Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Cultural Advice

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

These articles do not necessarily reflect the views of The Australian National University.

Older articles are being reviewed with a view to bringing them into line with contemporary values but the original text will remain available for historical context.

John William Alexander O'Brien (1908–1980)

by A. J. Sweeting

This article was published:

John William Alexander O'Brien (1908-1980), by unknown photographer, 1942

John William Alexander O'Brien (1908-1980), by unknown photographer, 1942

Australian War Memorial, 022986

John William Alexander O'Brien (1908-1980), engineer and soldier, was born on 13 June 1908 at Collingwood, Melbourne, only child of Henry Charles O'Brien, a police constable from England, and his New Zealand-born wife Jean Doris, née Kerr. Educated at St Patrick's College, East Melbourne, and the Working Men's College, John obtained a job as a draughtsman with the Melbourne and Metropolitan Tramways Board. In August 1928 he was commissioned lieutenant in the 2nd Artillery Survey Company, Militia. On a world tour in 1930-31 he studied artillery survey techniques used by the United States and British armies, and tramped across the battlefields of the American Civil War and World War I.

While employed (1932-35) by United Stevedoring Pty Ltd in Melbourne, O'Brien designed an 'automatic grab' for unloading coal-ships. On 31 March 1934 at St Columba's Catholic Church, Elwood, he married Gwen Victoria Goddard Britton, a 23-year-old saleswoman. He co-founded (1938) and managed an engineering firm, Fleet Forge Pty Ltd. Meanwhile, in the Militia, he had been acting-adjutant (1932-36) of the 10th Field Artillery Brigade and later a battery commander. Promoted major in 1937, he transferred to Army Headquarters in September 1939 as deputy assistant director of artillery.

O'Brien joined the Australian Imperial Force on 1 May 1940 and was posted to the 2nd/7th Field Regiment as second-in-command. In Palestine on 5 March 1941 he was promoted lieutenant colonel and appointed to command the 2nd/5th Field Regiment. His military and engineering experience, and his 'almost youthful dash and enthusiasm', won him the respect of the regiment. He led the 2nd/5th throughout the Syrian campaign during which he repeatedly came under mortar and sniper fire. For his 'courage, driving power and relentless energy' he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order and mentioned in dispatches.

Returning to Melbourne, O'Brien was promoted temporary brigadier in April 1942 and appointed director of artillery in the following month. He was made deputy master-general of the ordnance (army equipment) in January 1943. His role was to manage the acquisition and trial of military equipment, including the short 25-pounder (11.3 kg) field-gun, an adaptation which he had suggested when director of artillery. He also provided a link between the army's material requirements and the manufacturers who supplied them. With his flair for administration, it 'was as if he sat at the centre of an enormous web that covered businessmen, public servants and politicians'.

O'Brien led the Australian Scientific Mission to Japan (1945-46) and headed (1945-51) the science and technology division of General Douglas MacArthur's staff in Tokyo. In 1948-49 he presided over the war crimes tribunal which acquitted Admiral Soemu Toyoda. He wrote Guns and Gunners (Sydney, 1950), a history of his old regiment. Transferring to the Reserve of Officers on 31 March 1951, he was accorded the honorary rank of major general while acting as Australia's supply and defence production representative in Washington (1951-54). In both the Tokyo and Washington posts he was 'frustrated and discouraged by bureaucratic wrangling'.

Settling in Sydney, O'Brien worked as director of engineering and sales (1955-59) with Howard Auto-Cultivators Pty Ltd before founding and managing Contract Tooling Pty Ltd which specialized in precision engineering. In 1971-72 and 1975-76 he was mayor of Woollahra. Energetically involved in cultural and sporting bodies, he supported local charities and gave freely of his time to old comrades. O'Brien was a handsome man, 5 ft 10 ins (178 cm) tall, with brown hair and blue eyes. An altruist and a natural leader, 'able, shrewd and proud', he mixed easily with a wide range of people. He died on 27 May 1980 at Darlinghurst and was buried in South Head cemetery; his wife, son and daughter survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • W. G. Rimmer, In Time for War (Syd, 1991)
  • Harry Peck's Post, Sept 1980, p 34.

Citation details

A. J. Sweeting, 'O'Brien, John William Alexander (1908–1980)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 19 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (Melbourne University Press), 2000

View the front pages for Volume 15

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

John William Alexander O'Brien (1908-1980), by unknown photographer, 1942

John William Alexander O'Brien (1908-1980), by unknown photographer, 1942

Australian War Memorial, 022986

Life Summary [details]


13 June, 1908
Collingwood, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia


27 May, 1980 (aged 71)
Darlinghurst, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.