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WWII Glider Pilot Regiment hero dies aged 100 

The last surviving hero from Britain’s Second World War Glider Pilot Regiment who was a part of the four major operations the wooden gliders were used in has died aged 100.

Staff Sergeant Ralph Norbury flew wooden gliders deep behind enemy lines at the invasion of Sicily in July 1943.

Eleven months later on D-Day he became one of the first Allied servicemen to step foot on Nazi-occupied France after landing ahead of main invasion.

In September 1944 he fought in the Battle of Arnhem in Holland and then took part in Operation Varsity over the Rhine in western Germany in March 1945.

Such was the enormous casualty rate involved in going behind enemy lines, only six members of the Glider Pilot Regiment took part all four operations.

Sgt Norbury passed away in hospital last week.

Sgt Norbury passed away in hospital last week

Staff Sergeant Ralph Norbury flew wooden gliders deep behind enemy lines at the invasion of Sicily in July 1943

The last surviving glider pilot to participate in all of the major airborne operations of World War Two who has died aged 100. Staff Sergeant Ralph Norbury flew wooden gliders deep behind enemy lines at the invasion of Sicily in July 1943

In September 1944 he fought in the Battle of Arnhem in Holland and then took part in Operation Varsity over the Rhine in western Germany in March 1945

In September 1944 he fought in the Battle of Arnhem in Holland and then took part in Operation Varsity over the Rhine in western Germany in March 1945

His daughter Maggie, 67, said: ‘My father didn’t like to talk about the war but he was a true hero.

‘He was very kind, very polite, so thoughtful – a real gentleman. It is remarkable to think what he did during the war. We are all so proud of him.’

Sgt Norbury, originally from Manchester, enlisted with the Lancashire Regiment at the outset of the war before transferring to the Glider Pilot Regiment.

During the war, gliders became an extremely effective alternative to parachute drops, carrying up to 28 soldiers or jeeps, artillery and even tanks.

Sgt Norbury and his ilk were trained as expert pilots and then on landing performed the role of an infantry officer capable of leading the airborne soldiers they had transported into battle.

For this, they became known as the ‘total soldier’.

His first operation was the invasion of Sicily on July 9, 1943.

It was a disastrous operation as over half the gliders landed in the sea and many pilots drowned.

Just 10 days after escaping Arnhem, he married wife Kath, a crafts teacher, but the newlyweds were soon separated again as he returned to the heat of battle. Operation Varsity was launched on March 24, 1945, in conjunction with the Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery orchestrated Operation Plunder

Just 10 days after escaping Arnhem, he married wife Kath, a crafts teacher, but the newlyweds were soon separated again as he returned to the heat of battle. Operation Varsity was launched on March 24, 1945, in conjunction with the Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery orchestrated Operation Plunder

On D-Day, Sgt Norbury was part of the 6th Airborne Division which landed near to Ranville carrying elements of the Royal Ulster Rifles.

Their job was to protect the left flank of the Allies arriving on Sword Beach.

Sgt Norbury had to make it back several miles to the beach to get back home to Britain so he could fly over again.

Three months later, during Operation Market Garden, Sgt Norbury was in a Horsa glider towed by a Dakota.

The following day, the glider pilots made their way through the woods to Oosterbeek, where they remained until retreating over the Rhine River on September 25.

Sgt Norbury later recalled to a friend: ‘We stayed first in the woods but later in battle had to find new cover in the houses just outside the woods.

‘The Germans were so close that we could clearly be heard talking and digging in nearby in the woods. I could see men killed and wounded around me all the time.

‘On the ninth day of the operation, we were told there would be a withdrawal across the river, with Canadian troops in boats coming to assist.

In later life, Sgt Norbury worked in the printmaking industry in Andover, Hampshire, and London. He retired in the 1980s and spent his final decades in Tooting, south London

In later life, Sgt Norbury worked in the printmaking industry in Andover, Hampshire, and London. He retired in the 1980s and spent his final decades in Tooting, south London

‘All these days we had almost no food and limited water, and we were very short on ammunition.

‘Making for the river with various groups of men, I heard a noise and there in front of me was a small boat, I called out and was pulled down into the boat and ferried to safety on the other side of the river.’

Just 10 days after escaping Arnhem, he married wife Kath, a crafts teacher, but the newlyweds were soon separated again as he returned to the heat of battle.

Operation Varsity was launched on March 24, 1945, in conjunction with the Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery orchestrated Operation Plunder.

The airborne divisions, totalling 16,000, were dropped to the east of the Rhine to fight off advancing German troops, enabling 200,000 men to cross over the historically important German river barrier.

Within six weeks of the successful operation, Germany had surrendered and the war in Europe was over.

Rob Ponsford, of the Glider Pilot Regiment Society, said: ‘Ralph Norbury was the last of a small group of the World War Two glider pilots who survived all the major airborne operations which were pivotal turning points of the war.

‘So many drowned during the disastrous Sicily operation or were killed when they were outnumbered at Arnhem.

Sgt Norbury, whose wife died in 1989, leaves behind three children, John, Jane and Maggie, seven grandchildren and ten great-grandchildren

Sgt Norbury, whose wife died in 1989, leaves behind three children, John, Jane and Maggie, seven grandchildren and ten great-grandchildren

‘When people look back on D-Day the first thought is soldiers storming the beaches but the airborne divisions played a crucial role in keeping the Germans at bay, which they also did during Operation Varsity enabling the successful Rhine crossing.

‘It is a very poignant day and the end of a unique generation whose enormous contribution to the war effort should never be forgotten.’

Trevor Williams, of the Arnhem Boys, a World War Two display team preserving the memory of those who fought in Operation Market Garden, said: ‘The glider pilots were a tough breed.

‘Trained to fly that huge glider once they had got it on the ground they took on the role of the ordinary assault soldier.

‘They were trained to fire all manner of weapons, Bren gun, Sten gun or No.4 rifle – and would fight side by side the very men they had flown to the battle.

‘There are no adequate words that can describe that sort of bravery.

‘Each and everyone that passes sees another British hero depart our company for a well earned rest.

‘Lest we forget those that fought and those that died, for theirs was the glory.’

In later life, Sgt Norbury worked in the printmaking industry in Andover, Hampshire, and London. He retired in the 1980s and spent his final decades in Tooting, south London.

Sgt Norbury, whose wife died in 1989, leaves behind three children, John, Jane and Maggie, seven grandchildren and ten great-grandchildren. 

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