ILLUSTRATIONs: Sharif Tarabay
In addition to the Victoria Cross earned by Hammy Gray just days before World War II ended (Valour In The Navy, March/April), there were two other Canadian VCs awarded for valour in the hostilities against the Japanese. Both recipients were soldiers.
The first of these was earned in Hong Kong in 1941 by John Robert Osborn of the Winnipeg Grenadiers. It was in fact the first Canadian VC earned in WW II, but the feat went unrecognized until after the Japanese surrender in 1945. The official citation did not appear in the London Gazette until April 2, 1946.
Born on Jan. 2, 1899, at Norfolk, England, Osborn served with the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve during WW I. As a seaman, he saw action at the Battle of Jutland in 1916. After the war, he moved to Canada and farmed for two years at Wapella, Sask., and then worked for the maintenance division of the Canadian railroad in Manitoba. He returned to farming and in 1933 joined the Winnipeg Grenadiers reserve. Six years later he was called to active duty.
On Oct. 27, 1941, the Winnipeg Grenadiers and the Royal Rifles of Canada sailed from Vancouver aboard the Awatea, escorted by His Majesty’s Canadian Ship Prince Robert. Both units were fresh back from separate garrison duties, and their destination was Hong Kong where their role was purely figurative, to say the least. The Japanese plans for conquest of the island were not about to be upset by the addition to the garrison’s four infantry battalions of less than 2,000 untrained troops whose 212 vehicles never arrived.
On Dec. 8, the Japanese bombed Kai Tak airfield, destroying or damaging all available Royal Air Force aircraft. In the ensuing week, the Japanese overran the colony’s defences on the mainland New Territories and the Kowloon Peninsula. On Dec. 18, they attacked the main island.
While the defenders fought bravely, there was no relief. The U.S. Fleet had been decimated at Pearl Harbor and two British ships had been sunk off Singapore.
On the morning of Dec. 19, 1941, a company of the Winnipeg Grenadiers became divided during an attack on Mount Butler. Part of the company, led by Osborn, captured the hill at bayonet point and held on to it for three hours until the situation became untenable. Osborn and a small party of men covered the withdrawal, and when it came their turn to fall back, Osborn single-handedly fought off the attacking Japanese, all the while dodging machine-gun and rifle fire. His bravery allowed his men to get away.
That afternoon, Osborn’s company was cut off from the battalion and surrounded. When the Japanese began lobbying several grenades into the slight depression where the Winnipeggers had positioned themselves, Osborn picked up the live bombs and hurled them back. One of the grenades landed in an awkward spot where it was impossible for Osborn to pick it up. Shouting “Duck lads”, he threw himself on top of the grenade. He died instantly, but his self-sacrifice saved the lives of many.
A description of Osborn’s brave actions came out after the war when details were related by witnesses who were captured, including one soldier who had been close to where the action occurred. Osborn has no known grave, but his name appears on the Sai Wan Bay Memorial in Hong Kong.
When WW II started, Charles Ferguson Hoey had served for two years on India’s northern frontier with the British Army’s Lincolnshire Regt. Born at Duncan, B.C., on Vancouver Island on March 29, 1914, he attended school there and on graduation travelled to England in 1933. He enlisted in the West Kent Regt. and in 1935 was accepted for training by the Royal Military College at Sandhurst. After graduating the following year, he joined the Lincolnshires and was transferred to the 1st Bn. in India in 1937. Over the next six years he worked his way up to the rank of major, was mentioned-in-dispatches, and in July 1943 was awarded the Military Cross for leading a commando raid against the Japanese at Maungdaw.
By February 1944 the British advance in Burma had ground to a halt; the Japanese had increased their divisional strength from five to eight. The enemy’s objective was to invade East India and create a rebellion against the British. The initial attack came from the Arakan Hills to capture the port of Chittagong and draw the British force to that area. During the fighting, two Indian divisions were cut off from the British 7th Div. It then became the division’s task to relieve them. The British worked their way through the jungles and swamps and over mountains, skirmishing with enemy patrols. By Feb. 15, the British had reached the enemy force.
On Feb. 16, the Lincolnshire Regt. was ordered to break through to one of the Arakan peaks near the Ngakyedauk Pass, a move designed to give them command of the situation and force a Japanese withdrawal. Hoey’s company was to act as advance guard. Initially, the mission involved advancing up a valley between hills infested with Japanese machine-gun nests. “Major Hoey personally led his company under heavy machine-gun and rifle fire right up to the objective,” states the citation for his VC. “Although wounded at least twice in the leg and head, he seized a Bren gun from one of his men and firing from the hip, led his company on to the objective. In spite of his wounds, the company had difficulty in keeping up with him, and Major Hoey reached the enemy strong post first where he killed all the occupants before being mortally wounded.”
Hoey was buried that same day on the hill he had captured almost single-handedly. The men conducting his funeral service also came under fire. “Major Hoey’s outstanding gallantry and leadership, his total disregard of personal safety and his grim determination to reach the objective resulted in the capture of this vital position,” concludes the citation.
Hoey’s remains were later moved to the Taukkyan War Cemetery in Rangoon, Burma (now Yangon, Myanmar). His VC was donated by his mother to the Regimental Museum of the Lincolnshire Regt. in Lincoln.
