Lance-Corporal Albert Osborne
Unit : Anti-Tank Platoon, HQ Company, 1st Parachute Battalion
Army No. : 6461257
Born in Walworth, London, to William Alfred and Miriam Louise Osborne, Albert Osborne joined the Royal Fusiliers on the 7th March 1939, and was serving with their 9th Battalion when he volunteered for the Airborne Forces in late 1940 or early 1941. Having completed his parachute course, he joined what was then No.2 Commando, later known as the 11th Special Air Service Battalion before being renamed the 1st Parachute Battalion. He served with the Anti-Tank Platoon in North Africa, Sicily and Italy. The following is a letter which he sent to his brother Bill, two weeks after the Sicily operation.
We have had permission from General Montgomery himself, that at this date or any time after, we can write of our adventures in North Africa and in Sicily. You can guess that we have had plenty to do in N. Africa, and it is a very long story, more than I would attempt to write about, but you would have read most of it in the newspapers, so I will make it very brief.
The paratroops are the only troops that can honestly say they fought on every front in N. Africa, and have the record of killing and capturing more Germans, than any other troops in that campaign. After the campaign, we were personally inspected and congratulated for our work by Montgomery - Eisenhower - Anderson - Alexander and a letter from the King, and all addressed us a Red Devils, a nick name given to us by the Germans. Now for Sicily.
Two weeks before the invasion of Sicily, we were told to get ourselves ready for a job. For a fortnight we worked hard, and each man was given his orders just what to do, they wanted no mistakes on this job, it meant so much to a speedy ending.
The morning of the job we got ready, every man fit and keen, we made up little bundles of our personal belongings and attached a little note - If I fail to return, please forward this to my mother, these were left behind in our kit bags. Time came when we had to part camp for the air-field, men that couldn't go, owing to being wounded in other actions, wished us luck.
We got to the air-field where we met our crew, and we got the dope from the pilot just what he was going to do on the final run-in. Then we got the last boost up by our commander ("Men you know your jobs and just what you are expected to do, at all costs it will be done. Don't let anything get in your way, whatever you encounter you know just how to deal with it. The enemy have seen you in N. Africa, he knows you, don't like you, and will do all he can to stop you, but he will not. That is all gentlemen. Good luck, Gods speed and a safe return.
It was 8.0pm. and at 8.30pm. we were due to start, and scheduled to arrive in Sicily, behind enemy lines, at 10.30pm. so we all assembled and wished each other luck. The 8th Army was to relieve us after 12 hours, although we weren't worrying about that part, because we could depend on the 8th Army. Take off - we smoked and talked a lot, and after a time flying, we saw Malta, "Not far to go lads, hook up, 40 minutes to go.
Just as we were to approach the coast of Sicily, we got keyed up for a hot reception from enemy flack. We got it O.K. more than we expected, flashes came from all over the place, it was terrifying.
During this time our air-craft was hit, the port side engine, it choked up and stopped. From then on the air-craft was bumping, swaying, diving and climbing to dodge the flack. We were tossed from one side of the plane to the other, we knew that any second it would be time for us to jump, so we scrambled to the door the best way we could, and to look down at that sight was no joke. Then on came the Red light ("Action Station") in a second on came the Green light ("Go") and out we went. It was just like jumping into an inferno, the country side for miles was ablaze, tracer bullets were coming up at us from enemy machine guns on the ground.
Floating down by parachute, thinking any time I would be dead before I touched down it seemed weeks before I hit the deck, actually it was only a matter of seconds. It does not take long to get down from a 300 ft drop, but it was terrifying. Then I gave a sigh, a sign of relief when I hit the deck, it took me several seconds to pull myself together as I had a rough landing. I said something to myself, you can guess what it was, then I went to find my detachment, two men.
