It happened just a few weeks ago now, a chance glimpse of a small insignificant fading snapshot of a young WW2 bomber crew, attached to which was a sellotaped fading biro written note. At least it credited their names and a date, but what initially intrigued Probus Club member, retired RAF Squadron Leader Chris Perkins MVO, was the connection with the ‘legless WW2 fighter ace’ Douglas Bader. Seeing this old black and white photograph was on a quick visit to his old RAF Station Odiham carrying out research into the helicopter era of the 1970s and 80s concerning 18 Squadron. What follows is yet another tale that should never be forgotten.
The 18 Squadron crew pictured comprised of Pilot, Jack Nickleson from Toronto Canada, Observer, Walter Meadows from Askrigg in Yorkshire and Air Gunner, John Pearson from Birmingham. Walter and John were in their 20s, but their ‘Skipper’ Jack, was just 19 years old. All were Non-Commissioned Sergeant Aircrew and had been on the squadron barely a month. Sadly, their Operational Tour was to last just eleven missions and their names are listed amongst the 55,000 plus other airmen lost in Bomber Command during WW2.
To those of us growing up in the ‘black and white’ years of the 1950s, the wartime exploits of Bader, as portrayed magnificently by actor Kenneth Moore in the film ‘Reach For The Sky’, were very familiar. It will be eighty years ago this August, that, on 9 August 1941 Wing Commander Douglas Bader, leading his Spitfire Wing from RAF Tangmere, was shot down over German occupied France. He ‘bailed out’ minus his prosthetic right leg, which had become jammed by the rudder pedals during combat. Thankfully, a leather retaining strap eventually broke allowing him to exit the aircraft. Knocked unconscious on landing, he was taken to a Luftwaffe hospital in St Omer.
The battered artificial leg was subsequently recovered from the Spitfire wreckage and a temporary repair was carried out before being returned to him. Bader was delighted! It meant that he now had the mobility means to try an engineer an escape before being transported under escort to more a permanent incarceration in Germany. In the meantime, however, the German Authorities had signalled the RAF reporting his ‘safe arrival’ and status as a POW and requesting that a replacement leg be delivered. Safe passage for that aircraft by the Luftwaffe would be guaranteed.
Although the RAF were willing to devise a means of delivery, they were unwilling to offer a propaganda opportunity to the Germans by means of the ‘safe passage’ option. It was therefore decided to parachute drop the replacement leg by an aircraft involved in a bombing operation nearby. No 18 Squadron operating from a forward operating base at RAF Manston were allocated the task with six Blenheim light bombers and escorted, appropriately, by Spitfires of Bader’s Tangmere Wing.
Sgt Jack Nickleson and crew were chosen to deliver the box with replacement limb. At that time, there was no devised procedure for dropping cargo from RAF Blenheim bombers and automatically deploy a suitable parachute. It was decided that the ‘best option’ would be to attach the box, ‘somehow’, to a standard partially opened crew parachute and ‘throw’ it out of the aircraft! In theory this was a simple solution, but in practise it fell far short.
Once the crate containing the leg was delivered to the 18 Squadron at RAF Manston in Kent, Jack, Walter and John realised the enormity of their task. To manhandle and dispatch the bulky crate attached to a partially opened cumbersome parachute out of a small escape hatch, was not going to be easy. All this and bouncing around at 10,000 feet in formation with other aircraft and from the extremely cramped interior of the bomber. But this they did and very successfully. Needless to say, a following press release on the operation at the time, in typical fashion, falsely reported Bader’s leg as being delivered by ‘Our Fighter Boys’!
The ‘Nickleson Crew’ survived operations until 20th September 1941. As part of an eight 18 Squadron aircraft low level mission to attack shipping off the Dutch coast, they were hit by anti-aircraft fire. Their aircraft was seen to crash into the sea with the starboard engine on fire. The bodies of Sgt Walter Meadows and Sgt John Pearson were both washed ashore during the weeks following the crash and they lie in Commonwealth War Graves Cemeteries. The body of the young Sgt Jack Nickleson, Royal Canadian Air Force from Toronto, Canada was never found. At 18 he had enlisted straight from high school in July the previous year and his flying career had spanned but a short, active but nevertheless eventful fourteen months.
The Air Forces Memorial at Runnymede commemorates by name over 20,000 men and women of the air forces, who were lost in the Second World War during operations from bases in the United Kingdom and North and Western Europe, and who have no known graves. They served in Bomber, Coastal, Fighter, Transport, Flying Training and Maintenance Commands. They came from all parts of the Commonwealth plus countries in Europe that had been overrun, their airmen continuing to fight the enemy from the ranks of the Royal Air Force.
The Memorial stands upon the crest of Coopers Hill overlooking the River Thames and the fields of Runnymede, where in 1215 King John signed the Magna Carta thus sealing that document to the cause of English liberty. It is a fitting and hallowed place, therefore, to commemorate the ultimate sacrifice made by all those servicemen and women. Unveiled by Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth on 17 October 1953, it was designed by Sir Edward Maufe, the Commonwealth War Grave Commission’s Principal Architect responsible for the United Kingdom after World War Two. His main aim was to create an atmosphere of quiet intimacy for all those coming to remember the missing.
The memorial site certainly lived up to all expectations on the day of my visit with perfect summer weather and clear warm conditions to take in the gleaming splendour of the architecture and quietly contemplate the multitude of names arranged in the cloistered panels within. My aim on the 19th of August was to seek out the name of a Flight Sergeant Jack Nickleson, the Captain of an 18 Squadron Blenheim bomber aircraft tasked with successfully delivering a replacement prosthetic limb to the renowned Wing Commander Douglas Bader, incarcerated as a POW by the German Luftwaffe at St Omer in Northern France.
Jack’s name is to be located on panel 60 of the memorial cloisters with all of of the Royal Canadian Air Force Airmen who gave their lives for our freedom in 1941. It indeed was a privilege to pay my respects and place the small memorial cross and card below his name. He is not forgotten and neither are his other crew members. Sgt Walter Meadows, Observer/Bomb Aimer, is buried in Bergen-Op-Zoom and Sgt John Pearson, Air Gunner, in the military plot of Amsterdam New Eastern Cemetery. Hopefully, with the lifting of continental travel restrictions, I’ll be able to accord them both the same recognition in my forthcoming battlefield tour activities.