John Wesley (Jack) Mitchell (1891-1969), army officer and public servant, was born on 16 March 1891 at Tarranyurk, near Dimboola, Victoria, fourth child of Australian-born parents Joseph Mitchell, farmer, and his wife Eliza, née Milkins. While working as an engineering cadet at Warracknabeal, Jack served in the Militia and was commissioned (1912) in the Victorian Rangers (later 73rd Infantry Regiment). On 24 August 1914 he was appointed to the Australian Imperial Force. Five ft 9½ ins (177 cm) tall, with dark hair and blue eyes, he was allotted to ‘E’ Company, 8th Battalion, which embarked for Egypt in October. He was quietly spoken and popular, and able to handle ‘all the jobs of a subaltern’.
Landing at Gallipoli on 25 April 1915, Mitchell was wounded that day and admitted to hospital. He rejoined the battalion on 26 May and on the following day became its adjutant. By October he held the rank of temporary captain and was employed as a company commander. He returned to Egypt in January 1916, reached the Western Front in March and was promoted major in June. Absent from his unit in July-October when stricken with influenza, he was away again from January to March 1917 attending the Senior Officers’ Course in England. On 14 April 1917 he was promoted lieutenant colonel and placed in command of the battalion.
Mitchell showed great courage in carrying out reconnaissance. In the operations at Lagnicourt and Bullecourt, France, in April and May 1917 (in which he won the Distinguished Service Order) his personal example influenced his men to push ahead and secure tactical positions. On 28 October, although gassed, he remained on duty. During the capture of Rosières Station and the village of Lihons on 9 and 11 August 1918, his battalion suffered heavy casualties; Mitchell twice went forward under fire to reorganize the line; he won a Bar to his D.S.O. For his leadership of the 8th Battalion, he was also awarded the Belgian Croix de Guerre and mentioned in dispatches five times. In October and November he had temporary command of the 2nd Brigade. His A.I.F. appointment terminated in Australia on 5 April 1920.
Employed by the Victorian Department of Lands and Survey as an inspector of land settlement and later as a member of the Discharged Soldiers Settlement Inquiry Board, Mitchell provided practical assistance to former servicemen who settled in the Wimmera and the Mallee. On 2 May 1927 at St John’s Anglican Church, Horsham, he married Margaret Blanche West, a 31-year-old nurse; they were to remain childless. He continued to serve in the Militia, commanding the 21st Battalion (1921-22), the 1st Armoured Car Regiment (1934-38) and the 20th Light Horse Regiment (1939).
Following the outbreak of World War II, Mitchell was appointed (13 October 1939) commanding officer of the 2nd/8th Battalion, A.I.F., which embarked for the Middle East in April 1940. The unit saw action in Libya—at Bardia and Tobruk, and in the advance to Benghazi—in January-February 1941. Mitchell was once more mentioned in dispatches. From April he led the 2nd/8th in the arduous Greek campaign and evacuation, relinquishing command on 28 May. He had twice acted as temporary commander (May-June 1940 and February-March 1941) of the 19th Brigade, but clashed with Brigadier G. A. Vasey. Placed on the Sick List in June 1941, he returned to Australia in July. His A.I.F. appointment terminated on 21 September and he transferred to the General List. Next day he was promoted temporary colonel and given command of the 4th Australian Infantry Training Brigade.
Mitchell was detached to Southern Command Training School in November 1941 and to headquarters, Queenscliff Covering Force, in the following month. He returned to the 4th A.I.T.B. (later headquarters, Australian Recruit Training Centre) in March 1942. Again seconded to the A.I.F. from March 1943, he was placed on the Reserve of Officers on 24 November 1944 with the honorary rank of colonel. He joined the Commonwealth Public Service and worked first in Brisbane and then in Sydney before spending his retirement at Seaforth. Survived by his wife, he died on 29 September 1969 at the Repatriation General Hospital, Concord, and was cremated. Mitchell had commanded the 8th Battalion with distinction in some of the most notable operations undertaken by Australian forces in two world wars. He was widely recognized as a great soldier.
D. M. Horner, General Vasey’s War (Melb, 1992)
R. J. Austin, Cobbers in Khaki (Rosebud, Vic, 1997)
Smith’s Weekly (Sydney), 17 Feb 1940
James Wood, ‘Mitchell, John Wesley (Jack) (1891–1969)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mitchell-john-wesley-jack-11138/text19837, accessed 6 December 2013.
This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000
Contact Jim Wood about this article.