Personal info

  • Name: John Robert OSBORN
  • D.O.B: 2nd Jan, 1899
  • D.O.A: 19th Dec, 1941
  • D.O.D: 19th Dec, 1941
  • Award: Victoria Cross
  • Occupation at time of action: Warrant Officer 2, 1st Battalion The Winnipeg Grenadiers, Canadian Infantry Corps
  • Book: The Complete History - Volume 3
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Sources & Acknowledgements

The Second World War 1941


The year 1941 opened on a deceptively optimistic note with continued British successagainst the Italians in North Africa. Major-General Richard O’Connor’s Western DesertForce offensive, Operation Compass, launched on 8 December 1940 to repel the Italianinvasion of Egypt from their colony in Libya, carried all before it. Bardia, across the Libyanborder, was captured on 6 January 1941, Tobruk on 22 January and Benghazi on 7 February.By 9 February the British had pursued remnants of the Italian Tenth Army all the way to ElAgheila on the southern shore of the Gulf of Sirte. The whole of Cyrenaica, the eastern halfof Italian North Africa, was now in British hands.In Europe itself, however, the position continued to deteriorate and this prevented theBritish from fully exploiting their victories and driving the Italians out of North Africa.Italy had invaded Greece from Albania on 28 October 1940. In January 1941 the GreekGovernment initially rejected a British offer of help. The Greeks had succeeded in drivingthe Italians back and feared the support proffered was not sufficient to defeat the Germanattack it would provoke. In fact, on 7 March 1941 the first contingent of a British/AnzacExpeditionary Force of 50,000 men did land in Greece but events were now moving quickly.On 25 March, the Yugoslav government had been forced to sign a pact with the Germanswhich would allow their troops to pass through on their way south to invade Greece. Twodays later it was overthrown by a nationalist coup d’etat but on 6 April Germany invadedYugoslavia and quickly overran the country. The same day the Germans also invaded Greece.Hitler was already preparing for his invasion of Russia and wanted to prevent Greece beingused as a channel for British aid to Stalin. Greek resistance crumbled and Allied troops weredriven relentlessly south. The Germans entered Athens on 27 April and the evacuation ofAllied troops from the southern Peloponnese was completed on the 30th. About half of thesewere sent to strengthen the garrison in Crete, to which the Greek government had withdrawnon a British destroyer on 23 April. A month later, on 20 May, Germany launched an airborneinvasion of Crete and after ten days’ intense fighting gained control of the whole island. Thisdefeat further dented British prestige and morale, and greatly weakened the Allied positionin North Africa.General Erwin Rommel had arrived in Tripoli on 12 February to lead the German AfrikaKorps. He was joined by the tank regiment of his 5th Light Division on 11 March, thoughhe still awaited the 15th Panzer Division. The British had left only a skeleton force to holdCyrenaica while men and equipment had been diverted to the ill-fated Greek campaign.Rommel had a number of advantages including air superiority and the British belief that hisforces were stronger than in reality they were. Through ULTRA intelligence they were alsoaware he had orders to delay his advance until the end of May. They could not know that hewould ignore these. On 31 March he had reoccupied El Agheila. This proved so easy that hedecided to push on. On 2 April he advanced with 50 tanks, followed by two Italian divisions.The British fell back and the following day evacuated Benghazi. By 11 April Rommel haddriven most of the British out of Cyrenaica and crossed the Egyptian frontier into Egypt. Allthat remained to the British was the port of Tobruk.Tobruk was under siege for eight months before it was relieved. Rommel mounted attackson it on 11 April 1941 and again on the 30th. The British held out but General Wavell’stwo attempts to raise the siege, Operation Brevity which began on 15 May and OperationBattleaxe which opened on 14 June, both involving fighting at Halfaya Pass on the frontier,were equally unsuccessful. In consequence, on 1 July 1941 Churchill replaced Wavell withSir Claude Auchinleck. After carefully building up a superiority in aircraft and in tanks,Auchinleck launched Operation Crusader on 18 November 1941, pre-empting a new assaultby Rommel on Tobruk. Hard fighting concentrated around the Sidi Rezegh ridge 20 milessouth-east of the port. Over the next week the British assault stalled in the face of fierceGerman resistance but, fortunately, Rommel had also suffered heavy losses. On 8 December1941, the Germans began to withdraw and by the 24th had retreated to Ajedabya betweenBenghazi and El Agheila. The British plan to push them further west into Tripolitania wasfrustrated when fresh supplies reached Rommel in the new year. However, the British hadconsolidated their position elsewhere in the Middle East. A pro-Axis coup in Iraq in April1941 was defeated and in June and July Vichy-administered Syria, which it was feared theGermans might use as a springboard for future operations, was occupied by the Allies.Meanwhile, the Italians had been cleared out of East Africa. Massawa in Italian Eritrea hadbeen captured on 8 April, by which time Italian Somaliland had been secured and BritishSomaliland recaptured. On 16 May 1941 the Duke of Aosta, the Italian Viceroy of Abyssinia,surrendered with the main part of his forces at Amba Alagi.The war was increasingly assuming a truly global character. On 22 June 1941, Germanylaunched Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of Russia. By mid-November its forces werewithin 20 miles of Moscow, though in early December counter-attacks by the Red Armyhad pushed them back 280 miles from the city. Then, at the beginning of December 1941Japan attacked the American fleet at Pearl Harbor, and simultaneously invaded Hong Kong,Thailand, Malaya, Guam and The Philippines. Hong Kong was indefensible and surrenderedon 25 December. By the end of the year the Japanese were rapidly advancing south throughMalaya and already posing a very real threat to Singapore.At home, British industry was working at full capacity to support the war effort. Inevitablythere were accidents particularly in the nation’s coal mines and many acts of bravery wererecorded and honoured.


 At Hong Kong on the morning of the 19th December, 1941, a Company of the Winnipeg Grenadiers to which Company-Sergeant-Major Osborn belonged, became divided during an attack on Mount Butler, a hill rising steeply above sea level. A part of the Company led by Company-Sergeant-Major Osborn captured the hill at the point of the bayonet and held it for three hours when, owing to the superior numbers of the enemy and to fire from an unprotected flank, the position became untenable. Company-Sergeant-Major Osborn and a small group covered the withdrawal and when their turn came to fall back Osborn, single-handed, engaged the enemy while the remainder successfully joined the Company. Company-Sergeant-Major Osborn had to run the gauntlet of heavy rifle and machine gun fire. With no consideration for his own safety he assisted and directed stragglers to the new Company position, exposing himself to heavy enemy fire to cover their retirement. Wherever danger threatened he was there to encourage his men. During the afternoon the Company was cut off from the Battalion and completely surrounded by the enemy who were able to approach to within grenade throwing distance of the slight depression which the Company were holding. Several enemy grenades were thrown which Company-Sergeant-Major Osborn picked up and threw back. The enemy threw a grenade which landed in a position where it was impossible to pick it up and return it in time. Shouting a warning to his comrades this gallant Warrant Officer threw himself on the grenade which exploded killing him instantly. His self-sacrifice undoubtedly saved the lives of many others. Company-Sergeant-Major Osborn was an inspiring example to all throughout the defence which he assisted so magnificently in maintaining against an overwhelming enemy force for over eight and a half hours, and in his death he displayed the highest quality of heroism and self-sacrifice 

(Supplement to The London Gazette of 29 March 1946. 2 April 1946, Numb. 37517, p. 1617; The Canada Gazette of 2 April 1946, Vol. 80, Extra)

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