Kenneth Eather

Kenneth William Eather

Major General K. W. Eather
Nickname(s) "Ken"
"28 days"
"Phar Lap"
Born 6 July 1901
Died 9 May 1993(1993-05-09) (aged 91)
Mosman, New South Wales
Allegiance Australia Australia
Service/branch Australian Army
Years of service 1923–1946
Rank Major General
Service number NX3
Commands held 11th Division
25th Infantry Brigade
16th Infantry Brigade
2/1st Infantry Battalion
3rd Infantry Battalion
56th Infantry Battalion

World War II:

Awards Companion of the Order of the Bath
Commander of the Order of the British Empire
Distinguished Service Order
Efficiency Decoration
Mentioned in Despatches (2)
Distinguished Service Cross (United States)
Other work State President, New South Wales Primary Producers Association
Director, Water Research Foundation of Australia

Major General Kenneth William Eather CB, CBE, DSO, ED (6 July 1901 – 9 May 1993) was an Australian soldier who served during World War II, rising to the rank of major general. Eather led a battalion in the Battle of Bardia, a brigade on the Kokoda Track campaign and a division in the New Britain campaign. He was the last Australian officer to be promoted to the rank of major general during World War II, and when he died in 1993, he was Australia's last surviving general of that war.

Education and early life

Kenneth William Eather was born in Sydney, New South Wales on 6 July 1901, the eldest and only son and the first of three children of William Eather, a property manager, and his wife Isabella Theresa née Lees. William managed a plantation in Papua for a time and as a boy Ken lived in Port Moresby. Ken was educated at Abbotsholme College in Wahroonga, New South Wales, am elite boarding school that also attended by future prime ministers Harold Holt and William McMahon. While at school he served in the Australian Army Cadets, in which he was commissioned in 1919. He left school at the age of 14 and became a dental mechanic, establishing a successful private practice. In 1923 he married Adeline Mabel Lewis. Their marriage produced two children: a daughter, Elsie Isobel, and a son, who was also named Ken.[1]

Eather was commissioned as a lieutenant in the 53rd Infantry Battalion on 31 May 1923. He transferred to the 56th Infantry Battalion on 1 July 1925 and was promoted to captain on 23 February 1926, major on 27 November 1928, and lieutenant colonel on 1 July 1935. He commanded the 56th Infantry Battalion from 1 July 1933 to 31 July 1937 and then the 3rd Infantry Battalion from 1 August 1937 until 1 August 1938, when he was placed on the unattached list.[2]

Second World War

Following the outbreak of World War II in September 1939, Eather was chosen by Brigadier Arthur Samuel Allen to command the newly raised 2/1st Infantry Battalion, part of Allen's 16th Infantry Brigade. Eather enlisted in the Second Australian Imperial Force (AIF) and received the AIF serial number NX3. His dental mechanic's practice was sold.[3]

The 2/1st Infantry Battalion was formed from recruits from Militia in the Sydney area and trained at Ingleburn Army Camp. In January 1940 it marched through Sydney and embarked for Palestine on the P&O ocean liner SS Orford.[4] Training continued in Palestine, with Eather emphasising mobile warfare rather than re-hashing the tactics of trench warfare from World War I, unlike some other battalion commanders with experience in that war.[5] Eather attended the senior officers course at Middle East Tactical School in November and December 1940.[6] He built a reputation as a disciplinarian, earning him the nicknames "28 days" and "February" (because it had 28 days) for his fondness for handing down sentences of 28 days' confinement to barracks — the harshest penalty that regulations allowed.[7]


In December 1940, the 2/1st Infantry Battalion was chosen to spearhead the attack on Bardia. Eather led from the front. For his part in the battle he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order. His citation read:

