Thanks to Alex Bateman, I’m now able to list the mother of four of the Dams Raid aircrew who attended the Premiere of The Dam Busters and were presented to Princess Margaret. They appear in the Pathé News report of the occasion.
The mothers are: top left, Mrs Florence Hatton, mother of Bill Hatton; top right, Mrs Nellie Knight, mother of Les Knight; bottom left, Mrs Dorcas Roberts, mother of Charlie Roberts; bottom right, Mrs Elizabeth Nicholson, mother of Vivian Nicholson.
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.
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.
Sqn Ldr David Maltby and his Dams Raid crew, pictured in August 1943, at RAF Blida North Africa. Sadly, they were all killed over the North Sea a month later. Standing L-R: Victor Hill, Antony Stone, John Fort, David Maltby, William Hatton, Harold Simmonds. In front: Vivian Nicholson. [Pic: Grace Blackburn]
Today’s Sunday Express contains a two page feature about the last flight of Sqn Ldr David Maltby and his crew, on 14/15 September 1943, almost exactly four months after the Dams Raid. This was an attack on the Dortmund Ems canal, which was called off when weather conditions over the target were found to have deterioriated. As Maltby turned the aircraft back towards base, some sort of explosion occurred and it crashed into the sea with the loss of everyone on board.
What caused the explosion has been the subject of some speculation over many years. When researching my book, Breaking the Dams, I came across some documents in the National Archives which indicate that the crash may have occurred because of a collision with a Mosquito on another raid, out of radio contact and also returning to base. The Mosquito was from 139 Squadron, and was piloted by Flt Lt Maule Colledge. he full story is told in my book, and in abbreviated form on my other website, breakingthedams.com.
On right, Vivian Nicholson, while training as a navigator in Canada 1941. Pic: © Nicholson family.
One of the artifacts surviving from the Dams Raid is the navigation log of Sgt Vivian Nicholson, who was in the crew of David Maltby’s aircraft, AJ-J. It can be seen in the book, The Dambusters Raid, by John Sweetman (Cassell, 2002). A Dutch pilot called Dick Timmers, who now lives in Germany, decided to plot out the route taken by AJ-J using modern navigation software and techniques.
He has kindly agreed to make the plots available to anyone interested, and you can find them in PDF form here.
Below is an edited version of his explanation.
The nav log of Vivian Nicholson is a very meticulous piece of work done in a shaking and vibrating Lancaster in the most dangerous conditions. It took some effort and time to understand the system and its content. I ‘translated’ the log in my navigation/flight planning program from Jeppesen (a professional program used worldwide).
1. The route begins at EGXP (Scampton) via Woodhall Spa to West Raybham via a first FIX-J1 (no idea which landmark this fix represents.) further on to Southwold.
2. From Southwold via FIX-J2 (checking the drift) and FIX-J3 to FIX J-4, which is almost POSN A. POSN A is not reported in Vivian’s log and is crossed out on his route planning section on the overall sheet.
3. Also POSN B (a sandbank between the islands of Schouwen and Beveland) was not used and crossed out as well. However, this was an important waypoint/landmark at the Dutch coast. So AJ-J crossed the coast a bit off route to the north scratching Schouwen. This course deviation was not critical, because pilot, bomb aimer and flight engineer must have been able to see later on a large windmill at the coast of the peninsula of Tholen (this wind mill was according to Gibson a landmark and pinpoint). POSN C was (and still is) a railway intersection on the southern tip of Roosendaal. This position was mentioned by John Sweetman as a waypoint).
4. From Roosendaal due east to POSN D to pick up at the last third of this leg the Wilhelmina canal, which was followed until it ended in a canal (running north-south) at the village of Beek en Donk (POSN D).
5. From POSN D to Rees (POSN E). Approx. 11 miles prior arriving at Rees AJ-J pinpoints (P/P J1) at the town of Goch just behind the Dutch border. Again I have no idea what type of landmark was looked for.
6. POSN E are two sharp bends of the Rhine looking like an ‘omega’ with a small harbour on the top of the ‘omega’ at the right bank.
7. From POSN E to POSN F (landmarks are a few small lakes near Dülmen. Gibson warned for intensive flak and the coordinates were transmitted to the attacking aircraft by Group Headquarters were exactly at POSN F (according to John Sweetman).
8. From POSN F to a turning point at POSN G at Ahlen (most probably the landmark was a coal mine shaft with a slag hill, but I am not sure).
9. From POSN G to POSN H = Target X = Möhne lake.
AJ-J spent a total of 28 minutes at the Möhne Dam.
The first part of the return flight of AJ-J is somewhat confusing, because the waypoints POSN H, especially G and T in the nav log do not sequence. However the logged Distance To Run and E.T.A. indicate clearly the route which was flown. The waypoint G on the return flight was also used for the waypoint F on the outward flight. Maybe a writing error??
1. Directly from POSN H (Möhne Lake) back to POSN G (Ahlen).
2. From POSN G to POSN G (probably writing error instead of F) to the Dülmen lakes. (Why did they not circumnavigate the Dülmen lakes avoiding the reported intensive flak? Maybe the transmitted coordinates by Group Headquarters were not correct?)
3. From the turning point Dülmen to POSN T (landmark just north-north-west of Nordhorn at the Dutch border. No idea what type of landmark. Maybe a railway/road crossing or the church steeple of Nordhorn.) Checking their course Gildehaus, a very small village, was pinpointed, but again I have no knowledge of a good visible landmark at Gildehaus).
4. From POSN T to POSN L. But POSN L (Zwarte Water) was missed by appr. 4 miles to the north. Pinpointing the town of Hardenberg (type of landmark?). Also no problem for the crew as they could pinpoint a lake (Beulaker Lake) just north of their anticipated waypoint.
5. From this lake towards POSN J in the North Sea. As indicated in Vivian’s log AJ-J became a ‘workable GEE’ just before reaching POSN J as can be seen on his first FIX he made (FIX To Base 1).
6. From POSN J to Wainfleet a further FIX To Base 2 shows that AJ-J is on track, but only if Wainfleet was their aim to make landfall. Because otherwise their heading would have brought AJ-J to Coningsby.
As Dick says, the conditions in which Vivian (who was flying on his first operation!) wrote out his log were very difficult, and these probably account for the few small writing errors.
Dick has also sent me a video diary showing part of the course from the air, when he flew along it himself. He has also recently flown over the Möhne itself and concluded that the approach from the north east is technically impossible. The aircraft must therefore have flown up from south of the dam, as first described in Arthur Thorning’s The Dambuster who cracked the Dam. If you would like to see Dick’s video, please contact me, and I will pass your details onto him.