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About Gerard Ross Norton, Capt. VC
Captain Gerard Norton, VC
Decorated for breaking the German line in Italy, in later life he was evicted from his family's farm in Zimbabwe
On August 31 1944, Gerard Norton, who has died in Harare aged 89, was commanding a platoon of the 1st/4th Hampshire regiment when he won a Victoria Cross during the attack at Monte Gridolfo in Italy, one of the strong points of the Gothic Line.
Pinned down by heavy fire, Lieutenant Norton got to his feet and, alone, charged the German concrete gun emplacements. He attacked the first of the strongholds with his sub-machine-gun, dispatching three of its crew, then went on to knock out two more emplacements, capturing or killing 15 of the enemy.
During the whole of this action, which lasted mere minutes, Norton came under heavy fire from an enemy self-propelled gun. Later, in another action, and despite being wounded while trying to rescue a colleague, he went on to clear the cellar and upper rooms of a house, taking several more prisoners and putting others to flight. Although weak from loss of blood, Norton continued to lead his platoon calmly and resolutely up the valley, where they succeeded in taking the remaining enemy positions.
In the words of the official citation for the VC, published the following October, "Lieutenant Norton displayed matchless courage, outstanding initiative and inspiring leadership. By his supreme gallantry, fearless example and determined aggression, he assured the successful breach of the Gothic Line at this point."
"Toys" Norton, whose forebears emigrated from Hythe, Kent, to South Africa in the 1820s, was born in Herschel, Cape Province where his father, Charles, was an assistant magistrate. Educated at Selborne college, East London, where he acquired his nickname, he was a keen sportsman excelling at cricket, rugby and tennis.
After school, he joined Barclays bank at Umtata, taking the opportunity to widen his sporting interests by adding badminton, squash, golf and hockey to his tally. He also fitted in two years of peacetime soldiering with the Middellandse regiment. After a short spell working in the Johannesburg branch of his bank, he returned to East London. On the outbreak of war he transferred to the Kaffrarian rifles.
It was while serving as a sergeant with this regiment that Norton was awarded a Military Medal. During the withdrawal of the 8th Army from the Gazala line in June 1942, part of the rearguard of the 1st South African division was cut off on the desert coast road east of Tobruk. line near the Egyptian border.
Norton, with five comrades, was posted missing, believed captured. In fact, the small group had taken to the desert in a cross-country truck. Norton and his officer friend, Lieutenant Lawrence "Bill" Baillie, who had worked for the same East London bank as Norton before the war, took over an abandoned Allied truck. After 100 miles, they ran out of petrol but, determined not to "go in the bag", the party embarked on a remarkable 470-mile 38 days trek, reached the El Alamein line, to which the routed British Eighth Army had withdrawn from Tobruk. The South African party bluffed their way past Rommel's Italian troops by speaking Afrikaans, which the Italians mistook for German. For their courage and initiative Bailley was awarded the Military Cross and Norton the Military Medal (MM).
Following recuperation in Cairo, Norton returned to South Africa to join an officers' training course - although he had twice before resisted all attempts to get him to accept a commission. On his return to Egypt, he joined the British army. At this point, there were so many officers in the South African division that his only means back into the line was to transfer. Norton joined the 1st/4th battalion of the Hampshire regiment, then fighting in Italy.
Following the actions at Monte Gridolfo, Norton recovered from his wounds at the South African base hospital at Bari where he met up with his twin sister, Olga, who was serving on the staff. Norton received his VC from King George VI at an investiture at Holyroodhouse. Promoted captain on December 1 1944, Norton served with the Hampshires for the remainder of the Italian campaign. He then spent four months with the occupation forces in Greece before being transferred to Austria.
Norton returned only briefly, before moving to what was then Rhodesia the following year. He bought a 4,000-acre tobacco plantation some 100 miles from the then Salisbury, Southern Rhodesia, which he ran until 1985, when he sold up and went to live with a daughter and son-in-law on their 3,000-acre farm at Trelawney about 60 miles from the capital. In November 2002, the family was evicted from the farm and went to live in a flat in the suburbs of Harare.
Norton, always reticent about his wartime exploits, was not the sort of man who expected, or would have wanted, any favours or special treatment because of his VC. Asked to comment when news of his family's eviction from their farm appeared in the British press, he replied: "I certainly don't expect preferential treatment. I doubt Mugabe even knows what a VC is".
"Toys" Norton's death reduces to 14 the number of living holders of the VC.
His wife, Lilla Ellen Morris, whom he married in South Africa in 1943, and by whom he had three daughters, predeceased him.
·Gerard Ross Norton, soldier. born September 7 1915; died October 29 2004
Diana Condell The Guardian, Friday 5 November 2004 23.59 GMT
Gerard Ross Norton, Capt. VC's Timeline
September 7, 1915
Herschel, South Africa
October 29, 2004
Harare (formerly Salisbury), Zimbabwe