Southampton's Fighter Plane Hero
Eric James Brindley ‘Nic’ Nicholson holds the distinction of not only being the only Fighter Command VC of the Second World War, but the holder of the only VC awarded to a Battle of Britain pilot. Of particular relevance to Solent Sky, was the fact that not only did his VC winning action happen over British soil, but it occurred over Millbrook, Southampton, only a mile or so from the site of the Museum!
Born in Hampstead, London, on 29 April 1917, Nicholson was one of the breed of young men at the time who could possibly see the ‘writing on the wall’ with the rise of Nazi Germany by the mid 1930’s.
Although he was in a good career [he was a trainee experimental engineer], he decided to join the RAF as a trainee pilot, and enlisted in December 1936 after initially starting his flying training at White Waltham as a civilian. Completing his RAF flying training at RAF Ternhill, Nicolson was officially classed as an ‘above-average’ pilot and ‘first-class’ shot.
‘Nic’ as he was generally known, was also a very extrovert character who both worked and played hard – the very epitome of a typical RAF fighter pilot of the late 1930’s.
He was first posted to 72 Squadron at RAF Church Fenton, Yorkshire, in 1937, flying the RAF’s last biplane fighter, the Gloster Gladiator.
72 Squadron exchanged their Gladiators for Spitfires in April 1939, becoming the seventh RAF squadron to be issued with the new ‘wonder plane’. Nic remained with the squadron at the outbreak of war which was part of the Northern defence of the UK.
Throughout the ‘Phoney War’, as the first six months of the war was known in Britain due to the general lack of combat action between Britain and Germany [the German military unofficially called this period ‘Sitzkreig’!], Fighter Command saw little action, and by the end of May 1940, Nic had not seen any actual combat action and with his colleagues was understandably frustrated by the lack of any actual ‘action’.
Nic was then posted to RAF Leconfield on 15 May 1940 to become a Flight Commander on the newly formed 249 Squadron and the Squadron exchanged their Spitfires for Hurricanes.
The squadron moved to Church Fenton in mid-June 1940, becoming fully operational on their new aircraft on 3 July.
On 14 August 1940, squadron was moved south from RAF Leconfield to RAF Boscombe Down in Wiltshire to help in defending Britain against the daily incursion of the Luftwaffe’s bombing fleets against airfields and other targets in the south of England.
Two days later, Friday 16 August 1940, was not only to be Nic’s baptism of fire, but this day also saw the incident for which he became famous.
As Red Section leader, flying Hurricane Mk 1 GN-A serial number P3576, Nic led a late morning patrol comprising three aircraft patrolling from Poole to Romsey. The other two pilots on the patrol were Plt Off Martyn King of 249 Sqn, and Sqn Ldr Eric King, an supernumerary officer attached to 249 to gain combat experience.
So none of Red Section had had any actual combat experience at this stage of the war.
Red Section with Nic leading, were vectored to 15,000 feet towards Southampton where they spotted three Ju 88 bombers at a slightly higher altitude approximately four miles away and gave chase. To their chagrin, they were beaten to the intercept by a patrol of Spitfires when they had almost got to their targets. Nic and his section then climbed to 18,000 feet over Southampton intending to formate on the rest of 249 Squadron to rejoin the main battle.
Nic’s Hurricane suddenly came under cannon fire from the rear by a gaggle of Messerschmitt 109’s which had ‘bounced’ the section unseen. Plt Off King’s Hurricane immediately caught fire and he had to bail out before the Hurricane exploded. As he floated down, a Royal Artillery Officer ordered his men to open fire on the supposed ‘enemy’ pilot; this caused King’s parachute to shred and collapse resulting in the hapless pilot falling to his death into a garden on Clifton Road, Shirley, Southampton.
Plt Off Martyn King is now buried in Fawley churchyard, along with other RAF servicemen. Sqn Ldr King’s Hurricane was severely damaged, and although he recovered the aircraft from its spin, immediately had to leave the battle and nurse his damaged Hurricane to an emergency landing back at Boscombe Down.
Nic was now in serious trouble. Four cannon shells had exploded into his Hurricane, one hit his left shoe heel and caused a bad wound to his foot; a second shell shredded his trousers and peppered his leg with shrapnel; the third smashed part of the canopy and Perspex lacerated his left eyelid causing severe bleeding.
