A fitting tribute to a real Norfolk hero

Members of Sprowston branch of the Royal British Legion gather around the gravestone of Captain Harr

Members of Sprowston branch of the Royal British Legion gather around the gravestone of Captain Harry Cator. Photo: EDP Library - Credit: Archant

He was a homegrown Norfolk hero whose remarkable courage under fire on the killing fields of France earned him the prestigious military medal the Victoria Cross.

And the incredible first world war bravery of Drayton-born Harry Cator is to be commemorated on the streets he walked as a boy, to mark the centenary of the conflict.

Over the next three years, commemorative stones are being presented to more than 400 communities where recipients of the Victoria Cross were born.

Among them is one which will honour Capt Cator, in recognition of his valour in the French town of Arras on April 9, 1917.

His men, from the East Surrey Regiment, were severely injured and under heavy fire. The attack threatened to stall in front of a trench thick with Germans armed with machine guns.

But Capt Cator, then still a sergeant, took matters into his own hands, leaping forward as survivors of his unit took shelter.

Two other men followed, but within seconds one was killed and the other was badly wounded. Captain Cator dashed on to within 50 yards of the centre of the trench.

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He then dropped down in an attempt to trick the enemy into thinking he was dead and wriggled to the edge of the parapet, close to an enemy machine-gun post.

'I just peeped up,' he later recorded, 'and as luck would have it, they were not looking my way, but were busy cutting the men down who were trying to advance on their right.

'There were five in all, one working the gun and the others feeding with ammunition.

'It was the work of a moment! My revolver spat five times in quick succession, and the five Germans went down…'

He continued to subdue a trench full of Germans until more troops were able to reach and support him.

By the end of the action, some 100 enemy and five machine-guns had been captured, largely as a result of Capt Cator's single-handed action.

A few days later a shell burst shattered his jaw and peppered him with shrapnel and he was still recovering in a Bristol hospital when it was announced he had earned the Victoria Cross and French Croix de Guerre.

Born in January, 1894, a railway worker's son, in Drayton, Capt Cator had married his Great Yarmouth sweetheart, not long before he answered Lord Kitchener's call.

Even before his courageous decision in April 1917, the young soldier had shown his battlefield bravery. Arriving on the Western Front with his unit in the summer of 1915, he had been promoted to sergeant, given a Military Medal for helping rescue 36 men from the Somme's No-Man's-Land and declined a commission.

He returned to Norfolk a hero, but a modest one. And one who, like so many other men returning from the war, had to look for work back on civvy street.

He found work in the Post Office before taking a job as a clerk with the Unemployment Assistance Board.

By then, he had settled with his wife in Sprowston.

Despite the shell fragments which he carried in his shoulder to his dying day, he volunteered, during the second world war, to serve in the Home Guard.

He was a quartermaster at an army transit camp and then a commandant of a prisoner of war camp at Cranwich, where he became as popular with the Germans as the guards. He made a number of friends among them and even visited some of them in Germany after the war.

Indeed, Capt Cator was never one to revel in bravado or glorify conflict. He once declared: 'Real soldiers curse all war and all warmakers. I have seen men driven mad in the trenches. They gave me a decoration. In that hell a soldier may as easily do one thing as another.'

He died, a victim of pneumonia, in 1966, at the age of 72 and is buried at Sprowston cemetery.

Broadland District Council is due to receive the commemorative stone in 2017, a century after Captain Harry Cator's actions which earned him such distinction.

Jonathan Emsell, Broadland District Council's member champion for community engagement, said: 'For most of us, it is impossible to imagine being in a life or death situation, like the one Sgt Cator faced almost 100 years ago.

'His bravery in protecting our country that day must never be forgotten and thankfully this commemorative paving stone will help keep his legacy alive for generations to come.'

A decision on where in Drayton to place the stone, which will have an integrated electronic reader which can be scanned for further information about Captain Cator, has yet to be made.

Drayton has already put its Victoria Cross hero on the map with Cator Road named after him.