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John Stewart Whitelaw (1894–1964)

by Jackson Hughes

This article was published:

John Stewart Whitelaw (1894-1964), by John Lee, 1944

John Stewart Whitelaw (1894-1964), by John Lee, 1944

Australian War Memorial, 107700

John Stewart Whitelaw (1894-1964), soldier, was born on 26 August 1894 at Hawthorn, Melbourne, only son and eldest of three children of Victorian-born parents Thomas Smiley Whitelaw, ironmonger, and his wife Margaret Lawson, née Hunter. Educated at Wesley College, John entered the Royal Military College, Duntroon, Federal Capital Territory, in June 1911. He was appointed lieutenant, Australian Imperial Force, in August 1914 and posted to the 7th Battalion. Two months later he embarked for Egypt. At Gallipoli on 25 April 1915 he suffered a severe bullet-wound to the foot. After recovering in hospitals in Egypt and England, he returned to Melbourne in December 1915. His A.I.F. appointment terminated on 25 July 1916 and he was assigned to the Administrative and Instructional Staff of the 3rd Military District. On 27 December that year at St Mark's Church of England, Camberwell, he married Esther Augusta Norman.

Transferring to the Royal Australian Garrison Artillery in September 1917, Whitelaw performed staff and regimental duties in New South Wales, Queensland and Victoria. In October 1920 he was allocated to the newly formed Staff Corps as a captain. A student at the School of Gunnery (reorganized as the Artillery Schools of Instruction), Sydney, in 1921, he returned as an instructor in 1927. He completed further gunnery training in England in 1928-30. Becoming chief instructor at the A.S.I. (renamed the School of Artillery) in January 1931, he was promoted major in October. From 1935 he served on the General Staff at Army Headquarters, Melbourne, rising to substantive lieutenant colonel in July 1937.

Following the outbreak of World War II, in November 1939 Whitelaw was promoted colonel and appointed commander, coast defences, Eastern Command (New South Wales). It was an important and demanding position, and during this period Whitelaw made what was probably his most significant contribution to Australian artillery work. The use of radar equipment in target-location and gunlaying was then in its infancy. Both the navy and air force hoped to acquire this new technology from Britain, but Whitelaw pushed hard for the development and domestic manufacture of the equipment. The first coastwatching, or shore defence, radar sets were constructed by the Postmaster-General's Department. This marked the beginning of the serious study of the military application of radar in Australia. Whitelaw travelled to the Netherlands East Indies and Singapore in 1941 to observe trials of coastal artillery. In 1940-42 he was also an aide-de-camp to the governor-general Baron (Earl) Gowrie. Made temporary brigadier in February 1941, he was appointed C.B.E. in 1942.

In April 1942, as the Pacific war reached crisis point, Whitelaw was promoted temporary major general (substantive 1 September) and appointed major general, royal artillery, with responsibility for all gunnery matters within the Australian army. Based at Land Headquarters, Melbourne, he dealt with the technological and supply problems in Australia and visited forward areas in Papua and New Guinea. He approved the development and introduction of a shortened 25-pounder (11 kg) field-gun that could be broken down into relatively light units and deployed in remote jungle or mountainous terrain. As the Japanese advance was first halted, then driven back, his sphere of activity spread across the South-West Pacific Area.

Whitelaw assumed command of the Victoria Lines of Communication Area in June 1945 and of Western Command in March 1946. In March-June 1947 he left his headquarters in Perth to serve as president of the war crimes tribunal at Rabaul, Territory of Papua-New Guinea, where he heard painful accounts of the mistreatment of Australian prisoners of war by the Japanese. On 27 August 1951 he retired from the army. He had been appointed C.B. that year.

Five ft 9 ins (175 cm) tall, Whitelaw had a 'trim, soldierly figure' and black hair. His work had been marked by careful preparation, but he recognized that risks must be taken in time of war. He had a 'fertile mind' and was 'alert to new ideas and possibilities'. Although forthright and stern, he 'showed sympathy and kindness to those in difficulty or trouble'. In retirement he lived at Upper Beaconsfield, Victoria. He was active in Legacy, the Victorian Country Fire Authority and his church, and interested in history, gardening and carpentry. Retaining his links with his old regiment, he was colonel commandant, Royal Australian Artillery, in 1955-61. He died of cardiac infarction on 21 April 1964 at Berwick and was cremated; his wife survived him, as did their three sons, all of whom became artillery officers.

Select Bibliography

  • D. P. Mellor, The Role of Science and Industry (Canb, 1958)
  • C. B. Schedvin, Shaping Science and Industry (Syd, 1987)
  • D. Horner, The Gunners (Syd, 1995)
  • Cannonball, no 31, Dec 1997, p 16
  • private information.

Citation details

Jackson Hughes, 'Whitelaw, John Stewart (1894–1964)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 16 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (Melbourne University Press), 2002

View the front pages for Volume 16

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

John Stewart Whitelaw (1894-1964), by John Lee, 1944

John Stewart Whitelaw (1894-1964), by John Lee, 1944

Australian War Memorial, 107700

Life Summary [details]


26 August, 1894
Hawthorn, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia


21 April, 1964 (aged 69)
Berwick, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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.