The final shell had ruptured and exploded the fuel tank situated in front of the cockpit, causing flames to roar through the instrument panel and into the cockpit area where Nic was trying to bail out.
All this would be more than enough for a normal person to try to escape to hopefully live to fight another day, but Nic was perhaps no ‘normal’ person.
As he began to try to get out of the Hurricane in severe pain, a Messerschmitt 110 twin engine fighter bomber drifted across the front of the Hurricane.
Possibly as a result of losing his two wing men for who he felt responsible as the section leader, Nic was extremely angry and despite the great pain of his injuries and the by now raging furnace inside the Hurricane, he climbed back into the cockpit and gave chase.
The 110 tried evasive action but could not shake the Hurricane off.
‘Nic’ stated later that he felt no pain at this stage of the fight, even though he could see the flesh of his left hand peeling and burning with the flames in the cockpit also straight back into his face. Damaging the 110 one last time, Nic, almost unconscious as the pain of his horrific injuries were now felt, struggled to get out of the stricken Hurricane – he managed to open the shattered canopy, undid the one remaining unburned seat strap and tumbled out of the aircraft.
Finally managing to deploy the parachute, Nic managed to steer the ‘chute towards land – what became an industrial estate in Millbrook.
The two Hurricanes – Nic’s and that of Plt Off King – both crashed simultaneously, one in a field to the South of Romsey near the A3057 and the main Southampton-Salisbury railway line, and the other onto what became playing fields at Romsey School.
But which was which?
Although it cannot be possibly be determined, eye witness, 1945 Press reports and subsequent investigation does point to the Rownhams crash being more likely to be Nic’s Hurricane than Plt Off King’s aircraft.
As he drifted down, like the hapless Plt Off King, Nic came under ‘friendly fire’, this time from the 12 bore shotgun of a zealous LDV volunteer whose shot peppered Nic’s leg and buttocks, but fortunately didn’t cause any further damage. Witnessing this, a local butcher’s boy passing on his delivery bike was so irate, he started a fight with the LDV volunteer and only the timely arrival of the local policeman and an ambulance crew saved the LDV chap from serious injury!
Upon his landing, in a field which belonged to a Mr Strange on Burrowdale Road, Millbrook, Southampton, Nic was rushed to Southampton Hospital where he initially wasn’t expected to survive given the horrific extent of his injuries.
His left hand had been burned almost to the bone, with the right one almost as severely burned; the left eyelid was almost severed and his brow above the face mask was badly burned; his left foot was badly damaged in the heel area, and to add insult to injury, there were also buckshot wounds in his leg and buttocks.
The whole incident from Red Section’s scramble to Nic’s parachute landing had taken just 47 minutes – his rather laconic log book entry for the mission just states ‘’Red leader Ops patrol/shot down 12.55’’.
His wife, Muriel, was in the later stages of pregnancy with his first child in Yorkshire and couldn’t travel to see him, but after three weeks of intensive care Nic not only had survived, he was deemed well enough to be transferred to the specialist burns centre then located at RAF Halton’s hospital in Buckinghamshire. He was subsequently sent to the Palace Hotel, Torquay in November 1940 to fully convalesce. Although his foot and facial burns were almost healed at this stage, his right hand had very limited mobility and the left was still almost unusable.
Nicolson was initially recommended by his new CO for a Distinguished Flying Cross [DFC], and the recommendation was passed up the chain of command through the Group Commander, Air Vice Marshal Keith Park to the then head of Fighter Command, Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding for approval.
Dowding then upgraded the award recommendation to that of a Victoria Cross [VC] – the highest British and Empire award for gallantry in the face of the enemy.
At this stage of the war, August 1940, there had been three awards of the VC to bomber crews, all certainly well earned, but none to fighter pilots. It is also possible that at this height of the Battle of Britain, with Fighter Command defending Britain against the might of the Luftwaffe, that Dowding, was concerned about this lack of Fighter Command VC recognition, especially as Fighter Command was so visible to the British public in dogfights overhead, where the action was occurring.
The King himself may also have had a hand in the upgrade of the award from the initially suggested DFC, as unusually he sent ‘Nic’ a personal telegram of congratulations the day after the VC award was promulgated in the London Gazette on 15 November 1940.
Nicolson was well enough to be awarded the medal by the King in person at Buckingham Palace ten days later.
Nic was just 23 years of age at this stage of his career.