The Dieppe raid on Aug. 19, 1942, marked the second time the Canadian Army had gone into action in WW II and like the Battle of Hong Kong, it was a fiasco. Of the 4,963 Canadians who embarked for the operation only 2,210 returned to England, and many of these were wounded. Nine hundred and seven were killed and many more were taken prisoner.
Nevertheless, the raid yielded two VCs. They were Charles Cecil Merritt, a Vancouver lawyer, and John Weir Foote, a clergyman from Madoc, Ont. Foote was the only member of the Canadian Army’s Chaplain Service to receive the medal. Both men were taken prisoner.
Born in Vancouver on Nov. 10, 1908, Merritt was educated at Lord Roberts School in Vancouver and the University School in Victoria. After graduating from the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ont., he became a lawyer in his native city. Prior to the outbreak of war he held a commission in the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada. In 1942, he was transferred to the South Saskatchewan Regt. as commanding officer.
Foote was born on May 5, 1904, and took his education at the University of Western Ontario in London and at Queen’s University in Kingston. He graduated in theology from the Montreal Presbyterian College at McGill University. He was ordained a minister and served congregations at Fort Coulonge, Que., and Port Hope, Ont. In December 1939, he joined the Canadian Chaplain Service and went overseas with the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry, RHLI.
On the day of the raid, the South Saskatchewan Regt. landed at Pourville, just west of the port of Dieppe. The unit’s advance had to be made across a bridge spanning the Scie River. Wide and exposed, the bridge was being swept with enemy mortar, machine-gun and artillery fire. The first groups of men to try and cross it were mowed down. In fact, the bridge became littered with Canadian dead.
When Merritt arrived on the scene he took off his helmet, wiped his forehead and asked, “What’s the hold up?” He was told it was a hot spot, impossible to get across. Merritt ran forward, waved his helmet and shouted, “Come on over! There is nothing to worry about here.” Four times he led his men across. In describing the action that earned Merritt the VC, Canadian war correspondent Wally Reyburn wrote: “As I watched him lead his men over that thundering barrage, I felt a quiver run up and down my spine. I had never seen anything like it.”
Merritt led an attack on four enemy pillboxes that were holding up the regiment’s advance. He assaulted one of them by throwing hand grenades into it. And although he was wounded twice he continued to direct the regiment’s operations. At one point, while organizing a withdrawal, he silenced a German sniper with his Bren gun. Merritt then took up a position to cover the evacuation until he was forced to surrender, but only after the last boats had left the beach.
When Foote learned that a military operation was in the offing, he asked to be included. But the RHLI commanding officer vetoed the request. Foote told him he was going to go anyway and that all the CO could do was arrest him for disobeying an order afterwards. The colonel relented and assigned him to the regimental aid post as a stretcher bearer.
The RHLI was one of the units assigned to the main assault on the beach at Dieppe. Touching down at 5:20 a.m., one of its companies was all but wiped out by German machine-gun fire. The survivors made for the protection of the sea wall, but even there fire rained down on the men from the west headland. As the battle raged on, Foote assisted the medical officer in administering to the wounded. During an eight-hour period he carried more than 30 wounded to the aid post, all the while under relentless enemy fire.
When the time came to evacuate, Foote helped carry the wounded into the landing craft. His boots became wet and heavy and so he took them off, a decision he would later regret. Finally, he boarded one of the last boats to leave the beach. Uncharacteristically for a padre, he grabbed a Bren gun and fired in frustration as a rearguard action against the Germans. He then changed his mind because he had noticed there were many more Canadians left on the beach. He coolly jumped overboard and swam ashore to surrender. He decided that those in his regiment who were about to become prisoners of war would need his services–comfort and above all, hope–more than those returning to England.
That night he and his fellow officers were taken to a church and locked up. “I spent the night on the church’s stone floor,” he recalled, “and although I was worn out, I rolled a lot on the floor.”
Merritt was taken to a PoW camp in Bavaria where he became senior officer of the escape committee. He escaped himself, but his freedom was short-lived. He was recaptured and remained a prisoner until liberated in the spring of 1945.
Foote was forced to march without boots along the cinders of railway tracks and over rugged terrain to a prison camp. Fellow prisoners recalled him giving up officer privileges in prison to be with the rank and file. During his time as a prisoner, he kept his “congregation” busy organizing three bands with instruments received from Canada and an accordion given to him by a German guard. Of his captors he said: “They put up with an awful lot from us, more than we would have put up with them if the situations had been reversed.”
After the war, Foote became a member of provincial parliament, representing Durham County in Ontario. He made his home in Cobourg and later became minister of reform institutions. He was also an illustrious member of the Legion. In nearby Grafton, they named a Legion branch after him. Foote died May 2, 1988, just three days shy of his 84th birthday. He was buried in Cobourg’s Union Cemetery. Among the dignitaries attending the funeral was the last surviving WW I Canadian VC recipient, Charles Rutherford.
Merritt was elected Conservative MP for Vancouver-Burrard. In 1949–after losing his seat–he returned to practising law in Vancouver. He also became commanding officer of his old reserve unit, the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada. Merritt was an honorary president for 30 years and life member of the Legion’s Mount Pleasant Branch in Vancouver and he held the Meritorious Service Medal. He was also for 10 years a trustee of the Vancouver Poppy Fund and chairman of the local Last Post Fund. He died at the age of 91 in Vancouver on July 12, 2000.
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