Flt Lt James Nicolson VC and the RAF's Display Typhoon

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Profile picture for user DWW

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6 years

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My personal vote of thanks

Simon Spitfire's post reminded me that saving Flt Lt Nicolson's was a damn close run thing! The story behind it being in the museum at Tangmere is probably not well known, and possibly not known at all by Pete P and the current team at Tangmere Museum and so they may be interested in the background.

When I went to see Muriel Nicolson in 1979 I asked about the uniform which I had discovered she had certainly kept post war. She was surprised that I knew she had kept it, and confirmed that she still had it, but: '...nobody will be interested in the old things. They are like a bundle of rags. I keep meaning to put them in the bin.' I persuaded her that wasn't a good idea and to let me have them for display in the (then) embryonic Tangmere Museum. The museum didn't open until 1982 but I kept them in a bank vault until then. Without a doubt, they would have been thrown away were it not for my fortuitous visit in 1979.

On that same occasion I asked if I could see the VC, but she couldn't remember where it was! Eventually, she found it rattling around in an old Sharp's toffee tin inside her work box. I persuaded her to ask nearby RAF Church Fenton to look after it for her, and they duly did so. The rest is history, but I'd just add that it was on that occasion that I 'discovered' the medal was incorrectly dated 10 November 1940; neither the date of his action or the date of the relevant London Gazette. And when it was sold at auction for £110,000 to the RAFM there were only two bidders in the room. One an agent acting for the RAFM, and the other bidding for the RAFM. Thus, as I think Simon Spitfire will be able to confirm, the RAF Museum ended up bidding against itself for the medal.

Hi Andy:

Been meaning to post this for the last week but time and all that...
With reference to Nick's apparel and medal I'm personally grateful for your decisive intervention in saving the uniform, Mae West and shoe when you did and finding a secure home for the VC at Church Fenton.
That and your involvement in the founding of the Tangmere Museum has been a source of great pleasure for folk like me and many, many others, to then have the chance to see and enjoy artefacts from a man of great courage and determination. Without you, there would be no uniform and Tangmere would have been immeasurably poorer as a result.

Thanks again Andy...and take a bow... :-)

Best regards

Steve

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4 years 5 months

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Sorry!, if i appear to be late on parade chaps, but, better late than never, as they say. I was witness to the Dogfight on the 16th. August 1940, from my bedroom window, at Eastleigh. The contrails were making lazy circles, in the cloudless sky, When,- out of the melee, i could see intermittent puffs of black smoke, coming down. --Then, there it was,a 'plane' passing by the tall pines at the front of the copse, about half a mile away, coming down, at a 30% angle. Guessing the spot where it would land, I wasted little time in getting my 7 year old legs in gear. As the siren had not sounded, it was OK to go out. I was the first of a few other boys to see this 109,with the number 13 on its side, sitting on the grass, wheels up. Walking around it, i spotted a piece, hanging down from the wing, and on giving it a bit of a waggle, it came away in my hand. It was what I know now to have been the 'Starboard aileron balance weight strut'. minus the lead, that had snagged the cattle fence, at Leigh Road. Sadly, I do not have it now.
I was to learn much later, that was removed to 'Cunliffe Owens' at Eastleigh, were it was repaired and flown for evaluation purposes.
Alfred W Thorne.

I would be very interested to learn more of the location of this 'downed Me 109'.

A bit of a mystery, and although I'd hate to question your recall of the event there are no recorded Me 109 losses on that day in that area.

Curiously, though, a Messerschmitt 109 bearing the fuselage numeral '13' was displayed very locally to promote the Spitfire fund.

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there were no 110s in the dogfight, only 109s. I witnessed the whole thing, from my bedroom window at Eastleigh. I was a 7 year old, on school holidays.

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11 years 11 months

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I would be very interested to learn more of the location of this 'downed Me 109'.

A bit of a mystery, and although I'd hate to question your recall of the event there are no recorded Me 109 losses on that day in that area.

Curiously, though, a Messerschmitt 109 bearing the fuselage numeral '13' was displayed very locally to promote the Spitfire fund.

Hi waysider38. In the thread you mention that you recognised the 109 you saw crash from a picture because it had a 13 on it. This would perhaps suggest the 109 you saw was this one, put on display for fund raising. Just a suggestion and it would explain a lot of the discussion in the other Nicolson thread in regards of no records etc.

Profile picture for user Smith

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16 years 9 months

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Fascinating ... thank you Steve/DWW and Andy/Tangmere

there were no 110s in the dogfight, only 109s. I witnessed the whole thing, from my bedroom window at Eastleigh. I was a 7 year old, on school holidays.

