From Barwell to Bomber Command

The Sam Nicholls story

sam nicholls in raf uniform
Sam Nicholls in RAF uniform

Early Life

Sam was born on 29th March 1921 in Kirkby Road, Barwell and was the only child of Arthur and Dora Nicholls (nee Pickering). He was called Sam after his mother’s youngest brother, Sam Pickering, who was tragically killed aged 19 during the First World War, in very brave circumstances.

Sam moved to Earl Shilton around four years of age and the family then lived at 11 Avenue South. His entire schooling was done at the ‘Top School’ in Earl Shilton, which was in the High Street, close to the junction with Almey’s Lane. The head teacher was James Metcalfe after whom James Street and Metcalfe Street were named in the village. Miss Reynolds was another notable teacher at the school.

On leaving school, Sam went to work for Pegg’s the builders in Church Street, where he trained as a carpenter.

Signing Up

With the advent of the Second World War, Sam was expected to do his bit. He preferred the idea of the RAF over the Army or the Navy. This choice may have been encouraged after witnessing numerous German bombers flying over to bomb Coventry during the Blitz.

He saw it as a way of hitting back at the enemy. The RAF Recruiting Officer recognised that Sam’s practical aptitude as a carpenter could, with the appropriate training, be applied to RAF Ground Crew Support. He signed up in July 1941 for a five year stint as a Leading Aircraftsman and had the choice between specialising in the bombs or the guns. He chose to maintain the guns on the Halifax Bombers.

sams release papers/report circa july 1946
Sams release papers/report circa July 1946

The War Years

Sam began his training during 1941, most notably at Kirkham, near Blackpool. He was then stationed at a number of places during the war years, including Wrexham (north Wales), High Ercall (Shropshire), and the Yorkshire ‘dromes of Pocklington and Driffield. He often went into York with a number of his mates, for theatre shows and general entertainment. When it came to drinking, he was most definitely a ‘half a pint of shandy man’ and can never recall getting drunk!

The main way of getting about was by train and Sam recalls one particular trip on the single track to Thurso, at the northern tip of Scotland. Occasionally he and his mates were in a bit of a hurry and omitted to buy their train tickets. They would nip over the wall at York Station when the steam from the railway engine was at its maximum, in order to escape detection.

He once briefly met James Stewart, the legendary actor who was the first major American movie star to wear a military uniform in World War II. Jimmy Stewart was a B-24 Liberator Pilot with the USAF (United States Air Force) based in Norfolk.

Sam had a sound knowledge of his job and remained based in the UK for the duration of the war although, at one point, he narrowly avoided an overseas posting simply by winning the drawing of lots!

Ground Crew Role

The RAF prided itself on having the best trained ground crews in the world, the gun armourers would work in pairs, on one gun then move to another gun until all the guns on the Halifax were serviced before moving to start servicing guns on another Halifax. The old belts of .303 ammunition from the previous run would be checked out to ensure it was OK to reuse. When needed the belts would come assembled from the supply area, they would have been run through a belt positioning machine to ensure that there would be no jams.

The ammunition tracks inside the Halifax would also be checked for dents and kinks when the gunner needed to use the gun, the ammunition was topped up as required. The guns would be regularly serviced by cleaning, oiling and being stripped, the guns would then be tested to ensure they worked efficiently.

During this time, Sam says the saddest part was when an aircraft and its crew failed to return home. The vacant places at the dinner table and the empty beds waiting for their owners to return served as poignant reminders of the horrors of war. This would inevitably be followed by the dreaded telegram, informing mothers and wives that their loved ones had been reported missing or had been killed in action.

handley page halifax mk3
Handley Page Halifax MkIII

Handley Page Halifax

The Halifax was a British four-engined heavy bomber made by Handley Page, 4,046 were built between 1940 and 1944. Throughout the second world war, the Halifax delivered 227,610 tons of bombs over 75,530 sorties.

The Halifax had a crew of 7 and was powered by 4 x Rolls-Royce Merlin engines, later using the larger Bristol Hercules radial engine during 1944. The Maximum speed was 265 MPH when flown at an altitude of 17,500 feet, with a range of 1,860 miles.

The bomber was fitted with 9 machine-guns - 1 × .303 in (7.7 mm) Vickers K machine gun in nose, 4 x .303 in (7.7 mm) Browning machine guns in the tail and 4 x .303 in (7.7 mm) Browning machine guns in dorsal power-operated upper gun turret, a 14,000 Ib (6,600 kg) bomb load.

Impressions of the War

The Second World War made a big impression on Sam. He had turned from being a shy kid from Earl Shilton into a young man who had not only experienced the outside world, but who had made a genuine contribution to the war effort into the bargain.

Ratby Engineering

From 1948, Sam worked at Ratby Engineering as a fitter. This involved machines which manufactured fishing nets for sea trawlers. He particularly recalls welcoming customers from Poland and Iceland to his house in Earl Shilton as guests for tea.

Following a slight industrial injury but nothing permanent, he retired during 1983 aged 62.

sam nicholls the leicester city fan
Sam Nicholls the Leicester City Fan

Cup Final Treats

Sam was a keen follower of football down the years and recalls when his father, Arthur Nicholls, often received a pair of Cup Final tickets for organising the Earl Shilton Inter factory football competitions. Sam was a beneficiary of this and relished witnessing his first ever Wembley final as a 17 year old – the FA Cup Final of 1938 – Preston North End 1 Huddersfield Town 0.

Leicester City Fan

Sam began supporting his beloved Leicester City from the age of five and it was to his great delight that he lived to witness the Premier League title in 2016. He’d waited 90 years for a moment he never thought would happen, but he reckons it was well worth it in the end.