Gerard Norton VC

Wartime soldier decorated for an act of extraordinary courage on the Gothic Line

Gerard Ross Norton, farmer, army officer and bank clerk: born Herschel, South Africa 7 September 1915; MM 1942, VC 1944; married 1942 Lilia Morris (died 2000; three daughters); died Harare 29 October 2004.

With his company pinned down by a well-defended enemy on the Gothic Line in Italy in 1944, Lieutenant Gerard Norton single-handedly carried out an extraordinary attack, killing a number of the enemy and putting the remainder to flight. For his courage and determination he was awarded the Victoria Cross.

After the Allies broke through the Gustav Line, the German Commander-in-Chief in Italy, Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, ordered his engineers to build deep belts of fortification across Italy's mountainous and narrow waist. There were three main strands to these defences collectively known as the Gothic Line. The Allies, however, had learned many lessons during their winter attack on the Gustav Line.

During the summer of 1944, the 15th Army Group advanced slowly through the German defences. There were always stubborn pockets of resistance as the enemy clung on to their well- positioned emplacements. One of the strongest features in the entire enemy line was at Monte Gridolfo. Here, on 31 August, tough resistance slowed the progress of the Fourth Battalion, the Hampshire Regiment. The Germans had sited their guns within concrete emplacements and the leading company of the Hampshires had been pinned down for some time by well- orchestrated and heavy fire from a valley on the right flank of their advance.

Realising that the momentum of the attack was stalling, Norton on his own initiative engaged a series of these emplacements. Dashing forward under heavy fire he attacked the first machine-gun post with a grenade, killing the crew of three. Then, crawling forward or keeping low, he worked his way stealthily towards a more formidable second position containing two machine-guns and 15 men. He opened up with his tommy-gun and killed or captured the entire crew.

He then called his men forward to clear a house. Under intense fire from the upper rooms and seriously wounded, he continued calmly to urge his men forward and having taken the house he led them up the valley to take out the remaining enemy positions. Norton's attack showed an extraordinary act of courage which inspired his men and assured a successful breach of the Gothic Line, the strongest defence the Germans had built in Italy.

Gerard Norton was born in 1915 in South Africa, in Herschel, Cape Province, where his father was a local magistrate. He was educated at Mount Frere and then Selborne College, in east London, where he played for the cricket First XI and was no slouch at tennis, winning the school cup. In 1935, he joined Barclays Bank at Umtata.

Anticipating war he signed up to the Middelandse Regiment and on the outbreak of war joined the Kaffrarian Rifles. His regiment moved north to El Alamein. By now a sergeant, he had turned down two offers of a commission. He was to see his first action against the Italian strongpoint of Bardia, on the Libyan frontier. The attack on 1 January 1941 was assisted by a considerable naval bombardment. Among the bombarding ships was the Valiant on board which was a 19-year-old Prince Philip. In his log he recorded, "The whole operation was a very spectacular affair."

The fortress fell on 5 January and with it 36,000 Italian prisoners. Norton's regiment, then with 4th Brigade, took over the none-too-easy task of defending Tobruk. By 20 June 1942 Tobruk was encircled by Rommel and by the following morning 30,000 Allied troops surrendered. But, just before dawn that day, Norton escaped and broke out of Tobruk with an officer and four men. They were to endure an appalling journey across nearly 600 miles of desert, walking at night and resting by day. Their feet were torn to shreds and they were fortunate to discover a serviceable truck left on a battlefield.

Discarding their helmets and unshaven, they drove through the enemy lines, giving the odd nod to the un- enquiring German or Italian troops. After 38 days, an extremely weary but delighted Norton and his men reached El Alamein. He was awarded a Military Medal for his leadership and endurance.

Norton was commissioned in 1943 and later attached to the Hampshire Regiment and served with them throughout the Italian campaign. Later, asked about the actions at Monte Gridolfo that led to the award of his VC, he said,

Like any young stupid fellow I felt I would not be hit. It was pure luck that I didn't get shot. You can only be stupid once in your life and get away with it.

After his release from the Army, Norton ran a large tobacco plantation in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). Although uninterested in politics, he became chairman of the local defence committee when terrorists began attacking the farms. In 1985 he sold the property and moved onto his daughter's farm in Trelawney; however in 2002 the family was obliged to move to a flat in Harare after theirs was among the many white-owned farms seized in Zimbabwe. Appalled by the actions of Robert Mugabe's government, Norton still refused to leave the country.

"I could go back to South Africa, or England, or anywhere, but why should I?" he said. "I don't want to go."

Max Arthur

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