These were the Me 109s of JG53.

Certainly, the long-held supposition that these were Me 110s is incorrect. This version of events (Me 110s) is given weight by Nicolson's Combat Report which calls his attacker a Messerschmit 110, but this Combat Report was written up by the CO, Sqn Ldr John Grandy, and dictated to Grandy by Nicolson whilst the latter was in hospital. It contradicts all else that was written by Grandy at the time, which refers solely to Me 109s, and Grandy himself told me in 1980 that he 'thought they were 109s, not 110s as so often reported.' Luftwaffe records show no Me 110s operational over the UK at the relevant time and place, only the 109s of JG53.

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I went to Eastleigh on Friday, to see if the booklet that contained the photo of the 109, with the caption stating that it was (repaired at 'Cunliffe Owens', and flown for evaluation purposes), was still there. But it proved to be a fool's errand, as the Library was closed, until mid October. but should it not be still available, i am thinking that my only other option, in my endeavour to put the thing across, would be to find somebody, who knows a bit about (bf 109 aileron struts)' as i have only ever seen just one, and can give a good description of it.
On a different tack, Saturday 17 August 1940, was a sad day for the people of Eastleigh. A plane, (i won't state the name of it) because it will be lost to another thread somewhere), crashed in flames, in the town. It was a twin engined USA built job, that was engaged in the training of young Canadian airmen. It was doing rollers & bumps, left hand, taking it over the town. At about 16.45 somebody mistook it for a raider, and sent the balloon up. I think that you can guess the rest. suffice it to say that there was much loss of life

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I went to Eastleigh on Friday, to see if the booklet that contained the photo of the 109, with the caption stating that it was (repaired at 'Cunliffe Owens', and flown for evaluation purposes), was still there. But it proved to be a fool's errand, as the Library was closed, until mid October. but should it not be still available, i am thinking that my only other option, in my endeavour to put the thing across, would be to find somebody, who knows a bit about (bf 109 aileron struts)' as i have only ever seen just one, and can give a good description of it.
On a different tack, Saturday 17 August 1940, was a sad day for the people of Eastleigh. A plane, (i won't state the name of it) because it will be lost to another thread somewhere), crashed in flames, in the town. It was a twin engined USA built job, that was engaged in the training of young Canadian airmen. It was doing rollers & bumps, left hand, taking it over the town. At about 16.45 some body mistook it for a raider, and sent the balloon up. I think that you can guess the rest. suffice it to say that there was much loss of life

Not sure why the ambiguous description: it was a Hudson, and crashed on Thursday 15th. Covered elsewhere, and a number have tried to help with definitive explanations, whereas your descriptions (location, unit, names of those killed etc) are quite the opposite. We're just trying to help, but I don't understand the continued reference to this incident with the incorrect date.

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Originally posted by DWW

Hi folks.

I’m the ‘independant researcher’ Andy has referred to previously (Hi Andy!). Just a few words from me, if I may, to explain where I fit in to all this. You should also understand that I set out to answer two questions -

Was there such an emblem on Nicolson's Hurricane on and prior to August 16, 1940.
2. What did it look like?

