Obituary: Brigadier John Thornton

Soldier who witnessed atrocities during Indian partition and won an MC fighting communists in Malaya

John Thornton saw active service during the communist insurrection in Malaya and Indonesia’s “confrontation” with the Malaysian Federation in the early 1960s, but nothing in either campaign was to compare with his experiences as a 19-year-old subaltern at the time of Indian partition in 1947.

Commissioned into the 3rd Gurkha Rifles in 1946, he was stationed at Sargodha — now in the Pakistani Punjab — when widespread murder and burning of villages by the antagonistic religious communities began on the eve of independence. A pall of smoke on the horizon was all too often the first signal of trouble, and troops would arrive in time only to count the dead.

Once partition was agreed, Thornton’s battalion and many others were committed to escorting hundreds of thousands of Hindu refugees from Pakistan to India and returning with just as many Muslims. The Hindu refugees were concentrated east of Sargodha in anticipation of the long walk to the new frontier with India. Columns of 100,000 men, women and children, each 15 to 20 miles long and guarded by just 80 soldiers, set out to trek through territory swarming with lawless gangs intent upon wreaking havoc. Any relaxation in the soldiers’ vigilance alongside the columns resulted in attacks by men armed with knives, hatchets and shotguns. Thornton’s first such march crossed the frontier after six days; he was surprised to be commended for delivering just over half the number of people who started the journey.

The return march with 100,000 Muslims to Pakistan was similar, with Hindu mobs determined to exact revenge for the atrocities inflicted on their own people during the journey east. Seeing that the Gurkhas’ distinctive hats revealed their positions in the column and consequently the gaps through which the assailants could reach the refugees, Thornton ordered his men to change to their less obvious steel helmets and allow the marauders to get close to the column before opening fire. This tactic led to a reduction in the frequency of attacks and enhanced the chances of the refugees’ survival. Atrocities were appalling on both sides, particularly against young girls, who were gang-raped before being impaled on bamboo stakes or killed in some other horrific manner.

The 3rd Gurkha Rifles were one of the six pre-1947 regiments of the Gurkha Brigade to join the new Indian Army, so Thornton transferred in 1948 to the 7th Gurkhas, which were to continue in British service. The plan to convert both battalions of the 7th Gurkhas from infantry to artillery to provide two complete brigades was abandoned in 1949, when the demand for infantry increased because of the communist insurrection in Malaya.

While serving with the Gurkhas in the southwestern Malayan state of Negri Sembilan in 1953, Thornton was awarded the Military Cross for resourceful and skilful leadership of his company against communist terrorists.

One of Thornton’s patrols unexpectedly came across a terrorist camp, which was known to be in the area, the night before it was scheduled to be attacked by British forces. Realising that it would be impossible to co-ordinate a new plan in the darkness, Thornton reported the discovery to headquarters and made his own assault at first light.

As soon as his leading scout shot dead the sentry, Thornton led the charge into the camp in the face of enemy machinegun fire. He was praised for his coolness and quick decisions. Eight terrorists were killed and two wounded.

He was subsequently an instructor at Eaton Hall officer cadet school near Chester and, after attending Staff College in 1960, undertook a series of demanding appointments in the Far East and Europe. He saw active service in 1963-64 against Indonesian troops and irregulars in northern Borneo, before taking over command in 1968 of 2nd Battalion 7th Gurkhas in Hong Kong, where tension was high after the communist-inspired disturbances of 1967.

Greeting his new brigade major in Hong Kong, Thornton remarked: “I have just got married; I’m playing golf for Hong Kong in an international tournament and am having difficulty importing my Alfa-Romeo into the Crown Colony, so bother me only with anything really important.”

He was nevertheless dedicated to the welfare of his Gurkha riflemen, fighting relentlessly against any bureaucratic threat to their interests. Appointed Colonel, Brigade of Gurkhas, in 1973, he moved to Nepal to become commander of the Gurkha recruiting and welfare organisation, with his headquarters at Dharan. Having served with the 3rd Gurkhas, who drew their recruits from the western hills of Nepal, and also with the 7th Gurkhas, who drew theirs from the eastern hills, Thornton had a comprehensive knowledge of their customs.

John Michael Chetwynd-Talbot Thornton was born at Lucknow in India in 1927, the only son of Lieutenant-Colonel John Thornton of the 3rd Gurkha Rifles, and educated at Downside.

An open and generous man, he had known his first wife, Leslie Waffis, since childhood. He wrote to her from Malaya; she replied — and they were married in 1953. She died in 1972 and, two years later, he married Patricia Morecambe, who was on a world tour and had been given his telephone number to call when visiting Hong Kong. She took on his five lively and adventurous teenage children with enthusiasm. She survives him, as do the children.

His elder son, Michael, is a senior partner with the law firm Patten Thornton of British Colombia; Peter is a pilot captain with Air Canada, after flying Tornados with the RAF; Jane is a director of the online retailer, Pegasus Art Shop; and Ann, formerly an actress, is now a sculptor. His youngest daughter, Charlotte, lives in the Cotswolds.

In retirement Thornton and his wife ran a stall selling antique junk in Petersfield town square, where a fellow stallholder delighted in deliberately collapsing his stall at the end of the day with a sound like a gunshot in order to make Thornton jump.

Memories of his early service seldom left him; he would say that the slightest whiff of singed hair evoked the stench of burning villages in the Punjab and wells choked with the victims of Indian partition.

Brigadier John Thornton, MC, soldier, was born on September 21, 1927. He died on November 5, 2014, aged 87