Biography

Birth date: 28 August 1910
Birth place: Australia: New South Wales, Sydney, Summer Hill
Death date: 15 November 1957
Death place: Australia: Victoria, Richmond
Final rank: Colonel
Service number: NX12617 - Second World War, 1939-1945
F391 - Second World War, 1939-1945
Unit: WRAAC

A nurse and senior army officer in the Second World War, Kathleen Best was born at Summer Hill in Sydney on 28 August 1910. Best was educated in Sydney and undertook nursing training at Western Suburbs Hospital and midwifery training in the Crown Street Women's Hospital. Having completed her training, Best nursed at Wyong Hospital on the New South Wales central coast, was appointed Acting Matron at the Rachel Forster Hospital in Sydney and later Deputy-Matron at the Masonic Hospital in Ashfield.

Best's military nursing career began with her appointment to the Australian Army Nursing Service on 30 May 1940. She was posted as Matron to the 2/5th Australian General Hospital and embarked for the Middle East in October that year. After opening in Palestine in December 1940, the hospital moved to Greece in April 1941. During the short-lived campaign, Best - the senior matron in Greece - and her colleagues endured regular German air raids. Best and 39 colleagues volunteered to remain in Greece after the evacuation knowing that they risked captivity. Within hours of deciding to stay, however, they too were ordered to leave, the last Australian nurses to do so. They survived further German air attacks on their ship before reaching Crete and later Alexandria. Best was awarded the Royal Red Cross for her service in the Greek campaign.

The 2/5th Australian General Hospital was then re-established in Palestine and reorganised under Best's supervision, but in August 1941 moved again, this time to Eritrea on the African coast. By March 1942 Best had returned to Australia, where her appointment to the AIF was terminated in mid-June. This, however, was not the end of her contribution to Australia's war effort. A month after leaving the AIF she became the Controller of full-time Voluntary Aid Detachments, which in September became part of the Australian Army Medical Women's Service. She held this post for seven months until she received a promotion to lieutenant colonel in February 1943 and was posted as Assistant Adjutant General (Women's Services). In September 1944, it having become clear the Allies would eventually prevail, she became Assistant Director of Women's Re-establishment and Training for the Department of Postwar Reconstruction. Among her responsibilities was the task of assisting servicewomen and female war-workers to adjust to civilian life once the war ended.

On 12 February 1951, Best became the founding Director of the Australian Women's Army Corps, which was shortly after given the designation "Royal". In September 1952 she reached the rank of honorary colonel and four years later, in 1956, appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire. Despite her achievements Best has been described as a modest woman with an engaging sense of humour. Those who served under her considered Best an inspiring leader who ruled with a firm hand, but who also treated her subordinates with fairness. Aged only 47, Best became ill with melanomatosis and died on 15 November 1957 at Epworth Hospital in Richmond, Melbourne.

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Rolls and Awards

  • Recommended for: Royal Red Cross (1st Class)
  • Conflict: Second World War, 1939-1945
  • Awarded: Royal Red Cross (1st Class)
  • Conflict: Second World War, 1939-1945
  • Awarded: Officer of the Order of the British Empire
  • Unit: WRAAC
  • Conflict: Unlinked Conflict

Collection Items

Photograph

Timeline

Date of birth 1910-08-28 Summer Hill, NSW.
Date of birth 1910-08-28
Date and unit at enlistment (ORs) 1940-05-30 Volunteered for service in the Australian Army Nursing Service and was appointed as matron of 2/5th Australian General Hospital.
Other 1940-10 Embarked for the Middle East.
Other 1940-12 2/5th Australian General Hospital opened at Rehovot, Palestine.
Other 1941-04 Best and her staff were moved to Greece and based at Ekali, 12 miles south of Athens, where the ANZAC Corps were coming under constant German attack. Many of the medical personnel were evacuated as the Germans advanced. Best and 39 nurse remained to care for the wounded.
Other 1941-04-25 Best and the remaining nurses were ordered to evacuate, and were transported to Crete. For her courage and efficiency during the evacuations she was awarded the Royal Red Cross. Evacuated from Crete, Best and her staff then returned to Egypt where she had charge of a nurses staging camp at Suez. Enclosed by a high, barbed wire fence with only one gate, the camp was popularly known as 'Katie's Birdcage'.
Other 1941-08 Best went with the 2/5th Australian General Hospital to Eritrea in Ethiopia.
Date of honour or award 1941-12-30 Royal Red Cross (RRC).
Date returned to Australia 1942-03
Other 1942-06 Best's AIF appointment terminated.
Other 1942-07 Best was made inaugural controller of full time Voluntary Aid Detachments, later to be called the Australian Army Medical Women's Service.
Date promoted 1943-02 Appointed lieutenant colonel and she was posted as assistant adjutant general for women's services dealing with matters of policy.
Date of discharge 1944-09-02 Transferred to the Reserve of Officers and joined the Ministry of Post War Reconstruction, where she retrained service women for civilian life.
Other 1951 Recalled from the Reserve of Officers she was appointed first director of the Women's Australian Army Corps which gained the title Women's Royal Australian Army Corps later the same year.
Date promoted 1952-09 Honorary colonel.
Date of honour or award 1956-01-02 Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE).
Date of death 1957-11-15 Richmond, VIC.
Date of death 1957-11-15