Doug Nicholls: Pilot who flew in the Battle of Britain and survived three brushes with death during the fall of Singapore


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The Independent Online

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.

The turning point came in Nicholls’s busiest month, March 1944, after the enemy surrounded Slim’s “Administrative Box” where supplies were concentrated, in Burma’s Arakan peninsula, and cut off the West African Division in the Kaladan Valley to its east. Nicholls led the squadron in a strafing attack near the village of Inbauk that drew high praise from the army section commander and did much to set the British on their way to victory. Slim acknowledged his debt to Nicholls and his fellow fliers: “The biggest air fights yet seen in Burma took place in the Arakan sky and went decisively in our favour.”

At the end of March Nicholls was promoted to Flight Lieutenant and made Flight Commander. On the squadron’s withdrawal to India after nine months of intensive fighting he was awarded the DFC, and raised to the position of Squadron Leader Tactics based at RAF 224 Group’s headquarters at Chittagong, from where he helped direct the British advance pushing the Japanese out of Burma.

Only three thin threads of spectacular luck during the disasters of February 1942 had preserved him. He had survived baling out over Sumatra, with a 40-mile journey across enemy-infested land and sea to rejoin his squadron; he had been evacuated to relative safety despite the “jack” he drew from a fateful pack of cards indicating that he must be left behind; and he had been fortunate in a ship carrying him to Ceylon that narrowly escaped the pursuing Japanese fleet after the fall of Singapore. 

Nicholls had arrived in the Far East after a journey taking him and his aircraft to Gibraltar, West Africa and Khartoum, before the distant destination became clear. His Hurricane was one of 48 crated up and delivered to assist beleaguered Singapore by being flown off the aircraft carrier HMS Indomitable on reaching the Indian Ocean. A quarter were lost in the difficult manoeuvre, with a two-and-a-half-hour flight to Java. Nicholls had left Britain on 30 October 1941, and with 258 Squadron reached Batavia (now Djakarta), Java, on 28 January 1942. Three weeks later Singapore capitulated.

Flying from an airfield at Palembang near the south-eastern tip of Sumatra, Nicholls took part in desperate rearguard battles with the dwindling air force from Singapore island that was now withdrawn to Sumatra and Java (both of which would soon also fall to the Japanese). With inadequate early-warning systems, the pilots often found the enemy almost over their airfield before they could scramble. Nicholls nevertheless shared in the destruction of a Japanese Navy Zero.  

When another Zero fighter raked his Hurricane, Nicholls had to abandon the burning aircraft. “I could hear bullets clattering into the armour plate behind me,” he recalled. “I rolled the Hurricane on its side, kicked the control column forward and shot out of the cockpit... It would have been very unwise to open the parachute until I had fallen well clear of the Zero. I found the free fall strangely exhilarating.” 

Nicholls struggled out of the mangrove swamp where he had landed, commandeered a car then traded it for a railway ticket to the port of Oosthaven, where he caught a ferry to Java. His squadron had abandoned Sumatra after Japanese parachute landings there, and he was reunited with it at Batavia.  

After Singapore’s surrender, when British forces had to flee or be taken prisoner, Nicholls had his next piece of luck. “It was decided to draw cards to see who should stay and who should go... I was nearly first to choose. It was the Jack of Diamonds... I held the highest card of those staying behind... Then a voice, which I have blessed ever more, spoke up: ‘I haven’t seen any action at all yet’, and that is how Vibert, a New Zealander, took my place.” Vibert survived being a POW, and the two later met.

Only six pilots out of 258 Squadron’s original 22 reached Ceylon, westwards across the Indian Ocean. Nicholls would have been taken towards Australia, and Japanese attack, but for the wisdom of the captain of his ship, the Kota Gede, who sailed west against official advice. 

A re-formed 258 squadron, including Nicholls, took part in the defence of Colombo, when on 5 April 1942 Japanese Navy Zero fighters attacked, hoping to destroy the British fleet, which had, however, dispersed. Nicholls damaged one Zero. Altogether 21 Hurricanes were lost, and in a Japanese attack four days later on Trincomalee, the aircraft carrier HMS Hermes was sunk, but Ceylon was saved.  

After the war Nicholls, who had been educated at St James’ School in Grimsby, became a  mathematics and science teacher, and also instructed at No 22 Air Training Corps Gliding School at Kirton Lindsey, Lincolnshire. His flying experience, begun when he joined the RAF Volunteer Reserve in 1938, included 14 types of aircraft, from Tiger Moths to Spitfires.

In 1960 Nicholls took his family to Uganda and later Botswana, where he trained other teachers. His work took him to the Kalahari desert, and he became principal of Bishop Stuart College, Mbarara and then of Buloba College near Kampala. He returned to Britain after Idi Amin expelled Uganda’s Asians in 1972 and taught at schools in Grimsby. He made his last flight on his 80th birthday in a Tiger Moth, taking the controls and executing a turn, at Sywell in Northamptonshire.

Douglas Benjamen Fletcher Nicholls: fighter pilot and teacher: born Ystradgynlais, Glamorgan 5 February 1919; DSC 1944; married 1948 Betty Mildred Collins (two sons); died Leamington Spa 6 December 2014.