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Remembering Battle of Britain Day

Steve Budd submitted this wonderful memorial dedicated to the brave pilots of the RAF, as they fought, and triumphed, against incredible odds during one of the proudest moments in not only British history, but in man’s history.

For a great many people in Britain, Monday 15 September will dawn and pass like any other Monday. They will go to work or enjoy a day off, walk, talk, laugh, cry and sleep through the anniversary of twenty four hours that changed the course of history and made my freedom to sit typing this piece (and your freedom to read it) not merely a possibility but a reality.

Whole books and innumerable articles have uncovered huge amounts of detail about the conflict that was the Battle of Britain and I will, in no sense, attempt a historical review of events better covered elsewhere. What I will do is offer a small taste of thoughts that have crossed my mind in the many years the battle has remained for me, a fascinating and compelling topic.

That Britain prevailed and the Nazi threat of invasion was withdrawn is well known but what might have happened had we failed and found ourselves occupied? A successful invasion of Britain would, in essence, have enabled Germany to secure the Western arm of its military ambition and release resources for use in the East. The drive on Moscow was eventually halted, amid bitter fighting, only some nineteen short miles from the Russian capital. It is not unreasonable to conjecture that those additional troops and aircraft, released from the Western Front, would have tipped the balance in the East at what was, a critical time. The capture of Moscow and the associated political collapse of Russia would have done much to enable Hitler to consolidate the Eastern Front. The net effect at both ends of Europe would have been the likelihood of the war extending beyond 1945, by some years.

Just pause and consider for a moment – The RAF failed and fell. Britain is occupied. There is no safe haven for US forces to amass in conjunction with the allies, for the eventual sea-bourn invasion of Normandy. In short there could be no D-Day. With no British bases or RAF Bomber Command there could be no Mighty Eighth and no pounding of German industrial centres by day and night. With German manufacturing unaffected by allied attacks, various programmes could press ahead – jet fighters could be produced in numbers, the V2 rocket programme could proceed to the next stage; the successful development of a rocket capable of spanning the Atlantic and delivering chemical, biological and perhaps atomic warheads to the Eastern seaboard of the United States (at war’s end, the Germans had already reached a point where they were incorporating the V2 as a second stage booster for such a transatlantic rocket).

The shock value of German missiles landing on US soil would have been considerable and a US counter invasion of Britain seems the likely response. However, quite how this would have been achieved (particularly if Germany had by that time, atomic weapons) is anyone’s guess and is perhaps a suitable time to come full circle back to 10 July – 31 October 1940 and the victory in the West that meant that none of the terrible conjecture would come to pass.

2,353 British men, augmented by 574 from overseas, fought in the July to October period and of these, 544 lost their lives. I’d like to focus on just one young man, whose personal example, for me, exemplifies the raw courage so often displayed by the defending pilots James Nicholson, VC.

At some point during 16 August 1940, Flight Lieutenant James Nicolson (then twenty-three years old) of 249 Squadron was scrambled from Boscombe Down, Wiltshire, flying Hurricane P3576 as part of Red Section. He accompanied Squadron Leader Eric King and PO Martyn King.

They had been dispatched to intercept and attack units of Me110s heading into the Southampton area from Gosport, where a large raid was building up. Red Section were successfully vectored onto the twin engined Messerschmitts and dived towards them. Neither Nicholson or either of the other two pilots had spotted a Staffel of Me109s flying top cover and these jumped them from above. All three Hurricanes were hit virtually simultaneously.

Squadron Leader King’s Hurricane, the least badly damaged, disengaged from the attack and returned to Boscombe Down. PO King however, was obliged to abandon his blazing Hurricane and baled out.

Flight Lieutenant Nicolson’s aircraft sustained four separate cannon hits. One destroyed the perspex hood, damaging his left eye and temporarily blinding him with blood. More seriously, the reserve petrol tank was struck along with his left leg. The Hurricane was now burning so fiercely the instrument panel began to melt as Nicholson’s hands blistered from the heat and his trousers caught fire. Nicholson prepared to bale out and was half way to achieving this when an Me110 slid across the front of his aircraft. Ignoring the pain from his already burned face, hands and legs Nicholson dropped back into his burning cockpit and regained the controls – his feet on the rudder pedals engulfed in flames.

Nicolson closed further before riddling the Me110 with bullets. Although the Messerschmitt took evasive action, it was sent crashing into the sea off Southampton. Only then did Nicolson bale out with severe burns to his hands, parts of his face, neck and with his eyelid torn and one foot particularly badly wounded. At this point one would be forgiven for thinking that was quite a day he had had but his ordeal was far from finished.

As Nicholson and King descended towards the ground some Local Defence Volunteers (LVD), under orders, began firing with rifles and shotguns at what they mistakenly believed to be enemy parachutists. PO King’s parachute was fatally damaged and he plunged to his death. Flight Lieutenant Nicolson, unsurprisingly in enormous pain, landed alive with further wounds received from shotgun pellets. When ground troops realised their error he was rushed to The Royal Southampton Hospital where he made a full recovery and returned to active duty during late 1941.

His bravery and disregard for his own life in defence of his country earned him the Victoria Cross, which was awarded on 15 November 1940. James Nicholson died while flying as a passenger in a Liberator over the Bay of Bengal on 2 May 1945. A tragic way for such a profoundly brave man to die.

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 and contemplated an invasion of Britain. A large RAF 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, canopies open and their twisting pursuits of an enemy bent on our wholesale destruction, punctuated by the rattle of .303 machine guns. A minority I suspect.

I’d like to dedicate this brief article to the memory of all those RAF pilots, wherever they hailed from, who fought and died selflessly in the skys above my home. This modeller will never forget them.