He was the elder son of Richard Francis Nicholson, a distiller of Woodcott House, Whitchurch, Hampshire. His mother, Helen Violet Nicholson, was the daughter of Canon George Portal, Rector of Burghclere. His brother was Godfrey Nicholson, MP for Farnham (D1915-20).
He entered the Royal Military College, Sandhurst in September 1915, and obtained a commission in 16th Lancers, with whom he served in France until 1918. He became Adjutant in 1921, serving in Palestine, India and Egypt, and entered the Staff College at Camberley in 1929. In 1930 and 1931 he was a GSO3 at the War Office, and then spent two years in command of a company of Gentlemen Cadets at the RMC. He became a GSO2 at the Staff College, with the brevet rank of Major, in 1934.
On December 31st 1935 he married the Hon. Ursula Katherine Hanbury-Tracy, daughter of Major the Hon. A. Hanbury-Tracy and sister of the sixth Lord Sudeley. The couple had a daughter, and their son, Richard Hugh Nicholson, came to the school (G1950-1954).
Given the brevet rank of Lieutenant Colonel on 1st January 1938 he then instructed at the Staff College, Sandhurst before moving to command his regiment of 16th/5th Lancers in India in 1938-1939. On his return he graduated from the Imperial Defence College.
Airey Neave, who fought under Nicholson’s command at Calais, described him in “The Flames of Calais” (Hodder and Stoughton 1972) as: “…a true professional. He worked hard and was widely read. His ability was well known… By temperament, Nicholson was a perfectionist. Outwardly, he was the trained cavalry officer and a good horseman which he had dreamed of being as a boy. He was sympathetic and courteous. He was also sensitive, modest and very intelligent. There were some who thought him formal and orthodox, but to the rapidly changing situation at Calais he reacted with great swiftness of mind. He must have been deeply troubled by the conflicting orders which he received, but he was not a man to lose his head.”
After the outbreak of war Nicholson took over command of 30 Infantry Brigade in England; this formation was created on April 20th 1940 for service in Norway. It consisted of 2nd King’s Royal Rifle Corps (2KRRC), 1st Rifle Brigade (1RB), the Territorial battalion 1st Queen Victoria’s Rifles KRRC (1QVR); attached to it was 3rd Royal Tank Regiment (3RTR).
In late May 1940 Nicholson and his brigade became famous for their heroic defence of Calais. 30 Brigade contained at least ten Wykehamists. In 1RB, the commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Chandos Hoskyns (A1909-1912), and 2nd Lieutenant Edward Bird (E1929-1934) were mortally wounded (see individual entries); Lieutenant Anthony Gerard Hugh Bampfylde (G1933-1938), 2nd Lieutenant Richard Wood (I1923-1929) and Lieutenant Frederic Athony Vivian Parker (E1926-1931) were all captured, though Parker was repatriated in 1943. From 2KRRC, the second-in-command, Major Oswald Segar-Owen (K1913-1918) was killed (see individual entry). 2nd Lieutenant Albert Michael Sinclair (I1931-1936) was captured, only to be killed in 1944 trying to escape from Colditz Castle (see individual entry); also captured and sent to Colditz (though he went on the run at one point for ten months) was 2nd Lieutenant E. Grismond B. Davies-Scourfield (B1932-1936). In 1QVR, 2nd Lieutenant Richard Raikes (H1922-1928) was killed in action (see individual entry).
The German attack into France earlier that month had forced a wedge between the British Expeditionary Force in northern France and Belgium and the French forces to the south. By 21st May the Germans had reached the Channel coast and the BEF was in imminent danger of being annihilated. The German plans were to occupy Calais, Boulogne and Dunkirk, cutting the retreating British forces off from rescue. On departure from Dover, Nicholson’s orders had been to keep the port of Calais open and to try and relieve Boulogne. By the time 30 Brigade reached Calais on the afternoon of 23rd May 1940 the town had been subjected to increasingly heavy German bombing raids. It soon became clear that the offensive mission which Nicholson had planned was unfeasible and he decided to hold the town as best he could, using the line of the 19th century ramparts and moats, which extended for some eight miles. By the following morning they were surrounded with the German 10th Panzer Division about to attack.
30 Brigade’s position as 24th May dawned was unclear. At Boulogne, some of 20 Guards Brigade were already in the process of evacuation, and at 0300 Nicholson was informed that, in principle, the same had been decided for 30 Brigade. The soundness of such a decision seemed to be underlined by the failure of the convoy to Dunkirk, which left between 0400 and 0500, but was forced to return by 1100. Nicholson had watched it leave and waited anxiously for its return. Nicholson’s driver, Sergeant Bill Close (who by the end of the war had risen to Major and had been awarded the MC), wrote in his memoirs (“A View from the Turret”, Dell & Bredon 1998) “By then I had driven the Brigadier back to his HQ and was sitting in the Dingo [a scout car] again… Throughout the next day, as the noise of fighting rose and fell and our troops retired to a shorter line, Brigadier Nicholson, still wearing his red hat band, used the Dingo as a taxi, or sent one of his officers in it to visit units. A solitary despatch rider, ready to take messages, accompanied us through the streets, now littered with debris.”
