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Flt. Lt. James Nicolson: Fighter Command VC
Twenty three year old Flight Lieutenant James Nicolson won the only V.C. of the Battle of Britain on 16th August 1940. His aircraft was set on fire during an action with the enemy near Southampton, he was about to bale out when he saw an Me 109 and settled back into the burning cockpit to shoot it down.
On 16 August 1940 having departed RAF Boscombe Down, near Southampton Nicolson's Hawker Hurricane was fired on by a Messerschmitt Bf 110, injuring the pilot in one eye and one foot. His engine was also damaged and the petrol tank set alight. As he struggled to leave the blazing machine he saw another Messerschmitt, and managing to get back into the bucket seat, pressed the firing button and continued firing until the enemy plane dived away to destruction. Not until then did he bail out, and he was able to open his parachute in time to land safely in a field. On his descent, he was fired on by members of the Home Guard, who ignored his cry of being a RAF pilot. His Citation for the VC reads:
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 whilst 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.
It was perhaps an unexceptional act of bravery amongst so many fighting to defend Britain that summer – yet it was unique because it was witnessed by a number of people on the ground. The need for witnesses to corroborate individual acts of bravery meant that very few RAF crew were nominated for an award of valour. Nicolson was the only fighter pilot to receive the award during the Second World War. He was also one of only two recipients to win the award whilst in British territory, the other being Leading Seaman Jack Mantle of HMS Foylebank on 4th July 1940.
Nicolson was wounded in the eye and foot in the first attack that set his aircraft on fire, and his hands were so badly burnt that he was unable to release his parachute once he landed. Yet his ordeal was not over – he was peppered in the leg by a shotgun fired by an enthusiastic member of the Home Guard who was the first to approach him.
He made a good recovery and was extremely modest about the award – he had to be reminded that it was a discipline offence to be improperly dressed when he was slow to sow the medal ribbon onto his uniform.
Fully recovered by September 1941, Nicolson was posted to India in 1942. Between August 1943 and August 1944 he was a Squadron Leader and Commanding Officer of 27 Squadron, flying Bristol Beaufighters over Burma. During this time he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross on 11 August 1944.
Promotion to Wing Commander followed but, on 2 May 1945, while flying as an observer in a B-24 Liberator with 355 Squadron, his plane caught fire and crashed into the Bay of Bengal. Sadly Nicolson’s body was never recovered and he was listed as killed-in-action, bringing to a sad end the remarkable flying career of Fighter Command’s only VC recipient. Today, his name can be found on the Kranji War Memorial in Singapore.
Nicolson was the only Battle of Britain pilot and indeed the only pilot of RAF Fighter Command to be awarded the Victoria Cross during the Second World War. Nicolson's Victoria Cross is displayed at the Royal Air Force Museum, Hendon, England.
Sources used by us in compiling Archive Reports include:
Bill Chorley - 'Bomber Command Losses Vols. 1-9, plus ongoing revisions', Dr. Theo E.W. Boiten and Mr. Roderick J. Mackenzie - 'Nightfighter War Diaries Vols. 1 and 2', Martin Middlebrook and Chris Everitt - 'Bomber Command War Diaries', Commonwealth War Graves Commission, Tom Kracker - Kracker Luftwaffe Archives, Michel Beckers, Major Fred Paradie (RCAF) and MWO François Dutil (RCAF) - Paradie Archive (on this site), Jean Schadskaje, Major Jack O'Connor USAF (Retd.), Robert Gretzyngier, Wojtek Matusiak, Waldemar Wójcik and Józef Zieliński - 'Ku Czci Połeglyçh Lotnikow 1939-1945', Archiwum - Polish Air Force Archive (on this site), Anna Krzystek, Tadeusz Krzystek - 'Polskie Siły Powietrzne w Wielkiej Brytanii', Franek Grabowski, Norman L.R. Franks 'Fighter Command Losses', Aircrew Remembered Databases and our own archives. We are grateful for the support and encouragement of CWGC, UK Imperial War Museum, Australian War Memorial, Australian National Archives, New Zealand National Archives, UK National Archives and Fold3 and countless dedicated friends and researchers across the world.
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