Plans to commemorate astonishing act of wartime courage

A remarkable act of courage is to be commemorated as fund-raising begins for a major new sculpture probably destined for Tangmere.

Monday, 22nd June 2020, 12:00 pm
The planned piece
The planned piece

Greg Percival is to produce a number of maquettes – or models – of a piece he hopes to recreate life-size plus 20 per cent. His ambition is that it should stand at the Tangmere Military Aviation Museum or perhaps on the Tangmere roundabout on the A27. The piece, entitled For Valour, depicts Flight Lieutenant James Nicolson baling out of his stricken Hurricane over Southampton Water after the combat which resulted in him being awarded the Victoria Cross, the only one awarded to a pilot of Fighter Command during WWII.

Greg intends the sculpture to commemorate this summer’s 80th anniversary of the Battle of Britain. May saw the 75th anniversary of Nicolson’s tragic death in a training accident six days before VE day 1945.

Greg expects the full cost of the castings for the piece to be around £180,000 – and the total overall cost of the project, including its installation, to be something in the region of £300,000: “It would need to be spec’d out and put through a quantity surveyor and would depend on all sorts of things like where exactly it was going to be placed.”

Greg is working to set up a crowd-funder for the project. In the meantime, anyone wishing to support the creation of the sculpture can do so through Greg’s website at gregorypercival.co.uk.

Flt Lt Nicolson’s uniform and effects from the action are on permanent display at Tangmere Military Aviation Museum. Greg is hoping the maquettes will generate interest and funds for the full-size installation. So far, Greg has been entirely self-funded but the work has now reached a point where, as he says, his ambition will be almost impossible to achieve without patronage.

During an engagement with the enemy near Southampton on August 16 1940, Nicolson’s aircraft was hit by four cannon shells, two of which wounded him whilst another set fire to the gravity tank.

With flames in the cockpit, he was about to abandon his aircraft when he sighted an enemy fighter. He attacked it and shot it down, but by staying in his burning aircraft, he sustained serious burns to his hands, face, neck and legs. The citation for his VC reads: “Flight Lieutenant Nicolson has always displayed great enthusiasm for air fighting and this incident shows that he possesses courage and determination of a high order. By continuing to engage the enemy after he had been wounded and his aircraft set on fire, he displayed exceptional gallantry and disregard for the safety of his own life.”

Nicolson was able to open his parachute in time to land safely in a field. On his descent, he was fired on by members of the Home Guard, who ignored his cry of being an RAF pilot.

Sadly, he was dead less than five years later. Fully recovered by September 1941, Nicolson was posted to India in 1942. Between August 1943 and August 1944, he was a squadron leader and commanding officer of No 27 Squadron, flying Bristol Beaufighters over Burma.

Nicolson was killed on May 2 1945 when a RAF B-24 Liberator from No 355 Squadron, in which he was flying as an observer, caught fire and crashed into the Bay of Bengal. His body was not recovered. He is commemorated on the Singapore Memorial.

His Victoria Cross is displayed at the Royal Air Force Museum, Hendon.

The first casting of Greg’s piece has been most generously funded by Harrity Construction, care of Christian Harrity and Mark Hillier.

“Mark Hillier, who I have worked with previously with the Westhampnett at War book, has been most helpful with this project and the links with Tangmere.”

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