Iain Nicolson

Wartime RAF navigator, businessman, prison and parole board volunteer

Born: 10 March, 1923, in Glasgow.

Died 14 September, 2009, in Glasgow, aged 86.

IAIN Nicolson DFC DFM defied significant odds to survive 96 missions over Europe as a navigator in RAF Bomber Command during the Second World War. With a loss rate among air crew of more than five per cent a raid, a member was anticipated to complete only 20 missions. Nicolson saw service at the peak of losses during 1943 to 1945, when Bomber Command was charged with taking the war to Nazi Germany.

Born in Glasgow in 1923 to Donald and Catherine, he moved to the family home in Skye following his mother's death in 1926. Here he and his two brothers were brought up by his grandfather and aunt in a close family community in Braes, near Portree.

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Returning to Glasgow in 1935, he attended Hyndland Secondary School. However, it was not long before the outbreak of war, and in 1940, aged 17, he volunteered for the RAF.

He was mustered at Lords Cricket Ground and did his initial training at Babacombe, Devon. He was one of 750 selected for air crew training. Travelling by convoy to Halifax, Canada, he went on to Toronto before being transported to Montgomery, Alabama, where he was trained by the US Army Air Force. He reflected later that this great adventure was the forerunner of the modern gap year.

His primary flying school was in Georgia and even involved open cockpit flying. He specialised as an observer and was later sent to learn astro-navigation with Pan American airways in Miami. His "gap year" experience continued as he was billeted in a Coral Cables hotel.

Judging by his photograph album, which includes snaps of wartime pin-up girl Betty Grable and the Ink Spots jazz band, this was a very good part of the war for the young Scot.

But the true horror of the war lay ahead. He returned again by convoy, which itself was hazardous, and soon after completed some further training in night flying in the UK. He took up active service, initially in Lancasters with RAF 207 Squadron, completing 31 operations for his tour of duty. He was then selected for the newly formed Pathfinder Force and completed 65 operations in the Mosquitos of 105 Squadron, to accumulate his 96.

Nicolson flew in some famous missions, including the Peenemunde raid on the night of 17-18 August, 1943, when the RAF bombed at low level the V1 and V2 rocket development establishment. Of the 40 planes lost, seven per cent of the force, 29 went down in the third and last wave in which Nicolson took part, a loss of 15 per cent. He recalled later: "I still remember the Peenemunde raid so well, much more clearly than all my previous raids. Even the Pathfinder operations in which I took part did not provide the tension the Peenemunde raid did."

This was the first night the German night force used their new upward firing cannon. In debriefing Nicolson recalled that what he had seen "was just not given credence; our own side did not believe us". Of the 63 men who survived this raid from 207 Squadron, 39 were dead by the war end and all nine planes had been lost with other crews. Nicolson also flew on the Nuremburg raid, when the RAF suffered its highest loss in a single night.

While in Pathfinders he marked many targets, including the Bielefeld viaduct, and took the highest night photograph of the war in Europe, at 46,000ft, when he was testing Oboe navigation methods over Europe.

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Nicolson was awarded the Distinguished Flying Medal in 1943, and then, as a flight lieutenant he obtained the Distinguished Flying Cross in 1944. This combination is relatively unusual and cannot be obtained today.

His crew were present in George Square, Glasgow in 1942 as the Wings for Victory crew with a Lancaster bomber. Also known as the "birthday boys", as they spent most birthdays over Germany, they were featured in Picture Post in May 1943, in an article compiled by Fife Robertson, the broadcaster. The photographs are very memorable with one of Nicolson featured in a Times article in August 2000.

Nicolson was demobilised in 1947, and entered the family wholesale fish and poultry business. He diversified the business into wholesale frozen foods in the 1960s.

He served voluntarily for 20 years on The Young Offenders Committee at Barlinnie Prison Glasgow, spending many years as its chairman, and worked with the Parole Board of Scotland.

He was a founder member of the Aircrew Association in Scotland, and its secretary and vice-chairman for several years.

In 2008 he received a medal from the Dutch government for his part in bombing the Netherlands with bread in the final days of the war. He later laughed and said: "I did not tell them that, earlier, I had also bombed the dykes to cut off the German army." His two brothers all saw front-line action, all were decorated, and all survived the war.

Iain regarded himself as very lucky to have survived the war and his 96 operations. He often reflected on the loss of those not so lucky in Bomber Command, the 55,000 who died out of the 123,00 air crew who saw active service – the "terrible price", as he would say, "paid by so many volunteers who have still not been recognised by their country with a service medal".

Nicolson lived in Clarkston, Glasgow, from 1951 and was a regular member of Greenback Parish Church. He married Gwyneth Clunes on 6 February, 1946. She died in 1986. Of their three children, he is survived by his two sons, his daughter having predeceased him.

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