RICHARD BURTON was just 21 in February 1944 as the Cassino Battle unfolded on the Gustav Line in Italy. Eight months later he had won a remarkable Victoria Cross, without a scratch upon him. He was a private serving with 1st Battalion, the Duke of Wellington's Regiment. His CO was killed in the action and his Officer Commanding (A Company) was wounded. It occurred during a violent assault north of Florence, at Monte Ceco, for which the regiment received its 72nd battle honour.
The regular battalions of 'The Dukes' both distinguished themselves: 1 DWR in Africa and Italy and 2 DWR as part of the Chindits in Burma. The 1st Battalion represented 1 Division in the ceremonial march into Rome on 8 June, Dick Burton among them, their colonel wearing his second DSO.
There are supposedly three qualities of VC: for self-survival, as at Rorke's Drift; for crushing the enemy, as at Monte Ceco; for giving one's life to save others, as with Dr Noel Chavasse, VC and bar, MC, RAMC. Burton's was very high in the second category.
He came from a gentle family in Melton Mowbray, Leicestershire, where he was schooled till 14. He followed his forebears into the building trade, till he was 19; and then, after the Second World War, till he retired in 1986. Trained in soldiering by the Northants in 1942 as a teenager, he joined the Duke of Wellington's to go to French North Africa, where he experienced soldiering in the Tunisian campaign. His OC A Company was Captain Freddie Huskisson, who - characteristic of the Dukes - already had eight rugby caps for England.
With his regiment, Private Burton went into the capture of the Isle of Pantellaria in 1943, the Anzio beach landing in January 1944, and the long slog up Italy. Anzio cost the Dukes 11 officers and 250 other ranks wiped out. Burton's OC was wounded.
The northward slog was most costly. Weather reduced the battalion to mule transport, laden mules becoming 'bellied' under the weight of ammunition or stores. Thus the Dukes confronted the Gothic Line in October 1944, and notably a crucial 2,000ft feature - Monte Ceco - which held up the Allied advance. A six-day battle ensued in rain. The initial attack from the south failed, mud in place knee-deep being a cause. A silent second attack from the west was launched in a downpour under heavy German mortar fire on the evening of 8 October.
In the final stage Capt A. Burns took Burton, the runner, with his platoon through to assault the crest, held by five Spandau machine-gun teams. Despite withering German fire, Burton managed to kill the first team with his tommy-gun; and similarly the next, till his ammunition ran out. He then picked up a Bren light machine gun and, firing from the hip, neutralised two further German machine-gun teams, allowing his company to consolidate on the forward slope of Monte Ceco.
The Germans counter-attacked fiercely. Burton, with his companions lying dead or wounded around him, beat off that attack with accurate Bren fire. A second German counter-attack was mounted on Burton's flank and, firing in enfilade, he again broke up the impetus of this attack, saving his company's position. Burton's VC citation reads: 'Private Burton's magnificent gallantry and total disregard for his own safety in many hours of fierce fighting in mud and continuous rain were an inspiration to all his comrades.' He was awarded the 44th Army VC of that war.
Dick Burton was barely a man at the time, a quiet boy who knew his duty. His medal embarrassed him, not only then but in the years that followed. To the end he remained modest, disliking fuss. He was a man tall and well set up, with nothing abrasive in him. There are essentially two sorts of VC courage: the calculating and cold, calling on intellect (such as the pilots showed); and the fiercely physical, which is 'hands-on' and calling on reserves of will. Dick Burton had that will, that conviction, from boyhood.
He married the girl he had met before going to war, a Scot called Dorothy Robertson, in 1945. They went to live in Kirriemuir, Angus, there bringing up three boys and a girl. The Leicestershire lad became a convert Scot, even to the accent. He never lost touch with the regiment he had so honoured, which returned that
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