C.S.M. John Osborn, V.C. | Gwulo: Old Hong Kong

C.S.M. John Osborn, V.C.

This week's newsletter was written by the late Dan Waters:

Largely, I suppose, because I saw action and four years of active service myself, in the Western Desert and Italy, in World War Two, when I have walked over the hills of Hong Kong and have seen the fortifications and foxholes, I have often pondered on the battle for this “outpost of Empire”, in December 1941. When I joined the Hong Kong Government, in 1954, the war had not been over very long, and it was still the backs of people’s minds. Time has passed quickly however, as it always does here, and there is a danger the brave deeds will pass into oblivion.

While the courage shown by Company Sergeant Major John Robert Osborn, Victoria Cross, has been recorded, few people, I suspect, know much about the man. Indeed it was not until 1982 that I learned he was born in the County of Norfolk, England, not far from my home town of Watton.

The village of Foulden is an unspoiled, peaceful place, but at the turn of this century it was even more isolated than it is today. For a number of years a group of horse-drawn caravans made its way, every year, from the Fen Country to tiny Foulden. They gypsies, who occupied, these “home-on-wheels”, earned their livings by making clothes-pegs and rock (confectionery), and they also managed to obtain part-time work on the land, for instance at harvest. While nobody got to know any of them well, the Osborn family always seemed to spend longer in Foulden that the others.

Their ornate timber caravan was high and brightly painted, and almost every time it returned to the village I seemed to have an additional occupant. In later years the family comprised father and mother, four sons – one of whom was killed in World War One – as well as a daughter. In fact John Robert Osborn, so people said, was born in that caravan in Foulden. And, while people generally had not, rightly or wrongly, much time for gypsies, they had to admit that the Osborns were a nice, peace-loving family.

By the start of World War Two the caravans had long since stopped coming to Foulden, and John Osborn had emigrated to Canada in 1920. However, 12 days after the infamous attack on Pearl Harbour, in the cool grey dawn of the 19th December 1941, 42-year-old Sergeant Major Osborn, together with “A” Company of the Winnipeg Grenadiers, found himself on the other side of the world, near Mount Butler, in the centre of Hong Kong Island, ready to do his duty and take on the might of the Imperial Japanese Army.

“A” Company attacked in the direction of Wong Nai Chung Gap and later turned towards Stanley Gap. As the soldiers charged they came under consistent merciless fire, and their ranks were severely thinned. The officer Commanding was killed early in the battle, where upon Osborn took charge. They mainly young and tired group of 65 Grenadiers, which is all that remained after the charge, was under-trained with little experience in action.

Osborn was, however, different. HE had faced death before, as a 17-year-old seaman at the Battle of Jutland, in 1916, and he had later served on the Western Front in World War One. His life had been hard, firstly as a gypsy in rural England, and, later, as a casual worker, during the years of depression, on farms and railroads, in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, in Canada. Osborn was tough; the kind of man you are glad to have on your side in a tight corner; a natural leader.

While most of the Grenadiers may have been little more than raw recruits, and lacked experience under fire, under Osborn’s leadership they were determined and fought like battle-innoculated, regular soldiers. Osborn was everywhere inspiring his men, and although he had let a bayonet charge it had run into a hail of fire from Japanese-entrenched machine guns.

The Canadians, who by now had been reduced to about 30, clung fiercely to a bare hill and twice they beat off counterattacks and always Osborn was there using whatever weapon came to hand such as a rifle or bayonet; and sometimes he used his fists or “went in with the boot”. However, in spite of great courage the Grenadiers were finally forced back by superior fire power and again Osborn covered their withdrawal single-handed.

By mid-afternoon, the 12 men that had survived were left exhausted and surrounded, and although the Japanese were within a few yards of their positions, they continued to fight doggedly on. At that stage hand grenades began to fall among them, and on no less than six occasions Osborn flung them back. Finally, however, a grenade fell which Osborn could not grab in time and, after shouting a warning and pushing others out of the way, he threw his body over it thus saving the lives of his few remaining comrades. Osborn was killed instantly, but the six men who were with him survived. “A” Company of the Winnipeg Grenadiers had been almost wiped out. It had covered itself with glory, but courage, on its own, had not been enough.

Some years later one of the six survivors, speaking on behalf of the group, said that it was hard to express how much they owed to Osborn’s gallant sacrifice. The details of the CSM’s exploits were not known until after the war. On April 2, 1946, the posthumous award of the Victoria Cross, Britain’s highest decoration for conspicuous bravery or devotion in the presence of the enemy, was made to CSM H6008 John Robert Osborn.

The citation reads:

“CSM Osborn was an inspiring example to all throughout the defence which he assisted so magnificently in maintaining against an over-whelming enemy force, for eight and a half hours, and in his death he displayed the highest quality of heroism and self-sacrifice”.

Correction: 5 March 2017 - Dan's draft refers to Osborn fighting in "B" Company of the Winnipeg Grenadiers but he was actually in "A" Company as explained in the comments below. I've updated the text above.

Annemarie Evans discovered this article while reviewing Dan's papers. She writes:

"I'm not sure what Dan's intention was with this as there are no footnotes etc. But it makes for an interesting read, so I've just typed it up."

As far as I can tell it was never published, so my thanks to Annemarie for saving it and making it available for us to read.

There is more information about John Osborn, and the full text of his citation, on the Canadian Forces website.

What's on (Hong Kong)

  • This weekend the Stampex 2017 exhibition is on in Sheung Wan. It has historical displays about a wide range of subjects, based on historic postcards and other postal items from around the world. There are also a number of dealers selling old photos and postcards.
  • Next Thursday, 9th March I'll give a talk at the Hong Kong Club. If you're attending, please come up and say hello.

What's on (London)

  • On Saturday, 18th of March I'll give a talk in London. All are welcome, so it'll be great to see you if you can make it along. Details and reservation.

New on Gwulo.com this week:

Readers ask for information (photos, facts, memories, etc.) about:


I trust readers will forgive me being somewhat pedantic here, but I feel it necessary to clarify that W.O.2 Osborn was NOT the Company Sergeant Major (C.S.M.) of B Coy 1 Winnipeg Grenadiers.

He was the C.S.M. of A Coy under Major Albert Gresham of the battalion.

In addition, historians are divided as to whether he actually served at the Battle of Jutland during the Great War. He had certainly joined the Merchant Navy as a young man and during WW1 he served with the Royal Navy Division, who were sailors who served as soldiers (often on the Western Front) due to there being insufficient ships available for them on which to serve.

None of the foregoing, however, detracts in any way way, shape or form from the extraordinary bravery which Osborn displayed on 19 Dec 1941.


Further Norfolk detail. Service record available online which mentions eye trouble and where there is also a poignant letter from his wife asking for help to pay for hospital treatment for daughter Patsy who was badly burned.

Osborn Barracks in Kowloon Tong is named after this brave soldier. I worked at RTHK in Broadcast Drive and would occasionally pop down to the Mess for lunch. Hanging on the wall was a picture of the man and the remarkable story of his selfless act to save his fellow soldiers.  At the going down of the sun, we shall remember them.

Tom Banks