Wing Commander James Nicolson VC DFC
James Nicolson joined the Royal Air Force in 1936, aged 19, training as a pilot before being posted to fly Gloster Gladiator biplanes with 72 Squadron at Tangmere (near Goodwood) in 1937. After upgrading to Supermarine Spitfires in 1939, Nicolson transferred to 249 Squadron in 1940 changing aircraft again to the Hawker Hurricane.
Now 23 years old and a Flight Lieutenant, Nicolson departed RAF Boscombe Down on 16th August 1940 to patrol over the Southampton docks. His Hurricane was fired on by a Messerschmitt Bf 110 twin-engined fighter, injuring the pilot in one eye and one foot. The Hurricane’s Rolls-Royce Merlin engine was also damaged and the fuel tank set alight.
As he struggled to leave the blazing machine, he saw another Bf 110, and managed to get back into the bucket seat, pressing the firing button until the enemy plane dived away to destruction. Not until then did he bale out
, being able to open his parachute in time to land safely in a field. On his descent however, he was fired upon by over-enthusiastic members of the Home Guard, who ignored his cries of being RAF.
The announcement and citation for his actions were published in the London Gazette:
Air Ministry, 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.
Fully recovered, Nicolson was posted to India in 1942, promoted to Squadron Leader a year later and appointed Commanding Officer of 27 Squadron, flying Bristol Beaufighters over Burma. During this time he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for ‘exemplary gallantry’.
Promoted again to Wing Commander, 28 year old Nicolson was killed on 2 May 1945 when the B-24 Liberator, in which he was flying as an observer, caught fire and crashed into the Bay of Bengal. His body was not recovered.
Image credit: Imperial War Museum