Just before 3pm today, close to 50,000 will fall silent as Ibrox remembers those who made the greatest sacrifice to defend their country. Throughout Rangers’ history, like many other Scottish clubs, there have been close links with the Armed Forces and during both World War I & II, a number of players took up arms for King and Country and went off to fight.
Among the Rangers players who had a part in the liberation of Europe and North Africa was Willie Thornton. Born in 1920, Thornton joined the club in March 1936 and made his first appearance in light blue in a 1-0 win over Partick Thistle just months later; making him one of the youngest players ever to have played a first team game for the club. A week later he would score his first goal and become, to this day, the youngest goalscorer in the club’s history. Thornton would go on to make 308 appearances in a one club career that would stretch through to 1954 but it should have been so much more.
The outbreak of World War II in 1939 saw Thornton enlist as a Trooper in the 80th (The Scottish Horse) Regiment of the Royal Artillery, seeing combat in Tripoli, Sicily, Anzio and Monte Cassino. During the Battle for Sferro Hills in 1943, Thornton’s ‘coolness’ whilst being bombarded by ‘heavy shelling and mortar fire’ saw him awarded the Military Medal. His full citation reads:
On the night of 31/7 , 586278 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.
Thornton would be one of only nineteen Military Medals awarded in his regiment during the War. With his medal awarded whilst he was still on active service, Thornton would instead receive a letter from King George VI apologising for being unable to present it personally.
At the conclusion of the war, and the resumption of league football, Thornton would go on to establish himself as one of the club’s greatest ever players and was the first Ranger to score 100 goals in the post-War era. Over the course of his Rangers career Thornton would hit the back of the net 194 times and was renowned for his aerial prowess. He would go on to lift four league titles, three Scottish Cups and two league cups as a player, as well as being part of the first ever Scottish side to complete a Treble.
After retiring in 1954, Thornton would go on to a career in management, at Dundee and Partick Thistle, before returning to Ibrox as assistant to former teammate Willie Waddell. During the transition from outgoing boss Davie White, Thornton took charge of the side twice before Waddell took over and after picking up wins in both Thornton remains the only Rangers manager (interim, part-time or otherwise) to have a 100% record.
In later years, Thornton would serve as a matchday host for the club, entertaining hospitality guests with stories of long forgotten goals, and now has a suite named in his honour at the stadium.
Thornton passed away in August 1991 at the age of 71.