Gerard Norton is a South African many in his native land should know, and don’t. During the Second World War, he demonstrated what sort of calibre of man he was, not once, but twice! For gallantry he was awarded a Military Medal and in a separate engagement was awarded the highest honour for valour – The Victoria Cross. After the war he took up tobacco farming in Rhodesia, and in 2002 his family was evicted by the Mugabe regime. Another example of one of Southern Africa’s finest, left out of our collective consciousness as we pursue an African revolutionist interpretation of history and honour flawed men, and … so we don’t forget the deeds of much greater men, this the story of Gerard Ross ‘Toys’ Norton.
From Banker to Soldier
‘Toys’ Norton was the descendent of 1820 Settler stock, he was was born in Herschel, Cape Province on the 7th September 1913 – his father, Charles Norton, was an assistant magistrate in Herschel. Educated at Selborne college, East London he was a keen sportsman excelling at cricket, rugby and tennis. He also picked up his nickname ‘Toys’ whilst at Selborne. A hostel at Selborne College is still named in his honour.
When he left school he went into banking, joining Barclays Bank branch in Umtata. A fanatical sportsman he took up badminton, squash, golf and hockey to add to his cricket, rugby and tennis. He even went on to represent the Transkei at cricket and captaining the Transkei rugby team.
He also took an interest in soldiering and joined the Middellandse Regiment as a Citizen Force volunteer. He spent a short time working in the Johannesburg branch of Barclays bank, but he returned to his much loved Eastern Cape, and whilst in East London again he transferred to the Kaffrarian Rifles, a South African Infantry unit formed 1876 originally as the Buffalo Corps of Rifle Volunteers for service in the 9th Frontier War, and then reformed in 1879 into the Kaffrarian Rifles for the South African War (1899-1902) on the side of the British and then took part in the 1st World War.
The Military Medal
When the second world war broke out the Kaffrarian Rifles found itself “up north” and Toys Norton, now holding the rank of Sergeant found himself in the North African sphere of combat operations, first entering the combat zone in 1941 when his 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. When Bardia fell his regiment went over to the defence of Tobruk with rest of the 2nd South African Infantry Division under Major General Hendrik Balzazar Klopper who was in command of the defence. After Tobruk was encircled by Rommel and his Axis Forces, rather than “go into the bag” (to be captured) with the rest of South African defenders on the 21st June 1942, Norton and his platoon leader were determined to break out.
Sgt. Gerard Norton, his platoon leader and along with four others where all subsequently posted as missing in action, but the truth was they had taken to the expansive desert in an acquired truck and 160 kilometres later they ran out of petrol. Still determined to evade capture they decided to carry on foot in what can only be described as an epic tale of survival – trekking for 38 days in the desert and covering 750 kilometres until they found a route through the enemy lines and managed to rejoin the 8th Army’s lines at El Alamein. To treat their raw feet, they used axle grease (a tip Norton remembered being given by his mother) from a wrecked truck.
For this remarkable feat ‘Toys’ was awarded the Military Medal.
Recuperation and transfer
A journey of survival like that necessitated some serious rest and recuperation, and after period of rest in Cairo, Norton returned to South Africa. As the military goes, ‘Toys’ was very happy to remain in the non-commissioned officer ranks and although encouraged twice to become a commissioned officer, he refused on both occasions, believing it was his place to be in the field with his men. However on his return to South Africa he relented and decided to do his commissioned officers course.
In finding placement as a commissioned officer, Lieutenant Norton was keen to get back in the action and at the point of his commission he was attached to the 6th South African Armoured Division Pool. Here there was a usually oversubscribed amount of officers and the quickest path to getting back in action lay in a transfer. An ideal opportunity arose and Norton transferred to the British Army now fighting in Italy, and here he was joined to the 1st/4th battalion of the Hampshire Regiment (Later the Royal Hampshire Regiment).
The Victoria Cross
It was in Italy that Lt. Gerard Norton MM would earn the highest accolade for Valour. On the 31st August 1944 he found himself as a platoon commander during an attack on the German’s ‘Gothic line’ at Monte Gridolfo in Italy during Operation Olive (the British Eighth Army attacked on the Adriatic coast along a 50 kilometre front aiming to break through to the Po Vally). The Gothic line was a series of strategic defence points the German army had set up to stop the Allied advance in Italy, and it was proving very formidable, stretching 320 kilometres across Italy from Massa in the West to Pisaro in the East.
Images: Hampshire Regiment in action on the Gothic Line – Imperial War Museum copyright
Three battalions of the Hampshire Regiment advanced on Monte Gridolfo, a formidable strong point in the Gothic line. Around the strong point all undefended houses had been burned to the ground, all trees chopped down and all vegetation burned so as not to provide any attacking force with cover or protection. Monte Gridolfo looked impregnable. Minefields, barbed wire, enemy machine gun positions and well sighted concrete gun emplacements made an attack up the bare slopes around it almost suicidal.