For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty during the attack on BARDIA during the period from 2 Jan 41 to 5 Jan 41. He gallantly and successfully led his battalion in a night attack on 2/3 Jan 41 captured all objectives and several thousands of prisoners. On 4 Jan 41 he continued to lead his battalion with great daring and exploited the success of the first day and again captured several thousands of prisoners. On morning of 5 Jan 41 he again led his Bn. and completed the capture of the sector allotted to his battalion in the NORTHERN sector of the BARDIA perimeter. During the whole period of the attack, Lieutenant Colonel Eather set a fine example of initiative which was an inspiration to his battalion, and his general bearing throughout brought forth the admiration of his men. His careful planning of the initial attack was a masterpiece that can well be followed by others, and contributed largely to the success of the whole battle. During the initial attack the Officer in charge of Bangalore torpedoes was wounded and it looked as if things might go wrong. Lieutenant Colonel Eather was on the spot and his coolness, and advice restored confidence in the sergeant in charge of the party. At mid-day 4 Jan 41 when the advance, in part of his sector appeared to have been held up, he moved forward to ascertain the reason. After a quick appreciation he picked up a rifle and with a light machine gun detachment, moved forward to a suitable position, which he held thus restoring the confidence of his men, and brought the company forward.[6]

Eather went on to lead the 2/1st in the capture of Tobruk. Afterwards, however, he was hospitalised with pneumonia.[8] He therefore missed the Battle of Greece, in which the 2/1st was nearly destroyed, with over 500 of its diggers taken prisoners.[9] On resuming command, Eather was left to rebuild his battalion. From 18 June to 13 August 1941, Eather was acting commander of the 16th Infantry Brigade. On 27 December, he became commander of the 25th Infantry Brigade.[2] This was part of the 7th Division, which was now commanded by Allen. On 8 February 1942, the 25th Infantry Brigade boarded the transport USS Mount Vernon, initially bound for Java. It was diverted to Australia after Java was captured by the Japanese.[10] In "recognition of gallant and distinguished services in the Middle East", Eather was mentioned in despatches.[11]


The 25th Infantry Brigade arrived in Adelaide on 10 March 1942.[12] It was soon moving north east, first to Casino, New South Wales and then to Caboolture, Queensland.[13] In August, it was ordered to Milne Bay.[14] En route in the Australian Army transport Katoomba, it was diverted to Port Moresby to help stem the Japanese advance on that important Allied base over the Kokoda Trail.[15]

Eather's forces met the Japanese in the Battle of Ioribaiwa. Eather, inexperienced in jungle warfare, was defeated and compelled to retreat. His forces moved back to Imita Ridge, a naturally strong position, from which they could be supported by battery of 25 pounders, which had been brought up the Track. However, Imita Ridge had the disadvantage that it was the last defensive position before Port Moresby.[16] Approving Eather's withdrawal, Allen told him that there could be no further withdrawal from Imita: "You'll die where you stand." "Don't worry Tubby", Eather replied, "the only people who will die will be the Japs."[17] Fortunately, the Japanese did not attack. Beset by logistical difficulties and hard pressed on Guadalcanal, they decided to suspend operations on the Kokoda Trail.[18]

Eather's force now began to push the Japanese back over the mountains, but slowly. On 27 October, General Sir Thomas Blamey relieved Allen, replacing him with Major General George Alan Vasey, an officer that Eather distrusted, holding him responsible for the destruction of the 2/1st on Crete.[19] In November, the 25th Infantry Brigade engaged the Japanese in the Battle of Oivi-Gorari. This time the outcome was very different from Ioribaiwa, and Eather won an important victory at low cost.[20]

Eather pressed on the coast, where the 25th Infantry Brigade encountered well-prepared Japanese positions in the Battle of Buna-Gona. Eather's men suffered heavy casualties from the enemy and tropical diseases, the 25th Infantry Brigade being almost wiped out.[21] Eather's leadership at Gona was not as energetic as usual, perhaps because, like most of his men, he was malnourished and ill with malaria. Eather would suffer a series of relapses of the disease.[22]