I wasn't sure of my position, but I went forward about 200 yds, took a look round but couldn't see anything, but could hear enemy voices. I didn't fancy that at all, as I had no weapons, just two hand grenades and a fighting kiff, but I scrambled through the bush under cover of darkness to my original position and tried another way. Then I saw a parachute hanging over the telegraph wires, I stopped and a quivering uncertain voice came from a bush ("Who's that?"). I gave the pass word, it was one of my men, and he had a hand grenade ready to throw it at me, if I had been one of the enemy, because he was as scared as I was.
We had another look round, and we still could hear enemy voices, even more nearer and more of them, then I looked for some nice cover and said, "Lets go, its dangerous hanging around near parachutes, so we went to find the last man, he wasn't far away, but slightly hurt from a bad landing, although it wasn't much. We still had to get to our containers, for our weapons because until we got our weapons, we couldn't defend ourselves. We found the container, what a sight! my heart went down in my boots as the parachute of the container failed to open and crashed to the ground, the weapons were absolutely unserviceable.
All this time we could still hear enemy voices quite near and bullets were flying all over the place, you can guess what we felt like. From the time we jumped from the plane all this happened in 15 minutes. We then made for the objective, a bridge about 1000 yds away, and on our way we came across a reserve supply of weapons, so we soon armed ourselves with one Bren gun and two rifles.
This cheered us up a bit because we could at least defend ourselves, so off we went again.
We got about 200 yds from the bridge, then the attack started and we let fly with all we had. A small tank, followed by an armoured car and a truck loaded with ammo of the enemy, came down the road.
There was a section on my left, and it didn't take them long to put them out of action, one of the lads fired a paratroop anti-tank gun at the tank, and two cannon bombs were thrown at the other two vehicles. These are deadly weapons and smashed them to bits, killing all the drivers. The taking of the bridge only took us half an hour but it was stiff fighting, as it was well fortified.
We took the bridge over and got in position for a counter attack, because he always comes back for more. There were some awful sights on the bridge, mostly enemy, although we didn't worry about that, our biggest worry was holding the bridge, that is always the hardest part. So I said, "Right lads, get yourselves ready, for the hardest part is coming, holding the bridge, as he's sure to come back and when he does, he comes back with plenty.
We didn't know it at the time, but he dropped paratroops of his own near the bridge, with the idea of giving us a surprise attack first thing in the morning, but we were prepared for anything. At first light next morning, he came out of his hiding place and again the fireworks started, but fortunately he walked slap bang into a trap, so it didn't last long, and they were slaughtered. This was not the end though, he was sure to come again, and we were all by ourselves.
The 8th Army was still pushing inwards towards us from the coast, but we didn't expect as much opposition as we got.
Paratroops have no transport and can only take as much ammunition as a man can carry, and too many of these attacks, and we would have been out of ammo. It was nice and quiet for some hours, so we settled down waiting for him to come back, for he meant to get that bridge or blow it up. On the bridge there were three long range guns of the enemy, and I was asked to man it with my two men, so we did so. We were in position with this gun for about half an hour, when our Officer saw German lorries loaded up with infantry. We loaded up the gun and let them have four shells and it shook them up, and forced them to get off the lorries, so of course they had to come to us by foot.
The gun wasn't much further use, so I returned back with my men to my original position, a pill box, I took a Bren gun and my two men had rifles. Just before this we got into contact, by radio, with the leading troops of the 8th Army, they were still ten miles away. We knew then that we had to hold on much longer, because this wasn't the news we expected, it was bad, as our ammo was almost finished, but we had to do our best. He came closer and closer until he was at a nice range for us to fire, so away we blazed again, but these men are fools and trusted to go at you with no fear, that puts the wind up most troops, but we had met these birds before in N. Africa, Storm Troops, Hermann Goering Regiment.
They did their best to get through, but we knocked them off like flies, my Bren gun hardly stopped firing the whole time, and I couldn't miss, for they were only 50 yds from us. I've never yet killed so many Germans in such a short time, but the ammo was still our worry, we could never hold out until the 8th Army came from ten miles away. The next news we got was that the 8th Army tanks had broken through and were making their way to us in good speed, but of course no speed as we wanted, but nevertheless it was good news.
