By Jon Guttman
Born to a Jewish family in Montreal on April 2, 1917, William Henry Nelson took an interest in airplanes when he was six. At age 16 he won the junior championship of the Montreal Model Aircraft League. He attended King Edward VII Public School, Baron Byng High School in Montreal and, after his family moved to the suburb of Westmount, Academy High School in Outremont. In 1936, however, Nelson crossed the Atlantic aboard a cattle boat and tried to enlist in the Royal Air Force. He was initially rejected due to poor eyesight, but he persisted and on May 9, 1937 he managed to enlist as an “Acting Pilot Officer on Probation.”
After completing his training Nelson was assigned to No. 10 Squadron, a bomber unit equipped with Armstrong Whitworth Whitleys. During that time his “colonial” accent earned him the nickname “Yank.” By the time war broke out in September 1939 he had attained the rank of flying officer.
Nelson’s was one of eight Whitleys involved in No. 10 Squadron’s first mission, attacking the German seaplane base at Hornum on the island of Sylt on the night of March 19–20, 1940. In spite of some heavy anti-aircraft artillery fire all aircraft returned unscathed, but most of their bombs fell short of the target, straddling the railway line leading to Hornum.
On April 20, with the German invasion of Norway underway, No. 10 Squadron raided Oslo, but impenetrable weather compelled the Whitleys to attack the secondary target, the airfield at Stavanger, resulting in hits on the runways. Afterward the commander of RAF Station Dishforth recommended Nelson for the Distinguished Flying Cross on April 25. On the 30th his appraisal was reprised by the commander of No. 4 Group, Air Commodore Arthur Coningham: “This Canadian officer has carried out many flights over enemy territory, during which he has always shown the greatest determination in his reports and results generally have been successful above the average.” In consequence, on May 31 Nelson became the first Jewish Canadian to be gazetted for the DFC, with the following citation:
“This officer carried out many flights over enemy territory, during which he has always shown the greatest determination and courage. On the 20th April 1940, after an attack on Stavanger, a balloon barrage was encountered west of the target, a report of which was transmitted to the base in sufficient time to enable following aircraft be warned.”
Nelson subsequently went before King George VI, who personally congratulated him for his performance. At that point, however, Nelson’s ambitions turned elsewhere, as he requested a transfer to Fighter Command. With France surrendering to the Germans and Britain clearly their next target, the RAF needed all the fighter pilots it could muster and, on June 24, the man it once rejected for faulty eyesight reported to No. 6 Operational Training Unit at Sutton Bridge, to transition from bombers to the RAF’s hottest operational fighter, the Supermarine Spitfire Mark I. He completed the course on July 20 and on the 27th was assigned to No. 74 Squadron at Manston.
Known officially as “Trinidad Squadron” but more popularly as “Tiger Squadron,” No. 74 Sqn had a tradition harkening back to the Great War and formidable members such as Edward “Mick” Mannock, Ira “Taffy” Jones and Keith “Grid” Caldwell. If “Yank” Nelson had an entirely new game to learn — and fast — he was fortunate to do so under the seasoned tutelage of South African Squadron Leader Adolph Gisbert Malan. Then credited with five confirmed victories and shares in three more — to which he added a Messerschmitt Me 109E on July 28 — “Sailor” Malan was also a first-rate leader and trainer of men.
Nelson seems to have been a quick study, for just three weeks after joining No. 74 he opened his account on August 11. That morning the Luftwaffe launched a high-speed morning raid on Portland Harbour using Jagdbomber (fighter bomber) variants of the Messerschmitt Me 110 from Erprobungsgruppe 210, while other units conducted a feint operation over Dover. This was followed up at 1000 hours by the largest bombing raid yet seen over England, by 150 aircraft spread out over five miles, consisting of Junkers Ju 88As of I and II Gruppen, Kampfgeschwader 54 and Heinkel He 111s of KG 27, escorted by Me 110s of I and II Gruppen, Zerstörergeschwader 2, and provided top cover by Me 109Es of Jagdgeschwader 2 and 27. The Zerstörer, some 60 strong, had hoped to divert British attention from the bombers, and they succeeded, drawing an attack by No. 609 Squadron’s Spitfires and Hurricanes of Nos. 238 and 601 Squadrons. Forming circles for mutual defence, the Me 110 crews claimed 17 victories, but six crews failed to return and five other planes were damaged. The British in fact suffered the loss of 15 planes shot down and 14 pilots killed, as well as nine damaged.
