Flight of the Navigator … Dangerous Plots at 20,000 feet

Iain Nicolson (1923 - 2009)

Iain Nicolson
(1923 –  2009)

This is Flight Lieutenant Ian Nicolson who served as a navigator in RAF Bomber Command from 1943-45. He is pictured here aged just 20 at his station in a Lancaster. He survived an amazing 96 sorties over occupied Europe including the 1943 raid on the V2 rocket sites at Peenemunde. He was awarded the DFM and DFC for gallantry. He is included on this website because I have this picture on the front cover of my writing diary. He did a very dangerous, difficult and comfortless job and just had to get on with it without complaint as did all his fellow airmen.

Of the 125,000 airmen who passed through Bomber Command during the war,  about 55,000 were killed. Flying on operations that could last 7-10 hours they were constantly at the mercy of the weather, flak, enemy searchlights, mechanical failure, night-fighters, plus stress and exhaustion. They were always faced with the certainty of an unpleasant death.Being alive at the end of an ‘op’ was almost purely down to luck.


One navigator later wrote as he flew,  crouching in his navigator’s station, into a blizzard of flak above Bremen …
I looked at the commonplace things on my desk – pencils, a scribbling block, a pear ripened in the Staffordshire sun – and suddenly I thought of them as wonderfully sane, inanimate though they were.


These men flew in constant danger night after night and the odds were always against them. We praised them at the time. We criticised them when it was all over. They asked for nothing and gave everything. Here’s to you.

Lie in the dark and listen,
It’s clear tonight so they’re flying high
Hundreds of them, thousands perhaps,
Riding the icy, moonlight sky.
Men, materials, bombs and maps
Altimeters and guns and charts
Coffee, sandwiches, fleece-lined boots
Bones and muscles and minds and hearts
English saplings with English roots
Deep in the earth they’ve left below
Lie in the dark and let them go
Lie in the dark and listen.
Lie in the dark and listen





3 responses to “Flight of the Navigator … Dangerous Plots at 20,000 feet

  1. John Nicolson

    Iain Nicolson was my Dad, thank you for writing this. In life for me he was a truly inspirational man, unbelievably good. As his son I am so proud of him but I am also aware that that I am not half the man he was. John Nicolson

    • Hello John.Thank you so much for getting in touch.I have some idea of how you must feel. My Dad was in the Royal Navy himself during the war. He was present at the Normandy Landings, helping to launch landing craft.He used to joke about the fact that even though he was in the navy he and most of his pals couldn’t swim but it didn’t matter because the blokes in the RAF couldn’t fly either! All the very best.It was so good to hear from you.

  2. Pingback: An unexpected visitor … | Routine Matters

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