THE undercover agents of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) in the Second World War earned a reputation for daring and heroism that few other organisations could match.
Yet even amongst numerous tales of courage and endurance with which the annals of the SOE abound, that of Brigadier Arthur Frederick Crane Nicholls is outstanding.
Arthur Nicholls, a lawyer who had been educated at Marlborough, Cambridge, and the Sorbonne, spent his time between his house in London and his country residence of Inchgarth in Little Common. He was a member of the Territorial Army before the outbreak of war and in 1939 he was mobilized and became an Intelligence Officer to Headquarters of the British First Division in France.
Nicholls joined the SOE in March 1942 as a Staff Officer and was sent into Albania in October 1943 to help support local resistance movements opposing the German Occupation of that country. In December 1943, his headquarters was attacked by German forces and he was compelled to take to the mountains. He was pursued by the Germans and local militia, becoming a fugitive in the open mountains in freezing weather. There was another SOE mission in Albania and Nicholls was determined to reach it to report on what had happened.
Nicholls struggled across a vast expanse of mountainous territory moving only at night to avoid detection. His condition deteriorated as frostbite took hold of his legs. Eventually, unable to walk, he was laid upon his greatcoat and dragged over the mountains by two members of his party.
Nevertheless, Nicholls refused to give in. Finally he reached his destination where he gave his report to a Major Seymour: “He was more than half-starved, verminous, exhausted, and gangrene had obtained a firm grip on his feet,” recalled Seymour. “He had also had an accident having fallen down a mountain side and his shoulder was dislocated. His feet were in an almost unbelievable condition. Both were festering masses and the only indication of where his toes were was where bare bones showed through the gangrened flesh.”
Nicholls’ feet were so bad that he asked an inexperienced man to cut them off. He died a few days later from septicaemia.
Brigadier Nicholls, 33, was recommended for the Victoria Cross. Though this was denied him he was awarded the George Cross, the UK’s the highest award for civilians and military personnel for actions which are not in the face of the enemy.