Twenty three year old Flight Lieutenant James Nicolson won the only V.C. of the Battle of Britain on 16th August 1940. His aircraft was set on fire during an action with the enemy near Southampton, he was about to bale out when he saw an Me 109 and settled back into the burning cockpit to shoot it down:
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.
It was perhaps an unexceptional act of bravery amongst so many fighting to defend Britain that summer – yet it was unique because it was witnessed by a number of people on the ground. The need for witnesses to corroborate individual acts of bravery meant that very few RAF crew were nominated for an award of valour. Nicolson was the only fighter pilot to receive the award during the Second World War. He was also one of only two recipients to win the award whilst in British territory, the other being Leading Seaman Jack Mantle of HMS Foylebank on 4th July 1940.
Nicolson was wounded in the eye and foot in the first attack that set his aircraft on fire, and his hands were so badly burnt that he was unable to release his parachute once he landed. Yet his ordeal was not over – he was peppered in the leg by a shotgun fired by an enthusiastic member of the Home Guard who was the first to approach him.
He made a good recovery and was extremely modest about the award – he had to be reminded that it was a discipline offence to be improperly dressed when he was slow to sow the medal ribbon onto his uniform.
Nicolson was later promoted to Wing Commander. He died in May 1945 whilst an observer on an aircraft that crashed into the sea off Burma.
ALSO ON THIS DAY
On the night of the 16th-17th August 1940 a parachute mine fell on Bere Farm in North Boarhunt, a village outside Portsmouth. There was a small explosion when it landed and it was soon located by members of the Home Guard.
This was one of the incidents handled by bomb disposal specialist Leonard Walden, for which he would be later awarded the George Medal. Walden, a veteran of the First world War, had been Chief Laboratory Assistant at the Royal Ordnance College, Woolwich before being transferred to the Royal Navy’s Mine and Torpedo Establishment at HMS Vernon, Portsmouth at the beginning of the war.
Something was odd about this mine. After a few days of being worked on, the Admiralty came to the conclusion that it had been dropped with the deliberate intention of blowing up their mine disposal experts. Not only was it dropped close to their home base of HMS Vernon, but the mine was not actually a mine at all. There was no magnetic unit and no clock, so it could not have been used against shipping. However it did contain three elaborate booby traps, one of which went off by accident on impact. Walden was one of those involved in investigating this mine.
On the same day the Boarhunt mine fell, another was reported unexploded at Piddlehinton, Dorset. Commander Thistleton-Smith, along with a mine disposal officer named Anderson, and Leonard Walden inspected the mine where it lay. Again there was no clock or bomb fuze fitted. The mine was rolled over (it had landed at the top of a grassy meadow and had already rolled down it, so rolling it over again was not thought too risky).
The mine was then photographed from all angles. Anderson removed the detonator and primer, having assumed that any booby traps would be hidden in a less obvious place. A hole was then cut in the mine’s casing using a trepanner. This cutting tool was made of non-magnetic materials so that it could be used on magnetic mines and was driven by compressed air. After some time a four-inch circular hole had nearly been cut through the casing.
Walden finished the job by hand using a hacksaw blade, being careful not to let the blade go too deep into the mine’s casing. Once they had access to the inside of the mine they could see the battery power source and the electrical leads connected to it. These wires were cut and insulated. Now the electrically-operated booby trap was not able to function. However, it was believed that a mechanically operated one still existed at the rear ofthe mine. Due to the casing having strengthening ribs, this area would be difcult to drill through.
At this point the men had already spent six days working on the mine. They decided that they would use plastic explosive to open up the rear door of the mine. This task was given to Chief Petty Officer Thorns who was in attendance with a small working party. Having lit the fuze, the men took cover in a slit trench dug in an adjoining eld and waited for the bang. After the charge went off, the men took the precaution ofwaiting a few seconds before approaching the mine. As they got to within about fifty yards from the mine, it suddenly exploded!
of mine and clumps of earth showered down around the men, who were now at on the ground. The heavy battery landed only a yard in front of Thistleton-Smith, and the weighty parachute shackle on their lorry a hundred yards away. It appeared that the booby trap had worked but they were not sure of the reason for the delay. All the pieces were gathered up and taken back to HMS Vernon for analysis? As well as Walden, Thistleton-Smith and A.B. William Comfort were awarded George Medals for their work on these mines.
Investigating mines at HMS Vernon proved problematical. A mine recovered from Birchington in Kent was thought to have had the sting taken out of it. Unfortunately a concealed booby trap detonated as the mine was being stripped down inside Vern0n’s mining shed. A number of men were killed and injured. The booby trap had not detonated the main charge. Had it done so, then HMS Vernon would have been severely damaged.
After a rethink, a site for investigating mines, ‘HMS Mirtle’ (so named after the first three letters, standing for Mine Investigation Range), was located in an old quarry at Buriton. This secret establishment was nestled in the rolling hills of the South Downs not far from Portsmouth.
Walden’s work took him to Mirtle often. On 31 October 1940 he was accompanying a dockyard driver, transporting the first acoustic mine to be recovered from HMS Vernon to Mirtle. As they drove up the hill approaching HMS Mirtle the driver was forced to change down a gear. As he did so the lorry lurched. The mine broke free, fell out of the back of the lorry, and rolled off back down the road. Walden was quoted later as saying, ‘If ever a mine should have gone off — it was down that hillside!
The same day, some components removed from that mine arrived at Mirtle from Porthcawl, the place where it originally came down. These parts included the six-lead clock, bomb fuze and primer release mechanism. Walden and Anderson inspected the parts of the mine and found that it had not exploded because the primer had not released owing to a distorted spindle.
The two men suspected the mine was booby-trapped and it was Walden who first heard the very faint ticking sound coming from within the mine. From previous experience of the clocks in mines, Walden and Anderson guessed that this clock was set to run for six days from when it was dropped. They calculated that, if that was the case, they had a day or so to strip the mine before it exploded. However, they were aware that there might also be a mechanical booby trap similar to the one that went off in the mining shed at Vernon.
They cut a hole in the casing and the ticking became more audible. More holes were cut so the wiring became accessible. Batteries were found and wires were cut, and though the ticking continued, the men were satised that no circuit would be completed once the clock stopped.
As predicted, on 3 November, the men found the ticking had stopped without any detonation. Then the rear door of the mine was removed using specialist tools that meant that nobody had to be close to the mine. Again, no explosion and the men for the first time saw the acoustic unit designed by the Germans that would detonate the mine on the sound of ship’s engines pulsing through water.
As a result of this discovery British minesweepers were fitted with Kango vibrating hammers in compartments attached beneath their keels. These were set to a pitch that would detonate the mines at a safe distance.
Reproduced from Chris Ransted: Bomb Disposal in WWII by kind permission of the publishers.