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.