Curator's Choice: The uniform of Flight Lieutenant James Nicolson VC at Tangmere Military Aviation Museum

David Coxon interviewed by Richard Moss | 09 July 2010
a photo of a man standing in front of a display case and painting

Battle of Britain Curator's Choice: In his own words... David Coxon, Curator at Tangmere Military Aviation Museum in West Sussex, talks about the uniform of Flight Lieutenant James Nicolson VC.

"We’re looking at an RAF tunic, a 'Mae West' and an old shoe. The shoe has got a hole in it. They were worn by Lieutenant James Nicolson on August 16 1940 when he was shot down in his Hurricane over Romsey near Southampton.

On that day he was with No. 249 Squadron, which had taken off from Boscombe Down, and he was attacked by Messerschmitt 110s. His aircraft was on fire, he’d been injured, four cannon shells had entered his cockpit, blood was pouring down his face and he not surprisingly decided to bail out. Then he saw a Messerschmitt 110 beneath him.

He got back into his seat and shot that aircraft down and subsequently bailed out successfully. When he was in Torquay convalescing some time later he found out he had been awarded the Victoria Cross.

Initially he was only recommended for a Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) but at that time there was some pressure from the King who had noted that only four bomber pilots had been awarded the Victoria Cross but no Fighter Command pilot had been awarded one. It’s interesting also to note that he was the only Fighter Command pilot to be awarded the Victoria Cross throughout the Second World War.

a glass case with a uniform and Mae West life jacket

The tunic was donated by Nicolson's family who had kept it since the war. Photo Richard Moss

He sadly didn’t survive the war, he was actually an observer – an extra person – in a B24 that took off from an airfield in Ceylon, which we now call Sri Lanka, and two of the four engines failed. The aircraft crashed into the sea and two people did get out of that aircraft but sadly he was not one of them.

The tunic is the normal uniform that pilots wore in those days together with the Mae West, the life jacket, and you can see the blood on the collar, the blood was coming down from the cut above his eye. Perspex had come from the canopy and penetrated his skin and there’s blood on the sleeve as well. If you did a DNA check of course that would be Nicolson’s blood.

The shoe has a large round hole in the back end of it near the heel because the cannon had actually almost taken off his heel, so he was in a very poor way.

It was a very brave thing to do because they mostly feared the flames. The petrol in front of him, because that’s where the petrol tanks were, had exploded and the plane was on fire but he bravely got back in and of course he would be badly burnt doing so.

a potrait of a smiling young man in an RAF uniform

James Nicolson survived the Battle of Britain but sadly didn't survive the war

The family donated the uniform to this museum some time ago. Of course he was a Victoria Cross holder, the only one in Fighter Command, so they knew that they needed to retain what they could of James Nicolson who died at the end of the war.

We also have fragments of the wreckage of the Hurricane that crashed into the ground near Romsey, collected on that day by a schoolboy called Gerald Sharpe and his original handwritten note is also displayed.

Also displayed is the recommendation for a DFC - initially by a Wing Commander who was actually at North Weald because the 249 Squadron had moved from Boscombe Down to North Weald - and then Park who says he showed exceptional courage and disregard for the safety of his own life. Park of course was OC No 11 Group. Then we can see the remarks of the commanding chief who was Dowding of Fighter Command and his recommendation was that he be awarded the Victoria Cross. So from a DFC it was upgraded to the VC.

Normally you would have had to be successful in destroying and shooting down a number of aircraft. Usually in Fighter Command you became an ace at five and that was the figure at which you were awarded the DFC, which was an important award to successful fighter pilots. Nicolson wasn’t an ace; he was awarded his VC for one conspicuous piece of gallantry."

Watch David Coxon introduce the uniform:

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