Australian Dictionary of Biography

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French, John Alexander (1914–1942)

by Anthony Staunton

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

John Alexander French (1914-1942), by unknown photographer, 1939-42

John Alexander French (1914-1942), by unknown photographer, 1939-42

Australian War Memorial, 100643

John Alexander French (1914-1942), soldier and barber, was born on 15 July 1914 at Crows Nest, near Toowoomba, Queensland, third of five children of Albert French, hairdresser, and his wife Lucy Fanny May, née Donaldson, both native-born. Educated at Crows Nest State School and Toowoomba Technical College, Jack entered his father's barber-and-tobacconist business. On 22 October 1939 he enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force and was posted to the 2nd/9th Battalion, then being formed at Redbank. Quiet, unassuming and of a serious disposition, French was a 'big fair chap', a good sportsman and well liked. He gave his religion as Presbyterian.

Sailing from Sydney in May 1940, he spent five months in Britain before reaching the Middle East in December. In March 1941 the 2nd/9th assaulted the Italian stronghold at Giarabub, Libya. From April to August the battalion took part in the defence of Tobruk before moving to Syria where it performed garrison duties. French became an excellent soldier. He was promoted acting corporal in December and his commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel C. J. Cummings, saw him as a future officer. The 2nd/9th returned to Australia in early 1942 and left again in August, bound for Papua. By mid-month the unit was established at Milne Bay.

On 26 August 1942 a Japanese invasion force landed on the north shore of Milne Bay, east of K.B. Mission. The 2nd/9th moved into the K.B. area on 2 September and on the following day continued east along the coast towards the Goroni River. French was in 'B' Company which crossed the river on 4 September to attack Japanese positions from the rear. A fierce engagement ensued. Three enemy machine-gun posts retarded the section's advance. Ordering his men to take cover, French made his way forward and destroyed one of the posts with grenades; he returned for more grenades and used them to demolish the second strong-point; armed with a Thompson sub-machine gun, he attacked the third gun-pit, firing from the hip as he went. Although he was badly wounded, he kept going, silenced the post and died in front of it. His action saved casualties among his comrades and assured the success of the attack. He was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross.

French was buried in Port Moresby (Bomana) war cemetery. His grieving fiancée Dulcie McCahon said that she 'knew he would always carry out his duty regardless of his safety'. Jack's elder brother Eric served in the A.I.F. On 11 August 1943, while flying with the Royal Australian Air Force, their younger brother Gordon was killed in action over Europe. The governor-general, Field Marshal Sir William (Viscount) Slim, opened and dedicated the John French, V.C., Memorial Library at Crows Nest on 18 July 1958.

Select Bibliography

  • D. McCarthy, South-West Pacific Area—First Year (Canb, 1959)
  • L. Wigmore (ed), They Dared Mightily, second ed revised and condensed by J. Williams and A. Staunton (Canb, 1986)
  • C. Baker and G. Knight, Milne Bay 1942 (Syd, 1991)
  • Courier-Mail (Brisbane), 15, 16 Jan 1943
  • Argus (Melbourne), 15 Jan, 13 Mar 1943
  • Crows Nest Advertiser, 21 Jan 1943
  • AWM76, B188 (Australian War Memorial).

Citation details

Anthony Staunton, 'French, John Alexander (1914–1942)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/french-john-alexander-10250/text18127, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 21 December 2014.

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

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014

John Alexander French (1914-1942), by unknown photographer, 1939-42

John Alexander French (1914-1942), by unknown photographer, 1939-42

Australian War Memorial, 100643