ON A recent visit to RAF Odiham, retired squadron leader Chris Perkins MVO, who lives in Kempshott, delved into the history of the site’s links with the famous ‘Operation Leg’ - the story of Battle of Britain pilot Douglas Bader and his prosthetic leg. Here, as the 80th anniversary of the incident approaches, Chris documents the heroic tale …

It happened just a few weeks ago now, a chance glimpse of a small insignificant fading snapshot of a young WW2 bomber crew, attached to which was a sellotaped fading biro written note. At least it credited their names and a date, but what intrigued me initially was the connection with the ‘legless WW2 fighter ace’ Douglas Bader. I was on a quick visit to my old RAF Station Odiham carrying out research into the helicopter era of the 1970s and 80s concerning 18 Squadron. What follows is yet another tale that should never be forgotten.

The 18 Squadron crew pictured comprised of Pilot, Jack Nickleson from Toronto Canada, Observer, Walter Meadows from Askrigg in Yorkshire and Air Gunner, John Pearson from Birmingham. Walter and John were in their 20s, but their ‘Skipper’ Jack, was just 19 years old. All were Non-Commissioned Sergeant Aircrew and had been on the squadron barely a month. Sadly, their Operational Tour was to last just eleven missions and their names are listed amongst the 55,000 plus other airmen lost in Bomber Command during WW2.

To those of us growing up in the ‘black and white’ years of the 1950s, the wartime exploits of Bader, as portrayed magnificently by actor Kenneth Moore in the film ‘Reach For The Sky’, were very familiar. It will be eighty years ago this August, that, on 9 August 1941 Wing Commander Douglas Bader, leading his Spitfire Wing from RAF Tangmere, was shot down over German occupied France. He ‘bailed out’ minus his prosthetic right leg, which had become jammed by the rudder pedals during combat. Thankfully, a leather retaining strap eventually broke allowing him to exit the aircraft.

Knocked unconscious on landing, he was taken to a Luftwaffe hospital in St Omer. The battered artificial leg was subsequently recovered from the Spitfire wreckage and a temporary repair was carried out before being returned to him. Bader was delighted! It meant that he now had the mobility means to try to engineer an escape before being transported under escort to a more permanent incarceration in Germany.

In the meantime, however, the German Authorities had signalled the RAF reporting his ‘safe arrival’ and status as a POW and requesting that replacement leg be delivered. Safe passage for that aircraft by the Luftwaffe would be guaranteed. Although the RAF were willing to devise a means of delivery, they were unwilling to offer a propaganda opportunity to the Germans by means of the ‘safe passage’ option. It was therefore decided to parachute drop the replacement leg by an aircraft involved in a bombing operation nearby. No 18 Squadron operating from a forward operating base at RAF Manston were allocated the task with six Blenheim light bombers and escorted, appropriately, by Spitfires of Bader’s Tangmere Wing.

Sgt Jack Nickleson and crew were chosen to deliver the box with replacement limb. At that time, there was no devised procedure for dropping cargo from RAF Blenheim bombers and automatically deploy a suitable parachute. It was decided that the ‘best option’ would be to attach the box, ‘somehow’, to a standard partially opened crew parachute and ‘throw’ it out of the aircraft!

In theory this was a simple solution, but in practise it fell far short. Once the crate containing the leg was delivered to the 18 Squadron at RAF Manston in Kent, Jack, Walter and John realised the enormity of their task. To manhandle and dispatch the bulky crate attached to a partially opened cumbersome parachute out of a small escape hatch, was not going to be easy. All this and bouncing around at 10,000 feet in formation with other aircraft and from the extremely cramped interior of the bomber.

But this they did and very successfully. Needless to say, a following press release on the operation at the time, in typical fashion, falsely reported Bader’s leg as being delivered by ‘Our Fighter Boys’!

The ‘Nickleson Crew’ survived operations until 20th September 1941. As part of an eight 18 Squadron aircraft low level mission to attack shipping off the Dutch coast, they were hit by anti-aircraft fire. Their aircraft was seen to crash into the sea with the starboard engine on fire. The bodies of Sgt Walter Meadows and Sgt John Pearson were both washed ashore during the weeks following the crash and they lie in Commonwealth War Graves Cemeteries.

The body of the young Sgt Jack Nickleson, Royal Canadian Air Force from Toronto, Canada was never found.

At 18 he enlisted straight from high school in July the previous year and his flying career had spanned but a short, active but nevertheless eventful fourteen months.