The Me 109s were conspicuously absent from the main action, and JG 2, at least, was busily engaged with No. 74 Squadron, which claimed eight Me 109s, including two by Malan, for the loss of Spitfire P6969, from which Pilot Officer Peter C.F. Stevenson bailed out and was rescued by a motor torpedo boat. Nelson described his own first success in his combat report:
“I was yellow 3 in No. 74 Squadron, on patrol at about 24,000 feet and sighted 8 ME.109’s to port. My leader suddenly dived on one ME.109, so I circled looking for any E/A [enemy aircraft] coming down on our section. While climbing and turning I saw 6 ME.109’s at 28,000 feet who obviously did not see me, they were circling widely so I climbed onto the last E/A. I was sighted and they started turning steeply, I easily out-turned them. They all broke up and the last E/A flick-rolled away from me. I closed rapidly and at the short range of 150 yards I opened fire with a 3 seconds burst dead astern, and he burst into flames. I immediately turned away and saw the remainder E/A speeding for home, well away. Not seeing any further E/A I pancaked Manston.”
JG 2 claimed an exaggerated 22 victories that day, while losing seven fighters and five pilots killed or missing, including Oberleutnant Heinz-Ewart Fricke, adjutant of III Gruppe, and Hauptmann Edgar Rempel, commander of the 6th Staffel (6./JG 2). An eighth plane made it across the Channel to crash land near Cherbourg. The 7th Staffel of JG 26 also had a brush with No. 74 Squadron at 1130 hours, in which Leutnant Josef Bürschgens’s Me 109E-1 was hit in the engine over Manston. Although he too made it across to belly land at Calais-Caffiers, his plane broke its back and was written off.
Large though they were, the first two waves of German attacks were mere feints to distract attention from the main strike of the day, an attack on a convoy code-named “Booty” off the Essex coast by Me 110C-6 and Me 110D-0 “Jabos” of ErprGr 210, with I./ZG 26 providing top cover. Attacking from cloud cover off the Thames Estuary, ErprGr 210 claimed an 8,000-ton vessel sunk before six Hurricanes of No. 17 Squadron turned up, soon joined by 11 Spitfires of No. 74. Hit from two sides, 1./ErprGr 210 lost two planes and crews before their escorts could intervene. When it did descend on the British fighters, 1./ZG 26 claimed nine of them — two credited to Leutnant Martin Meisel — but lost two Me 110Cs and their crews, while two damaged Zerstörer of 2./ZG 26 barely made it back, one crash landing at St. Omer.
Of 11 Me 110s destroyed and five damaged claimed by No. 74, Nelson was credited with one destroyed east of Harwich and another damaged, but at the cost of Pilot Officers Denis N.E. Smith and Donald G. Cobden, whose bodies later washed ashore in Belgium, to be buried at Ostende by the Germans. Claiming some shared victories, No. 17 Squadron lost Pilot Officer Kenneth Manger, DFC (five victories), whose body was never found.
August 13 was Adler Tag, slated for a supreme effort in which the Luftwaffe would wrest control of the air over Britain, but it did not go as planned. Malan and No. 74 Squadron’s contribution was to surprise a formation of Dornier Do 17Zs coming in over the Thames Estuary, resulting in 11 claims, though several were later downgraded to “probables,” including one of the two by Malan and the single Do 17 claimed by Nelson.
Though now a full-fledged “Tiger,” Nelson would add no more to No. 74’s tally until October, during the Battle of Britain’s fourth and final phase. Having failed to dominate the Channel, eliminate the RAF or cow the British people into submission with the bombing of London, the Luftwaffe made increasing use of Me 110s and Me 109s to make high-speed bombing raids on selected targets. During that time No. 74 had replaced its Spitfire Mark Is, powered by 1,030-hp Rolls-Royce Merlin III engines, for Mark IIs using the 1,175-hp Merlin XII in September and, after a rest period, moved from Coltishall to Biggin Hill on October 15, to deal with the Jabo threat.
Its first opportunity came on October 17, as Me 109s of III./JG 53 headed up the Thames Estuary toward London. At 1510 hours Malan led 11 Spitfires up to intercept, making contact at 1530. Nelson reported of the action:
We climbed rapidly, and at 26,000 feet saw some bursts from our antiaircraft [guns] below, and turned towards them. Two Me 109s suddenly appeared across our bows. The squadron leader, ‘Sailor’ Malan DFC, immediately got on the tail of the leading 109, and I closed with the outside one.
They took no evasive action as we came out of the sun, and I fired a burst with slight deflection at 150 yards, down to point blank range. He immediately started a half-roll turn down, white smoke streaming out, obviously glycol.
I followed him easily at first, firing short bursts, then more eruptions came from his engine, almost blinding me. Diving down to 2,000 feet he entered some low cloud vertically. Having got up tremendous speed I had to pull up in order to avoid hitting the ground. I found him difficult to hold in the latter part of the dive, as he went well past vertical, and I had my actuating gear wound fully forward. He was seen to crash near Gravesend. The enemy aircraft was coloured dark on top, with a tremendous yellow spinner, and was sky blue beneath.
