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Friday, 30 August 2013

The greatest Blue Bomber you've never heard of.


In the 1930s and early 1940s it would have been impossible to read the local sports pages and avoid the name Jeff Nicklin. He was a star player on championship lacrosse, hockey, basketball and rugby-football teams.

Born December 10, 1914 in Fort William, Ontario, his family moved to Winnipeg when he was 10-years-old. He attended Mulvey and Gordon Bell and graduated from Kelvin High School in 1930.
Nicklin came from good sporting stock. His father, Percy Nicklin, was a hockey player and coach whose career included stints in Winnipeg, Moncton and Great Britain.

Despite the many sports that he excelled in, Nicklin chose to pursue football as a career.

Image ca. 1939. From March 31, 1945, Winnipeg Free Press

In 1932, he became a member of  the Winnipeg Junior Rugby Football League's (Junior) Winnipegs and in 1933 joined the Deer Lodge Juniors. Deer Lodge won the 1933 Manitoba - Saskatchewan league and the 1934 Western Canadian championship.

Later that year, while still of junior league age, he jumped to the senior Winnipegs, (eventually known as the Winnipeg Blue Bombers), who were at the time the reigning Dominion champions.

This led to friction between the two teams as Deer Lodge accused the Winnipegs of poaching, while the senior team said that Nicklin was simply too good to be playing at the junior level.

September 15, 1934, Winnipeg Free Press

Nicklin's first big-league game came when he was 19-years-old on September 15, 1934 between the Winnipegs and the University of Minnesota All-Stars, (the first half was played under Canadian rules, the second under American).

Neither team excelled at the hybrid game and the Winnipegs lost 13 - 8. Osborne Stadium's near-capacity crowd, however, were treated to seeing Nicklin in the big-leagues and even scoop up a fumble in the dying minutes that set up the home team's only touchdown.


Free Press sports writer Cam  McKenzie wrote:

Young Jeff Nicklin, playing his first game in senior football, turned in a sound exhibition at right end. Jeff has a great pair of hands and can tackle with the best of them and should be a valuable man to the Winnipegs in their bid for another championship.
September 17, 1934, Winnipeg Free Press

Indeed, Nicklin proved a valuable man to the Winnipegs for the next seven seasons.

The Winnipegs won the Western Championship in 1935, 1937, 1938, 1939 and 1940 and the Grey Cup in 1935 and 1939. Nicklin was named to the Western All-Star team in 1937, 1938 and 1940.

A
Winnipeg Tribune writer referred to him as “One of the finest native-bred performers prairie football ever has produced,” (Winnipeg Tribune, August 13, 1940) 

When he wasn't playing pro football, Nicklin was coaching football at Isaac Brock School and had a day job with the provincial department of mines and natural resources. He was also dating a young woman named Eileen Hollingsworth.


The 1940 football season didn't play out as many had expected. Through the course of the year a number of players, including at least 6 starters, enlisted to fight in the war. Despite this, the Blue Bombers, (as they were now becoming known), won the Western Championship but there would be no east - west final match-up that year.

Nicklin enlisted with the Royal Winnipeg Rifles in the summer of 1940 and went to Shilo for training. There, his commanding officers saw in him what his coaches did on the football field: an intense, quick study who possessed great leadership skills. He was enrolled in officer training.

Nicklin was able to squeeze in some games during August and September but after that he had to go to Shilo for full-time training. The 25-year-old, seven-season Bomber veteran, took leave from the team.


On September 14, 1940, Nicklin wed his girlfriend Eileen at St. Alban's Church. The couple had a brief honeymoon in Kenora before moving into the Rothesay Apartments on Preston Avenue. For Nicklin,the stay was brief as he soon returned to Shilo and in 1941, was deployed overseas.

When word got out in May 1942 that Canada was going to create the 1st Parachute Battalion, Nicklin immediately volunteered. After some training in Britain it was off to Fort Benning, Georgia, then back to Shilo in September 1942 where he trained new paratroop recruits.

His time back in Manitoba allowed him to take in a little football.

The senior league had been suspended due to the war but the RCAF Bombers, which included some of his old teammates, played in a newly formed city league.

