The flying Nicholas brothers of Ruatonga

Saturday 14 November 2020 | Written by Supplied | Published in Features, Memory Lane


The flying Nicholas brothers of Ruatonga
Sergeant Tai Nicholas (front right) with other members of his Lancaster Bomber crew (from the private collection of Clive Woodward Estcourt (back row on right). (Colourised picture source - ww2colourisedphotos) / 20111307

Tuaine Kaitara Nicholas of Ruatonga and his wife Ngatuaine had four boys and three girls. Three of the boys enlisted in the Air Force in WWII and a fourth was directed by his brothers to the Army. In the first of two articles, Rod Dixon tells the story of two of the courageous Nicholas brothers, Tatio and Marama.

From 1944 to 1945 ‘Tai’ Nicholas of Ruatonga, took part in 26 RAF Bomber Command operations over France and Germany, including the controversial bombing of the city of Dresden. With one in every two crewmen killed, Bomber Command was the most dangerous branch of the armed service in World War II.

Teinakore Tatio Tuaine ‘Tai’ Nicholas, born in Rarotonga on May 20, 1920 was the first of the four Nicholas brothers to volunteer for war service, joining the RNZAF at Ohakea, New Zealand on May 30, 1942. He was 22 years old and stood 178 cms tall. Prior to enlisting, Tai had studied for three years at Napier Boys School, before working at a freezing works and with the Public Works Department.

After basic air training at Rotorua, Tai travelled to Canada for basic training as a wireless operator/air gunner. From January 23, 1943, he studied at Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF), No. 3 Wireless School, Winnipeg, Manitoba, graduating as a wireless operator in August, 1943. This was followed by air gunner training at RCAF, No. 8 Bombing and Gunnery School, Lethbridge, Alberta.

With his Wireless Operator and Air Gunners Badges, and the newly minted rank of Sergeant, Tai sailed by sea convoy to England in October, 1943. On arrival, he was sent to No. 2 (Observers) Advanced Flight Unit for further navigation training. This was followed by night bomber training on Wellington Bombers at No. 11 Operational Training Unit (from January to May, 1944).

Tatio Nicholas in an RNZAF enlistment identity photograph. Tucked into the fold of his forage cap is a white ‘flash’ indicating an airman under training. 20111308

Six days after D-Day (the Allied invasion of Europe), he was deployed to Bomber Command, Base Station 31 and two months later to 75 (NZ) Squadron, RAF Bomber Command at RAF Mepal, Cambridgeshire, England.

Tai completed two tours of duty with Bomber Command - from July 27, 1944 to September 15, 1944, and from February 10, 1945 to April 16, 1945. In between he flew for five months with the elite 7 Squadron Path Finder Force.

The plane Tai flew in most frequently was the Lancaster bomber, the backbone of RAF Bomber Command. It was used for strategic night operations and daytime precision bombing. Powered by 4 wing-mounted Rolls Royce Merlin piston engines, it could fly higher and faster than any other RAF bomber, while its wide bomb bays could carry the 400 pound ‘Blockbuster’ bomb.

A standard Lancaster crew comprised seven men (average age 22). The bomb aimer was located in the plexiglass nose of the aircraft, the pilot and flight engineer in the cockpit, behind them the navigator and beside him the wireless operator. Further down the fuselage, the mid upper gunner was located in the dorsal turret which allowed him to protect the plane from attack from above and to the sides, while the rear of the aircraft was protected by the rear gunner in the plane’s tail.

Bombing operations could last up to 12 hours, “mostly at night, in unpressurised and ear-splittingly loud aircraft, working in cramped spaces and freezing conditions, at times coming under attack from ground fire and enemy fighters. Many aircraft were shot down, casualties were severe, and the stress and trauma that came from the recurring battles in the night skies of Germany took its toll.” (Lachlan Grant, SMH, 2 June 2017).

