Vivian Nicholson, on right, while training in the USA in about December 1941. [Pic: Nicholson family]
Sgt V Nicholson
Lancaster serial number: ED906/G
Call sign: AJ-J
First wave. Fifth aircraft to attack Möhne Dam. Mine dropped accurately, causing large breach. Aircraft returned safely.
Vivian Nicholson was born on 15 February 1923 in Newcastle on Tyne, the oldest of the eight sons of Arthur and Elizabeth Nicholson, who lived in Sherburn, Co Durham. He worked as an apprentice in the family joinery business but when the war started he volunteered to join the RAF.
He was sent to Canada on the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan. Canada, with its wide open spaces and safe distance from the main theatres of conﬂict in Europe, was ideal for aircrew training, and over 150,000 people from Britain, the Commonwealth countries and the USA, were sent there during the war. He started his training in Canada but then went on to Tuscaloosa, Alabama in the USA for part of his course. Even though the USA was not yet in the war, it was already providing training facilities for the Allies.
On arrival home, he was sent to 10 OTU at RAF St Eval, Cornwall, in September 1942. He arrived there at the same time as bomb aimer John Fort and wireless operator Antony Stone, and it is likely that the trio teamed up there, along with gunner Austin Williams and pilot Flt Lt William Elder.
On 5 January 1943, the fledgling crew were transferred to RAF Swinderby, to join 1660 Conversion Unit, where William Hatton and Harold Simmonds were added. On 23 February 1943, the new crew were posted to 207 Squadron to begin operations but unfortunately two days later Elder was killed on a ‘second dickey’ trip. A month later the pilot-less crew was transferred to 97 Squadron at Coningsby, where they were allocated to David Maltby. The whole crew was posted together to 617 Squadron on 25 March 1943.
A navigator used a log sheet for each operation in order to record routes taken, changes in bearing, times of fixes etc. All these calculations were, of course, made by hand. Vivian Nicholson was on his first active operation on the Dams Raid, and we are lucky in that his log sheet has been preserved for posterity. Its accuracy has been commended by navigational experts in the years since. There was also space for the navigator to make his own notes during the raid, and he recorded comments such as ‘Bomb dropped.Wizard.’ immediately after the mine was released.
Nicholson received the DFM for his part in the raid and took an active part in the celebrations at Buckingham Palace and in the Hungaria Restaurant on 22 June 1943. He can be seen in the famous restaurant photograph, sitting behind John Fort and David Maltby, with the arm of Jack Leggo, his Navigation Leader, draped over his shoulders. We can be sure that Leggo was proud of the textbook way his young protegé had carried out his first operation.
Four months later, on 14 September 1943, Nicholson took off from RAF Coningsby on 617 Squadron’s first major operation since the Dams Raid. When their aircraft suffered its final crash it sank with the bodies of all the crew except the pilot, so he has no known grave.
After their fatal crash into the North Sea on 15 September 1943, Nicholson’s mother Elizabeth wrote to David Maltby’s father:
We knew from our son they were a proud and happy crew, and we have at least four different photos of your gallant son, his bomb aimer and our boy together with others taken while in London June 22/23rd.
It is indeed a terrible and deep wound for us when we look at them so young, happy and beautiful.
We also knew, as from what my boy told others, that, they knew the daily risks they had to run, but were prepared to face them as it was for a good cause, which surely makes us feel all the more proud of them, although our loss is at times unbearable.
Vivian Nicholson is commemorated on the Runnymede Memorial.
More about Nicholson online:
Commonwealth War Graves Commission
Breaking the Dams website
KIA 15 September 1943.
Rank and decorations as of 16 May 1943.
Sources: Charles Foster, Breaking the Dams, Pen and Sword 2008
Richard Morris, Guy Gibson, Penguin 1995
John Sweetman, The Dambusters Raid, Cassell 2002
Further information about Vivian Nicholson and the other 132 men who flew on the Dams Raid can be found in my book The Complete Dambusters, published by History Press in 2018.