Farewell to one of the Few who also served in the Far East

Squadron Leader Doug Nicholls, who has died at the age of  95, fought with distinction in the Battle of Britain before heading out to the  Far East to face the ferocity of the Japanese Air Force.

Vincent McDonagh, who grew up near Biggin Hill, knew Doug Nicholls personally and wrote the following obituary and tribute for his newspaper, the Cleethorpes Chronicle:

Doug Nicholls, one of the famous “Few” from Grimsby has died at the age of  95.

This extraordinary but always modest fighter pilot  fought with distinction in the Battle of Britain, the most  celebrated air campaign of the Second World War.

When that finished he headed out to the  Far East to face the ferocity of the Japanese Air Force.

Squadron Leader  Douglas Benjamin Fletcher Nicholls DFC lived in Westward Ho, Grimsby for many years, before moving  to Leamington Spa in 2012  so he could be  closer to his family.

Although he was born in Swansea, he  was always proud of his Grimsby roots, growing up in Freeman Street where his parents ran a pub.

He was educated at South Parade School and  St James School in Bargate  before training to be an English and maths teacher.

The story of how he became part of this exclusive military club began in the late 1930s, when war with Germany seemed inevitable.

Waltham Airfield, then home to a private flying club, was turned into a  training centre for the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve – or RAFVR. Dozens of young men from Grimsby and Cleethorpes, keen to learn the still relatively young art of flying, joined up and Doug was  among them.

When war broke out most were called into the regular RAF where they underwent normal basic military training before being assigned to various fighter and bomber units.

The threat to Britain from aerial bombing  was always a great fear,  but the first few months of the war were quiet and many people retained a hope  it would not come to reality.

As a 21-year-old sergeant pilot, Doug Nicholls was posted to Scotland where he learned fighter tactics, night flying and ground attack techniques.His first operational aircraft was the Hawker  Hurricane, which despite all the glory later heaped on the Spitfire, made up the main fighter force during the Battle of Britain.

While it might have been slower than its more  famous rival, some historians maintain that Britain would probably have lost in 1940 without the Hurricane because the Spitfire was not being built fast enough numbers. It also had a much higher kill rate. For every two Luftwaffe planes shot down by Spitfires, three were destroyed by the Hurricane. And because of its wooden and fabric covered fuselage, it was better able to take punishment during dogfights.

Doug Nicholls certainly loved the  aircraft and would have nothing said against it, although he did admit to a secret desire to fly the Spitfire at some point during  the war.

After training he found himself at RAF Kenley in Surrey  which would become one of the frontline Battle of Britain fighter stations and bear the brunt of the Luftwaffe’s  onslaught during that fateful summer.

He then joined 151 squadron at RAF Digby, near Louth,  where he shared in the destruction of a Ju-88, although his Hurricane was badly damaged in the engagement.
Later while  coming into land at RAF Wittering he almost got shot down by a Ju-88.

He recalled: “I had been given clearance to join the circuit and land so I went around with navigation lights on, wheels down, flaps down, on the final approach – and at about 150 feet there were tracer bullets flying each side of the cockpit and in front of the engine.

“I wondered, momentarily, why sparks from the exhaust were going in the wrong direction when it suddenly dawned on me they were not  sparks at all.”

So he rapidly pulled up his wheels and flaps and turned away from the attacking aircraft.
Lack of  proper navigation aids due to the need for secrecy were almost as big a threat as the Luftwaffe. He once recounted  an incident while returning from a convoy patrol off the Lincolnshire Coast: “It was pitch dark, my radio had packed up and I got lost.”

Short of petrol, he began flying around thinking the airfield was not far away. As he made what he thought was a final approach he realised he was coming down on a  flare path designed to attract and trap enemy bombers.

With the Battle of Britain over, Doug  was posted to the Far East to counter an expected  Japanese threat. His Hurricane, with the wings detached, was packed onto an aircraft carrier while he flew out on a DC-3.

His squadron, No.258, arrived at an abandoned airfield at Palenbang on the Dutch East Indies island of Sumatra. The Japanese had already attacked Pearl Harbour and were already invading British, French and Dutch colonies in the region.

He said a few years ago: “The Dutch  had flown and their airfields had no radar,  so the first we knew the Japs were coming was when we saw their planes on the horizon. By the time we  had taxied onto the runway the enemy was already overhead with bombs falling on the airfield.”

The dogfights were fast and furious and in one episode he was forced to bale out after his aircraft was seriously damaged. He  was forced to hide in the jungle from the invading Japanese soldiers and only just evaded capture.

In February 1942, with the Japanese advance seemingly unstoppable, the  squadron’s three  remaining Hurricanes were withdrawn from active service while some of the 15 surviving pilots were ordered to stay behind with a reformed 605 squadron.

Those who would stay were selected by cutting cards and Doug was one of the lucky ones. He was evacuated from Java to Ceylon to rejoin  No 508 squadron and went on to continue the fight over Burma.

Commissioned in 1941, he was  awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC)  in 1944.
After the war he left the RAF to resume his teaching career. However, with the growing threat of a new global conflict between the West and Soviet Russia, he decided to rejoin  the RAFVR in 1949.

He and his wife Betty decided to move to Uganda, then a British colony, where he took up a teaching post. He later became head of a college and recalls meeting a young Idi  Amin who became Uganda’s notorious  president  following independence.

He said he found him reasonably charming at the time, showing  little sign that he would one day develop into a  murderous tyrant.

He and Betty eventually returned to Grimsby and lived in Westward Ho for many years, before their move to Leamington Spa in 2012.

Doug became an enthusiastic member of the Battle of Britain Fighter Association, regularly attending the annual September service at Westminster Abbey. In 2006 he and several other Battle of Britain veterans  were guests of the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall.

Asked by the Prince if he was ever frightened, he replied: “Once you were in the air you were too busy to be bothered.”

Just short of 3,000 young RAF men from several nations took part in the Battle of Britain, with 534 losing their lives. A further 900 were killed in later actions during the war.
Squadron Leader Douglas Nicholls DFC leaves a wife Betty and two sons.

The Independent also carried a short obituary, although the newspaper ignored his service during the Battle of Britain:

Doug Nicholls was one of the heroes of Britain’s last imperial hurrah in the Far East, three times cheating death at the nadir of her defeat in 1942 at Singapore by the Japanese.

Two years later in his single-engined, single-seater Hurricane fighter he was instrumental in enabling General Bill Slim’s “Forgotten” Fourteenth Army to claw Burma back from the invaders and stop them reaching India. For more than a year he flew as many as 28 sorties a month, day and night, unsupported by radar, over jungle-clad ridges up which the Japanese would haul supplies and artillery on their “March to Delhi”.

Nicholls, a Flying Officer with 258 Squadron – one of the “Few” from the Battle of Britain, in which he had the destruction of a Ju-88 to his name – gave fighter escort for vital supplies and reinforcement troops being ferried to the front by Dakota aircraft, strafing the Japanese wherever he spotted them. Once he collided with a vulture, which damaged his cockpit hood.

 

 

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