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Captain J B Osborne
Late Irish Guards
by Brigadier R C Wolverson OBE DL
formerly Irish Guards

James Osborne, born in 1923, was one of the last surviving officers from 2nd Battalion Irish Guards, and died on 30th March 2014.

When James Osborne’s father commanded the Cairo Infantry Brigade before the War, he had 1st Battalion Irish Guards, commanded by Lt Col Bruce Reford, in the Brigade. Thus it was in 1942, as James left Eton, that his father arranged an interview with the Regimental Lieutenant Colonel. He joined the Brigade Squad at Caterham. The Guards Armoured Division was just being formed, which James was keen to join, so he attended a course at the Guards Armoured Training Wing at Pirbright. After Sandhurst, he joined the Irish Guards Training Battalion at Lingfield.

He was then posted as a supernumerary officer to the 2nd Armoured Battalion of the Regiment training at Thetford.  The Battalion moved to Duncombe Park in Yorkshire for final training. Here he met Hugh Ripman, the Medical Officer, and Tony Dorman, who both became lifelong friends.  Tony formed a beagle pack and James whipped in. After Christmas lunch 1943, three subalterns raced their scout cars down an icy road. James hit a post, the Commanding Officer told him to hide any evidence, a damaged petrol can, so when the police arrived no charges could be levied!

The Battalion left Yorkshire on 1st June 1944. On the drive to embark for France, James remembers being entertained en route by miners in Nottinghamshire by a cock fight, albeit an activity that had been illegal for 20 years. On landing in Normandy, he was in reserve, based in an orchard, sending up crews and tanks to the Battalion. By 8th August, he was a troop commander in No 1 Squadron. The Battalion had suffered seven officers and 67 other ranks killed and six officers and 182 other ranks wounded.

The Battalion, after two weeks’ R&R, advanced. In Douai, Maj Gen Allan Adair, commanding the Guards Armoured Division, decided to form battalions into regimental battle groups, and so it was that the 2nd Armoured Battalion, commanded by Lt Col Giles Vandeleur, fought alongside the 3rd Battalion, commanded by his cousin Joe Vandeleur, for the rest of the war. After Brussels, the Germans defended more fiercely. Towards dusk on 9th September, whilst clearing the village of Helchteren, James was wounded in the arm by shrapnel and was eventually evacuated home. His parents lived near Exeter and that was where he asked to be sent. He arrived in Edinburgh! He recovered and was sent to a staging post in Dorset, which was commanded by Lt Col Kim Finlay - his first Commanding Officer.

On returning to the Battalion he was posted to No 1 Squadron commanded by Mick O’Cock, who, on hearing it was James’ 21st birthday, immediately ordered up champagne and a great party ensued. The Battalion was in reserve in Geleen, but nevertheless undertook some infantry tasks. One night James took out a small patrol to reconnoitre a village. They found it occupied by Germans, lobbed the odd grenade and tore down a notice pinned to a doorway thinking it might be of some intelligence significance. The notice, when subsequently translated, read ‘Keep Out - Foot and Mouth’.

In February 1945, the Guards Armoured Division crossed the Rhine at Rees and advanced towards Hamburg. James noted the tremendous close support given by the RAF Typhoons. His troop led the attack on Guildenhaus. The Troop’s one Firefly, a Sherman tank armed with a 17 pdr gun, advanced but as it sought to engage the enemy’s 88 mm anti-tank gun on the edge of the village, its gun turret jammed. James leapt out of his tank and physically turned the turret until the tank commander, Sgt Kenwright, told him that the gunner, Bill Eager, was on target. Unfortunately, the gun misfired and the Germans knocked out the Firefly killing Sgt Kenwright and the driver. The Squadron then captured the village. James was mentioned in Despatches; his father, Lt Gen E A Osborne CB DSO, had been so recognised 11 times in First World War and twice in the Second.

After the war, he turned down an offer to become a Regular as he wished to farm. Meanwhile, the Battalion guarded displaced persons, not a congenial task. Whilst at Gummersbach, he recalled two events. First, a tour the Commanding Officer arranged to show Guardsmen around parts of liberated Europe, which included two days in Paris. The second was a musical revue put on in the town theatre by Sandy Faris. James had a walk-on part carrying a watering can. His catch-phrase at each entry was, ‘I am carrying the can back’. This amused the audience but it was his final appearance descending from the flies on a rope holding the largest watering can ever seen - not to land on the stage but to go straight through it via a concealed trap door. This, as Sandy Faris recalls ‘brought the house down. An already popular officer became more popular still. A star was born’.

His last appointment in the Army was with the Graves Registration Unit. The team toured the countryside for graves, mostly of airmen from Bomber Command and most wonderfully looked after by local German villagers. These were then registered so that subsequently the Graves Concentration Unit (often undertakers in civilian life) could disinter the bodies for reburial in War Cemeteries. He was demobilised on 7th January 1947.

After the war, he took a degree in agriculture at Aberdeen University. He had a mixed dairy farm in Devon, before qualifying as a land agent and returning to Somerset. He enjoyed all rural pursuits, especially hunting, whilst at the same time being involved in local affairs, chairing the parish council and serving on both the parochial church council and deanery synod. He married Susan in 1960 and they had two children and five grandchildren. In 1988, he ‘retired’ and established a soft fruit pick-your-own enterprise and subsequently a Christmas tree business.

In 1994 Susan and he were persuaded by Tony Dorman to join an Irish Guards visit to Douai to mark the 50th anniversary of the town’s liberation.  Tinker Tailor, Hugh Ripman, John Gorman, Sandy Faris and Bill Eager amongst others were there. Subsequently, he contributed to Tinker Taylor’s anthology of memories of those who served in the 2nd Battalion - The Armoured Micks 1941-1945, published in 1997. James Osborne never forgot his service, his war experiences and the friends made in the Regiment. It is fitting that two of his grandsons are on the list of potential officers.  In his privately published memoir, he records that one of the highlights of his life was serving with the Irish Guards.

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