Eather was awarded the United States Distinguished Service Cross "for extraordinary heroism in action in New Guinea, during the Papuan campaign, 23 July 1942, to 8 January 1943. As Commander 25th Infantry Brigade, Australian Army, Brigadier Eather displayed extraordinary courage, marked efficiency and precise execution of operations during the Papuan campaign".[6]

He was also appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire.[23] His citation read:

For gallant leadership, outstanding devotion to duty, sustained untiring effort and conspicuous skill and ability in the OWEN STANLEY RANGE, NEW GUINEA, CAMPAIGN during the period from 12 Sep 42 to 29 Oct 42. Brigadier EATHER led his Brigade in the successful attack on IORIBAIWA Ridge and the subsequent advance to ALOLA. During this advance his brigade was successful in several attacks on the enemy's strongly defended positions in the TEMPLETONS CROSSING area. Throughout this arduous campaign Brigadier EATHER set an example of tenacity and endurance which was an inspiration to all who came within his influence and he efficiently demonstrated that he was at all times in complete control of the situation which confronted him, proving himself a commander who at all times was able to display sound judgement, coolness and mental clarity which were conducive to excellent planning and quick decisions.[6]

New Guinea

Australian troops file past a dead Japanese soldier on their way in to Lae.

After a period of rest on the Atherton Tableland, the 25th Infantry Brigade returned to Port Moresby in July 1943.[24] Following the landing at Nadzab by American paratroops, the brigade began to fly in to Nadzab. Due to the unpredictable weather, aircraft arrived at Nadzab sporadically and only the 2/25th Infantry Battalion and part of the 2/33rd had reached Nadzab by the morning of 8 September when Vasey ordered Eather to initiate the advance on Lae.[25] As the diggers moved down the Markham Valley Road they occasionally encountered sick Japanese soldiers who held the column momentarily. Eather came up in his jeep and started urging them to hurry up. They were unimpressed. Eather, armed with a pistol, then acted as leading scout, with his troops following in a column of route behind him. The column entered Lae unopposed by the Japanese only to be strafed by the United States Fifth Air Force and shelled by Australian artillery.[26] For his emphasis on speed, his troops nicknamed him "Phar Lap", after the famous race horse.[27] For his part in the campaign in New Guinea, Eather was mentioned in despatches a second time.[28]

After Lae was liberated from Japanese occupation, 7th Division's Brigadier Eather set off by jeep to replace the Japanese flag on Mount Lunaman Voco Pointwith the Australian flag.[29][30]


In his next campaign in Borneo, however, Eather dispensed with speed in favour of a systemic advance making maximum use of firepower.[31] He was appointed a Companion of the Order of the Bath.[32] His citation read:

BRIGADIER K. W. EATHER commanded 25th Australian Infantry Brigade at the assault on BALIKPAPAN. Landing on 2 July he became responsible for the sector including the BALIKPAPAN-SMARINDA Road, to become the main axis of enemy strength. The enemy quickly recovered from his confusion caused by the preliminary bombardment and assault and formed strong rearguards supported by artillery and determined to fight to the death to resist our further advance in this area. Brigadier EATHER with his brigade trained and fit to a very high degree relentlessly forced the enemy back, inflicting heavy casualties, and permitting little time for the enemy to readjust his forces. Brigadier EATHER by his capacity to command, by his drive and by the skill with which he manoeuvred his brigades contributed in no small measure to the final defeat of the enemy at BALIKPAPAN.[6]

New Britain

General Eather in Rabaul celebrating the 34th anniversary of the founding of the Republic of China with Chinese troops on 10 October 1945

In July 1945, Blamey appointed Eather to command the 11th Division, with the rank of major general.[33] The 11th Division was then engaged with the Japanese on New Britain. He was only in command for a few weeks however before Japan surrendered. Eather then became responsible for over 100,000 Japanese prisoners in the Rabaul area. He oversaw war crimes trials and their repatriation to Japan.[34]

