Great war: Forgotten heroes from Zim

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SHAYNE Makombe, the France-based Zimbabwe rugby player, last Sunday laid a wreath and read a speech in the town of Compiègne at a regional function there to commemorate World War 1 soldiers on the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day.

Own Correspondent.

Interestingly, the armistice to end the war was signed between the Allies of World War 1 and Germany in the northern French town, where gifted Zimbabwe utility back Makombe plays professionally for Rugby Club Compiègnen.

A lot of the soldiers that succumbed to the fierce fights were very good sportsmen, including those from the colony of Rhodesia — black and white — who sacrificed their lives in service of the Allied forces.

A good number of these men from this country — known as Rhodesia back then — were rugby players and appropriately accompanying Makombe’s speech at the weekend was a message from Aaron Jani, president of the Zimbabwe Rugby Union, who conveyed his “thoughts and prayers” and paid tribute to the “rugby players from around the world (who died while serving)”. But away from Makombe being part of the ceremony in France at the weekend, there historically has been very limited, if any, of such activities inside Zimbabwe itself to remember the estimated
1 000 locals killed in the four-year combat. In fact, for more than 50 years of the 100 since the end of the First World War, the presence of any Rhodesia or Zimbabwe representative at the Cenotaph in London on or near November 11, the Armistice Day, has been banned by the British government.

On the other hand, the German president and a Sinn Fein senior figure were welcomed at the parade in London on Sunday, despite their national and political militaries respectively committing atrocities against the British people. Germany’s Nazis slaughtered six million Jews by gassing and executed a great many Allied PoW’s, ignoring the Geneva Convention. Sinn Fein’s IRA murdered many Irish Protestants, bombed shoppers in town centres and even killed horses. However, the perceived sin of Rhodesia was Ian Smith declaring Unilateral Independence from Britain in 1965 and then former president Robert Mugabe angrily quitting the Commonwealth some years later. The application by President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s new government to rejoin is still being considered after a long delay by the remaining 53 members, who all flew their flags in Whitehall on Sunday, each one meanwhile taking a share of considerable financial assistance from Britain every year.

All the while, Zimbabwe has to cope with seemingly endless sanctions and economic hardships.

Meanwhile, there was indeed an unofficial ceremony marking the contribution of 26 000 Rhodesians in the front lines, both black and white, with about 1 000 of them being killed in action while serving the Allied cause.

However, this one was held unofficially in a back street close by.

The annual British insult to the memory of these many men who made the ultimate sacrifice is highlighted by three of them in particular — holders of the Victoria Cross, the rare principal of all awards for military heroes, one of them posthumously and all earned in spectacular heroic fashion.

Veteran Zimbabwe journalist John Kelley described to this newspaper their extraordinary dramatic exploits again the Allies enemies on behalf of the quest for international freedom.

He was the only journalist, he believes, to interview one of them, Lieutenant Gerard “Toys” Norton, when in quiet retirement on a Banket farm with his wife Lilla. Norton had refused many requests from others. The other VC winners were Squadron Leader John Nettleton and Pvt Charles Booth.

Nettleton has a school at Cranborne, Harare, named after him. The school was originally a flying training establishment. As a heavy bomber pilot Nettleton and his crew carried out a great many bombing raids against heavily fortified industries in Germany. The final one of these was a factory making U-boat submarine engines. Four of his group of six bombers were shot down before getting overhead but he continued to complete the mission.

However, he was wounded and his plane was so badly damaged that it failed to clear the English Channel when heading back to base and he and the crew disappeared.

Booth led a fire-fight against German troops in German East Africa (now Tanzania) and then led an assault team to rescue injured colleagues while under heavy fire. His citation referred “the greatest possible bravery and resourcefulness”. Kelley once visited his grave at a cemetery in Brighton, England.

However, the story of Gerard Norton is one of the most extraordinary in the long history of VC winners achievements on the battlefield, worthy of a classic film and the perfect shaming of the be-suited bureaucrats of Whitehall who presumably are not the least embarrassed.

He was born near East London, South Africa, one of twins. His sister bossed him about as children, he told Kelley, being widely described as her toys. Hence the nickname. At Selborne College in East London, where a hostel is named after him, Norton excelled in cricket, rugby and tennis.

He was a humble bank clerk but on the outbreak of war in 1939 he immediately joined the local Kaffrarian regiment.

Posted to the Hampshire Regiment, later to be renamed the “Royal” Hampshires, he joined them as part of Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery’s 8th Army, whose famous victory at Al Alamein was a major turning point of the war.

Norton was taken prisoner at Tobruk in Libya, but managed to escape into the desert, leading a dozen other men.

They crossed 450 kilometres of nothing except sand to join New Zealanders under his leadership as a sergeant, and for which he was promoted and commissioned to Lieutenant “in the field”, also being awarded the Military Cross.

He was in the 1/4th Battalion of the Hampshires when they carried out the first assault against Germans installed in front of Mont Gridolfo, a major defensive mountain position. Pinned down by heavy machine gun fire from two positions, Norton said he became “bloody cross.” With his Tommy gun and some hand grenades he stormed one of the enemy posts, killed three and took eight prisoner. Almost immediately afterwards he tackled the second gun post, taking possession of it and killing more enemy.

He then came under fire from the second floor of a house further up the hill, dashed into it and confronted “the biggest man I have ever seen in my life. He turned out to be a Hungarian. We aimed our guns on each other, and both of them jammed!”

Norton had to find his way to England for the investiture of his VC and managed to cadge a lift to Peterborough in the Midlands from the RAF. Making his way to London ahead of presenting himself to the king, he was escorted by a military policeman. They went to the British Officers club but he was turned away, being a South African. At the Dominion Officers club he was also turned away, being in a British Regiment. He ended up sleeping on the snooker table at a Salvation Army hostel. How the British sometimes treat their heroes!

His citations for both Crosses hung on the lounge wall of his little cottage. Otherwise nobody would ever know about them.

“I asked whether he had been back to the scene of his exploits in Italy,” said Kelley this week.

“‘No, he replied, once was quite enough’.”

Norton and his family were kicked off the farm during the land invasions of 18 years or so ago and he died in a Borrowdale flat in Harare in 2004.

He received the Freedom of the City of East London on his return to Africa. What did that actually mean? A free bus pass. He was also offered his job back at the bank!

After the war, any man with £50 could put it down with the Rhodesian government on a piece of land about 3 000 acres with its rocks, bush and wild streams to be turned into a tobacco farm, while living rough for a while and carting early crops on an ox-wagon for sale in Harare. These sections in various parts of the north were collectively known as “Victory Block.”

His allocation was at Raffingora and he decided to stay in Rhodesia for the remainder of his life, continuing into Zimbabwe as a great many others did. “Simply, I like it there,” he told his demob officers.

Kelley said: “One Sunday I had found myself playing against Norton on the Banket Sports Club bowling green. Over drinks afterwards he invited me the following weekend to the nearby farm home of his son-in-law. He was utterly unassuming about it all. I first wrote his story for Tobacco News magazine, which I was editing at the time. As to his nickname ‘Toys’ and how it came about, the Germans would not have believed it!”

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