D Company spearheaded the final attack, 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 his flanks. Then, whilst his platoon was 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 and grenades, killing three of its crew.
Still alone, and now under direct fire from a self-propelled gun, Norton 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.
Despite being wounded while trying to rescue a colleague, he went on to clear a cellar and upper rooms of a nearby house of enemy, 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, and by the evening the Hampshires had taken Monte Gridolfo.
The citation for his VC says a lot about the man when it stated: “Throughout the attack on Monte Gridolfo, 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.”
In a strange twist of fate with some more South African flavour. Following his actions at Monte Gridolfo, two days later Norton was wounded in the head and thigh in another engagement. Norton recovered from his wounds at the South African base hospital at Bari where he was even fortunate to met up with his twin sister, Olga, who was serving on the hospital staff.
Norton received his Victoria Cross on the 1st December 1944 from King George VI at an investiture at Holyroodhouse in Scotland. Gerard Norton VC MM was also promoted to Captain on the 1st December 1944 and continued to serve with the Hampshires for the remainder of the Italy Campaign. He then spent four months with the occupation forces in Greece before being transferred to Austria.
Picture: Lt Gerard Norton in Italy flanked my media on hearing of his successful nomination for a Victoria Cross – Imperial War Museum copyright
Rhodesian Bush War
At the conclusion of the war, Toys Norton decided to move to Southern Rhodesia (now modern day Zimbabwe). He bought a 4,000-acre tobacco plantation some 160 kilometres from the capital Salisbury (now Harare) and became a Rhodesian citizen. When surrounding farmsteads in his area were being mortared and machine-gunned by guerrillas during the Rhodesian Bush War starting in 1964, Norton became chairman of the local defence committee co-ordinating anti-terrorist tactics. One of his neighbours said of him 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.”
Zimbabwe and eviction
The Bush war lasted until 1979, and Rhodesia formally re-named Zimbabwe on the 18th April 1982. Gerard Norton stayed on and continued to successfully farm tobacco until 1985, when he sold up. He then went to live with a daughter Jenny and son-in-law on their 3,000 acre farm at Trelawney about 100 kilometres from Harare.
Southern African politics was to rear it ugly head in November 2002, when the Norton family was evicted from their farm under President Mugabe’s policy of seizing white-owned farms. Gerard Norton VC MM, now forced off the family farm went on to live in a flat in the suburbs of Harare. Typically to nearly every recipient of a Victoria Cross, Gerard Norton was not very public about his Victoria Cross or his wartime exploits, he remained a very private individual, and although highly revered in Rhodesian society he did not want to be singled out for special treatment, and he was even more realistic when it came to the new Zimbabwean disposition when it came to Britain and its World Wars.
On the eviction Norton, ever the modest man, said “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.” When asked to comment on his mistreatment by the Zimbabwean regime by the British press he replied, “I certainly don’t expect preferential treatment. I doubt Mugabe even knows what a VC is.”
Life and times
Times have moved, of the life of Captain Gerard Norton VC MM – his Royal Hampshire Regiment is now the Princess of Wales Royal Regiment and for politically correct reasons in South Africa the Kaffrarian Rifles reverted its historical roots and is now re-named the Buffalo Volunteer Rifles.
Image: Lt Gerard Norton in Italy in 1944 – Imperial War Museum copyright.
In South Africa, little regard was given to South African Victoria Cross winners by the Nationalist government during the years of Apartheid after WW2 from 1948 to 1994, they officially took a neutral stance during the war but un-officially and via other organs they openly supported Nazi Germany during the war. The Afrikaner Nationalists gave a slight and reluctant nod to two South African World War 2 Victoria Cross recipients because they remained in South African rank or in a South African unit, Edwin Swales VC and Quentin Smythe VC respectively. The other four South African born WW2 VC recipients (of which Norton is one) barely got a nod by the Nationalist government (as they were in their eyes in a much hated ‘British’ rank or unit) and therefore are now found outside South African’s general consciousness – these been Gerard Norton VC, John Nettleton VC, George Gristock VC and Charles Anderson VC.
Despite the obvious mistreatment by changing political circumstances of one of Southern Africa’s bravest, modest and honourable of men, by arguably Southern Africa’s most cowardly, divisive and dishonourable of men, Captain Gerard Norton VC MM, died in Harare the 29th October 2004 at the elderly age of 89. He was cremated, his ashes distributed in Harare. His VC and medal set are displayed at The Royal Hampshire Regiment museum in the UK, ever the victim of political correctness, whether by design or not, neither his homeland of South Africa or his adopted homeland of Rhodesia is mentioned on the display.
Written and Researched by Peter Dickens
References include: Wikipedia, The Comprehensive Guide to the Victoria Cross and George Cross on-line, The Imperial War Museum on-line and The Guardian Newspaper – Captain Gerard Norton VC by Diana Condell, Nov 2004
For more on other South African WW2 Victoria Cross recipients follow these links:
John Nettleton VC John Nettleton VC – an unknown South African Victoria Cross recipient