Five Shirburnians have been awarded the Victoria Cross, the highest military decoration awarded for gallantry in action.  Their names are commemorated on the plaque at the entrance to the School chapel.

During the Second World War, one Victoria Cross was awarded to a Shirburnian, Abbey House’s Lieutenant Jack Grayburn, who was killed in action at Arnhem on 20 September 1944 during Operation Market Garden.

The story of the failed Allied operation to seize nine bridges over the River Rhine was told in the 1977 film, A Bridge Too Far, in which the actor Christopher Good played Major Carlyle, a composite character of Lieutenant Jack Grayburn and Major Digby Tatham-Warter.

Operation Market Garden has been described by Antony Beevor as ‘quite simply a very bad plan right from the start and right from the top.  Every other problem stemmed from that.’  (Arnhem: The Battle for the Bridges, 1944, Viking, 2018)

The following account of Jack Grayburn’s bravery during the operation appeared in the London Gazette on 23 January 1945:

‘Lieutenant Grayburn was a platoon commander of the Parachute Battalion which was dropped on September 17th, 1944, with orders to seize and hold the bridge over the Rhine at Arnhem.  He, with his platoon, was to capture the southern end. Lieutenant Grayburn was wounded in the shoulder almost immediately, but he directed and pressed the assault until casualties became so heavy that he was ordered to withdraw.  Later, he successfully organized the occupation of a house vital to the defence of the bridge.  Although heavily attacked throughout the next day and night, thanks to Lieutenant Grayburn’s courage, leadership, and skill in disposing his men, the house was held until it was set on fire on September 19th, and had to be evacuated.  Lieutenant Grayburn then formed a fighting force of elements of all arms, including the remainder of his company.  Although wounded again, this time in the back, he refused to be evacuated.  When tank attacks, against which he had no defence, finally forced his retreat on September 20th, he stood up in full view of the enemy and directed the withdrawal of his men to the main defensive perimeter.  He was killed that night.  For nearly four days, despite pain and weakness from his wounds, shortage of food and lack of sleep, Lieutenant Grayburn displayed supreme and unflagging gallantry and determination. Without his inspiring leadership, the Arnhem bridge could not have been held for so long.’

During the battle, over a thousand men of the British 1st Airborne Division and Polish 1st Independent Parachute Brigade were killed.  On 24 January 1946, Jack’s remains, which had been recovered from the ruins of a building at Arnhem, were reburied at Arnhem Oosterbeek War Cemetery where the inscription on his headstone reads ‘YET SHALL HE LIVE. ST JOHN XI.25.’

Jack Grayburn was awarded a posthumous VC ‘for supreme courage, leadership and devotion to duty’.  His was one of five VC’s awarded for Operation Market Garden.  Jack’s widow received his VC at a special investiture held at Buckingham Palace on 19 December 1945 and, in 1987, Jack’s son presented his father’s VC and other medals to the Parachute Regiment and they are now on display at the Airborne Assault Museum at IWM Duxford

Jack Grayburn (1918-1944)

Jack Grayburn and Sherborne School

John ‘Jack’ Hollington Grayburn was born on Manora Island in Pakistan on 31 January 1918 and, following in the footsteps of his two elder brothers, came to Sherborne School in September 1931.  Although not particularly athletic in appearance, Jack became Captain of Boxing at Sherborne and was later described by the Headmaster, A.R. Wallace, as ‘a most resolute fighter in the ring’.  On leaving Sherborne in 1935, Jack joined the London office of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank and spent his spare time volunteering at Sherborne House in Southwark, a cadet unit officered largely by Old Shirburnians and providing activities, such as boxing, shooting, drill and camps, for local boys.  He also played for the Chiltern Rugby Club.  In 1942, Jack married Dorothy Constance Marcelle Chambers, and their son John was born in March 1943.

Following news that Jack had been awarded a posthumous VC, his mother wrote to R.S. Thompson, one of Jack’s teachers at Sherborne School, thanking him for his letter of sympathy and congratulations.  She added:

‘I shall keep your letter & show little John when he is older, for I think it will help him to realise that Arnhem was no flash in the pan, as you put it, but the result of a very fine character.  Our loss is very great, Jack was a wonderful son, always trying to help his parents in every way he could think of. We shall miss him terribly, but I’m grateful that he has not come back to us with injuries that would mean a life of pain & inactivity. Better far that the loss & sorrow is ours, than that he should suffer so.’

The Headmaster, A.R. Wallace, echoed the School’s sense of pride and loss in Jack’s obituary in the School magazine:

‘Let me just add as the School’s representative a word, however inadequate to express to all his relatives and friends the pride which we all feel in reading of his gallant exploits at Arnhem.  We shall see, too, that his memory is kept ever green, and that his young son when the time comes for him to follow his father at Sherborne will find that the School is neither forgetful nor ungrateful.  Requiescat in pace.’

Jack Grayburn is commemorated at Sherborne School on the War Memorial Staircase, in the Book of Remembrance, and on the Abbey House roll of honour.

Find out more about Operation Market Garden at Arnhem: Legacy of Liberation (CWGC)

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