b. 07/09/1915 Herschel, South Africa. d. 29/10/2004 Harare, Zimbabwe.
Gerard Ross Norton (1915-2004) was born on September 7th 1915 at Hershel, Cape Province, South Africa. Educated at Mount Frere and then Selbourne College, he was a keen sportsman, playing cricket for the 1st XI and winning the school tennis cup. He widened his sporting interests when he joined a bank at Umata in 1935, representing the Transkei at cricket and captaining the Transkei rugby team.
Norton's peace-time military training was done with the Middelandse Regiment, but at the outbreak of the Second World War he was transferred to the Kaffrarian Rifles in East London. In 1941 the regiment proceeded to El Alamein, where they dug the defences which proved so vital the next year. Norton saw his first real action during the attack on Bardia. Though promoted to sergeant, he refused two opportunities of being sent on an officers' training course, believing that in the field his place was with his men.
When Bardia fell the regiment took over the defence of Tobruk with the 4th Brigade. After the encirclement and surrender of the Tobruk garrison on June 21st 1942, Norton and his platoon leader were determined to break out. Next day the two men set out at 3.20am with some 600 miles of desert and enemy patrols ahead of them. Joined by four others on the way, they endured forced marches by night and had numerous brushes with sentries and patrols. To treat their raw feet, they used axle grease (a tip Norton remembered being given by his mother) from a wrecked truck.
At one point they constructed a serviceable truck from one of the wrecks that littered a battlefield and drove it through the enemy front lines, waving to the German and Italian troops as they took note of their armaments and dispositions. On another occasion, with the use of peremptory gesticulations, they induced Italian guards to shift some mines so that they could drive through a road-block. At 2am on July 29th, after an epic 38-day hike, Norton and his small group reached the Allied lines at El Alamein. He was awarded the Military Medal.
After recuperating in Cairo, Norton attended an officers' training course, and, on receiving his commission in August 1943, was attached to the 6th South African Armoured Division Pool. The division was top-heavy in officers, and to get back to the front he joined the British Army and was attached to the 1st Company, 4th Battalion the Hampshire Regiment (later the Royal Hampshire Regiment). In December 1944 he was promoted to captain and served with the regiment throughout the rest of the Italian campaign.
On 31st August 1944, the 1/4th Battalion the Hampshire Regiment were involved in the attack on the Gothic Line at Monte Gridolfo in Italy. The line stretched 200 miles across Italy from Massa in the West to Pisaro in the East. An attacking force faced a seemingly impenetrable series of fortified bunkers, gun-turrets embedded in concrete, steel shelters, tunnels through solid rock linking defensive positions, barbed wire, minefields and the rugged, mountainous terrain itself.
Operation Olive, the first large-scale attack on the line, took place in the last week of August. The Eighth Army attacked on the Adriatic coast on a 30-mile front aiming to break through to the Po and the plains of the North.
Three battalions of the Hampshire Regiment led the divisional advance on the left of the Allied line, reaching the Foglia river at noon on August 29. Beyond the river rose Monte Gridolfo, a formidable strong point of the line. All undefended houses had been razed, trees felled and vegetation burned. Roads and pathways leading through the minefields were covered by artillery and machine-guns, the gullies filled with logs and bristling with wire. To attack up those bare slopes appeared suicidal. Monte Gridolfo looked impregnable.
The 2nd Battalion, first over the river, was pinned down by intense fire below Belvedere Fogliense and had to wait for darkness before attacking. By dawn on August 31, they had cleared the fortified houses despite bitter opposition and secured the first ridge. 1/4th Battalion then leapfrogged ahead, D Company spearheading the attack, passing blazing houses and haystacks, taking one enemy position after another with Norton in the forefront of the fighting. Norton's platoon was now caught in a vicious cross-fire from machine-guns zeroing in on his position from both flanks. On his own initiative he advanced alone and attacked one of the machine-gun nests with grenades, killing the crew of three.
Still alone, and now under direct fire from a self-propelled gun, he worked his way forward to a second position containing two machine-guns and 15 riflemen. After a fight lasting 10 minutes he wiped out both machine-gun nests with his tommy gun and took the remainder of the enemy prisoner. Still under intense fire, Norton went on to clear the cellar and upper rooms of a house, taking more prisoners and routing the rest before leading his platoon up the valley against further strong-points. By evening the Hampshires had taken Monte Gridolfo. Two days later Norton was wounded in the head and thigh in another engagement. The citation for his VC stated: "Throughout the attack on Monte Gridolfo, Lieutenant Norton displayed matchless courage, outstanding initiative and inspiring leadership." Gerard Norton was invested with his Victoria Cross by King George VI at Holyrood Palace, Edinburgh, on the 1st December 1944.
After the war Norton moved to Rhodesia, where he ran a large tobacco plantation and became a Rhodesian citizen. When farmsteads in the area were being mortared and machine-gunned by guerrillas, Norton became chairman of the local defence committee co-ordinating anti-terrorist tactics. One of his neighbours said at the time: "He is one of nature's gentlemen. He doesn't like talking politics or war. He just gets on with the job of farming and protecting his family and friends."
In 1985 he sold up and went to live with his daughter, Jenny, and her husband on their 3,000-acre farm at Trelawney, 60 miles from Harare. In November 2002 the family were evicted under President Mugabe's policy of seizing white-owned farms, and moved to a flat in the suburbs of the capital. Norton said at the time: "I could go back to South Africa, or England, or anywhere, but why should I? I have lived here for 56 years and I like it." Gerard Norton passed away in Harare, Zimbabwe on 29th October 2004, aged 89. Sadly, his final resting place is not known. Gerard “Toys” Norton’s medal group is in private ownership.
LOCATION OF MEDAL: NOT PUBLICLY HELD.
BURIAL PLACE: UNKNOWN LOCATION IN HARARE, ZIMBABWE
Autograph at the Union Jack Club
Please the two images above are from the Montegridolfo War Museum in Italy, and the road sign is from Trebbio di Montegridolfo near to the site of Gerard Norton's VC action. All these images are courtesy of Danny Cesaretti with thanks.