Harry Nicholls VC

b. 21/04/1915 Nottingham. d. 11/09/1975 Leeds, Yorkshire.

Harry Nicholls (1915-1975) was born on 21st April 1915 in the Meadows, Nottingham, one of thirteen children born to John Clarke Nicholls (1877-1945) and Florence Mary Nicholls (1884-1965). After schooling, Harry enlisted in 1936 in the Grenadier Guards and became well known for his sporting prowess especially as a boxer. By the outbreak of hostilities in World War II, he had risen to the rank of Lance Corporal.

Harry Nicholls VC

As the Germans advanced rapidly through Northern France in 1940, the British Expeditionary Force withdrew, trying to avoid encirclement. At the River Escaut, the 3rd Battalion Grenadier Guards found themselves digging in near the village of Pecq. Mist lay over the water, when at 7.30 am on the 21st May the enemy attacked. A sudden mortar and machine-gun barrage opened up, and the Germans were quickly rowing their rubber boats across the river and beaching them on the western bank.

LCpI Nicholls was commanding a section in the right-forward platoon of his company when ordered to counter-attack. At the very start of the advance he was wounded in the arm by shrapnel, but continued to lead his section forward against German machine gun positions on a slight ridge backed by poplar trees. The enemy opened heavy machine-gun fire at short range.

Realizing the danger to his company, he immediately seized a Bren gun and dashed forward, firing from the hip. Guardsman Nash supplied him with ammunition from his pouches. Nicholls succeeded in silencing one machine gun, and then two others, in spite of being severely wounded. He then went up on to a higher piece of ground and engaged the German infantry massed behind, causing many casualties, and continuing to fire until he had no ammunition left. He was wounded at least four times in all, but absolutely refused to give up.

His action changed the whole course of the battle. He had saved his comrades from almost certain annihilation, and had inflicted so many casualties that the Germans withdrew all their survivors across the river. Harry Nicholls was reported to have been killed in action and in August 1940 his widow received his Victoria Cross from King George VI. He was married with an eight month old daughter at the time of his reported “death”.

It was not until many months later that he was discovered alive and in a prisoner-of-war camp called Stalag XXB. The Germans had recced the west bank and had found Nicholls gravely hurt but still alive. He was captured and taken back to the Regimental CP where another prisoner, Guardsman H H Smith, dressed his wounds and cared for the gallant boxer until they could both be transferred to hospital. Nicholls and Smith were in Stalag XXB for the entire war, and legend has it that Hitler, who had served as a corporal himself during WW1, offered to present Nicholls with his VC – this the battalion boxer apparently rejected out of hand, although I doubt that the story has any basis in fact. He was repatriated in May 1945, returned to Nottingham to a hero’s welcome and was himself presented with his Victoria Cross by the King.

Sadly after the war, Harry was beset with physical and psychological scars from his experiences of the conflict and struggled to adapt to civilian life. In later life he moved to Leeds, Yorkshire, where he died prematurely on 11th September 1975 aged 60. He was buried with his parents in Wilford Hill Cemetery, Nottingham. In 2012, the Nicholls erected a new headstone on his grave. His medals including the VC, 1939-45 Star, Defence Medal 1939-45, War Medal 1939-45 and Queen Elizabeth II Coronation Medal 1953 are held by the Grenadier Guards RHQ, Wellington Barracks, London.