World War II was a drama that unfolded for millions of people across thousands of miles. Yet the greatest drama was often found in the brave deeds of individual soldiers and, in this case, the pilots.
When Hitler sent his planes to try and hammer Britain into submission, he didn’t count on the amazing bravery of British pilots. They went above and beyond the call of duty – often flying even when they were exhausted and outnumbered.
There are many stories about the valiant Royal Air Force (RAF) waging war against the Luftwaffe. One pilot, in particular, who distinguished himself was Eric James Nicholson.
Eric James Nicholson learned how to fly before the war and served with Squadron 249 during the Battle of Britain. On patrol near Southampton England on August 16th, 1940, he encountered then intercepted some Messerschmitt Bf 110 aircraft.
These were heavy hybrid fighters and bombers that Hitler hoped would pummel the defenses of Britain, softening them up for an invasion. The Messerschmitts were the backbone of the German air force, heavily armed, and capable of causing serious damage to British industry and military installations while terrorizing the population.
Nicholson faced the bomber with his Hawker Hurricane. This plane was far less famous than the Spitfires, but it was easier to construct. As such, there were greater numbers of them fielded by the British.
The fighter-interceptor version was particularly well suited to intercept German bombers with its high speed and good maneuverability. Some reports indicate they inflicted as much as 60% of the damage against the German air force in the Battle of Britain.
Lt. Nicholson’s aircraft directly engaged the Bf 110 when he reported hearing the “loudest noises [he] had ever heard.” The sound turned out to be four cannon shells hitting his plane. Two of them wounded Nicholson and another set his gravity tank (and the plane) on fire.
He was wounded in the eye, leg, and heel. He was about to eject and deploy his parachute when he sighted another fighter bearing down on him. Surrounded by flames and with blood pouring down his face, he reached for the controls instead of the parachute.
He unloaded a furious barrage at his oncoming opponent. Even though the enemy fighter tried to twist and maneuver away, Nicholson kept the plane in his sights until it was destroyed.
At that point, he realized that the heat from the fire was burning his flesh and he finally bailed out of the plane.
While parachuting down, he noticed that he could see bone sticking out of his injured hand. He also discovered severe burns on his hands, face, neck, and legs. When he landed safely, he was rushed to the hospital. Thankfully, he survived his injuries.
In recognition of his intense enthusiasm for air fighting, the courage and determination he showed in this battle, and engaging the enemy after he had been wounded and his aircraft set on fire, Nicholson was awarded the Victoria Cross.
When he recovered from his wounds, he was transferred to India where he led a squadron in Burma. He also was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his actions there. Sadly, he died when the B-24 Bomber in which he was observing was shot down.
The brave pilots during the Battle of Britain earned their place in history among the greatest generation. In most engagements, the British pilots were outnumbered and facing foes who were still exhilarated by an astounding victory against France.
But pilots like Nicholson managed to inflict damage on the German air force, even when their planes were in the process of being shot down.