Besides Nelson, Malan and Flight Lieutenant Peter C.B. St. John were credited with Me 109s, but Flying Officer Alan L. Nicalton was killed, shot down over Tunbridge by Feldwebel Eduard Kosolowski of 8./JG 53; his Spitfire crashed at Hollingbourne at 1540. German casualties were Oberleutnant Ernst-Günther Heinze, commander of 8./JG 53, whose Me 109E-7 crashed in the Channel, but who was rescued, and Oblt. Robert Magath of 7./JG 53, who returned to Le Touquet with 10 holes in his plane. In another action that day Pilot Officer Brian V. Draper forced Me 109E-4/B W Nr 1106 “Yellow 1” to crash land at Manston, Leutnant Walter Rupp of 3./JG 3 being taken prisoner.
On October 27, No. 74 Squadron again clashed with JG 53. Nelson reported:
“I was No.2 to S/L [Squadron Leader] Malan detailed to patrol Biggin Hill at 7.50 hours. We intercepted 30 Me.109s over Ashford. Two of them came across my bows, heading into the sun. I followed and closed to 150 yards on the port side of the enemy and opened fire with a three-second burst which caused to the 109 to smoke badly and half-roll down. I followed easily and the enemy, after a sharp dive, pulled steeply into the sun. I could only follow him with the smoke trail. After two minutes I closed once more in the climb and gave a continuous burst of ten seconds at point-blank range. The 109 shed bits of machine which hit my aircraft and damaged the spinner and propeller. The enemy then wallowed in a shallow dive, and I formated on it down through the clouds. I saw the whole central portion of fuselage was shot away and no pilot to be seen. He did not jump, so I assume he was slumped in his cockpit. The machine crashed a couple of miles to the south of Rochford Aerodrome.”
The Jabo unit, II./JG 53, had taken off at 0918 and lost Uffz. Hermann Schlitt of 4./JG 53 whose Me 109E-4 went missing near Tunbridge Wells around 0950. The unit providing top cover was III./JG 27 and its commander, Hauptmann Max Dobislav, claimed a Spitfire south of Maidstone at 0800 for his 18th victory, while Oblt. Erbo Graf von Kaganeck of 9./JG 27 claimed a Spitfire over Ashford at 0948. Sergeant John Alan Scott of No. 74 Squadron was shot down over Maidstone and his Spitfire crashed and exploded at Dundas Farm, Elmstead, at 0900.
On October 29 Flight Lieutenant John Colin Mungo-Park was leading No. 74 Squadron on patrol when he got a call from Sector Operations Control to join No. 92 Squadron at 25,000 feet over Biggin Hill. Climbing to 30,000 feet, he spotted a ragged Me 109 formation at about 27,000 feet and called out “Tally-ho” to his men. In the ensuing scramble Mungo-Park got two, Pilot Officer Robert L. Spurdle and Sergeant Neil Morrison each claimed a Messerschmitt that could not be confirmed, and Pilot Officer Edward W.G. Churches attacked an He 111 that he last saw in a shallow descent south of Dungeness, also counted as a “probable.” Meanwhile, Nelson got on an Me 109’s tail at 25,000 feet and as it dove followed it down, giving it a three-second burst at 150 yards followed by a second at 50 yards before it crashed in a field near East Grinstead Hospital. On the debit side, Sergeant Harold J. Soars was shot-up for the third consecutive day, though he force-landed at Biggin Hill and his Spitfire was eventually repaired.
October 30, 1940 marked the official end of the Battle of Britain, but that did not mean the fighting was over. On November 1, No. 74 clashed with JG 26, en route home from covering a midday Jabo raid on London. The ensuing dogfight did not go well for the Tigers this time, for JG 26’s commander, Major Adolf Galland, destroyed a Spitfire west of Ashford for his 51st victory, Leutnant Hans Heinemann of 1./JG 26 downed another over Ashford — his only success before being himself shot down and killed on December 5 — and Hauptmann Walter Adolf, CO of II./JG 26, claimed one over Maidstone for his 14th.
Adolf’s victim, Sergeant Frederick P. Burnard, brought his Spit home badly damaged. Hit southeast of Ashford, Sergeant Soars bailed out off Dover; fished out of the Channel, he was rushed to Victoria Hospital at Folkestone. Bob Spurdle noted afterward: “Soars got shot down again and this time wounded; he should be taken off fighters.”
The third Spitfire, Nelson’s P7312, is also believed to have gone into the Channel off Dover. His body was never recovered, but the contribution and sacrifice of Bill Nelson — bombing DFC, Tiger Squadron ace, Canadian — to the Battle of Britain and ultimate Allied victory, is commemorated on Panel 4 of the Runnymede Memorial in Surrey.