lorry to be taken to the Royal South Hampshire Hospital, Southampton. An ambulance arrived but the doctor considered that Nicolson should not be moved again. During the journey to the hospital a police constable rode on the running board of the lorry to speed its passage. The hospital assessment was that the wounded pilot had 24 hours to live.

Nicolson was taken to Southampton Hospital and three weeks later moved to the RAF Hospital, Halton. In early November he was convalescing at Torquay. He was notified that he had been awarded the VC (gazetted 15th November 1940), Fighter Command's only one of the war.

In a further telegram to his wife he told her 'Darling. Just got VC. Don’t know why. Letter follows. All my love. Nick'.

The nomination for the VC had originated with Air Vice-Marshal Park, AOC, 11 Group, following an indication that the King did not feel that the heroism of the RAF was being sufficiently recognised by recommendations for VCs. The award was unusual in that there appear to have been no witness statements, other than Nicolson’s own account provided to S/Ldr. J Grandy, CO of 249 Squadron and there had been no consideration by the RAF Awards Committee.

Nicolson was decorated by the King at Buckingham Palace on 25th November.


Above: the incident was widely publicised.


Like at least some of his comrades, he seems to have felt that he was being singled out to represent the valour of 'The Few' and he felt the need in his subsequent career to seek to 'earn' the award.

He was posted to 54 OTU on 24th February 1941 as an instructor. He regained his operational category and on 22nd September 1941 was given command of 1459 Flight at Hibaldstow, a Turbinlite Havoc unit. Nicolson was posted to India in early 1942 and on 17th March began a staff job at HQ 293 Wing, Alipore, moving in December to Air HQ, Bengal.

On 4th August 1943 Nicolson was given command of 27 Squadron, operating in Mosquitos from Agartala, Burma. He was posted away to HQ 3rd TAP, Comilla, Bengal on 11th August 1944 and awarded the DFC (gazetted 11th August 1944) as a Wing Commander.

In April 1945 Nicolson was appointed Wing Commander (Training) at 3rd Tactical Air Force HQ at Comilla, Bengal. On 2nd May he went on a bombing sortie in Liberator KH210 of 355 Squadron as an observer. After taking off from Salbani, the aircraft was 130 miles south of Calcutta when one engine caught fire. The Liberator crashed into the sea and there were only two survivors from the eleven aboard.

Nicolson is remembered on the Singapore Memorial, Column 445 (below).




Nicolson is also commemorated by plaques at Tonbridge School (below).





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