Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Eather, Kenneth William (1901–1993)

by Steve Eather

This article was published online in 2017

Kenneth William Eather (1901–1993), soldier and executive director, was born on 6 June 1901 in Sydney, eldest of three children of New South Wales-born parents William Senior Eather, banker’s clerk, and his wife Isabel, née Lees. Eather was educated at Abbotsholme College, Wahroonga. Leaving school at fourteen because of his family’s poor financial situation, he became an apprentice dental mechanic.

Having served in the cadet corps at school, Eather was transferred to the Militia in June 1919 and commissioned as a second lieutenant. His career as a dental mechanic flourished and he established a practice in Macquarie Street. Concurrently, his part-time military career progressed and from 1933 to 1938 he commanded Militia infantry battalions. On 25 August 1923 at the Methodist Church, Lakemba, the brown-eyed, fair-haired, almost six-feet (180cm) tall Eather had married Adeline Mabel Lewis (d. 1966), a tailoress.

At the beginning of World War II Eather was asked to form and command the 2/1st Battalion, Australian Imperial Force. He was a forceful leader and strict disciplinarian.  Early in January 1941 the battalion spearheaded the Australian attack on the Italian fortress of Bardia, Libya. Notwithstanding heavy opposition the battalion, with Eather in the vanguard at critical moments, punched through the defences, capturing all its objectives and materially assisting in the surrender of Bardia. For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order. The 2/1st Battalion was prominently involved in the capture of Tobruk later that month.

On 27 December Eather was promoted to colonel with the temporary rank of brigadier and appointed to command the 25th Brigade, within the 7th Division. The formation returned to Australia in March 1942 and was deployed to Papua in September. With most of the Kokoda Trail lost to the Japanese, the brigade immediately moved forward into the Owen Stanley Range. Eather was told to link up with the remnants of the existing Australian force trying to hold the Japanese at Ioribaiwa Ridge, take command of the entire force, and then drive the Japanese back across the mountains. Finding the Japanese already strongly entrenched, he withdrew to Imita Ridge and from there initiated a properly planned and successful campaign.

Although they faced  difficulties of supply, mountainous terrain and, at times, strong enemy opposition, the 25th Brigade slowly advanced, occupying Kokoda on 2 November 1942. A few days later the brigade, together with the 2/1st Battalion, played the key role in destroying the large Japanese force at Oivi-Gorari. After besieging the Japanese garrison at Gona, Eather and the remnants of an exhausted and supply-starved 25th Brigade returned to Australia in December.

Awarded the American army’s Distinguished Service Cross in January 1943, Eather led the 25th Brigade in the Ramu and Markham Valley campaign and took great personal satisfaction in capturing Lae before troops of the 9th Australian Division could do so. For his gallant leadership he was appointed CBE in December. After participating in the invasion of Balikpapan, Borneo, for which he was subsequently (1947) appointed CB, Eather was promoted to temporary major general in July 1945 and appointed to command the 11th Division, based in New Britain. With Japan’s surrender he became military governor of the island. Having led the Australian contingent in the victory parade in London in 1946, Eather transferred to the Reserve of Officers on 18 September. He had proved a bold and capable strategist and commander and had exhibited personal courage on numerous occasions, sometimes deliberately exposing himself to fire on the battlefield when he deemed personal example was needed to give confidence to his troops.

Eather became a poultry farmer near Penrith, New South Wales. He joined the Primary Producers’ Association of New South Wales, of which he was president (1953-58). In 1959 he became executive director of the Water Research Foundation of Australia, responsible for implementing the board’s policies and for general administration. Although the working environment was different from the one he was used to, he established good relationships with colleagues and the business representatives, scientists, public servants, and politicians with whom he came in contact. On 7 June 1968, at the registrar general’s office, Sydney, he married Kathleen Henrietta Neill, an executive assistant. Eather retired in 1979. Despite his leadership roles, he never lost the common touch and at weekends delivered groceries from his wife’s shop at Lakemba to local residents.

Survived by his wife and a son from his first marriage (a second son had predeceased him), Eather died at Mosman on 9 May 1993 and, after a military funeral at St Andrew’s Anglican Cathedral, was cremated. He had been Australia’s last living World War II general. His portrait, by Geoffrey Mainwaring, is held by the Australian War Memorial, Canberra.

Research edited by Brian Wimborne

Select Bibliography

  • Dexter, David. The New Guinea Offensives. Australia in the War of 1939–1945. Vol. VI of Series I (Army). Canberra: Australian War Memorial, 1968
  • Eather, Steve. Desert Sands, Jungle Lands: A Biography of Major General Ken Eather. Crows Nest, New South Wales: Allen and Unwin, 2003
  • Long, Gavin. The Final Campaigns. Australia in the War of 1939–1945. Vol. VII of Series I (Army). Canberra: Australian War Memorial, 1963
  • Long, Gavin. To Benghazi. Australia in the War of 1939–1945. Vol. I of Series I (Army). Canberra: Australian War Memorial, 1961
  • Australian War Memorial. ‘NX3 / Major General Kenneth William Eather, CB, CBE, DSO.’  Accessed 24 October 2013. http://www.awm.gov.au/units/people_8143.asp.  Copy held on ADB file
  • McCarthy, Dudley. South-West Pacific Area—First Year: Kokoda to Wau. Australia in the War of 1939–1945. Vol. V of Series I (Army). Canberra: Australian War Memorial, 1962
  • National Archives of Australia. B883, NX3
  • Sydney Morning Herald. ‘Second A.I.F. Officers.’ 9 November 1939, 10
  • Sydney Morning Herald. ‘Honours for A.I.F. Men.’ 2 April 1941, 13
  • Sydney Morning Herald. ‘Army Promotions.’ 1 August 1941, 6
  • Sydney Morning Herald. ‘Four New A.I.F. Brigadiers.’ 14 February 1942, 13
  • Sydney Morning Herald. ‘High Officers Decorated.’ 11 January 1943, 4
  • Sydney Morning Herald. ‘World War II General Dies.’ 10 May 1993, 7

Citation details

Steve Eather, 'Eather, Kenneth William (1901–1993)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/eather-kenneth-william-17004/text28874, published online 2017, accessed online 31 May 2020.

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