On May 21st, 1940, the entire BEF, division upon division, was aligned along the west bank of the River Escaut in Belgium, where it successfully fought off a determined assault by the Germans. The 1st Guards Brigade was in the Pecq sector, No 4 Coy of the 3rd Bn being positioned forward on the river bank. No 3 Coy was held in reserve at a village a mile back. Shortly after morning stand-to, an artillery barrage was laid down over the riverside positions, causing heavy casualties, this being followed by a river assault crossing by a large enemy force. No.4 Company was all but wiped out. The remnants of Nos 1, 2 & 4 Coys retreated into the large cornfield behind the river where they were pinned down by withering machine-gun fire from 'Poplar Ridge', a slight rise where the Germans had established themselves and to which point reinforcements continued to pour across the river and there await the push inland.
The Grenadier Gun Carrier Section made an unsuccessful attempt to neutralise the guns, so No 3 Coy was brought up and mounted a counter-attack. During this suicidal action the Duke of Northumberland was killed, and many other Guardsmen. Lance-Corporal Nicholls however, supported by Guardsman Percy Nash, dashed forward, firing his Bren from the hip, and, although hit many times and seriously wounded, caused such panic amongst the enemy that they abandoned their bridgehead and fled back across the river. Convinced that Nicholls was dead after this 'signal act of valour', Nash left his friend for dead near the riverbank.
1st Gds Brig then withdrew to the Pecq Road (the cornfield and Poplar Ridge being between the road and river), and withdrew to the Ypres-Comines Canal. During the night, the Germans recced the west bank and found Nicholls gravely hurt but still alive. He was captured and taken back to the Regimental CP where another prisoner, Guardsman H H Smith, dressed his wounds and cared for the gallant boxer until they could both be transferred to hospital. Nicholls and Smith were in Stalag XXB for the entire war, and legend has it that Hitler, who had served as a corporal himself during WW1, offered to present Nicholls with his VC - this the battalion boxer apparently rejected out of hand, although I doubt that the story has any basis in fact.
In August 1940 Mrs Nicholls attended Buckingham Palace and received her husband's 'posthumous' VC. The following month news was received via the Red Cross that Nicholls and other Grenadiers captured on 21 May 1940, were actually alive and prisoners of war. So Mrs Nicholls gave the medal back for her husband to collect himself. This he did in 1945, making it the only time a VC has ever been awarded 'twice'. Harry Nicholls was born on 21 April 1918 in Nottingham. Sadly after the war Nicholls was beset by physical and pyschological problems arising from his serious wounds, and he died prematurely in Leeds, on 11 Sep 1975.Ê
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