For the troops who had spent all night under shell-fire unloading the ships which had brought them, news that they would be re-embarking was frustrating. As early as 0730, officers were ordering that some equipment be destroyed. Unloading of essential stores and equipment from SS Canterbury was halted, and the ship sailed to England with wounded at 0830.
By 2000 the Germans were within a few hundred yards of the western ramparts and Nicholson, who realised that their positions could not be held for another day, ordered a staged withdrawal. Late on May 24th, he moved his own headquarters to the Gare Maritime, as Sergeant Bill Close recalled: “Brigadier Nicholson was now mainly operating from the Gare Maritime, which also made sense if we were going to pull out. For me, buoyed by these hopes, the 24th passed quickly.” There, shortly after midnight, Nicholson received a visit from Vice-Admiral Sir James Somerville. When Somerville returned to England that same night he reported that “Nicholson is tired but in no way windy. His two chief anxieties are mortar ammunition and the need for artillery.” In the early hours of 25th May he moved his HQ again, this time to the north-east bastion of the Citadel.
At 11 a.m. on 25th May the Germans sent the Mayor of Calais to ask Nicholson for 30 Brigade’s surrender. Signals Lieutenant Austin Evitts was a witness at their meeting: “A surprise visitor was brought to the citadel. He was a civilian and blind-folded. The visitor, I was told, was the Mayor of Calais, and he had come with a message from the German commander. It was in the courtyard of the quadrangle where the Brigadier received him, and the message was an ultimatum. If he had not surrendered within twenty-four hours, the Germans had said Calais would be bombed and shelled and razed to the ground, and the Mayor was making a special plea, he said, to save the town from further destruction and loss of life. “Surrender?” said the Brigadier in a decidedly brusque manner. “No, I shall not surrender. Tell the Germans that if they want Calais they will have to fight for it.”
When news of Nicholson’s refusal to surrender reached the Germans a storm of shell-fire, machine gun and mortar fire was unleashed, during which Nicholson received the following message from Anthony Eden, the Secretary of State for War: “To: Brigadier Nicholson, Commander Calais from: Secretary of State for War. Defence of Calais is of vital importance to our country and BEF and as showing our continued co-operation with France. The eyes of the whole Empire are upon the defence of Calais, and His Majesty’s government is confident that you and your gallant regiments will perform an exploit worthy of the British name.” This was Nicholson’s first indication that 30 Brigade might not be evacuated.
Later that afternoon, the Germans sent another request for surrender and this time Nicholson wrote down his reply: “The answer is no, as it is the British Army’s duty to fight as well as it is the Germans’.” The German barrage resumed.
Nicholson had spent the whole day visiting his troops in the front line. At 2100 Churchill had dictated the following additional signal to Nicholson: “Every hour you continue to exist is of the greatest help to the BEF. Government has therefore decided that you must continue to fight. Have greatest possible admiration for your splendid stand. Evacuation will not (repeat not) take place, and craft required for above purpose are to return to Dover.”
The German attack continued throughout the 26th May, beginning with a heavy bombardment at 0500 and at 0930 waves of dive-bombers attacked the Old Town and Citadel. Infantry assaults began at 0915 although the Germans were surprised by the continued ferocity of the British resistance. By mid-afternoon however 30 Brigade’s position had become untenable. By 1630 the Germans had broken through and Nicholson and his headquarters troops had been taken prisoner.
The determination with which 30 Brigade held the town for four days won time for the BEF to be evacuated from Dunkirk and the neighbouring beaches. On June 4th 1940 Churchill made the following statement in Parliament: “The Rifle Brigade, the 60th Rifles and the Queen Victoria’s Rifles, with a battalion of British tanks and one thousand Frenchmen – in all about four thousand strong – defended Calais to the last. The British Brigadier was given an hour to surrender. He spurned the offer, and four days of intense street fighting passed before silence reigned over Calais, which marked the end of a memorable resistance. Only thirty unwounded survivors were brought off by the Royal Navy, and we do not know the fate of their comrades. Their sacrifice was not however in vain. At least two armoured divisions, which otherwise would have been turned against the British Expeditionary Force, had to be sent to overcome them. They have added another page to the glories of the Light Division and the time gained enabled the Gravelines Walnlieu to be flooded and to be held by French troops; and thus it was that the port of Dunkirk was kept open”. The House of Commons could not fail to be aware of who Churchill meant by the “British Brigadier”. Nicholson’s brother Godfrey was an MP. His wife Ursula was in the Strangers’ Gallery to hear the speech. She sat next to Mrs. Neville Chamberlain, who took her hand in hers as she listened… (Airey Neave, “The Flames of Calais”).
