Three VCs in one photograph!

While trawling the net for some RAF related information – I stumbled on this photo at the International Bomber Command Center Site…/PCheshireGL1842.… – The caption says ” Leonard Cheshire stands on the right looking down to right. On his left another air force officer. Both are wearing tropical uniform tunic with pilots brevet. In the centre an army officer 😄 looks left talking to two Sikh officers with turbans. On the reverse ‘Leonard Cheshire (right), possibly a posting to India towards the end of his time in wartime RAF’.”

Leonard Cheshire VC (Right most) needs no introduction as the CO of the Dambusters squadron,  having taken command from Guy Gibson VC. He spent the last days of the war in India.

“An Army Officer” is of course General Claude Auchinleck, the Commander in Chief of the Indian ARmy.

At first I had no idea as to who the two Sikh Army Officers are.. but after some asking around – the identities are confirmed.

Left most is Jemadar Nand Singh of the Sikh Regiment, awarded the Victoria Cross. To his right is the Maharaja of Patiala, Colonel Harinder Singh.

The officer to the left of Cheshire is Wg Cdr J B Nicolson – another VC ..the only fighter command VC at that time – also in India around the same time. 

As our fellow researcher Matt Poole would write:

The pilot to the left of Cheshire is James Brindley Nicolson (no “h”), who is also named Eric James Brindley Nicolson (and misspelled “Nicholson” at least once) on his Wikipedia page. However, his biography, by Peter D. Mason, and entitled ‘NICOLSON VC’, subtitled THE FULL AND AUTHORISED BIOGRAPHY OF JAMES BRINDLEY NICOLSON, explains the “Eric” name differently than on Wiki:

“James Brindley Eric Nicolson was born in Hampstead, London, on 29 April 1917…Although given the name Eric after an uncle killed in the war of 1914-18, he for some reason, known only to himself, omitted to use it.” 

I know Nicolson had been CO of RAF 27 Sqn, flying Beaufighters over Burma and leading by example. I’d befriended and visited with a 27 Sqn navigator, ex-Rangoon Jail POW Jack Shortis, who said he did not like the man but acknowledged his greatness as a leader, also saying he would have followed Nicolson into the Valley of Death, if required. According to the Wiki source, Nicolson’s tenure on the squadron was from August 1943 to August 1944; the bio is unclear on this.

Nicolson was killed (body never recovered) on 2 May 1945 when RAF Liberator KH210 of 355 Sqn (based at Salbani, W. Bengal), in which he was flying as an observer, crashed into the Bay of Bengal. Thus, this photo was taken before that date.

Visiting 159 Sqn at Digri, W. Bengal, Leonard Cheshire went up on a test flight with 159 Sqn’s CO, W/Cdr James Blackburn, and some crew, in order to put a Liberator through a simulated dive bombing exercise. Quoting from an April 1992 letter Blackburn wrote to his former 159 Sqn navigator, Gordon Drain:

“The war in the Far East would soon be over and you may remember when my good friend G/Capt Len Cheshire VC passed through on his way to act as RAF observer on the first American plane to drop the atomic bomb.

He insisted that to attack a target and guarantee to destroy it with a couple of planes, was to dive and attack from a low altitude. To demonstrate this, we went up together to the practice range where he put the Lib – a plane he had never flown before – into a fairly steep dive and it took all our combined strengths to pull it out before it hit the ground.”

Blackburn was incorrect; Cheshire only observed the Nagasaki bombing, from afar, and not the first atom bomb drop on Hiroshima.

Cheshire’s visit to India predated the dropping of the atom bombs by many months; Blackburn’s recollection that it was when Cheshire was passing through on his way to act as an atom bomb observer implies that the date was in the summer of ‘45. However, the 159 Sqn Operations Record Book has the following notation: 

“11.8.44 Air Commodore W. G. Cheshire, Chief Intelligence Officer, Air Command S.E.A., visited R.A.F. Digri and during his tour of the station inspected the new 159 Squadron Intelligence Gen Room on the S.H.Q. site.” 
[EDIT: I was in error. Leonard Cheshire’s visit to Digri went unmentioned in the 159 Sqn ORB. Air Commodore W.G. Cheshire is definitely NOT G.L. (Geoffrey Leonard) Cheshire. If you google on “Air Commodore W.G. Cheshire”, you will find links to the man. 

I found another reference to Leonard Cheshire’s visit to Digri in a 29 May 2006 letter from 159 Sqn navigator Murray Duncan, who wrote that Cheshire’s visit occurred “sometime in October”. However, Duncan didn’t join 159 Sqn until December, so his story of Cheshire’s visit is second hand.

The bottom line: I don’t have at my disposal any reliable info for when Leonard Cheshire visited Digri.]

One of the men who was aboard for the Liberator dive bombing experiment, Don Willshire, told me about this harrowing flight, but he did not pinpoint the date or the Liberator serial number. I have a recollection that Don donated his logbook to the Imperial War Museum, but I can’t get into the website to check their archives at the moment. W/Cdr James Blackburn’s surviving logbooks (he lost some in the sinking of the Laconia) were donated to the 148 Sqn Association years ago, but I doubt this group exists any longer. What became of the logbooks? I’ll investigate. Sure would be nice to pinpoint when the Cheshire flight was.

Blackburn’s tenure as C.O. of 159 Sqn was only July-December 1944 – more evidence that he and Cheshire were photographed together (with Auchinleck and the Indians) in 1944. 

STOP THE PRESSES! I just discovered the same photo that you posted,  in the Peter D. Mason biography of Nicolson. The caption reads: “At Viceregal party, 1944, with General Auchinleck, Group Captain Cheshire and other VC’s”. The photo’s source: Imperial War Museum. 

But that’s not all. I also found another photo, posted below. Note the caption: “Nick with Group Captain Cheshire at Viceregal party in Calcutta, 1944”. Source: Imperial War Museum. 


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