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Researching and reporting on the lives of some really interesting people (RIP)

NORTON LEE, aged 98


Born in Ashford in Kent, his father ran the family soft furnishings business ‘Lee and Sons’ which his great grandfather had created in 1878.

He was educated in Maidstone and signed up for the Royal Navy in 1941. He was inspired by the exploits of his older brother, Commodore Herbert Jack Lee, who had won the DSC with two bars.

After initial training, Norton was assigned to the light cruiser, ‘Cairo’, in February 1942.

The ship was sent to Murmansk to accompany the deadly Arctic convoys. He remembered the daily chore of chipping ice off the decks to stop the ship becoming top heavy. They returned to Scapa Flow carrying a cargo of gold bars which Norton remembered loading himself.

The next mission was to accompany five convoys of ships to a besieged Malta as part of ‘Operation Calendar’.

In August 1942, Cairo’s luck ran out when she was torpedoed by the Italian submarine ‘Axum’. 24 of his crew mates were killed but Norton was picked up by the destroyer, ‘Wilton’. He later commented ruefully, “24 of my comrades were killed, the ship was sunk – and I did not even get my feet wet.”

After this, Norton was commissioned and sent to Inverary for specialist training in piloting Landing Craft and beach assaults.

He was present at the Allied landings in both Sicily and Salerno.

He was put in charge of an LCT (Landing Craft Tank) for D-Day in June 1944, assigned to help the Americans land at Omaha Beach.

On D-Day (6th June), he was faced by heavy wind and very choppy seas as he tried to land on the beach before dawn. But the LCT began to fill up with water and sink. Pumps were working at full capacity and US Marines were bailing water out with their helmets. But the engines flooded and all power was lost.

The soldiers were transferred to another LCT and the crew were rescued just as the boat sank. Norton, as Captain, was the last to leave.

He was then given another LCT and ferried troops to the Normandy beaches for the next few weeks.

Then he was withdrawn to take part in the Battle of Scheldt in the Netherlands, aiming to open shipping routes to Antwerp.

He commanded a Landing Craft on a raid on islands in the Scheldt Estuary, in November 1944. They were met by intense German fire and the mission failed.

But they tried again in March 1945, in a raid the historian James Moult called, “gallant, skilful, successful and unlucky.”

As Norton crossed the Zijpe Channel, a flying bomb flew over the boat. Anti-aircraft fire opened up – and immediately illuminated his position. The Germans launched a bombardment.

He still managed to land and the marines on board launched an attack on the Schouwen Dyke. They captured two prisoners – but because the Germans had been given a warning, many of the Marines were wounded – some seriously.

Schouwen Dyke today (courtesy Dreamstime)

Norton had strict instructions to leave before dawn, under cover of darkness. But he refused to go until all the wounded men were accounted for and on board – so he was two hours late, and escaping in daylight. And his ship got stuck in the sand so had to be dug out.

As they made their escape, they passed another LCT which had broken down – so they gave it a tow.

For this action he won the DSC, “for courage and initiative, enabling commandos to evacuate their wounded.”

In May 1945, Norton attended the German surrender of Overflakkee, the last occupied Dutch island.

After the war he was offered a permanent commission but turned it down to join the family firm. He married Angela Nash and they were to have two children, Timothy and Nicola.

He was elected as a local independent councillor aged just 29, taking a particular interest in improved sanitation for the deprived families of Ashford. Because of this he was elected Chairman of the local water board.

He also became an East Kent magistrate.

Meanwhile, Angela and Norton bought a dilapidated farmhouse and restored it. They became known for their joyous social gatherings. They both took up hunting which they pursued with gusto.

He was Chair of the Ashford Sea Cadets for over 20 years.

He was also Church Warden at St Mary the Virgin in Hastingleigh for which he raised a lot of money for restoration. As part of this, rare Twelfth Century murals were uncovered in the church walls.

Then the couple moved to East Garston in Berkshire. They continued their hunting, with the Old Berks Hunt, until Norton had a serious fall, which caused him to give up riding. But he loved horseracing and was a badge holder at Newbury Racecourse.

Angela died in 2009. Norton threw himself into the life of the local church, All Saints’, where he was on the PCC. He organised singing festivals and looked after the church, mowing the extensive grounds on his own.

RIP – Rescued, In Peril

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