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Scanlan, John Joseph (1890–1962)

by A. J. Sweeting

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

John Joseph Scanlan (1890-1962), by unknown photographer

John Joseph Scanlan (1890-1962), by unknown photographer

Australian War Memorial, H06233

John Joseph Scanlan (1890-1962), soldier and public servant, was born on 19 October 1890 in South Melbourne, son of Victorian-born John Andrew Scanlan, coachbuilder, and his Irish-born wife Mary Josephine, née McMahon. He was educated at the Christian Brothers' College, St Kilda, and having reached sub-matriculation standard, gained appointment to the Customs Department as a shipping clerk. In 1910 he joined the 5th Battalion (Victorian Scottish Regiment) (Volunteers) and after two years was promoted sergeant and transferred to the newly formed 60th Battalion. In July 1913 he was commissioned second lieutenant in the 58th Infantry (Essendon Rifles).

Scanlan volunteered for the Australian Imperial Force in August 1914, joining the 7th Battalion as a second lieutenant, and embarked from Melbourne on 19 October. In Egypt he was promoted lieutenant on 1 February 1915 and that month was part of a back-up force in operations against the Turks advancing across the Sinai towards Suez. He was with the three leading platoons of the 7th Battalion at the Gallipoli landing on 25 April and was fortunate to survive. As the four boats carrying the Victorians approached the beach they came under withering enemy fire. Scanlan landed unscathed, but of 140 men only 3 officers and about 35 men were unhurt or lightly wounded. The rest lay in the boats, dead, dying or gravely wounded.

Scanlan himself was slightly wounded next day, but remained on duty. On 8 May, however, during the advance towards Krithia from Cape Helles, he received a bullet through the chest when advancing across open ground through a rain of fire. He spent more than a year convalescing in Egypt and Australia.

This harsh baptism of fire failed to dim Scanlan's military ardour and on 1 August 1916 he again embarked for overseas service. Arriving in England on 14 September, he joined the 59th Battalion. It had lost heavily in July in the battle of Fromelles, France, and was resting. Scanlan was promoted captain on 1 November and a series of staff appointments, interspersed with regimental service, followed. He was briefly adjutant of the 58th Battalion, staff captain, 8th Brigade, for six months (he was promoted major on 20 February 1917) and more briefly with the 15th Brigade and 5th Division Headquarters. In December he did fine work organizing, improving and supervizing the 59th Battalion's defences during a sixteen-day stint in the Wytschaete-Messines area, Belgium, and for a few days, early in 1918, commanded the 57th Battalion. On 6 February 1918 he was promoted lieutenant-colonel and given command of the 59th Battalion. Then aged 27, he was one of a small number of remarkable Australians who had risen by 1918 to command battalions while still only in their twenties.

A prudent and positive leader, Scanlan commanded the 59th during the brilliantly successful Australian counter-attack at Villers-Bretonneux on the night of 24-25 April. At Ville-sur-Ancre on 24 July he led a composite force which overcame an enemy strongly armed with machine-guns and outnumbering the Australians four to one. Other successes followed: in the operations east of Villers-Bretonneux on 8-9 August; at Mont St Quentin on 2 September; and in the attack on the Hindenburg line on 29 September. During this six-month period he won the Distinguished Service Order, a Bar to the D.S.O., and was thrice mentioned in dispatches.

Scanlan returned to Australia in May 1919 and on 1 August his A.I.F. appointment ended. He was appointed secretary of the Victorian Prices Commission in October, but left to farm near Swan Hill. During the Depression he was in charge of the sustenance workers' camp at Broadmeadows, and was later assistant officer-in-charge of the Sustenance Department. In 1936 he went to Tasmania as deputy governor of Hobart gaol. He had been placed on the reserve of officers, Australian Military Forces, in July 1920 and on the outbreak of World War II was called up for full-time duty as commanding officer of the 6th Garrison Battalion. In September 1941 he was promoted temporary colonel and appointed commander 'New Guinea Area' (or 'Lark Force'), as the garrison of Rabaul was known.

Scanlan took over the force on 8 October. It comprised an A.I.F. battalion and some militia, totalling about 1400. After a series of punishing air raids, the Japanese attacked in overwhelming strength on 23 January 1942. There was some spirited resistance, but the defenders' task was hopeless. Scanlan had issued an order on New Year's Day exhorting his men to fight to the last and declaring that there was to be 'no withdrawal' (this order which had originated at Army Headquarters, Melbourne, was obviously unrealistic) but was obliged like the remaining survivors to flee along jungle tracks. He reached the Tol area shortly after the Japanese had massacred about 160 Australians and received a Japanese message urging him to surrender and 'beg mercy' for his troops. Influenced by the massacre of his men, Scanlan gave himself up. He did so 'in a blaze of glory', wrote a survivor, 'complete with summer-weight uniform, collar and tie, red gorgets and red cap band. He was wearing new boots and had cut his hair and shaved his beard … He certainly looked every inch a colonel and the effect was in startling contrast to our ragged shorts and shirts, battered boots and scrubby beards'.

Jack Scanlan spent the remaining three-and-a-half years of the war as a prisoner at Rabaul and in Japan, where he was shipped with other officers and nurses in June 1942. In 1943, while still a prisoner, he was appointed governor of Hobart Gaol, a position he accepted in 1946. Survived by his wife Annie Isobel, a son and a daughter, he died in the Repatriation Hospital, Kingston, on 6 December 1962 of coronary occlusion.

Select Bibliography

  • C. E. W. Bean, The Story of Anzac, vols 1, 2 (Syd, 1921, 1924)
  • C. E. W. Bean, The A.I.F. in France, 1918 (Syd, 1937, 1942)
  • D. Selby, Hell and High Fever (Syd, 1956)
  • Herald (Melbourne), 2 May, 22 Apr 1936, 20 Mar 1937, 14 Jan 1943, 19 Sept, 17 Nov 1945
  • Sun News-Pictorial (Melbourne), 19 Feb 1942, 6 Aug 1943
  • War diary, 59th Battalion (Australian War Memorial).

Citation details

A. J. Sweeting, 'Scanlan, John Joseph (1890–1962)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/scanlan-john-joseph-8349/text14653, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 19 December 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

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