Jack Grayburn

Poor quality photograph of Jack Grayburn, in 1944

Jack Grayburn as a member of Chiltern Rugby Club

Jack Grayburn during a rugby match

Lieutenant John Hollington Grayburn


Unit : No.2 Platoon, "A" Company, 2nd Parachute Battalion

Army No. : 149002

Awards : Victoria Cross


Jack Grayburn was born on Manora Island, India, in 1918. His father, Lionel "Paddy" Grayburn, a military man who had served with the Yeomanry during the Boer War, worked for Grindleys Bank of India until ill health had compelled him to resign. The family returned to England and settled at Roughwood Farm in Chalfront St. Giles, to the west of London. Jack and both of his brothers, the eldest of whom was awarded the Military Cross during the Second World War, were educated at Sherborne School in Dorset. He was not an academically inclined pupil, but was a skilled boxer and rugby player. From 1927, Jack Grayburn played for Chiltern Rugby Club during the school holidays and continued to represent them when he left Sherborne in 1936, playing his last game on the 17th April 1939. It had been intended for Jack to work in Hong Kong with his uncle, Sir "Tubby" Vandeleur Grayburn, then Chief General Manager of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation, however with hostilities looming in the region, his posting was cancelled. When Hong Kong fell to the Japanese, Grayburn's uncle was interned and later executed.


Shortly before the war began, Grayburn joined the Army Cadet Force and his first posting was with the 1st (London) Cadet Force The Queen's Royal Regiment, but he was later transferred to the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry. In 1942, he met and married Marcelle Chambers, a secretary at the Headquarters staff, with whom he had a son, John. Grayburn, once described as "a belligerent individual", was frustrated by the years of inaction on the home front and so he applied to enter the Parachute Regiment. In early 1943, he was posted to the 7th (Light Infantry) Parachute Battalion, part of the 6th Airborne Division, before joining the 2nd Battalion.


Jack Grayburn commanded No.2 Platoon, who were chosen to spearhead the thrust of A Company, and consequently the 2nd Battalion, to Arnhem Bridge. Nearing Oosterbeek, No.2 Platoon arrived at a T-Junction and Jack Grayburn seemed to be unclear as to which of the two roads to take. He chose the northern one, but shortly after, the platoon behind him came under loose rifle and mortar fire from the woodland ahead. Grayburn ordered a smokescreen to be laid down while he led a charge to clear the enemy away. The fighting was brief and the Battalion was soon free to press on.


At approximately 8pm, No.2 Platoon reached the northern end of Arnhem bridge, the first troops to do so. With no opposition to speak of, A Company quickly positioned themselves beneath and around the ramp leading to the Bridge, with No.2 Platoon directed onto the embankment itself, its men on either side of the road. Occasional German vehicles passed over the Bridge, directly between No.2 Platoon's positions. However nothing was done to impede them as the Airborne presence at the Bridge was still rather small and so at this stage remaining undetected was more important than challenging harmless targets.


A very small detachment from No.3 Platoon made an attempt to capture the southern end of Arnhem Bridge, but withdrew after a brief exchange of fire. A Company's commander, Major Tatham-Warter, ordered Jack Grayburn's platoon to make a properly coordinated attack while the rest of the Company provided covering fire. No.2 Platoon, with their faces blackened and boots muffled by strips of curtain, moved across both sides of the Bridge in single file, using the iron sides to camouflage their attack. The extraordinarily high conduct of Lieutenant Jack Grayburn at Arnhem Bridge was noted by Major Tatham-Warter, who, after the Battle, wrote a report which led to Grayburn being promoted to Captain and awarded the Victoria Cross. His actions are described in the following citation:


Lieutenant Grayburn was a platoon commander of 2nd Battalion The Parachute Regiment which was dropped on 17th September 1944 with the task of seizing and holding the bridge over the Rhine at Arnhem.


The north end of the bridge was captured and, early in the night, Lieutenant Grayburn was ordered to assault and capture the southern end with his platoon. He led his platoon onto the bridge and began the attack with the utmost determination, but the platoon was met by a hail of fire from two 20mm quick firing guns and from machine guns of an armoured car. Almost at once Lieutenant Grayburn was shot through the shoulder. Although there was no cover on the bridge and in spite of his wounds, Lieutenant Grayburn continued to press forward with the greatest dash and bravery until casualties became so heavy that he was ordered to withdraw. He directed the withdrawal from the bridge personally and was himself the last man to come off the embankment into comparative cover.


Later his platoon was ordered to occupy a house which was vital to the defence of the bridge and he personally organised the occupation of the house.


Throughout the next day and night the enemy made ceaseless attacks on the house, using not only infantry with mortars and machine-guns but also tanks and self-propelled guns. The house was very exposed and difficult to defend and the fact that it did not fall to the enemy must be attributed to Lieutenant Grayburn's great courage and inspiring leadership. He constantly exposed himself to enemy fire while moving among and encouraging his platoon and seemed completely oblivious to danger.


On 19th September the enemy renewed his attacks which increased in intensity as the house was vital to the defence of the bridge. All the attacks were repulsed due to Lieutenant Grayburn's valour and skill in organising and encouraging his men until eventually the house was set on fire and had to be evacuated.


Lieutenant Grayburn took command of elements of all arms, including the remainder of his own company, and reformed them into a fighting force. He spent the night reorganising a defensive position to cover approaches to the bridge.


On 20th September he extended his defence by a series of fighting patrols which prevented the enemy from gaining access to the houses in the vicinity, the occupation of which would have prejudiced the defence of the bridge. This forced the enemy to bring up tanks which brought Lieutenant Grayburn's position under such heavy fire that he was forced to withdraw to an area further north. The enemy now attempted to lay demolition charges under the bridge and the situation was critical. Realising this, Lieutenant Grayburn organised and led a fighting patrol, which drove the enemy off temporarily and gave time for the fuses to be removed. He was again wounded, this time in the back but refused to be evacuated.


Finally, an enemy tank against which Lieutenant Grayburn had no defence approached so close to his position that it became untenable.


He then stood up in full view of the tank and personally directed the withdrawal of his men to the main defensive perimeter to which he had been ordered.


He was killed that night.


From the evening of 17th September until the night of 20th September, a period of over three days, Lieutenant Grayburn led his men with supreme gallantry and determination. Although in pain and weakened by his wounds, short of food and without sleep, his courage never flagged. There is no doubt that, had it not been for this officer's inspiring leadership and personal bravery, the Arnhem bridge could never have been held for this time.


Jack Grayburn was killed by machine-gun fire from the tank that he had stood in front of. He was buried on the western portion of the grassy area which forms the bridge ramp, close to the underpass, but it was not until 1948 that his remains were discovered and removed to the Airborne Cemetery. After hearing of Jack's death, his wife, Marcelle, returned to her native Scotland where she married again, but her own life was also tragically cut short by Leukaemia. Plaques dedicated to Jack Grayburn's memory can be found in the Parish Church at Chalfront St. Giles, and on the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation war memorial in Queen's Street, Hong Kong. 



My thanks to Chiltern Rugby Club for allowing me to reproduce elements of their website in the above account.


Offsite Links: Chiltern Rugby Club.


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