As wireless operator, Tai was responsible for transmitting and receiving messages from the aircraft’s operational base in England. “If the aircraft got into difficulties, he had to send out positional signals. If the aircraft had to ditch into the sea, he had to remain at his post to send out a distress signal to improve the crew's chance of being located and rescued.” (Imperial War Museum).

During two tours of duty with 75 Squadron, Tai took part in 26 bombing operations over occupied France and Germany. A tour normally comprised 30 operational flights. Two tours was considered enough for any crewman.

All these raids occurred after D-Day, when German forces were in retreat across France and into Germany. Among the significant operations Tai flew was against a German V-1 flying bomb storage depot at Pont Remy. The V-1 and V-2 rockets were used in long range attacks on London. Another was the aerial attack on German units holding out against Allied forces at Le Havre, September 1944. Bombing raids helped British forces take the town and 11,000 German prisoners with only light casualties.  

From September 1944 to February 1945, Tai was assigned to the elite 7 Squadron Path Finder Force (motto “We light the way”). The Path Finders’ job was to find and mark targets with flares for the main follow-up force of Bomber Command bombers. In February he was awarded the Path Finder Force badge – ‘the Eagle’.

In February, he returned to 75 Squadron, flying in the long, and dangerous and controversial operation against the German city of Dresden. Here some 800 Lancaster bombers dropped 650,000 incendiaries and more than 2000 tons of explosives onto the city, creating thousands of small fires that merged into a powerful firestorm, sucking oxygen, fuel, buildings and people into its flames. The fires could be seen by aircrew from 500 miles away as they returned to base. The death toll from fire and suffocation is unknown, but at least 25,000 people died in the raid.

Most of the remaining operations on his second tour were designed to support the advance of the Allied armies approaching the Rhine.

Tai’s last flight was in mid-March, 1945, two months before Germany’s unconditional surrender on May 8, 1945.

When Tai first arrived at RAF Merpal, he would have been issued with a bicycle to visit the cinema, pubs and cafes into the nearby cathedral city of Ely.  Martyn Chorlton, author of The RAF Pathfinders writes that a typical day for a Bomber Command crew member “could be filled with the joy of riding a bicycle along a beautiful country lane and then, only hours later, the sheer terror of lethal flak bursting all around, or the stomach churning, adrenalin inducing effects of being hunted down by an enemy night-fighter. The latter happened to some aircrew almost every night while others seeming to glide through their tours without seeing an enemy aircraft. …. it was all about luck and being in the right place at the right time.”

Between 1942 and 1945, Lancaster bombers carried out 156,000 missions, dropping more than 600,000 tons of bombs. During this period, 3249 Lancasters were lost in action, and 487 were destroyed or damaged on the ground. 55,573 member of Bomber Command aircrews lost their lives including 1850 New Zealanders and one third of all Australian crew members. It was the highest loss rate of any branch of the British armed services during the war. “It was luck” that Tai survived at all.

On April 16, 1945 he was assigned to No.17 Operational Training Unit at Silverstone, Northamptonshire, having been commissioned as a Pilot Officer on March 14, 1945.

After the German surrender, Tai relocated to RAF Wiglsey in Nottinghamshire, then to No. 11 (RAAF) Personnel Despatch and Reception Centre in October prior to final repatriation on March 6, 1946.

Speaking of the Bomber Command’ air crews, their Commander, Sir Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris, spoke of the very special kind of courage they were called on to display every day - “There is no parallel in warfare to such courage and determination in the face of danger over so prolonged a period; of danger which at times was so great that scarcely one man in three could expect to survive his tour of thirty operations ... It was the courage of men with long-drawn apprehensions of daily ‘going over the top’. Such devotion must never be forgotten.”

Returning to Rarotonga, Tai Nicholas became a labourer at the Public Works Department, later a works supervisor. On January 3, 1953 he married Cecelia Tita Enoka.

Their first child, a daughter Ngatuaine, was born soon after. She was named for Tatio’s mother who had died while he was still away at war. Thereafter, the family lived quietly in the old Nicholas family homestead in Ruatonga.  It was a quiet life, hard won in the face of terror and in the service of others.