b. 02/01/1899 Foulden, Norfolk. d. 19/12/1941 Hong Kong.
John Robert Osborn (1899-1941) was born in a gipsy-style caravan, in a Breckland field on farmer Harry Dixon’s land at Foulden, near Thetford, Norfolk on 2nd January 1899. He was the third son of John Robert Osborn, an itinerant horse dealer from Balsham, near Newmarket, and it was there he returned with his family year after year throughout what was a mostly nomadic childhood. His mother was called Harriet Susanna.
With his parents flitting from horse fair to horse fair, Jack’s schooling was fitful. He was a sporadic pupil at Foulden’s village school where he nevertheless contrived to make an impression that lasted for decades after. Jack Osborn would remain a ‘pocket dynamo’ for the rest of a life that was teeming with incident. In later years, he would recall teenage years spent on the road with a travelling circus before becoming a stable lad, a groom and then, in the midst of the seismic events known as the First World War, an under-age recruit in His Majesty’s armed forces.
Only 17 and just 5ft 3ins tall when he followed his brothers Harold and Theodore into uniform in late 1916, his subsequent service has become the source of some mystery and not a little myth-making. Press reports published around the time of his Victoria Cross award spoke of him seeing action at sea during the great fleet action at Jutland as well as on land in Russia and in France.
In a letter setting out details of his military career, his son, Gerry, wrote: “He said he was taken prisoner and wounded, but escaped after two days and rejoined his unit. He had bullet wounds and shrapnel [scars] on the right forearm and the right leg. He was evacuated and, on his release from hospital, sent as a reinforcement to the Western Front where he became a casualty of a mustard gas attack.” However, from what records exist, the truth appears more prosaic, with no evidence to suggest he was ever in Russia or at Jutland.
Indeed, the entry in the Record of War Service of Balsham Men 1914-1918 which lists him as having been wounded at Cambrai on March 2nd, 1917, would seem to have been a misprint. At that time, according to his own service record, he was still undergoing training with the Royal Naval Division and did not actually go overseas until the following February. Even then, his spell on the Western Front would prove short-lived and unremarkable, albeit with a painful legacy.
For barely a fortnight after joining the Hawke Battalion near Flesquières, he was one of more than 500 men from the unit who were hospitalised suffering from the debilitating effects of a prolonged gas bombardment. Evacuated to England, he never returned to the frontline before the Armistice. But the end of the war brought no end to his suffering.
His exposure to the poisonous gas had left him with breathing difficulties and problems with his eyesight that would dog him for the rest of his life - and would prompt his life-changing decision to emigrate, on doctor’s advice, to Canada in search of a better future. Moving from one labouring job to another, he worked variously in the railway yards of Toronto and Manitoba and a farm in Saskatchewan. The late 1920s found him married to Margaret Elizabeth Nelson, with a young family of three, and little income to support them. Ever the battler, he tried his hand at farming, but had to quit when he was injured in an accident. He then drifted from one dead-end job to another, from bartender to dishwasher and bingo-caller to odd-job repairman. “Many times,” his wife, Margaret, later recalled, “he went out and scrubbed floors to get a little money for his family.”
It was probably the prospect of some additional income that led Jack, in spite of his less than perfect health, to re-enlist in 1933 as a militiaman - the equivalent of a Territorial Army volunteer - in the Winnipeg Grenadiers. For all his bouts of breathlessness, coughing fits and persistent spells of conjunctivitis which required him to wear tinted glasses, he proved a perfect fit. A stickler for discipline, with a tough, uncompromising outlook shaped by life’s travails, he made the best use of his military experience to become “a model soldier” and an able trainer. Prospering as never before, he rose to the rank of Company Sergeant Major within a year - and it was in that rank that he went to war for a second time eight years later.
The day before leaving home in October 1941, his five-year-old daughter suffered terrible burns when her dress caught fire while playing near to a neighbour’s stove. Jack spent his last night in Winnipeg in hospital, providing a blood transfusion needed to save her life. When he departed the following morning for the west coast and a troop ship bound for Britain’s Chinese colony he had no idea whether she would live or die. And he had still not received any word about her fate when, on December 8th, the Japanese launched an all-out assault on Hong Kong.
