Nicolson’s ‘Red Devil’

NICHOLSON-VC

Among aviation enthusiasts the account of James Nicolson’s Victoria Cross action on August 16, 1940, is both well known and greatly admired. His Mk.I Hawker Hurricane ‘GN-A’ has been modelled in the popular scales on innumerable occasions and debate about the starboard orientation of the squadron code and individual aircraft letter has bounced back and forth for many years and even today remains contentious for many (more on that latter).

I was approached by editor Chris Clifford in the latter part of 2014, who advised in confidence that Airfix would mark the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain the following year with brand new 1/48 kits of several RAF airfield support vehicles, along with a Spitfire Mk.I and Hurricane Mk.I. For a lifetime student of the conflict, raised on a diet of mainly Airfix plastic, to be asked to take on the project was a great privilege and I felt a keen sense of excited anticipation in starting them for the intended supplement scheduled for the March 2015 issue of Airfix Model World (AMW).

Chris asked my intentions in respect of markings for the two aircraft and when I broached the Hurricane I explained there was only one game in town for me – Nick’s VC winning Hurricane. So, when the test shots turned up at Castle Croydon the decal bank was rapidly raided for Aviaeology’s ‘Vital Storm’ sheet part 2 (AOD 48007.2), followed up with some research to make a decision in respect of that thorny starboard codes question and suitably armed, I ploughed into the plastic…

GN-A

With the dust settled on the five builds and the images and text safely with Chris, I naturally assumed that that was the end of it and turned my attention to pastures new. I couldn’t have been more mistaken or pleasantly surprised when Chris unexpectedly rang me and said ‘You’ll never guess who I’ve had an email from?!’ – he was right; I didn’t and was sincerely taken aback when Chris revealed he’d been contacted by Jim Nicolson, nephew of James Nicolson VC, who’d kindly expressed pleasure to have discovered his uncle’s exploits were in the (then) current edition of AMW he’d picked up and read, while waiting for a flight out of Luton airport.

Jim’s email to Chris, February 23, 2015 is reproduced here –

“Dear Chris,

As I modeller who has been bashing kits for over fifty years, I wanted to say how much I really enjoyed the March edition, especially the Battle of Britain Supplement. It was one of the best editions I can remember, even better that the edition in 1965 when I had a letter published!

I especially enjoyed Steve Budd’s excellent article describing his build of the Hurricane flown by my uncle James Nicolson,VC. I am very much looking forward to building the new Airfix Hurricane using the same Aviaeology’s decals. I also have the same sheet in 1/24th to do the same with the larger scale Airfix kit I have in the loft.

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. I spoke at length to her prior to her passing a few years ago and sadly have no further details of what it looked like. As Steve rightly says, there are no photographs of his particular machine. You may also know that the uniform he was wearing is displayed at the Tangmere Air Museum? On the display case there is a red devil figure, but it looks suspiciously like the image I have seen used by a bomber Geschwader!?

The last reissue of the old Gladiator model, prior to the excellent version now available, was issued as K6142, a plane he flew often when in 72 Squadron, as well as K6140. There is a phot of both aircraft in close formation in Peter Mason’s book “Nicolson VC”.

Also, that he flew K9942, the oldest surviving Spitfire, now displayed at RAF Cosford. You may know his medals are on display in the Battle of Britain Museum at RAF Hendon? They are a bit tucked away on the mezzanine floor.

Lastly, I also enjoyed Steve’s Spitfire build and noticed it had the same codes as another machine which tragically crashed in bad weather in the foothills of Ben Nevis. I attach a photo of the memorial at the site of the crash.

Sorry to have gone on so long! I would be grateful if you could please forward this email to Steve to thank him for such inspiring articles,

With best wishes,

Jim Nicolson”

I was simultaneously thankful for the kind endorsement of Jim and at the same time, deeply intrigued by his mention of ‘Red Devil’ artwork on ‘GN-A’ during the action on August 16, 1940, when his uncle won the VC. I resolved then to try and uncover whatever facts might still be extant about the ‘Red Devil’ revelation, knowing that I had seen many renditions of ‘GN-A’ in model form over the years but never with such artwork. The hunt was very much on…

The search objectives were straightforward – was there such an emblem on Nicolson’s Hurricane on and prior to August 16, 1940 and what did it actually look like?