In the Daily Mail of June 28th 1940, his identity and his survival were announced. In the article, Sir Hubert Gough described him as follows:
“Perhaps the most brilliant British officer of his standing… Nicholson is the most able and clear-headed soldier of his age that I know. He is now a prisoner of war. His wife has had a letter from him since his capture. He was always a 16th Lancer. After going through Staff College he became one of the senior instructors there and was later given special promotion to command the regiment. He took the regiment to India and commanded them for about two years. Just before the war broke out he was appointed Commandant of the Imperial Defence College. Six months after the outbreak of war he was given command of this light brigade, which did so magnificently at Calais. Nicholson has that greatest of all qualities, courage, in great degree. He is absolutely resolute, both in the face of the enemy and in all his dealings. He is not in the least afraid to say what he thinks. None the less, he is receptive of modern ideas.”
He was the first prisoner of war at Oflag VII C/H, an old castle at Laufen, near Salzburg. By the middle of June 1940 it contained 601 British officers and 82 orderlies, Nicholson being the Senior British Officer (SBO), in command of the camp; most of the other inmates were Lieutenants.
Conditions at that early stage were considered to be satisfactory, though the smallest dormitory, in which twelve chaplains were sleeping, was only twenty feet by fifteen feet. Each man had two blankets and a pillow, but no sheets. There was no hot water for washing, although a hot shower was provided for each man every fortnight. For every fifty inmates, there was one toilet seat. There were two fields outside the castle for recreational purposes. The inspectors reported that food was “provided with the purpose of sustaining life but with all luxuries eliminated and with certain necessities sharply reduced in quantity. Considering the fact that the prisoners have little opportunity for exercise, the menu as a whole seemed little better than what could be called starvation rations”. Nicholson told the inspectors that the German guards behaved in a courteous fashion, and that the camp was well-run by the German commandant, Lieutenant-Colonel Frei, whom the inspectors called ‘cultivated and conscientious’.
When, however, inspectors returned in September 1940, things had changed. The number of prisoners had doubled, and although food remained adequate, there were some signs of malnutrition and the prisoners now only had one blanket each. The Germans were becoming less friendly, largely because of repeated escape attempts.
By 1943 Nicholson had been transferred to the prison camp at Rotenburg, in Hesse, with some 400 British officers.
In April of that year the Germans announced that they had found at Katyn in Poland mass graves of some 10,000 Polish officers who had been murdered by the Russians on Stalin’s orders. Although the victims had actually been murdered by the Russians, in a propaganda move the Allies decided to promote the belief that they had been murdered by the Germans. When the Germans, therefore, asked prisoners of war to act as independent witnesses to their investigations at Katyn, the Allied officers were placed in a difficult position. Nicholson, as Senior British Officer and the American Senior Officer, Colonel Van Vliet both protested at any allied officers being sent to Katyn and if any officers were sent, they would be there under force and were not to be considered as representatives of their countries. They also strongly objected to Allied officers being used for German propaganda purposes. Their protests did no good and Colonel Van Vliet and another American officer, Captain Donald Stewart of the Field Artillery, were taken under guard to Kassel where they were supposed to meet another British officer, Major General Victor Fortune (D 1897-1901) (see individual entry) who in the end was too ill to travel.
Nicholson’s resistence to allied involvement in the Katyn incident was his last serious confrontation with the Germans. He died, a prisoner of war at Rotenburg Castle on 26th June 1943 aged 44 and was buried in Feld 7, grave 71 of the Rotenburg (Fulda) Civil Cemetery, Germany.
On 20th September 1945 he was awarded the Companion of the Bath for his services at Calais, backdated to 25th June, the day before his death. A memorial service was held at Woodcott Church on 18th July at which, amongst many others present was Prebendary Spencer Leeson, Headmaster of Winchester. A further service was held at St Paul’s Cathedral, London to commemorate, not just Nicholson, but all who defended Calais, both those who died and those who survived.
His aunt, Mary Ridley, lived at Maperton House in Somerset, and had he lived he would undoubtedly have succeeded to the Estate. A memorial plaque was erected in the church by his aunt before the award of his CB had been gazetted, which therefore makes no mention of it.
The Nicholson Lecture is delivered annually at Maperton in his memory by a serving or retired member of the Armed Forces http://www.maperton.com/about-us/the-nicholson-lecture/
- Surname: Nicholson
- Forenames or initials: Claude
- House: G
- Years in School: 1912-1915
- Rank: Brigadier
- Regiment: 16th/5th Lancers
- Date of Birth: 2nd July 1898
- Date of Death: 26th June 1943
- How Died: Died as a Prisoner of War
- Location in War Cloister: Inner D1
- Decoration: CB
- Burial Site: Rotenburg (Fulda) Civil Cemetery, Germany: Feld 7, Grave 71