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John William Probert (1893–1945)

by Jolyon Horner

This article was published:

John William Probert (1893-1945), soldier and farmer, was born on 15 November 1893 at Elsternwick, Melbourne, only child of Victorian-born parents Charles Moule Verdon Probert, gentleman, and his wife Maud Mary, née Woodward. John's parents divorced in 1901; Charles remarried in 1905. Educated briefly at Cumloden school, East St Kilda, and Melbourne Church of England Grammar School, John left home in 1910 and soon fell foul of the law. Fined £2 in May for 'borrowing' a camera at Castlemaine, he caught a train to Sydney, was arrested for breaching the Influx of Criminals Prevention Act (1903) and sentenced in July to six months imprisonment. His sentence was remitted four weeks later and he immediately joined the crew of the windjammer Marian Woodside, bound for Chile, to redeem himself. Shortly after returning in March 1911, however, he was fined for evading a cab fare and in May, convicted of obtaining clothes by false pretences, was sentenced to twelve months hard labour in Goulburn gaol.

Released in July 1912, Probert sailed for England and in September enlisted in the Rifle Brigade, British Army. Serving in the brigade's 1st Battalion when World War I broke out, he arrived in France on 23 August 1914. He was wounded during the battle of Le Cateau on the 26th and captured by the Germans. Held in a prisoner-of-war camp at Döberitz, near Berlin, he escaped in September 1917 after receiving news that his father was seriously ill. He made his way to Stettin (Szczecin), hid in a Swedish ship's coal bunker and emerged more than a week later at Malmö, Sweden. There he learned that his father had died. For his gallantry Probert was awarded the Military Medal.

Back in England, he transferred to the Royal Flying Corps in October 1917. Probert qualified as a pilot and was commissioned in the Royal Air Force on 1 November 1918. On Armistice Day he crashed his S.E.5a while performing celebratory aerobatics. Next month he sustained serious facial injuries in another aircraft accident. After recovering, he was repatriated to Australia and placed on the Unemployed List on 14 June 1919.

In 1924 Probert leased, under the soldier-settlement scheme, 1555 acres (629 ha) near Rankins Springs, New South Wales. At St Nicholas's Church of England, Coogee, Sydney, on 8 June 1925 he married Minnie Cook. He worked hard to establish his wheat-farm, but conditions were harsh; his wife left him in 1927, taking their son. Divorced in April 1933, he married 26-year-old Nora Gwendoline Peach on 14 June that year at St Alban's Church of England, Griffith. Although prospects improved after he turned his attention to sheep, the cumulative effects of the Depression and drought forced the Proberts off the land in 1938. Early in 1939 he opened a small farmers' produce store at Griffith.

Appointed pilot officer, Royal Australian Air Force Reserve, on 1 February 1939, Probert was called up for full-time duty on 2 September, but six days later was discharged medically unfit. On 30 April 1940, understating his age, he enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force. Promoted to acting warrant officer, class two, in June, he was posted to the intelligence section, I Corps headquarters. He arrived in the Middle East in September, but was sent home in November and discharged in January 1941 'not on account of misconduct'. His correct age had perhaps been discovered.

Adopting the surname Moule-Probert, which he had used for a time while serving in the R.A.F., he re-enlisted in the A.I.F. in April 1941. He reached Singapore in August and became a driver in the 2/15th Field Regiment. The unit moved to Malaya in September, went into action against the advancing Japanese forces in mid-January 1942 and withdrew to Singapore at the end of the month. On 15 February the island fell and Moule-Probert once again became a prisoner of war. As part of 'B' Force, he was shipped to Sandakan, British North Borneo. There, more than 2400 Australian and British prisoners were overworked, starved, beaten and denied medical supplies. Only six survived. Moule-Probert died on 10 May 1945. The cause of death was recorded as malaria. Survived by his wife and their two sons, and by the son of his first marriage, he is commemorated on the Labuan Memorial, Sabah, Malaysia, for servicemen with no known graves.

Select Bibliography

  • J. B. Kiddle (compiler), War Services of Old Melburnians 1914-1918 (Melb, 1923)
  • L. R. Silver, Sandakan (Burra Creek, NSW, 1988)
  • S. and J. Probert, Prisoner of Two Wars (Adel, 2001)
  • AWM 43, item A707, and AWM 140 (Australian War Memorial)
  • A9300, item PROBERT J W M, and B883, item NX10894 (National Archives of Australia)
  • WO 339/128673 and AIR 76/413 (National Archives of the United Kingdom).

Citation details

Jolyon Horner, 'Probert, John William (1893–1945)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 15 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (Melbourne University Press), 2005

View the front pages for the Supplementary Volume

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