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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Chapman, John Austin (1896–1963)

by Roger C. Thompson

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

John Austin Chapman (1896-1963), by unknown photographer

John Austin Chapman (1896-1963), by unknown photographer

Australian War Memorial, 126238

John Austin Chapman (1896-1963), army officer, was born on 15 December 1896 at Braidwood, New South Wales, second son of (Sir) Austin Chapman, auctioneer and politician, and his native-born wife Catherine Josephine, née O'Brien. Educated at Christian Brothers' colleges at Waverley (Sydney) and in East Melbourne, in 1913 John entered the Royal Military College, Duntroon, Federal Capital Territory, and graduated in June 1915. Next month he was appointed lieutenant in the Australian Imperial Force and posted to the 30th Battalion. In November he embarked for Egypt where he 'helped to construct and man' Suez Canal defences.

In June 1916 Chapman moved to France and in July was promoted captain. Suffering from the effects of gas, he was evacuated to England in November. He rejoined his unit in May 1917 and held the post of adjutant until 30 October when he was promoted major and sent to a senior officers' course. A staff trainee from January 1918, he was attached to I Corps and 5th Division headquarters. While acting as brigade major of the 8th Brigade, on 28 August under heavy fire he reconnoitred the front line near the village of Estrées, France; he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order. Home again in June 1919, he continued to serve in the Permanent Military Forces. On 9 October that year in St Mary's Catholic Cathedral, Sydney, he married Chilean-born Helena Mary de Booten (d.1961) whom he had met in London; they were to have four children.

From 1919 to 1930 Chapman occupied staff and brigade major positions. He was in England in 1930-33 where he attended the Staff College, Camberley, and underwent small-arms training. In February 1934 he became chief instructor at the Small Arms School, Sydney; he found this appointment particularly rewarding and maintained an intense interest in his 'old boys'. Described as 'a brilliant officer', he returned to England in 1938 on exchange service and taught at the Staff College. With the outbreak of World War II, in September 1939 he was posted as general staff officer, 1st grade, to the British 52nd (Lowland) Division and promoted lieutenant colonel two months later.

Back in Australia, in January 1940 Chapman assumed the duties of G.S.O.1 (training) at Army Headquarters, Melbourne. On 4 April he transferred to the A.I.F. in the rank of colonel, and went to the Middle East as chief of staff of the 7th Division. For his work during the Syrian campaign (June-July 1941) he was awarded a Bar to his D.S.O. In August 1941, as temporary brigadier, he took command of the A.I.F.'s Base Area in the Middle East. Posted to Advanced Land Headquarters, Brisbane, as deputy-adjutant and quartermaster general, he was promoted major general on 1 September 1942. He became deputy chief of the General Staff in October 1944.

In May 1946 Chapman was appointed army (and, from January 1948, defence) representative, Australian Military Mission, Washington. He went to the Balkans in 1947 as a member of the United Nations' commission of inquiry into incidents on the Greek frontier. Completing his term in the United States of America in February 1950, he returned to Australia to be general officer commanding, Central Command. His final post (February 1951 to December 1953) was quartermaster general and third member of the Military Board in Melbourne. He was appointed to the Legion of Merit (U.S.A.) in 1949 and in 1952 was appointed C.B. In retirement he retained his strong interest in army life.

A punctilious and assiduous officer, Chapman was highly regarded by his soldiers, whose names he always remembered. He was 5 ft 11 ins (180 cm) tall, with brown hair and a fair complexion; tone deaf, but a good raconteur, he enjoyed social gatherings. Chapman lived to the letter the tenets of Catholicism, and respected the beliefs of others. Survived by his two sons and a daughter, he died of uraemia and cancer on 19 April 1963 in his Mosman home and was buried with military honours in Northern Suburbs cemetery. Waverley College holds his portrait.

His elder brother James Austin (1895-1967) was also a career army officer who served in the 30th Battalion in World War I and was appointed O.B.E. (1919). After a succession of staff postings in Australia, the Middle East and Italy in World War II, he retired as honorary colonel in 1947. He was a member of the Repatriation Commission (1947-50), then worked as an associate of a judge of the Supreme Court of Victoria.

Select Bibliography

  • H. Sloan (ed), The Purple and Gold (Syd, 1938)
  • G. Long, Greece, Crete and Syria (Canb, 1953)
  • Army Journal, no 267, Aug 1971
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 24 Oct 1938, 20 Feb 1947
  • Australian War Memorial records
  • private information.

Citation details

Roger C. Thompson, 'Chapman, John Austin (1896–1963)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 24 September 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

View the front pages for Volume 13

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2020

John Austin Chapman (1896-1963), by unknown photographer

John Austin Chapman (1896-1963), by unknown photographer

Australian War Memorial, 126238