The battle was still in full swing, and we were still holding them off, but more was coming, and we were already in a bad way. Then he really started. Over came German fighter planes and straffed us, then he shelled us with a long range overhead shrapnel gun. This wasn't nice at all, it could have been worse, though we were expecting it to happen, as we had been through all this many times before in North Africa. Then the final blow came, he brought up a bit short range direct hit, pill-box buster, and he just lined them up on our pill-boxes one after the other, and he blew them flat to the ground. Some men escaped from the blast, but others ---?
There was only two pill-boxes left, the company commander was in one, my two men and I in the other. I knew that one of these two was next to go, and the order came in to me. I had to hold on and give the wounded men cover over the bridge with my Bren gun, and I was hoping that these chaps would get a move on so that I could give the order to evacuate the pill-box. But the poor chaps were in a bad way, badly wounded and couldn't move very fast.
When they were all over and safe, I knew it was time to get out of that death trap, so I gave the order for my men to go, and we got out and took up a new position along the high bank. It was about five or six minutes later we saw our pill-box get smashed to the ground, all we were depending on then was one machine gun, as all the others were knocked out of position. We did our best and crawled to a good position and got cracking again.
The two men manning the gun on my right had their position set ablaze by incendiary bullets, the situation was bad enough, but that made things worse. I did my best to enable them to get to another place, by covering them with my Bren gun, and they did it O.K. There wasn't much fire coming from our lads, very little, in fact it was too little, and then the C.O. realized that our ammo was almost gone, so he gave the order to have the live charges removed from the bridge and replaced by dummy ones, so that when the 8th Army did come, they would try to blow up the bridge but they would get a terrible surprise to see nothing happening. Seeing as the 8th Army wasn't far off, the bridge was safe from being blown up. The C.O. gave the orders to withdraw, and a lot of us got away, but some were forced to stay as they couldn't get away, but they did a good job, with what little ammo they had, by sniping. I, and a good many others had the luck to get away, then we were told to make for the coast in small parties, so five of us made our way.
It was dark by this time so we were pretty safe, but we still had a big gap between us and the 8th Army, so no matter which way we went, we were still in danger as enemy were both sides of us. We were trying hard to get to the coast, but was being fired on from small isolated machine guns, and was knocked off our course. Then we got to a deep ditch and decided to stay there the night. We were dead beat, completely wacked, and we slept like logs. Next morning, to our surprise there were three houses just close by us, and it got us guessing as to whether there were enemy there or not. But we couldn't take any chances we couldn't put up fight as we only had 27 rounds of ammo between the five of us, so we decided to keep an eye on it, just to make sure. We did see some lorries running along a road about two miles away, but were they ours, we didn't know. If only we had had some idea of our position we would have known, but in the night we wandered too much.
We stayed in the ditch for some hours, and we were very thirsty, not so much hungry, although we hadn't ate or drank for 32 hours. Water is very scarce in Sicily, and it was unbearable, we wanted to take a chance and go to one of the houses for water with our entrenching tools in the ditch. So we got down to it and dug a small hole, then we waited over it like vultures waiting for the hole to fill up slowly. When the hole was full we tasted a little drop and it was awful, too bad to drink, but we had to do something, so we thought of boiling the water, but the smoke would give our position away. Then I remembered that I had 2 lbs of plastic with me, its a high explosive, but if set alight by a match exposed to the air, it is quite safe, and gives a hot flame without smoke. We took the inside out of one of the lads helmet and used it for boiling and made a fire with the plastic, it did the job just nice, and when the water boiled a thick layer of black slime was floating on the top. I scooped it off, it was as thick as mud, and still very black and tasted the same. We had a small ration of composite tea, thats tea sugar and milk all mixed into one and a few sweets, also a block of chocolate to take the taste off. It made about four pints, but it still looked black, but tasted good and quenched our thirst.