Sometimes an innocent surprise can be the catalyst for a chain of events that are at once, unexpected and out of step with anything that could be reasonably anticipated.
*
I received a phone call from Airfix Model World (AMW) Editor Chris Clifford back in the earlier part of this year, in the wake of my test shot build of the new 1/48 Airfix Hurricane, to advise he'd received a complimentary email. The test shot didn't come with decals, so I was free to choose the markings. That was an easy decision for me, as a long term admirer of James Nicolson VC and so the kit was duly published in the AMW March 2015 issue as 'GN-A' P3576 in a special Battle of Britain supplement.
*
The email was from Jim Nicolson, nephew of James (JBN) and within the body of the narrative was the remark "I thought you and Steve might be interested to know that, according to his widow, my uncle apparently had a red devil figure painted on the nose of P3576". This was an intriguing revelation. I had no such marking on the Aviaeology decal sheet I'd used in the Hurricane build and so contacted Terry Higgins at the company, who confirmed he had no knowledge of such a thing either.
*
Dialogue with Jim (a really lovely guy) revealed that he'd visited JBN's widow, Muriel many times before she died, who had told him of a letter JBN had written to her in 1940, prior to the VC engagement on August 16, 1940 in which 'Nick' mentioned that he'd had a 'red devil' emblem painted on his Hurricane. Jim confirmed that Muriel's mind was sharp as a tack and that he regarded her recollection as entirely accurate.
*
Jim also disclosed to me during our initial contact, that JBN's uniform and Mae West were on display at the Tangmere Museum of aviation and that there was a red devil emblem to one side of the display case, which he speculated, was possibly a German bomber Geschwader symbol. I was curious about that, as JBN's only known 'kill' was the Bf110 he took down over Southampton. Given that the ‘110’ was not a ‘bomber’ per se, I couldn’t personally see what relevance to the Tangmere display might lay in an arbitrary German symbol, so with that in mind, ‘parked’ those thoughts temporarily.
*
In essence, I’d reached 'critical mass' at this point and determined to 'chase down' this elusive red devil that I'd never previously seen appear on any decal sheet or any finished model that I was aware of. First order of business then, was to Google it to a standstill and happily a particular enquiry phrase threw up a comment by one Andy Saunders, on Key Publishing’s forum way back in 2009, that the emblem was '...a detail often overlooked'.
*
Next up, was some background checking on Andy (who, to my everlasting shame, had never heard of before) that quickly revealed him as a respected aviation historian, who had worked on some very notable restoration projects, among them the recent 'Guy Martin's Spitfire', so I did the next logical thing and emailed him to ascertain the source of his assertion in 2009. He was just off on a project for three weeks, so there it rested. I picked up threads with Andy on his return and a short while later he dropped back to me and attached to his email was a scan of an IPMS article drawn up by the late Doris Reeves and illustrated by Gary Davidson both from the Souders-Earhart chapter of the IPMS in the USA - the piece having appeared in 'Wings and Wheels' sometime before Doris passed away in 2000. Entitled "Heroic Hurricane", it included a port side profile drawing of 'GN-A' and a detail illustration of the red devil emblem. The narrative made mention of having been derived from the November 30, 1940 article in the now defunct Illustrated London News (ILN).
*
The ILN piece, it turned out, was a double page centre spread, dominated by a painting by noted war artist, Bryan De Grineau and endorsed with the statement "Specially drawn for the Illustrated London News by our special artist Bryan De Grineau from details personally supplied by Flight Lieut. Nicolson VC".

The narrative itself included "On the side of his 'Hurricane' he carries as a symbol a little devil making a defiant gesture". This material, together with Muriel's personal testimony eradicated any doubt that there was indeed, such a symbol in Nick's Hurricane on August 16, 1940. What remained, was to establish, as far as might be possible without photographs, what the emblem looked like.

It’s perhaps useful to add here that my discussions with Jim Nicolson revealed that Tom Neil advised him that 'Nick' caused some degree of irritation on 249 due to his 'fastidious' approach to things and always wanting them to be 'right'.*

According to Jim, (who has the actual telegram and one 'Nick' sent to Muriel, his wife, on being told he would receive the VC) Nicolson dictated a telegram to a policeman by the roadside immediately after being shot down. He is reported as having given the police officer 'a rocket' for adding an 'h' erroneously to his surname. Fastidious indeed. I mention this, as ‘Nick’ would not have ‘signed off’ on the ILN material without first checking its veracity.
*
So, back in research mode, the emblem on the cabinet at Tangmere matched that in the Souders-Earhart article and further background checks then revealed that Andy Saunders was actually the founder of the Tangmere Museum (something else I wasn’t aware of). It was clear therefore that the origin of the Tangmere painting had to be established and so I picked up with Andy again. He kindly verified that he had indeed commissioned the now late Michael Payne to paint the emblem and that the Souders-Earhart article was the source of it.
*
I then felt compelled to examine the ILN edition myself and lashed £33.50 (putting my money where my mouth is) for an original example from the publishing date. It tallied with the Souders-Earhart article and as such, it seemed reasonable to share the outcome with Terry at Aviaeology. I asked if he would revise his decal presentation to include the red devil and happily, he agreed to do so, in 1/72, 1/48 and 1/24 and that was the conclusion of my initial investigations, that were obviously driven from a modelling perspective.
*
As you might imagine, I was pretty content at the fact that I’d taken Jim’s email ‘aside’ and united the pieces of an aspect of aviation history that had become separated and 'lost' (and had zero cognisance among the world wide modelling community) and that it all pertained to one of my great heroes...but there was more to come and it really was unexpected.
*
I was touring Facebook a little over a month ago when I tripped over a three quarter frontal shot of a Eurofighter Typhoon in dark earth and dark green. On its flank was what looked like ‘GN-A'. I emailed Jim to ask if he knew about it - he didn't and as someone who regularly gives illustrated talks about Nick, was very excited by this and keen to know more, so I lapsed into research mode again and traced the Tiffie to Coningsby. After a couple of transfers I ended up with Yvonne Masters in their Media Comms Office. I explained my Airfix Model World role and my contact with Jim and asked if they had a Nicolson tribute aircraft. Yvonne confirmed that they did and we spoke about it for quite a while, during which (surprise, surprise) I mentioned the matter of the red devil emblem and that I would share the material more particularly mentioned above with them. As the conversation wound down, Yvonne added that there was going to be an official press unveiling on Thursday 21 May. I suggested they'd benefit from having Jim and his Nicolson artefacts present on the day and guess what, no surprise, I said it was essential I go too and happily 'The Angel of Coningsby' gave it her blessing.
*
I duly forwarded my evidence to Yvonne and requested that the RAF place Nicolson's emblem (as depicted on the painting at Tangmere) on their Tiffie as a further mark of respect to Nicolson. This, I was advised, initially went to the SEngO of 29® Squadron, who I now know to be Bryn Kirby, who helped begin the process of examining my application. Well, the correspondence naturally flowed between Coningsby, me, Jim, Andy and Chris, until I spoke to Yvonne last week and pressed her about the status, to which she replied that it was looking '98.5% certain that the emblem would be applied'. On Wednesday of this week, the day before the unveiling, I received an email from Coningsby verifying that some 75 years after Nicolson's emblem had last appeared in the skies over Southampton, it would once again take flight. It was an emotional moment - more so when Jim and I were escorted to the aircraft on Thursday, ahead of the press pack and saw his symbol emblazoned on the Tiffie. Next to it, was stencilled "Flt. Lt. James Nicolson VC.
*
I'll never forget what that engendered in me. A conversation with Bryn on the apron revealed that the sign off within the RAF to my request was "...second in overall command". Jim and I were later invited to lunch with Ben Westoby-Brooks, the synchro pair display pilot *and Bryn Kirby in the officers mess and later had a very pleasant chat with Andy 'Milli' Millikin, current boss of the BBMF, before a tour of the hanger. A truly epic day and it was very evident to me, that Jim’s presence on the day gave a depth and focus to the event that greatly benefitted the RAF and the media in consequence. He’s going back for a gala dinner with senior RAF personnel and to give his famous talk about ‘Nick’ to the squadrons and personnel on base.

