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News > History & Politics > VC for OT Nicolson - 80 Years ago

VC for OT Nicolson - 80 Years ago

A Victoria Cross was awarded in the Battle of Britain to Eric James Brindley Nicolson (WH 30-34)
Eric James Brindley Nicolson (WH 30-34) was a flight Lieutenant (later Wing Commander) during the Battle of Britain and was awarded the only Victoria Cross given to an airman during this battle.

Nicolson has been written about by many, including an authorised biography by Peter D. Mason, which David Linton (HS 30-34) wrote a book review on for the 1992 Tonbridgian magazine.

David Linton wrote: It is common knowledge that only one Victoria Cross was awarded to a Royal Air Force fighter pilot during the Battle of Britain; in fact it was the only such award on the Home Front in the whole of the Second World War.

Less widely recognised is that the recipient, Flight Lieutenant - later Wing Commander – James Nicolson, was a Tonbridgian. From Yardley Court (Bickie's) as his prep school he entered Day Boys 'A' (later Welldon House) in September 1930, and left in July 1934.

To read more about his book ‘Nicolson VC’ click here for the Nicolson Book Review in the 1992 Tonbridgian. 1992/82 - Issue 707.

Lord Ashcroft writes - Half blinded, flesh peeling and flames licking through his cockpit: How Battle of Britain hero 'Nick' Nicolson still hunted down one more kill.

By Lord Ashcroft for the Mail on Sunday. Published on 11 July 2020.
Some extracts are available below. Read the full article
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.
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.

Flight Lieutenant Nick Nicolson (pictured above) performed a single act of valour in the skies during the Battle of Britain, which earned him the Victoria Cross.
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.
Suffering from immense pain and spiraling towards his death, Nicolson still fired at his enemy and chose to 'play dead' in his cockpit so his attacker would fly away.
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.

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.
Author: Lord Ashcroft KCMG PC

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