Foreign correspondent. An appreciation

Born: January 9, 1937

Died: 11 December 11, 2016

“YOU can call us MI5½,” said one of the pilots as they flew legendary ITN foreign correspondent Michael Nicholson, who has died aged 79, and me on a clandestine mission into the heart of a South African military invasion base.

Mike, tough but generous-hearted, and I were on the verge of confirming the secret 1975 South African invasion of Angola which triggered a 27-year civil war that drew in the Great Powers and Cuba, fighting by proxy through three liberation movements as Portugal quit its magnificent 500-year-old African colony.

I had told Mike of my encounter in the heart of Angola with two teenagers who I believed were South African soldiers. When I asked one of them where he was from, he said in guttural Afrikaans English: “I am from Inger-land.”

Mike then befriended the pilots of the Hawker-Siddeley executive jet, loaned by Lonrho chief Roland ‘Tiny’ Rowland to his close friend Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda who, in turn, put it at the disposal of his friend Jonas Savimbi, one of the Angolan guerilla chieftains.

On the eve of Angola’s independence, on 11 November 1975, the pilots invited us to fly 500 miles with them to refuel the plane. The pilots said they would show us something that would greatly interest us as journalists and help us to understand unfolding events: the condition was that we agreed not to report the flight or anything we saw, or ask too many questions.

We touched down on a runway lined by machine-gun emplacements at the South African military base of Rundu, on the Namibia-Angola border, lined by machine-gun emplacements behind sandbags. Mike and I crouched on the floor of the plane for we had been told to keep our heads down and stay away from the exit door until we were back in the air.

The plane taxied towards an area surrounded by a wall of sandbags some 25 feet high. It passed through a narrow entrance into a vast protected tarmacadam area. We peeped over the bottom edge of the plane’s small oval windows as the pilots talked on the tarmac to South African Army and Air Force officers while mechanics refuelled the plane. We realised that we were at the hub of Pretoria’s staging post for military incursion into Angola. Armoured cars were being loaded aboard Hercules C-130 transport planes painted in black and green camouflage and with all registration and other identification marks obliterated. Next stop for the transport planes was obviously Angola.

We spent several more days in guerilla territory in Angola, where there were no phones or any other means of communication, and spotted more South Africans who Mike’s cameraman managed to film surreptitiously. On arrival back in Lusaka, the Zambian capital, the twice-weekly evening British Airways flight was preparing to depart. Mike tossed the bag containing his precious film through the open front door of the plane with shouted instructions to a stewardess to phone his ITN studios on arrival in London. The door closed, but as the plane taxied towards the runway, it reopened slightly and someone tossed the bag out, obviously for security reasons. Mike stood dumbfounded on the tarmac, and as the plane moved off he shook his fist in impotent rage and shouted: "I hope you crash!"

Mike’s misfortune was a lucky break for me. I scooped him. My account of the secret South African invasion was front page news around the world 36 hours before his film finally reached London.

But there were no hard feelings. We remained friends because Mike, although battle-hardened through innumerable unlikely scrapes in many places from India to the Falklands, was essentially a kind man who was deeply affected by the terrible suffering he witnessed on many battlefields.

I reported with him in the Middle East, India and Pakistan. He developed a highly jaundiced opinion of newsreel executives who edited out the most appalling things he and his camera team filmed in order to make it palatable for viewers. “They contrive a surrogate war, where much of the suffering is deleted,” he lamented. “They help to sanitise war; they almost make it acceptable.”

His compassion was illustrated most explicitly when he was in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia, when it was under siege by Serb forces. Natasha Mihaljcic, a nine-year-old orphan, won his heart as he reported on 200 children sheltering in a cellar as Serbian shells landed all around, wounding many and killing four of them.

Mike smuggled Natasha to Britain and he and his wife Diana adopted her and she later went to university in England. He wrote a book about the events and it inspired the 1997 film Welcome To Sarajevo. Four years later, Mike and Diana adopted Ana, an orphan on the streets of Sao Paulo in Brazil who needed medical treatment.

Michael Nicholson was born in Romford, Essex, the son of a River Thames barge operator. His first job in journalism was on Shoe and Leather News before he went to Leicester University. On graduation, he worked in the London office of DC Thomson, the Dundee-based publishers of the Beano and Sunday Post.

In 1963 he was hired by the editor of ITN, Geoffrey Cox, in the mistaken belief that he was employed by Thomson Newspapers, publishers of The Sunday Times. He thrived and carved out a distinguished career.

He was three times the Royal Television Society’s Journalist of the Year and in 1992 he was appointed OBE. Former ITN News At Ten anchor Sir Trevor McDonald said: “Michael Nicholson was almost without doubt the finest television journalist of his generation.”

Mike married Diana Slater, a fellow graduate of Leicester University, in 1967 who survives him with their two sons and two adopted daughters.