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Processional Cross restored in memory of Elm glider pilot who died in Operation Varsity



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A Fenland church has seen its Processional Cross under-go major repairs thanks to a war hero’s family who helped with funding.

A chance enquiry from a member of the Glider Pilot Regiment Society led local amateur historian Jessie Tindale on a trail of discovery, which not only unearthed the story of Captain Harold Rex Norton, known to all as Rex, and a glider pilot, but also to the cross at St Augustine’s Church in Wisbech being restored to its former glory.

Jessie, a member of St Augustine’s Parochial Church Council, who has previously written the life stories of some of the town’s D-Day veterans, explained: “Christine Spencer, the church verger, and myself, had a call from a woman called Lindsay Aspin, a member of the Glider Pilot Regiment Society, who told us our church had a memorial with Rex Norton’s name on it.

Rex Norton is remembered with an inscription on the Processional Cross. (55181511)
Rex Norton is remembered with an inscription on the Processional Cross. (55181511)

“Christine and I searched high and low expecting to find a plaque but instead we made the remarkable discovery that his name was on our Processional Cross.

“It was an unexpected find, and it led Christine and I on an incredible road of research.

“We found out the cross was brass and Victorian in age, the same age as the church, which meant Rex’s name had been added following his death and also suggested his family had made a large donation to the church to have him remembered in such a prominent way.

Rex Norton is remembered on the Processional Cross. (55181496)
Rex Norton is remembered on the Processional Cross. (55181496)

"Once we found the memorial we realised the cross was in need of repairs as it had been dented over the years and had lost a disc. Through Lindsay, who knows Rex's family and knew all about his story, we contacted them and together with the church they agreed to fund the repairs.

"We had to find a specialist restorer because of its age and intricacy of the work required. It has now been repaired and is back to its former glory."

Now the cross is due to go to Marks Hall Arboretum in Essex on March 24 for the annual remembrance service to remember the British Airborne Forces (Gliders) operating out of Earls Colne airfield, who took part in Operation Varsity, which was part of Operation Plunder, which began at 9pm on March 23 1945.

The Processional Cross being carried. (55181501)
The Processional Cross being carried. (55181501)

It was the Anglo-American-Canadian assault under Field Marshal Benard Montgomery to cross the northern Rhine river and from there enter Northern Germany.

Among the armada of gliders being towed by the RAF, having taken off from Earls Colne Airfield, which was close to the Markshall Estate, was Captain Harold Rex Norton in his Horsa Glider.

Rex, who was from Elm, sadly lost his life the following day, March 24 1945, in a mortar blast after landing close to Arnhem. His commanding officer Major Thomas Toler recalled seeing Rex in his temporary burial and Jessie's research found his description of that event.

The cross pictured during a parade in wisbech in the 1960s. (55181506)
The cross pictured during a parade in wisbech in the 1960s. (55181506)

He wrote: "Rex had been placed in a shallow grave. His smock with the glider pilot wings looked just like he had come off parade with no mark on him. He wore no helmet or beret and his blonde hair shone in the sunlight. He appeared serene and peaceful."

Among those wounded during the action was Major Toler's co-pilot Arthur Shackleton, he was evacuated to the UK as the allies made their final push into Germany and to end the war.

He ended up in a hospital where one of the nurses caring for him was anxiously awaiting news of Rex and she asked Arthur if he knew anything.

She was Rex's fiancée, Margaret Sandall. They had been engaged less than two months when Rex took to the skies in Operation Varsity.

The memorial at Markshall Estate where the Processional Cross will be carried as part of the annual service of remembrance for the glider pilots who lost their lives during Operation Varsity. Photo: Markshall Estate.
The memorial at Markshall Estate where the Processional Cross will be carried as part of the annual service of remembrance for the glider pilots who lost their lives during Operation Varsity. Photo: Markshall Estate.

Her father had been the mayor of Wisbech in 1930, a post he held again in 1953.

It is believed the Sandall family together with Rex's own family were responsible for his name being placed on the Processional Cross. Jessie explained, it was common during the war years for families to have memorials to those lost in battle placed in their local church.

However, Jessie believes it is quite unusual for a memorial to be placed on such a prominent part of the church's ceremonial possessions.

"I think the family wanted Rex to be a part of the church's life - to be a part of the weekly service, as the Processional Cross is carried into church in front of the vicar. It was clearly a loving memorial from a family bereft," she said.

The cross will be taken to Markshall for the annual remembrance by the church's Crucifer where it will be carried during the service, and will be seen in all its restored glory by members of Rex's family.

Later in the summer the church will hold a special service of re-dedication for the cross and there will be a display telling Rex's story and will include an eye witness account of the gliders heading off to Germany - a letter from a mother to her son who was one of the glider pilots heading out in the armada as it flew over Folkestone. There is also a poem about the heroics of the glider pilots

Jessie said: "It is quite remarkable that such a simple enquiry led to all this and it is wonderful to see the cross fully repaired, complete with one of the missing disc being replaced."



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