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John Wilson Crawford (1899–1943)

by Frank Cain

This article was published:

John Wilson Crawford (1899-1943), by unknown photographer

John Wilson Crawford (1899-1943), by unknown photographer

Australian War Memorial, 020725

John Wilson Crawford (1899-1943), army officer and solicitor, was born on 8 July 1899 at Paddington, Sydney, and baptized John, son of John Crawford, produce merchant, and his wife Emily, née Wilson, both Irish born. Educated at Sydney Church of England Grammar School (Shore) and the University of Sydney (B.A., 1922; LL.B., 1926), young John joined the school cadets and served with the Sydney University Scouts, in which unit he was appointed lieutenant on 16 February 1922. He had added Wilson to his name in 1919.

Admitted to practice as a solicitor on 2 June 1926, he soon formed a partnership with H. C. Ellison Rich. Crawford married Gladys Marjory Lyndon Clay on 28 January 1928 at St Stephen's Presbyterian Church, Sydney. During the Depression he was associated with the Old Guard, a paramilitary group of predominantly middle-class men who organized to prevent an anticipated socialist revolution. The Old Guard mobilized when the Labor premier Jack Lang came to power in 1930. Crawford was group clerk for quota 1 headquarters of the Old Guard's Pacific Highway nucleus—architects, lawyers, orchardists and businessmen who lived in the suburbs of Hornsby and Warrawee. After Governor Sir Philip Game dismissed Lang on 13 May 1932, the Pacific Highway nucleus continued to collect intelligence on communists and others whom its members considered to be subversives.

Maintaining his connexion with the Citizen Military Forces, in July 1933 Crawford was promoted lieutenant colonel and given command of the renamed Sydney University Regiment. From July 1937 he performed staff duties at 2nd District Base. Called up for full-time duty in August 1939, he briefly commanded the 4th Battalion before transferring to the Australian Imperial Force on 18 March 1940. Next month he was appointed to establish and command the 2nd/17th Battalion. The unit sailed for Palestine in October and in March 1941 arrived at Marsa Brega, Libya. A German and Italian advance compelled British forces to retreat to Tobruk where, by 9 April, they had taken up defensive positions.

The siege began on 11 April 1941 and that day Crawford's men withstood one of the first armoured and infantry attacks against the fortress. Before dawn on 14 April the Germans mounted a major assault in the sector held by the 2nd/17th Battalion: some forty tanks and large numbers of troops broke through the line, but Crawford directed counter-attacks which helped to rout the enemy. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (1942) and mentioned in dispatches. Regarded as a committed Anglophile, he was a stickler for discipline. At Tobruk his soldiers initially resented having to use scarce water for regular shaving. Crawford had been nicknamed the 'Cake Eater' because he insisted on strict formalities at official social occasions. In October the battalion was relieved and returned to Palestine; Crawford relinquished command in December.

After a brief attachment to headquarters, I Corps, in the Middle East, he returned to Australia. On 11 April 1942 he was promoted temporary brigadier and placed in charge of the 11th Brigade, based at Townsville, Queensland. He also commanded Yorkforce. On 7 March 1943 a Royal Australian Air Force aircraft in which he was travelling crashed at Freshwater Gorge, near Cairns. Crawford died from a fractured skull and was buried in Cairns war cemetery; his wife and 8-year-old daughter survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • A History of the 2/17 Australian Infantry Battalion 1940-1945 (Balgowlah, NSW, no date)
  • B. Maughan, Tobruk and El Alamein (Canb, 1966)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 20 Mar 1943
  • Herald (Melbourne), 19 Mar 1953
  • P. V. Vernon papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Australian War Memorial records.

Citation details

Frank Cain, 'Crawford, John Wilson (1899–1943)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 22 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (Melbourne University Press), 1993

View the front pages for Volume 13

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

John Wilson Crawford (1899-1943), by unknown photographer

John Wilson Crawford (1899-1943), by unknown photographer

Australian War Memorial, 020725

Life Summary [details]


8 July, 1899
Paddington, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


7 March, 1943 (aged 43)
Cairns, Queensland, Australia

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