Nicklin proved to be good luck when he made the ceremonial opening kick-off at their September 25, 1942 game against the U of M Varsity. The Bombers beat them 20 - 1 for their first win of the season.


Major J.A. Nicklin ca. 1944 (source)

It was back overseas in 1943, this time as a major and second-in-command of the parachute battalion responsible for training.

In June 1944, Nicklin narrowly escaped death on his first operational jump into enemy territory when he went off course and landed in the midst of a German-held town. His parachute snagged on a roof and he was left hanging in plain view. While under fire Nicklin cut himself down and eventually stole out of town to rejoin his men.

In July 1944, he was severely wounded when he tripped a wire on a mine full of shrapnel that his own men were going to lay. He spent months recovering in a British hospital.

Bradbrooke (left) and Nicklin ca. 1942 (source)

The military brass were unhappy with the progress and discipline of the parachute battalion, laying much of the blame at the commanding officer's feet. Some felt that Lieutenant Colonel G. F. P. Bradbrooke was in over his head.

Nicklin had a reputation as a taskmaster and harsh disciplinarian and they felt that he could be the one to whip them into shape. On September 8, 1944, at the age of 29, Nicklin took command of the battalion and was made a Lieutenant-Colonel.


Nicklin was tough, some said to the point of being tyrannical. Despite this, he did get respect from his men for being willing to do himself whatever he asked of them. He visited them on the front lines and participated in dangerous nighttime reconnaissance.


On March 24, 1945, the 1st Paratroop Division were part of the air invasion of the Rhine River near Wesel, Germany known as Operation Varsity.

Nicklin was the first man out of the plane but his parachute got caught up in a tree and he never reached the ground. His body was found two days later with a number of gunshot wounds to the abdomen. He is buried with his parachute in
Groesbeek Canadian War Cemetery, Netherlands.

Nicklin, 30, left behind wife Eileen, who had moved back in with her parents at 538 Rathgar Street, and a one year-old son David Jeff, whom he never met. Eileen remarried and died in March 2013.


Tributes

For his wartime actions, Nicklin received a Mention in Despaches for his leadership during D-Day and was made an an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) months after his death.

Tributes also poured in from the football world.

Former Bomber manager Joe Ryan penned a tribute to him in the Winnipeg Free Press which he concluded: If Winnipeg football people are as I know they are, they will some day create an athletic memorial to the memory of one of Winnipeg’s finer athletics and one of God’s finer gentlemen.
A Tribune sports editorial stated: "...Jeff's worth was never measured in touchdowns or in the number of times he hit the newspaper headlines. His worth was measured in team play and unquenchable spirit."
Bomber coach Reg Threllfall said of Nicklin: ""He was the kind of boy you only run across now and then. You couldn't beat him down ... he always figured we would win even when we were ten points behind in the last quarter. Adding, "He was never out there for himself."

Threlfall even penned a poem to honour the man:


Winnipeg Tribune, March 31, 1945


Jeff Nicklin Memorial Trophy Vignette (source)

In September 1945, the 1st Canadian Parachute Division donated a trophy bearing Nicklin's name to be awarded to the most outstanding player in the Western senior rugby football league. When the CFL was formed in Winnipeg in 1956, it kept the award and the Jeff Nicklin Memorial Trophy is still presented each year.  

In 2004, Nicklin was inducted into the Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame.

Related:
Jeff Albert Micklin Canadian Virtual War Memorial
Jeff Nicklin: Hero of the Gridiron and the Battlefield The War Amps

For more on Nicklin the commander, see Boys of the Clouds: An Oral History of the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion by Boegel and  Bradbrooke, Nicklin and Eadie – A Tale of Command Colonel Bernd Horn.

The 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion Preservation Association

Some other Bombers who enlisted and became officers included Andy Bieber and Andy Currie, both returned home safe. Martin Platz was captured in 1941 and spent four years in a German prison camp. He tried out for the 1945 team though it does not appear that he made it. into the lineup.

The Great Fritz Hanson became the sports officer for Military District 10 (Manitoba) and was a player-coach for the Army football team.

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