James Nicholson VC, a name etched in the annals of military history, stands as a symbol of unparalleled courage and unwavering determination. Awarded the Victoria Cross (VC), the highest and most prestigious military decoration for valour in the face of the enemy, Nicholson’s story is one of extraordinary bravery and sacrifice.
Flight Lieutenant Eric James Brindley Nicolson VC, DFC, RAF
Early Life and Military Service:
Born on the 29th April, 1917 in Hampstead, London, James Nicholson grew up in a time of great turmoil. As World War II erupted, his sense of duty led him to enlist in the Royal Air Force (RAF) in 1937 and by the outbreak of the Second World War would be a Fighter Pilot in 249 Squadron of Fighter Command. Little did he know that his journey would be marked by acts of heroism that would inspire generations to come.
The Path to the Victoria Cross:
Nicholson’s path to the Victoria Cross was paved with numerous challenges and moments that tested his mettle. One of the defining chapters in his military career occurred during the Battle of Britain, a pivotal conflict during the Summer of 1940 that would determine the course of the war. As a fighter pilot, Nicholson found himself in the midst of fierce aerial battles against the formidable German Luftwaffe.
Pictured are Hurricane's from 249 Squadron. GN-A (Nicholson's aircraft he was flying on the 16th August 1940) can be seen to the right of Hurricane GN-C as they get airborne.
The Critical Moment:
The date was the 16th August, 1940, a day that would be etched into history as Nicholson’s defining moment. Taking off from RAF Boscombe Down in Wiltshire, around 1300 to intercept raids over the Southampton area by Ju 88 bombers, with an escort of Bf 110 twin engine fighters. Seeing the enemy bombers, Nicholson turned his section of Hurricanes to get a better angle with which to attack. As he did so a group of Spitfires engaged the bombers, focusing Nicholson's attention ahead of him. At the same moment, the Bf 110's struck hitting Nicholson's Hurricane and one other setting them both ablaze. Nicholson was badly wounded by the exploding canon shells in the left hand, left leg and blood pouring down into his left eye. One of the canon shells had also torn into his gravity tank, just ahead of the cockpit which was now spewing fuel and flames into his damaged cockpit. The German pilot in the Bf 110 continued to rake Nicholson's aircraft with fire from his canons and machine guns. Realising he had to abandon his stricken aircraft, he disconnected his RT lead, oxygen hose and unstrapped his Sutton harness. It was at this moment the Bf 110 overshot Nicholson's Hurricane. In a split second, Nicholson seeing the Bf 110 a mere 200 yards ahead of him, sat back into the fire engulfed cockpit and pushed the gun button. His eight .303 Browning machine guns poured rounds in to the Bf 110 and Nicholson saw it become enveloped by smoke and begin a dive towards the earth.
With his attacker now spiralling down, Nicholson knew he had to get out. His left leg was limp and he had to drag it out of the cockpit along with the rest of his badly burned and wounded body. Diving head first out of his Hurricane, he fell for over 5,000 feet before he realised he needed to pull his rip cord, such was the extent of the wounds he sustained moments before.
Nicholson's fight for survival was not over yet. As he drifted towards earth, a passing Local Defence Volunteer (LDV) patrol believing Nicholson to be a German pilot fired a shotgun at him, hitting him in the buttocks. When it was realised Nicholson was a badly wounded RAF pilot, he was rushed to hospital. His recovery would be a long one.
For his actions that day on the 16th August 1940, Nicholson would be awarded the Victoria Cross.
The Victoria Cross Citation:
15 November 1940.
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 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.
Nicholson pictured in November 1940 while recovering from his wounds in November 1940.
Return to Service:
By September 1941, Nicholson had recovered sufficiently from his wounds and went back to front line service. Posted to India in 1942 and on the 4th August 1943 Nicolson was given command of 27 Squadron, operating in Mosquitos from Agartala, Burma. During this time he would be awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.
Tragically, Nicholson would not see the end of the war. By May 1945, Nicholson had been promoted to Wing Commander, and while flying as a observer in a RAF B-24 Liberator on 2nd May 1945 from No. 355 Squadron over the Bay of Bengal, it would catch fire and crash. Only two of the eleven crew would survive, Nicholson's body was never recovered. He was just 28 years old.
Legacy and Commemoration:
James Nicholson’s legacy extends beyond his heroic deeds in the air. His unwavering commitment to duty, even in the face of mortal danger, serves as an inspiration to those who follow in his footsteps. In 2015, to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, 29(R) Squadron from RAF Coningsby in Lincolnshire would remember Nicholson's VC Action by painting Eurofighter Typhoon ZK349 would wear the marking's of Nicholson's Hurricane GN-A.
Typhoon FGR4 ZK349 representing Nicholson's Hurricane for the 75th Anniversary of the Battle of Britain in 2015.
In the pantheon of war heroes, James Nicholson VC stands tall—a beacon of courage and selflessness. His story is a testament to the resilience of the human spirit and the extraordinary feats that individuals can achieve when faced with adversity. As we reflect on his life and legacy, let us remember and honour the sacrifice of this true hero, whose bravery soared to unparalleled heights in the skies over wartime Britain.