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Field, John (1899–1974)

by Peter Londey

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

John Field (1899-1974), by unknown photographer, 1943-44

John Field (1899-1974), by unknown photographer, 1943-44

Australian War Memorial, P00662.002

John Field (1899-1974), army officer and engineer, was born on 10 April 1899 at Castlemaine, Victoria, only son and eldest of three children of John Woodhouse Barnett Field, brewery employee, and his wife Emily, née Bennett, both native-born. John senior was a Militia officer who rose to colonel and served in the Australian Imperial Force in World War I; years earlier, he had brought his infant son, wrapped in blankets, to be acclaimed by the regiment in which young John later served as a boy-bugler. Educated at Castlemaine High and Technical schools, at the age of 15 Field was apprenticed to Thompson & Co. Pty Ltd, engineers; he became senior designing draughtsman, specializing in centrifugal pumps and pumping-plants. At Christ Church, Castlemaine, on 11 October 1922 he married with Anglican rites Kate Corlett, a schoolteacher. Next year he was commissioned in the 7th Battalion, Militia.

In 1926 Field was appointed draughtsman in the faculty of engineering at the University of Tasmania. While lecturer in engineering, drawing and design (from 1927), he studied part time for his B.E. (1941). Continuing in the Citizen Military Forces with the 40th Battalion, by 1936 he was a major, intelligent and forward-looking: in 1932 he had won the army's gold-medal essay competition with his paper, 'The New Warfare', dealing with the influence of modern technology on tactics.

As World War II approached, Field worked full time on mobilization plans for Tasmania before transferring to the A.I.F. on 13 October 1939. Promoted lieutenant colonel, he commanded the 2nd/12th Battalion in Britain (June to November 1940), North Africa (December 1940 to August 1941) and Syria (September 1941 to January 1942). His battalion took part in the defence of Tobruk, Libya, from April to August 1941.

Returning to Australia, in May 1942 Field was promoted temporary brigadier and given command of the Militia's 7th Brigade. In July he was made commander of Milne Force, consisting of his own brigade and all naval, land and air units in the region of Milne Bay, Papua; he brought energy and his engineer's experience to the task of constructing airstrips, roads and camps. He reverted to his brigade command next month when Major General C. A. Clowes arrived to take over the augmented force. The 7th Brigade helped to repulse the Japanese landings in August-September and Field was awarded the Distinguished Service Order.

The brigade was recalled to Australia in late 1943 and sent to New Guinea in July 1944. Field had a lucky escape in September when an aircraft carrying him from Lae to Madang crashed in the mountains; he and his party trekked for nine days before reaching safety. Between November 1944 and the cessation of hostilities in August 1945, the 7th Brigade was part of Lieutenant General (Sir) Stanley Savige's II Corps on Bougainville. Field was appointed C.B.E. (1946) for his part in this campaign. He was twice mentioned in dispatches in World War II.

Back in Australia, Field was courted by both major political parties as a parliamentary candidate, but politely declined their approaches. In October 1945 he took a post in Melbourne assisting Savige who was co-ordinator of demobilization and disposal, and succeeded him in June 1946. Field transferred to the Reserve of Officers on 27 November. Next month the State Electricity Commission of Victoria appointed him assistant general superintendent for Yallourn; he became general superintendent in 1951. A powerful figure in Yallourn (where he was known as 'The Brig'), he was chosen in 1963 to head the La Trobe Valley territory, comprising the combined Yallourn and Morwell projects on which over 7000 workers were employed.

Field had been an able, methodical, reliable and consistent officer. Savige considered him the best of his commanders on Bougainville and wrote of him: 'He never sought the spectacular any more than he was spectacular himself'. Lifted out of relative obscurity by the opportunities of war, Field rose to the occasion and benefited in peacetime, though he was frustrated in his wish for further promotion within the S.E.C. After overseeing a large expansion in production in the La Trobe Valley, he retired to Melbourne in 1964. He had been active in Legacy and the C.M.F. (substantive brigadier 1949), and maintained contact with many of his old comrades.

Well read, and a capable artist in his spare time, Field was a warm, family man, who had illustrated his wartime letters to his children with humorous cartoons. He was—like his hero Sir John Monash—a most professional citizen-soldier. Field died on 12 May 1974 at St Kilda and was cremated; his wife and three daughters survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • D. McCarthy, South-West Pacific Area—First Year (Canb, 1959)
  • G. Long, The Final Campaigns (Canb, 1963)
  • B. Maughan, Tobruk and El Alamein (Canb, 1966)
  • Stand-To (Canberra), vol 5, no 5, Sept-Oct 1956, pp 2, 43, vol 6, no 1, Jan-Feb 1957, p 9
  • J. Field, Warriors for the Working Day (memoirs, incomplete manuscript, Australian War Memorial)
  • Field papers (Australian War Memorial).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Peter Londey, 'Field, John (1899–1974)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/field-john-10175/text17977, published in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 20 September 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

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