Victory March

In 1946, the British government decided to hold a victory parade through London, with some 21 nations participating. Eather was chosen to head the Australian contingent of 250 servicemen and women, drawn from the three services. The Victory March Contingent sailed for the United Kingdom on HMAS Shropshire on 8 April 1946 and marched through the city on 8 June 1946. On the return voyage sailors from the Shropshire and the troops of the Victory March Contingent started a riot in Gibraltar. Eather refused to lay any charges or offer an apology to the indignant British authorities.[35]

Later life

Eather retired from the Army on 18 September 1946 and became a poultry farmer in Penrith, New South Wales. He became active in the Primary Producer's Association of New South Wales and was elected its president in 1953, a position he held for the next five years. However, the death of his son Ken in a motorcycle accident led him to reconsider life as a farmer. In 1958, he became the head of the Water Research Foundation of Australia, and organisation that dispensed funding to researchers investigating water related issues.[36]

Eather's wife Adeline died in 1966. In 1968 he married Kathleen Carroll. He treated Kathleen's son, Captain Owen Eather, an Army officer and Vietnam War veteran, as his own son. Eather became concerned at the way Vietnam veterans were being treated by some veterans of World War II, and made a point of appearing at Anzac Day marches and RSL events with Owen. Eather continued to lead Anzac Day marches through Sydney until 1992. In his old age, Eather spent time with his grandson Eamon, who would later join the Australian Army Reserve and serve with the International Force for East Timor.[37]

Eather died at a nursing home in Mosman, New South Wales on 9 May 1993. As the last surviving Australian general of World War II, he was given a military funeral at St. Andrew's Cathedral, Sydney. Three companies of the 3rd Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment provided an honour guard and an oration was given by General Sir Francis Hassett.[38] Some 1,000 veterans lined George Street, Sydney to pay their last respects to Eather, who was cremated at the Northern Suburbs Crematorium.[39]


  1. Eather 2003, pp. 2–5
  2. 1 2 The Army List of Officers of the Australian Military Forces 1946, p. 13
  3. Eather 2003, p. 11
  4. Eather 2003, pp. 12–15
  5. Eather 2003, p. 16
  6. 1 2 3 4 5 "NX3 / Major General Kenneth William Eather, CB, CBE, DSO". Retrieved 23 September 2009.
  7. Eather 2003, p. 17
  8. Eather 2003, p. 39
  9. Long 1953, p. 315
  10. Eather 2003, pp. 49–50
  11. The London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 35157. p. 2645. 9 May 1941. Retrieved 23 September 2009.
  12. Eather 2003, p. 51
  13. Eather 2003, p. 53
  14. Eather 2003, p. 55
  15. Eather 2003, p. 56
  16. Eather 2003, pp. 63–73
  17. Eather 2003, p. 75
  18. Eather 2003, pp. 73–74
  19. Eather 2003, p. 87
  20. McCarthy 1959, pp. 322–327
  21. McCarthy 1959, pp. 418–435
  22. Eather 2003, pp. 123–125
  23. The London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 36297. p. 5571. 21 December 1943. Retrieved 23 September 2009.
  24. Dexter 1961, p. 269
  25. Dexter 1961, p. 359
  26. Dexter 1961, pp. 387–391
  27. Eather 2003, p. 135
  28. The London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 36486. p. 1929. 25 April 1944. Retrieved 23 September 2009.
  29. "The Leaders.". The News. Adelaide: National Library of Australia. 8 December 1944. p. 2. Retrieved 9 February 2014.
  30. Critical Past. "Australian 7th Division takes over Lae and raises the Australian flag in New Guinea during World War II". Critical Past. Retrieved 25 February 2014.
  31. Eather 2003, p. 159
  32. The London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 37898. p. 1085. 6 March 1947. Retrieved 23 September 2009.
  33. Eather 2003, pp. 163–164
  34. Eather 2003, pp. 165–178
  35. Eather 2003, pp. 179–188
  36. Eather 2003, pp. 189–195
  37. Eather 2003, pp. 197–200
  38. "Military Mourns Kokoda Conqueror". Australian. 14 May 1993.
  39. Eather 2003, p. 205


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