John Robert Osborn: a Canadian soldier we will always remember

January 17, 2019 18:42
File picture shows remembrance poppies and a Canadian flag on the grave of an unknown soldier at the Sai Wan War Cemetery.during a Canadian ceremony honoring those who died in the Battle of Hong Kong and World War II. Photo: AFP

In a previous article, I mentioned that Canada was a key member of the Allies of World War II, during which more than 23,000 Canadian soldiers died in battle

Among them, about a thousand perished in the Battle of Hong Kong in December 1941. 

One of them was John Robert Osborn, a sergeant major with the Winnipeg Grenadiers from Canada, who was the only serviceman in our city’s history to receive the Victoria Cross for his gallantry in battle. 

As opposed to the George Cross, which is the highest honor for a civilian in Britain or the Commonwealth, the Victoria Cross is the most prestigious personal military decoration that can be awarded to a British or Commonwealth soldier. 

Generally speaking, the Victoria Cross is often more highly regarded than the George Cross. 

First introduced by Queen Victoria in 1856 to acclaim the extraordinary heroism demonstrated by the British troops during the Crimean War, every Victoria Cross is inscribed with the words “For Valour”. 

At present, there are only a very few surviving recipients of the Victoria Cross in the world, largely because it has been extremely rare for the British government to bestow this highest military honor on anyone after the world war. 

As far as the Canadians are concerned, none has been awarded the medal after the war, and Osborn was among the last Canadian recipients of this military honor. 

Osborn and his fellow Canadian troops were assigned to the Far East front shortly after the onset of World War II as support to the British force in Hong Kong. 

Then the Japanese invasion began on Dec. 8, 1941. 

According to official accounts, Osborn and several other soldiers of his unit were trapped in a pillbox amid a Japanese offensive on Hong Kong Island, and came under relentless grenade attacks from the surrounding enemies. 

Hopelessly outnumbered, Osborn single-handedly engaged the advancing enemy to allow his comrades to retreat to a safer position. 

After Japan’s surrender in August 1945, Osborn was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross for his act of valor and self-sacrifice during the Battle of Hong Kong, making him the first and only recipient of the medal in our city’s history. 

Before the 1997 handover, the Kowloon East barracks of the British army in Hong Kong used to be called the “Osborn Barracks”. 

And today, Osborn’s bronze statue still stands tall in Hong Kong Park and his name inscribed on a monument in the Sai Wan War Cemetery. 

Back home in Canada, there is even a street named after him. 

Today, one might say that what Osborn did was only to fulfill his duty as a soldier. But what cannot be disputed is that he gave up his life in defense of a city he barely knew. 

Apart from his extraordinary valor in the face of enemy fire, another reason why Osborn died in battle on our soil is that back in those days, Canada’s foreign policy was largely pro-Britain.  

It wasn’t until after World War II that Canada began to lean more and more towards the United States in its diplomatic relations. 

However, despite America's huge influence on Canada over the decades, even to this day, the British royal family remains highly popular in Canada. 

And after the British people voted to leave the European Union in the 2016 referendum, there have been mounting calls within the United Kingdom for London to re-establish close bonds with other Anglo-Saxon countries in the Commonwealth, particularly Canada. 

Ironically, while in recent years Macau has been designated by Beijing as a beachhead for enhancing communications with other Portuguese-speaking countries, Hong Kong is finding it increasingly difficult to make good use of its unique British colonial origins. 

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Jan 9 

Translation by Alan Lee 

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Associate professor and director of Global Studies Programme, Faculty of Social Science, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong; Lead Writer (Global) at the Hong Kong Economic Journal