Given the absence of the ‘Red Devil’ emblem on the Aviaeology decal sheet I’d used in the Hurricane build, I contacted Terry Higgins at the company, who confirmed that 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 guess I’d reached ‘critical mass’ at this point and was doubly 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 aviation 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, I 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 ‘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).

JBN Red Devil.jpg
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 actually looked like.

ILN 30.11.1940.JPG

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 (as well as having been shot twice in the backside and legs by the Home Guard, who mistook him for a German airman as he hung under his parachute!). He is reported as having given the police officer ‘a rocket’ for adding an ‘h’ erroneously to his surname. Fastidious indeed – badly burnt, with shotgun injuries, he was still intent on ensuring his name was recorded accurately. 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 clearly 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 his friend, the now late Michael Payne, to paint the emblem and that the Souders-Earhart article was indeed the source of it.

1CC.jpg
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 the outcome was shared with Terry Higgins at Aviaeology. I asked if he would in consequence revise his decal presentation to include the red devil and happily, he kindly agreed to do so, in 1/72, 1/48 and 1/24, crediting the new sheets by mentioning Andy Saunders, Jim Nicolson and myself in the new print run. That then represented what I thought was the conclusion of my investigations and enquiries, 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 reunited in my mind, the pieces of an aspect of aviation history that had become separated and ‘lost’ (and had zero cognisance among the world wide modelling community, despite the IPMS article) and that it all pertained to one of my great heroes…but there was more to come and it really was truly unexpected.

I was touring Facebook a little over a month later 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’.

B of B Typhoon.jpg

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 back 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 gently added the only way of avoiding listening to a grown man cry was to consent to my attending too and happily ‘The Angel of Coningsby’ gave it her blessing.

I duly forwarded my evidence to Yvonne and formally 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 again and pressed her about the status, to which she replied that it was looking ‘98.5% certain that the emblem would be applied’. Late in the afternoon, on Wednesday of that 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 the Thursday, ahead of the press pack and saw his symbol emblazoned on the sleek Tiffie. Next to it, was stencilled “Flt. Lt. James Nicolson VC”.

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Jim Nicolson with ‘GINA’.

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I’ll never forget what that moment 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 was actually invited back for a gala dinner with senior RAF personnel and to give his famous talk about ‘Nick’ to the squadrons and personnel on base.

As I recall the details of that day, I was invited by Coningsby to write a ‘Red Devil’ press release for inclusion in the press pack given out at the official unveiling of ‘GINA’, another great honour I was happy to accept.

‘Red Devil’ press release – JBN – Word 2

Ben Westoby-Brooks

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And now, some thanks and recognition from me. First up and most definitely foremost, 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 goes to Tangmere Museum for ‘minding’ me so closely and attentively while I was on-site and for co-operating with my photography request.

So, in our own ways we all played a part in a piece of Battle of Britain aviation history but in truth, 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.

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, my AMW Hurricane is dedicated 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…

From a modelling perspective and as was mentioned earlier, Aviaeology have since revised their excellent Hurricane decals to include the ‘Red Devil’ in 1/72, 1/48 and 1/24. Happy days. Aviaeology have an Ebay shop outlet, so if you want to (finally) model an accurate ‘GN-A’ here are direct links but given the print run is a finite thing, you’re urged to get that order in sooner rather than later.

1/72  1/48  1/24

GN-A revised.jpg

If you fancy rendering ‘GINA’, then Caracal Decals have what you need in 1/48.

1/48

And what of James Nicolson VC after his heroics in 1940? He went on to attain the rank of Wing Commander and was killed on May 2, 1945 when the RAF B-24 Liberator of 355 Squadron, he was flying as an observer in, caught fire and crashed into the Bay of Bengal. Despite an extensive air sea rescue search, his body was never found. He is commemorated on the Singapore Memorial.

Postscript – In the light of all this, Chris Clifford, AMW’s editor handed me the chair for the July 2015 issue, a huge honour that gives me as much pleasure and satisfaction today, as it did then and to cap it all, I’ve been privileged to enjoy Jim’s friendship right through to this day.

July 2015 Editorial.jpg

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