Ron Osborne pulls himself out of the sofa chair and carefully plants one foot in front of the other as he goes to retrieve the X-rays taken at a makeshift hospital on a Greek island during the Second World War after breaking his back and his neck – he’s now a self-proclaimed ‘walking miracle.’
Born and raised in east London, Osborne was one of six brothers who fought to defend the United Kingdom. Fred and Ted served in the Royal Engineers, Victor in the British, Australian and New Zealand navy and Robert and Thomas in the British Merchant Navy.
“It wrecked our family. We had a lovely family but we never had one again. It was done for,” Osborne said. “The war ends and your father is gone and your brothers are all dispersed all over the world.”
Osborne was only 12 when war broke out and he, Tom and Brian were evacuated to a school near Kingsland, north of the city.
“We were there at school when the teacher held us back after school and we walked outside and without a single word of kindness or anything he just slammed us with ‘your father’s been killed’,” Osborne said.
It turned out that Edward Isaac, who was working in London, had been among those who fell victim to the first daylight raid as 300 German bombers descended on the city marking the beginning the Blitz.
Osborne returned to London in 1941 at age 14 and found different jobs before he begin training as a maintenance engineer and joining the Merchant Navy.
“I longed to be in the navy,” he said, speaking about his admiration for boats.
Brothers Fred and Ted joined the Royal Engineers almost immediately after the war broke out, the later brother surviving Dunkirk in 1940.
Victor, who lives in Cedar, was in the British Royal Navy, Australian Royal Navy and the Royal New Zealand Navy.
“Victor was in Japan off the coast when the Americans dropped the atomic bomb,” Osborne said, adding that his brother was also in Burma, North Africa and Mediterranean. “He went through bloody hell.”
He’s kept a ship-to-ship Christmas gram sent to him by Victor in 1944 wishing him well.
Brother Bob, a captain, went in straight into the Merchant Navy at 15 years old.
“He did quite a few trips mostly to South America mostly bringing back food,” said Osborne.
Tom served on a naval tug as a 15-year-old and was one the youngest to land on the American beaches during the D-Day invasion.
Among Osborne’s first assignments at age 16 with the Merchant Navy was aboard a massive rescue tugboat towing a captured German U-Boat around northern Scotland.
Next he made his way to Greenwich where he was put on the HMS Queen Elizabeth.
“It slipped out that night with no escort and zigzagged across the Atlantic,” Osborne said. “Don’t know where I’m going – no idea.”
He landed in a New York, where Osborne and the other crew were to await the building of one of the Liberty ships before taking it back across the Atlantic.
“We were entertained in New York,” said Osborne, who was even given a U.S. Social Security card which he has held onto all these years later. “They gave us tickets (Radio City Music Hall) and the Empire State Building and that was before it had a railing on it.”
A 100 ship convoy, in large numbers to prevent against a U-boat attack, then travelled back across the Atlantic with the Liberty ship with boxes of supplies piled all across the deck.
During the war the British Merchant Navy lost 45,000 men, but Osborne and his brother Bob were among the lucky ones.
“The earlier years when brother Bob was in it, we lost 26,000 Merchant Navy ships.”
Still, Osborne said the thought never really crossed his mind of the impending dangers lurking beneath the water.
“When you’re young you really don’t think about that,” he said. “You’re dispensable and I don’t think anybody really thought about it. You did everything you were told to do. You didn’t have any one specific job.”
As the convoy of ships crossed the Atlantic and into the Mediterranean, Osborne can distinctly remember what came next.
“The first thing I saw was this amazing site in Egypt. You’ve got this amazing picture in your mind and if only I could paint it, I would,” he said. “There we were, we arrived into Alexandria and the ship was laden with war supplies for North Africa.”
By this time it was the spring of 1944, and the ship had a major role in transporting troops across the Mediterranean, one time being involved in a major joint operation with the navy as they transported troops to France.
“The ship ended up on the Saint-Raphaël beach and I could see them cycling and there were shells whizzing overhead – a massive bombardment inland from the coast towards the German troops,” he said.
In Marseille, Osborne went ashore and discovered a port full of broken ships but the local economy was thriving like there was no war happening at all.
Onward to Greece he witnessed a gruesome scene after the Germans retreated and left a power vacuum.
“There was gunfire in the town where we were and infighting between two factions wanting to take power,” he said.
“The things you never forget…we had kids come aboard the ship for food and they took it out of our slop buckets.”
Still a young man himself, it was a short time later off the Greek island of Symi where his fate was about to turn.
The ship was docked off the coast and and he went ashore on a landing craft and came back with a member of the British Army’s Special Air Service.
“We got to the top (of the scramble net) and the whole bloody thing went down so somebody had sabotaged it – the German prisoners (aboard the ship) – they were after him and I happened to be in the wrong place,” he said.
“We both went down and hit the landing craft and I saw a blue flash but didn’t go out.”
X-rays, which Osborne still has to this day, confirmed he had broken his back in several places as well as fractured his neck. It was Jan. 31, 1945 and the German surrender was only months away.
He was transported to a naval hospital in Egypt but was determined not to accept the diagnosis that he’d never walk again.
“One day I was lying there and I just decided to stand up and the doctors and nurses went mad and said ‘you’re not supposed to do that’ and I just remember saying ‘but I am’,” he said. “I’m a walking miracle.”
The severe injury still impacts him, spending thousands on physiotherapy, but in those days as a young man he would soon rejoin the Merchant Navy and continue to serve after the German surrender in May 1945.
Back aboard a ship some time later that was transporting Italian war prisoners,, Osborne was placed in charge of 200 men below deck in the holds.
“We’re going into Naples and the bloody lights went out and there standing behind me was one of them with a piece of wood and he was just about the kill me and his mate pulled him off,” he remembers.
Often times it was the weather that presented a threat.
Off the coast of West Africa in 1948 with the ship packed to the brim with iron ore, they encountered a hurricane that eventually inspired Farley Mowat’s novel The Serpent’s Coil.
“We’re going across the Bay of Bisque and we ran into the edge of a hurricane,” Osborne said.
“They temporary head it into the sea. That’s the only way you’ll survive. You can’t take it sideways or you’ll go over.”
But it was also at sea on a voyage to New Zealand where Osborne would meet his late wife Joan Hicks.
They would move to Vancouver together raise four daughters – Barbara, Jackie, Deborah and Gillian.
He is also a grandfather to eight children.
Victor, had three children with his late wife Joyce, including Susan who lives in Nanaimo, Michael and Roger, a veteran of the Vietnam War.
When asked what he thinks of on Remembrance Day each year, without hesitation he responds “I think about my father.”
“He was a veteran of the Boer War and First World War and was actually at the siege of Ladysmith so it’s rather strange we would end up here in Ladysmith,” Osborne said.
Edward Isaac’s name is engraved on the Civilian War Dead Honour Roll at Westminster Abbey- a lasting reminder of the ultimate sacrifice the Osborne family paid during the Second World War.