Meet the Harborough war hero who cheated death on numerous bombing raids - and is still sprightly at 100
Harborough Mail reporter Red Williams went to meet Bertram ‘Nick’ Nicholls - one of the most extraordinary residents in the Harborough district who turned 100 today (Wednesday). Here is his feature on the meeting.
One of the country’s few RAF Bomber Command war heroes still alive is celebrating his 100th birthday near Market Harborough today (Wed Nov 13).
Flight Lieutenant Bertram ‘Nick’ Nicholls survived against incredible odds after he took part in a staggering 50 bombing raids over Nazi Germany in the Second World War.
The former RAF wireless operator and navigator cheated death time and again but simply said he was “blessed” as he turned 100 surrounded by his overjoyed family and friends.
Nick is believed to be one of fewer than 100 iconic Bomber Command veterans still alive today in the UK to tell their heartstopping tale.
Football-mad Nick, who lives at Brookside care home, Braybrooke, told the Harborough Mail: “I always thought I had not just one but three guardian angels looking after me!
“I also had Lady Luck on my side – and we needed a lot of luck all the time to get home in one piece.”
Still as sprightly as ever with a razor-sharp mind to boot, the extraordinary centenarian ghosted back 80 years to the outbreak of the war in a heartbeat as the memories flooded back.
“I joined the RAF in December 1939 when I was 20, just months after the war started.
“I’d always been interested in radios and I wanted to transmit myself and to learn Morse code,” said Leicester-born Nick, who looks at least 20 years younger.
The rookie airman was assigned to Bomber Command’s 83 Squadron and helped to train other aircrew recruits before being transferred to the Royal Canadian Air Force’s 428 Squadron.
“I took off on my first bombing raid on Kiel Canal in northern Germany in a Handley Page Hampden bomber on March 18, 1941,” recalled Nick as he referred to his well-thumbed but neat and tidy RAF logbook.
“I clocked up 200 hours on my first tour of operations – and each raid could last from six hours all the way up to 10 hours.
“We carried out night-time ops all over Germany, including bombing Berlin and targeting the V1 and V2 flying bombs at Peenemunde.
“I did feel I was doing my duty for King and country as well as just doing my job the best I could.
“We also wanted to do the best we could for our comrades – none of us wanted to let each other down.”
Nick escaped from the frontline long enough to wed his sweetheart Barbara at St James the Greater Church in Leicester on February 13, 1943.
“My American pilot and Canadian crewmen were all there on our big day.
“They even went round twice when it came to kissing the bride the cheeky devils!
“We had the reception at Barbara’s parents’ home in Leicester before buying our own place in Aylestone and having our first daughter Janet in 1944,” he said.
Nick, who moved up to heavy Wellington bombers, said death stared him in the face day in day out in the lethal skies over Germany.
“I never expected to get through it – I was very lucky.
“A Canadian flight commander asked me one day if I was scared.
“I told him I was and then he admitted he was frightened too.
“I lost very good friends all the time and I still think of those fine lads every day,” said the father-of-three, whose wife died 30 years ago.
“The best man at my wedding was a brave Lancaster pilot, Ron Amey, and he died in a German hospital after being shot down.
“I saw some terrible things.
“Planes tragically dropped bombs on aircraft beneath them in the chaos, others suddenly exploded into fireballs.
“I can still see the bright red tracer bullets and Flak shells shooting up at us in the pitch black and bursting everywhere.
“We had a near miss coming back from raiding Wilhelmshaven.
“We dived 10,000 feet after our tail ailerons were shot up and were shaking and bouncing about but we somehow limped home.”
Heroic Nick was presented with the Distinguished Flying Medal for outstanding courage and valour by King George VI at Buckingham Palace on March 14, 1944.
“I went along with my wife and mother Alice and it was a proud moment,” he said with typical understatement.
Nick knew he’d made it after surviving his 50th and last mission against Wuppertal on May 29, 1943.
Asked if it was a relief, the grandad-of-six and great-grandad-of-nine laughed: “I felt a right rotter because my crew were all rookie Canadians on their first op!
“I trained aircrew for the rest of the war until Germany was finally defeated in May 1945.
“I never regretted joining Bomber Command.
“I made a lot of good mates, it’s just so sad that so many never got home.”
Talking to me for an astonishing 90 minutes, Nick also reached for the stars after returning to Civvie Street in Leicester.
The keen tennis and badminton player started as a knitter before climbing to factory manager and a director of J Leeson’s knitwear business.
Asked about his secret for a happy long life, Leicester City fan Nick smiled: “I always have something to look forward to.
“I’ve never liked sitting around doing nothing.”
His beaming daughter Sadie Crowe, 68, who as well as Janet has an older sister, Val, 72, said: “Dad still keeps us all on our toes!
“We are all very proud of him – we couldn’t have a better dad.
“He has a lot of patience, he’s very humble and he’d give you his last penny.”
Nick had a family party at The Swan in Braybrooke last Saturday (Nov 9) before celebrating with his loved ones at Sadie’s home in Sutton Bassett yesterday (Wed).
And weather permitting an RAF Hawk jet trainer was set to perform a surprise flypast over the village to seal an unforgettable day.
“I’m no war hero – I’m just one of the others who came back,” said Nick, one of the most thoroughly decent, likeable people you could ever wish to meet.
'IT'S AN ABOLUTE HONOUR'
An RAF Benevolent Fund chief has sent his very own birthday wishes to Nick – and said it’s an “absolute honour” to support him.
Air Vice-Marshal David Murray, chief executive of the Fund, said: “The RAF Benevolent Fund is proud to be the custodian of the Bomber Command Memorial, ensuring that the legacy of those who flew Bomber Command operations during the Second World War is preserved for generations to come and the 55,573 who paid the ultimate price are not forgotten.
“Sadly, the number of Bomber Command veterans dwindles each year.
“But I am delighted to hear that Nick has celebrated a century birthday – just like the Fund! “It is our absolute honour to be able to support veterans like Nick who gave their all for our future.”
Almost half of RAF Bomber Command were killed fighting in the Second World War – with the death toll hitting nearly 56,000.
A staggering 44 per cent of British airmen perished – the highest attrition rate of ANY Allied unit during the 1939-1945 conflict.
Of 125,000 aircrew who served, a devastating 72 per cent were killed, seriously injured or taken Prisoner of War.
Every man who fought in the frontline against Nazi Germany was a volunteer – and the average age of death was just 23.
They were supported by a million men and women from 60 nations worldwide who paid a terrible price to secure the freedoms we enjoy today.
The service included Aircrew, Ground Crew, Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, Auxiliary Air Transport, Auxiliary Transport Services, NAAFI and others.
The majority came from the UK and the Commonwealth, with the remainder from countries as diverse as Peru and Germany (many escaping from the Nazi regime), as well as other European refugees.
Bomber Command’s thousands of sorties over enemy territory night in night out helped to wreck Hitler’s awesome military and industrial might.