18 October 2014

986278 Gunner William Thornton—Rangers War Hero

By Gary Havlin | Contributor

One of the greatest players in Rangers' history, William Thornton spent his entire career with the Glasgow club. He made his debut for Rangers as a 16 year old in a reserve match v Partick Thistle at Firhill in March 1936. Alongside him also making his debut was a 15 year old, the great William Waddell.

A young Thornton ( centre) on his way to school in Broxburn,
shortly after signing for Rangers

Thornton developed into a 'thoroughbred' centre forward, magnificently skilled in the air and with a deft first touch, he was a perceptive passer, stylish and sophisticated. 4 League Championships, 3 Scottish Cups and 3 League Cups, including the first treble won by any club in Scotland, he was the first post-war Rangers player to score 100 goals, and in a total of 432 games from 1936 until 1954, he scored 255 goals. Described as ' a gentleman in the fullest sense of the word', he was never once in his career ordered off, never once booked. Not just an Ibrox legend because of his deeds on the field of play, but also because of his character. His wartime service reinforces that view.

At the outbreak of hostilities, Thornton signed up with The Duke of Atholl's Scottish Horse as a Trooper. Serving six war years with his regiment, which saw him go two years without pulling on the famous Blue jersey, Thornton saw service in Tripoli, Sicily and Italy, in unforgettable battles at Anzio and Monte Cassino as the Allies liberated Italy under the command of Field Marshall Montgomery. 

It was during the Invasion of Sicily, specifically the Battle for the Sferro Hills during the night of 31st July/1st August 1943 where the heroics of Thornton won him the Military Medal. His Recommendation for the prestigious award, purchased from the National Archive and shown below, shows precisely why no less than four of his Commanding Officer put their signature to the recommendation.

'On the night of 31/1, 986278 Gunner THORNTON accompanied his Battery Commander as Signaller to an O.P. on Point 22. He maintained constant communication for 18 hours and passed down Fire Orders often under heavy shelling and mortar fire. By his coolness and devotion to duty Gunner THORNTON gave great assistance to his Battery Commander in bringing down his fire on the enemy.'

The four Commanding Officers recommended the Military Medal be awarded immediately,  'In the Field'. Below is the letter from King George VI apologising to William Thornton M.M. for being unable to present the award personally, and the medal itself.

William Thornton gets to meet his Commanding Officer
in Sicily, 5 years after the Battle for the Sferro Hills
The Military Medal was awarded to personnel 'For Bravery in Battle on Land.' The Scottish Horse Regiment in six years of fighting during World War Two saw only 19 Military Medals awarded. After the war ended, Thornton returned to play professional football for his beloved Rangers. Having done his part for King and Country, his goal scoring exploits helped Rangers win trophies and gave people something to cheer about at a time when they were rebuilding shattered lives.

More information on the Battle for Sferro Hills can be found here.

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