John Osborn left school in England at 14 and joined the Royal Naval Division during the First World War, serving as an infantryman on the Western Front in 1918.
In 1920, he immigrated to Saskatchewan and farmed for two years before moving to Winnipeg, where he worked as a labourer. He married in 1926 and raised five children during the Great Depression. In 1933, he joined the Winnipeg Grenadiers, a militia infantry battalion.
Second World War
In September 1939, at the outbreak of the Second World War, the Winnipeg Grenadiers were mobilized and performed garrison duties in Jamaica for a time. On 27 October 1941, at the request of the British government, the Grenadiers sailed from Vancouver for Hong Kong. Along with Québec’s Royal Rifles of Canada, they formed the major part of the 2,000-man-strong “C” Force, an ill-conceived attempt to reinforce the British garrison and prevent a potential Japanese attack against the colony. (See Canada and the Battle of Hong Kong.)
By now, Osborn was a warrant officer second class, and company sergeant major of “A” Company. On the morning of 8 December (Hong Kong time), Japan launched surprise attacks against several locations, including Pearl Harbor, Guam, Wake Island, Malaya, the Philippines and Hong Kong.
Heroism at Hong Kong
The Japanese quickly overran Kowloon, the mainland part of Hong Kong. On the night of 18 December, three Japanese regiments landed on Hong Kong Island, rapidly overcame beach defences and then moved inland.
Early the next day, “A” Company was ordered to advance on Mount Butler on Hong Kong Island, and recapture it. Osborn led part of his company in a bayonet charge, retook the summit and held it against Japanese counterattacks for the next three hours. When a larger Japanese force attacked, it forced Osborn and his men back down the mountain, where they rejoined their company.
Later, the Japanese surrounded the company, then sheltering in a slight depression. By mid-afternoon the company had driven off two attacks, but eventually the Japanese worked close enough to throw hand grenades into the Canadian position.
Osborn picked up many of these grenades and threw them back at the enemy. Finally, a grenade fell where he could not get to it in time. Without hesitation, Osborn shouted a warning, pushed a soldier aside and selflessly threw himself on the grenade. It exploded and killed him instantly.
Osborn’s courageous act did not become known until after the war had ended. In 1946, he was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross, in recognition of his bravery in the Battle of Hong Kong.
A statue of an anonymous soldier, formerly in a private collection and now located in Hong Kong Park — on the site of the former Victoria Barracks — bears a plaque in memory of Osborn and “through him all those men and women…who performed acts of gallantry and self sacrifice in the defence” of the colony.
Manitoba’s Osborn Creek and John Osborn Lake were named in his honour in 1973 and 1986 respectively. In 1991, a granite monument in honour of Osborn was dedicated at the John Osborn VC Tower building in Winnipeg.