b. 29/04/1917 Hampstead, London. d. 02/05/1945 Bay of Bengal.
Eric James Brindley Nicolson (1917-1945) was born in Hampstead, London on 29th April 1917, and educated at Tonbridge, Kent. In 1935, at the age of 18, he began in business as an experimental engineer in Shoreham. In the following year, however, he decided to make a career in the RAF, and began training as a pilot at the White Waltham civil flying school on 12th October 1936. Enlisted officially in the RAF on 21st December, he then completed his Service training at the Ternhill FTS, and on 7th August 1937 joined his first Service squadron, No 72, based at Church Fenton, flying Gloster Gladiator fighters.
“Nick” Nicolson quickly proved himself to be a “natural” pilot, handling the Gladiator with ease and expertise and revelling in the contemporary mode of set aerobatics. As a pilot he was above average and a first class shot in air-to-air flying; displaying at all times the characteristics which epitomised the RAF’s “press-on” type of pilot.
When, in April 1939, 72 Squadron began receiving Spitfires to replace their biplane Gladiators, Nicolson soon adapted himself to the sleek monoplanes, and remained with the squadron until the outbreak of war. In October 1939, the squadron moved base to Leconfield, from where it flew its first operational sorties, though saw no combat action.
Several moves took place between October 1939 and March 1940; but Nicolson had still not seen combat action when, on 15th May 1940, he was posted to a newly-formed fighter squadron, 249, as an acting Flight commander. Moving to Leconfield five days later, 249 Squadron exchanged its Spitfires for Hawker Hurricanes in mid-June, and was at Church Fenton, working up on their aircraft prior to being declared fully operational from 3rd July. On 14th August 1940 the squadron was sent south to Boscombe Down, Wiltshire to join in the desperate defence of the southern counties against the onslaught of the Luftwaffe’s daily armadas.
On 16th August 1940 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.
On landing, he was crippled by his badly burned hands, blind in his left eye from a severely severed eyelid, and other wounds to his face. Immediately rushed to Southampton Hospital, his life hung in the balance for several days. Far away in Yorkshire, his wife Muriel, heavily pregnant with their first child, was unable to travel to be with him. Three weeks later, he had recovered enough to be moved to RAF Halton which specialised in burns treatment, and by November he was a convalescent patient in the Palace Hotel “hospital” at Torquay. His foot wound had healed, as had much of his facial burns and injuries; but his left hand was still virtually unusable, while his right hand had only just started to show signs of improvement.
On 15th November 1940, the award of his VC was announced, and Nicolson’s reaction was that of disbelief. Ten days after the announcement, he received the VC from King George VI at Buckingham Palace. Though still not medically fit for flying duties, he soon began agitating for a return, and on 24th February 1941 he joined the instructional staff at 54 OUT. His burnt hands were slow to heal, and finally became operational again when appointed to command No 1459 Flight, Hibaldstow.
After six months he was posted to become Staff Officer at HQ 293 Wing, Alipore, India; moving to another desk job at Air HQ, Bengal in mid-December. He finally got his wish to return to operational flying on 4th August 1943 when he took command of 27 Squadron at Agarthala, Burma. For exactly a year, Nicolson led the “Flying Elephants” as they were known, to war. He left the unit on 11th August 1944 to take up a Wing Commander Training post in Comilla, Bengal. He was recommended for a decoration and was duly awarded the DFC. By April 1945, he was appointed to RAF Burma HQ, and on 2nd May 1945 persuaded higher authority to allow him to accompany a bomber crew on a bombing sortie as an “observer”.
Tragically, when the Liberator had reached a point 130 miles south of Calcutta, one of the engines erupted in flames and the bomber crashed into the sea. Sixteen hours later rescue Catalina flying boats located the scene but found only two NCO survivors. The rest of the crew including Wing Commander Nicolson VC DFC had perished with the aircraft. His body was never found, so he was commemorated on the Kranji War Memorial, Singapore. He left a widow and a son, James. His medals are held by the RAF Museum, Hendon.
LOCATION OF MEDAL: RAF MUSEUM, HENDON, LONDON.
BURIAL PLACE: BODY NEVER FOUND, ON SINGAPORE MEMORIAL. COLUMN 445.
Thomas Stewart – Image of the Nicolson VC Medal Group at the RAF Museum, Hendon.
Richard Thompson – Images of the Nicolson VC replica medal group and accompanying plaque at RAF Cosford.