A short time had passed when one of the lads, looking over the top of the ditch saw three wops waving a white sheet, and the very thirst thing we all thought was that it must be the 8th Army, but we still couldn't take chances as Wops are very sly, and it might have been a trap. So one of the lads went along the ditch to make sure, and he fell right in to a trap. He saw British troops walking about the place, so he naturally thought they had taken over, so he walked in. These British troops were commandos that had made a fresh landing some miles away, but they had been taken prisoners of war, so our pal joined them, and that left four of us. We four were still waiting in the ditch, and we were trying to figure out what had happened to him.
Then the sergeant who was with us said, "O.K. lads, get ready, we are going over there to see what this is all about, so fix your bayonets, you two with rifles, and Ossie, you get on the right with that Bren gun." There was just the four of us, and we didn't think a lot of this idea, but we wouldn't say so, so we all made out we were brave, and all we had between us was 17 rounds of ammo, but then we tried to cheer ourselves up by cracking jokes, one chap said "These birds are easy, they're only Wops" the other laughed and said, "Will 17 rounds of ammo kill the lot?" The sergeant came out with one, he said, "It all depends, if they're not deaf, when they hear the first shot, they should give themselves up."
We got almost to the house, when our pal that had fell into the trap shouted not to go, or we would get shot at, but we couldn't, the country was flat with no cover, and we would be shot if we turned our backs, so we went. We might as well go through with it now. We were all shaking badly, and we couldn't make out, why they hadn't opened fire on us. The Sergeant told us to stop, and he tried to bluff them by shouting, "You are surrounded by British troops, you had better surrender to us or be blown to hell. I thought this was a bright idea, shouting in English to Wops, but our luck was in. One of the commandos had been talking to a Wop who could speak French, so he translated in French to the Wop, the Wop, told the Officer, then the Officer came from his office. He could speak English better than I could, and he came over and asked us where we had come from. We said that we had come from the main Army out there in the hills. The Wop Officer said that he was waiting for the British to come, so that he could hand over. We said we would take them to the British, then after a while he said "Yes".
There were more of them than we thought, 130 of them and 27 British prisoners. When we disarmed them, and our men were released, it dawned on us that we still didn't know where we were, but it was soon settled as one of these men had a map, and we soon found out where we were, which was in our own lines. By this time the 8th Army must have pushed on through the night, and left this as a isolated position, so those lorries we had seen on the road from the ditch, must have been ours.
We had something to eat and drink then off we went with the 130 Wops. We got to the road which was about two miles away, and we met our very first man of the 8th Army, boy! was we pleased to see him. We then got in touch with an Officer and explained to him who we were, and just what had happened, and he said he would take over the Wops and get them off our hands and would book them down to the 1st Parachute Btn. He supplies a lorry for us, and took us to a town. There we met a lot of our boys, some were still missing. We asked them if the bridge was O.K. and we were pleased to hear that everything was O.K. The 8th Army had got to the bridge in time.
You don't know what that news meant to us, we had done our jobs in spite of the fact that we had to leave it, and was pleased to know we didn't let the 8th Army down, and that all hard times were over, also that we didn't fight like rats for nothing. To cut the rest of this short story shorter, owing to shortage of paper, after we had a good meal, General Montgomery came to see us and thanked us for another good job, then said, "You have done your bit only too well and now in a couple of days you will return to N. Africa. We did and this is where I am writing from now.
Extracts of Albert Osborne's letter were included in a local newspaper article shortly after. Having returned to the UK in 1944, Osborne was promoted to Corporal and became Second-in-Command of a Section of the Assault Platoon. With this unit he went to Arnhem and was killed in action on Thursday 21st September 1944, aged 23. He is buried at the Airborne Cemetery at Oosterbeek, plot 5.B.4.
In 1983, an abridged version of his Sicily letter appeared in the Battle Annual, having been forwarded by Jeffrey, Lee and Daniel Osborne; the grandchildren of Albert's brother.
My thanks to Gerry Young and Bob Hilton for this account.
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