Nicholson, Claude.

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Nicholson, Claude, born 02-07-1898, in Chelsea, London, as the son of Richard Nicholson, a Hampshire distiller and Helene Portal. He married Ursula Hanbury-Tracey and had one son and one daughter. He joined the Army Service as a 2nd lieutenant 19-07-1916, with the 16th Lancers Royal Armoured Corps  . He was on the Belgium and France front until the end and became a lieutenant on 19-01-1918. He remained in the English Army and with the outbreak of WWII he was a lieutenant colonel and Commanding Officer, of 16th and 5th Lancers.  As Commander of the 30th Infantry Brigade he was the highest and last commander in Dunkirk, from 22-04-1940 until 26-05-1940, he took charge of the port and all British units there.  German Panzers had pinned their French and English opponents against the English Channel, their choices reduced to either surrender or slaughter. They were out-gunned, out-manned, and out-planned. It was over. At 4 PM, Brigadier Claude Nicholson surrenders at the Citadel. British losses are 300 killed, 200 wounded evacuated by boat and 3.500 taken prisoner. Thousands of French and Belgian troops are captured. German losses are 750-800 killed or wounded. The bravery and tenacity of Nicholson and his men at the citadel in Calais should not be understated, but to credit their holdout with permitting the evacuation is to push reality. They certainly did their part, but the evacuation should mostly be credited to Adolf Hitler (did you know), who, two days before, ordered his Panzers to halt.

In 1949, Winston Churchill  wrote that the defence of Calais led by Nicholson delayed the German attack on Dunkirk, helping to save the  British Expeditionary Force, BEF, a claim that German general Heinz Guderian    contradicted in 1951. In 1966, Lionel Ellis, the British official historian, wrote that three panzer divisions had been diverted by the defence of Boulogne and Calais, giving the Allies time to rush troops to close a gap west of Dunkirk. In 2006, Karl-Heinz Frieser wrote that the halt order issued to the German unit commanders because of the Anglo-French attack at the Battle of Arras (21 May) had a greater effect than the siege. Hitler and the higher German commanders panicked because of their fears of flank attacks, when the real danger was of the Allies retreating to the coast before they could be cut off. Reinforcements sent from Britain to Boulogne and Calais arrived in time to forestall the Germans and hold them off when they advanced again on 22 May.

Death and burial ground of Nicholson, Claude.

list1a_210_Private_Claude_Anthony_NICHOLSON_1qaa1   Nicholson was in prison from 26-05-1940 to 26-06-1940 as he died in prison, age 44. His death was not cleared but it’s supposed that Brigadier Claude Nicholson, died in a fall from a window that may have been suicide. His comrades remember that night came and they were allowed to go to bed. We were exhausted and slept, but when we awoke we realised something dreadful had happened. The men in the room, ‘Sam’ Parker, David Campbell, Peter Green minus one leg, Charlie Madden, Jake Bolton, Billy Winnington, two doctors and Robin Campbell, were sitting up in their bunks silent and in a state of shock. For Brigadier Nicholson had been found dead during the night. Death is always a shock: but in prison camp – where most of us had already survived death, or near death, in some form or other – it was closer than most of us cared to discuss. Claude Nicholson, a substantive brigadier, was then the second most senior officer of the British Army prisoners in captivity in Germany. He was already a national figure at home because of his stand at Calais. He was, until his death, albeit in capture, an officer with a future. But the war was unkind to him. Apart from being sacrificed with his force of Green Jackets at Calais in 1940, he had the problem of our camp’s involvement with the massacre at Katyn, after Germany’s invasion of Poland, in 1940 Josef Stalin

    ordered the liquidation of the Polish officer corps, slaughtering nearly 22.000 men in Katyn Forest,   and of the growing resentment within the camp that a traitor had been seemingly allowed to continue his deception and had not been sent to a soldiers’ camp.
Also Nicholson was not a strong man and was often taken ill. Nicholson died in captivity in the German city of Rotenburg an der Fulda where he was kept as a POW. According to his death certificate, he threw himself out of a window after suffering from depression, suffering a skull fracture. He was taken to the city hospital, where he died in the early morning hours of 26-06-1943 Nicholson is the only prisoner’s grave in the local civil cemetery at Rotenburg, Feld 7, grave 71. 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.
The pictures and biography were kindly sent to me by Jerome Rouillé.


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  1. On what basis do you write that he committed suicide? Nowhere else indicates this is how he died.

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