And now, some thanks and recognition from me. First up, has to be Jim Nicolson, without whose email and ‘aside’ about the red devil, I’d never have gone galavanting off on all this in the first place or ended up at Coningsby and that leads me naturally on to Andy Saunders, who’s very kind co-operation in providing the Souders-Earhart scan and answering my many questions with patience and consummate professionalism led me to Tangmere and the painting he commissioned. Thanks also to Tangmere Museum for ‘minding’ me so closely and attentively while I was on-site and for co-operating with my photography request.

So, we all played a part in a piece of modern aviation history but do you know what? It’s not actually about Jim, Andy, Tangmere or me - it’s about James Nicolson VC and his astonishing act of bravery over Southampton in those dark days of 1940, when the Germans stood on the North French coast and planned their invasion of Britain.

May I close with the following.

In Memorium

With the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain in mind, I regularly navigate the Purley Way near to where I live, either by car or motorcycle as the need dictates. Heading south, the road ascends through playing fields, past an area that once was Croydon Aerodrome, the busiest international airport in Europe in the 1920s and 30s and later a front line fighter station when the Germans stood on the French coast in that hot summer of 1940 and contemplated an invasion of Britain. A large RAF Battle of Britain memorial now stands by the road in commemoration of the events and sacrifices connected with the area. I often wonder, as I motor past, one of the hundreds of thousands who do so every year, just how many are consciously aware of what the memorial and others like it actually stand for. How many hear the sound of Merlins in their mind, imagine Hurricanes bumping across the grass at full throttle and their twisting pursuits of an enemy bent on our wholesale destruction, punctuated by the rattle of .303 machine guns. A minority I suspect.******

With that thought in mind, I’d like to dedicate my AMW Hurricane to the memory of all those RAF pilots, wherever they hailed from, who fought and died selflessly in the skies above my home.

This modeller will never forget them.

Great piece of research and credit where it is due for sniffing this one out, once and for all. :cool:

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12 years 3 months

Posts: 957

Well done indeed. Strangely though, earlier this year I was packing up some old American modelling magazines (IPMS Quarterly vols 1 to 20) for sale and in an early issue was a profile of Nicholson's Hurricane, complete with devil badge. So this is something that was known about in the '60s but had been forgotten.

Nick - good to see you here. And thank you for your comprehensive account.

I never did get a set of the decals, by the way! Can you prod anyone?

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4 years 2 months

Posts: 10

Hi Andy

You may have me confused. Are you referring to my brother, Steve, who's post I quoted?

Ah....possibly! Apologies.