Although a natural extrovert by nature, Nic was stunned, and embarrassed by the award, saying to a fellow recovering patient at Torquay, Flt Lt ‘Hiram’ Smith, “Now I’ve got a VC, I’ll have to earn it”. Indeed, he was reprimanded on several occasions for not sewing the medal ribbon on his uniforms quickly enough, as being ‘’improperly dressed’’.
Although he was, by the nature of his injuries far from medically fit to return to flying duties, and indeed would suffer recurring pain from his hands for the remainder of his life, Nic being the person he was, wangled a posting in February 1941 to the instructional staff of 54 OTU and as CO of an experimental night-fighter unit, 1459 Flight in September 1941.
From March 1942 to August 1943 he had staff roles in India, but had almost continually badgered his superiors for a return to active flying duties, culminating in the command in August 1943 of 27 Squadron now flying Mosquitos in Burma.
Even though he still suffered with his hand injuries, Nic increased 27’s already excellent efficiency to the extent that he was awarded a DFC and promotion to a staff position as a Wing Commander in May 1944. Moving to the RAF Headquarters in Burma in April 1945, ‘Nick’ was still desperate to return to active flying.
He managed to persuade his superiors to allow him to fly on a mission as an ‘observer’, and he joined the crew of a B-24 Liberator bomber KH210 of 355 Squadron from Salbani, India on a raid in the Rangoon area. ‘Nic’ was reported as being very keen and approachable on the aircraft to all crew members.
The aircraft took off just before 1300 on 2 May 1945, but after a serious engine fire, crashed into the sea en route to the target approximately 130 miles south of Calcutta. Rescue Catalina aircraft located the crash site and arrived on the scene sixteen hours later, finding only two NCO members of the crew in life rafts.
Nic and the rest of the crew had gone down with the aircraft – their bodies were never found, and they are remembered on the Singapore Memorial, Kranji Cemetery, Singapore on column 445 – along with 24,000 names of other Commonwealth servicemen of the Second World War who have no known graves and who are commemorated on the memorial.
Wg Cdr Eric James Brindley Nicholson VC DFC RAF was 28 years of age.
After the war, in general people didn’t want to be reminded of what had happened during the war for a long time, which is why most famous British war films didn’t begin to appear until about ten years after hostilities ceased.
However, by the late 1960’s, people began to want to commemorate not just those who had fallen in conflicts on the annual Remembrance Day commemorations around local war memorials, but to celebrate their ‘own’ local war heroes.
By the late 1960’s, the field where Nicolson had landed was part of the Mullards electronics factory, with the Millbrook area a large industrial estate. On 16 August 1970, on the thirtieth anniversary of the action, his widow, Mrs Muriel Nicolson, unveiled a commemorative plaque on or close to the actual spot where he had landed. Amongst the guests at the unveiling were three people who had gone to Nic’s aid, including a policeman.
The factory was demolished and the site cleared upon the closure of Mullards in 2012.
By 1983, Muriel Nicolson’s war widow pension and that of a VC widow had not moved with the financial times, and she and her son reluctantly put the medal up for auction to help with Mrs Nicolson’s care. At the auction, the two bidders for the medal group were an ex-RAF collector and the RAF Museum. Unbeknown to each bidder, the collector had planned to present the VC upon his successful purchase to the RAF Museum in any case – the bidding went way above the estimate of £25,000 to a world record sale for a VC at that time of £105,000!
Five years ago, on the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, part of the RAF’s commemoration was to paint a 29[R] Squadron’s Typhoon fighter with the same squadron code letters and camouflage of that of Nic’s Hurricane in the action of 16 August 1940.
And the Mullard’s plaque? When the Mullards’ factory was demolished, the plaque was saved by Sqn Ldr Alan Jones, the Director of Solent Sky Museum, and kept in the museum along with two donated aircraft parts – a wing strut and a crushed part of the Merlin engine’s radiator core – believed from the original donor to have been salvaged from Nic’s crashed Hurricane.
The aircraft company Leonardo have their new headquarters on the site, so it was only fitting that the plaque should return to its original location, now within the foyer of the new building.
There is also a memorial plaque near the Nuffield Theatre in Southampton city centre.
This year being the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, it is even more fitting and poignant to remember this brave young man who epitomised the struggle for freedom in the skies above Britain during that long, hot summer.