A C-category unit, considered unsuitable for an operational role, the Winnipeg Grenadiers were part of a small Canadian contingent sent belatedly to the colony in a vain attempt to deter Japanese aggression. With no serious prospect of successfully resisting an invasion by a numerically superior enemy supported by overwhelming numbers of aircraft and ships, their efforts were expected to be merely of symbolic value in a struggle certain to end in defeat. Jack’s battalion, brought up to strength by the addition of 400 new recruits of whom a quarter had not yet completed their basic training, had little enough time to prepare for the desperate battle that Churchill hoped would see their resistance crowned with “lasting honour”.
They had been on Hong Kong just 22 days when the Japanese struck and within 11 more days they would be fighting for their lives in what proved the decisive clash of the island struggle - the battle for control of the strategically-important, five-road junction at Wong Nei Chong Gap. As a member of A Company, 1st Winnipeg Grenadiers, Jack was part of a reserve, rushed into action in an attempt to secure 1,421-foot high Mount Butler ahead of the on-rushing Japanese.
Too late to prevent its capture, the Grenadiers nevertheless pushed on. Struggling up the steep slopes, assailed by heavy fire from an unseen enemy on the crest above them, two platoons, consisting of fewer than 80 men, fixed bayonets and charged. They were led by a lieutenant, but not for long. Lieutenant Orville McKillop lost his way in the dense undergrowth and became separated at which point the attack might have fizzled out. That it did not do so was due entirely to Jack Osborn.
According to one of the Canadians, Private Keith Geddes, the pint-sized warrant officer with a towering personality immediately took control and led the men in a final rush which, against all the odds, ended in the Japanese running for their lives. It was a remarkable achievement but one that would soon be surpassed. Over the course of the next three hours, Jack’s ever-dwindling force twice beat off counter-attacks launched by upwards of three companies of enemy troops.
Around 10am orders reached Jack to pull back rather than risk being cut off. Jack rose to the challenge again, guiding men away from danger and, at great personal risk, locating parties that went astray. At one point, as the Japanese closed in, he took charge of two light machine-guns and directed covering fire to allow the remnants of his force to escape. To Keith Geddes, who was operating one of the guns, he was quite simply “the coolest man I ever saw”.
Jack continued to inspire those around even after they found themselves hemmed in alongside other stragglers in a fold in the ground. According to Corporal Bill Hall, he was still leading the fight and still “trying to keep their confidence up” as their plight grew ever worse. Another of the Canadians, Lance-Corporal William Bell, later wrote: “The Japanese were all around us. The enemy fire was terrific and our ammunition running low. We were receiving a barrage of rounds from enemy mortars, grenades, small arms and machine-gun fire from all angles.” Two attacks were repulsed before the Japanese resorted to pelting the trapped Canadians with grenades. Incredibly, Jack responded by “flinging” at least two of them back whence they came.
Moments later, while Jack was working out what to do next, another grenade landed in the hollow. It was too far away for him to throw back, but too dangerous to ignore. Yelling a warning to Sergeant Bill Pugsley, Jack shoved him out of the way and dived onto the grenade, smothering it with his own body. The blast killed him outright, but those around him were spared. William Bell, who was wounded by shrapnel, described it as “the bravest thing we had ever seen”. Pugsley agreed and later wrote: “I firmly believe he did this on purpose and by his action saved the lives of myself and at least six other men…”
Sadly, Jack’s body was not recovered, and he is commemorated on the Sai Wan Memorial, Hong Kong on Column 23. His medals were donated to the Canadian War Museum, Ottawa, where they are displayed.
LOCATION OF MEDAL: CANADIAN WAR MUSEUM, OTTAWA, CANADA.
BURIAL PLACE: SAI WAN MEMORIAL. HONG KONG. COLUMN 23.
Picture - Thomas Stewart
Sai Wan Memorial, Hong Kong
Currie Barracks, Calgary, Canada
Hong Kong Park
Courtesy of the Canadian War Museum