03 November 2012

William Best Merchant Navy

I received the WWII British War medal awarded to William Best in March and ran into immediate brick walls. Yesterday, I decided to have a close look at Best to see what I could come up with and today the full story unravelled in my lap.
There is only one person with the surname Best who served in the MN and the only additional clue was that he received a British Empire Medal (Civil Division). That led me down a very interesting path. William was from Clydebank in Scotland and from an early age joined the merchant navy. His family moved to South Australia around 1925.
The first piece of information about the BEM was this entry from the London Gazette (click on the image for a larger view).

Source - London Gazette

 I then found the story of the MV Melbourne Star which was the vessel that William was on when he was attacked. This link has great details about the sinking. This is a picture of Bill in hospital after he was rescued and the story about his ordeal from the Adelaide Advertiser (click on the image for a larger view).

Photo source - http://www.melbournestar.co.uk/Survivors.html  courtesy Julia Nunn

Source - Trove

This story, also from the Adelaide Advertiser, gives much more detail about Bill's survival (click on the image for a larger view).

Source - Trove

This card is from the AWM collection showing Bill's award of the BEM. What it gave me was his address and from there I could move forward with the research (click on the image for a larger view).

Source AWM collection

Unfortunately, the South Australian records are the least accessible of all Australian states so Bill and I asked the Australian Surname Group to have a look at this for us. Very quickly we had the names of Bill's siblings and their children. Based on this information I was able to then put together a family tree. One name was easy to research and as it turns out he was an officer in the Royal Australian Navy for many years. Through the electoral rolls I followed him through to 1980, including when he lived at an address about 400 m from where I lived in 1977. Once I had a name the rest was pretty easy and this afternoon I spoke to Bill's nephew, Ken.
Ken tells me that Bill married late in life but didn't have any children of his own. Even though Bill's medals were supposed to go to Ken this didn't occur but now the War Medal will be returned.

Thanks to Andrew C for sending the medal to me originally. The returned medal tally is now 1192.


  1. Our friend Liz from the Australian Surname Group had some difficulty with googles spam robot when trying to post a comment here. I've copied in Liz's comment below, thank you Liz.

    "What a wonderful story and amazing that the medals will now go to the person who was supposed to receive them

    Bill was an amazing man and very brave
    I love the photo of his happy sunburnt face when he was rescued - he looks quite a character


    1. Hello,

      I was fascinated to read your account and the return of the BEM to William Best’s family.

      My uncle, Leonard White was also one of the four survivors who spent 39 days on the raft in the Atlantic after the Melbourne Star was sunk.

      It may be of interest, the press clipping in the report mentions ‘One man had been torpedoed previously’. This was Leonard White. On the 28th May 1942 Leonard was aboard the Norman Prince in the Caribbean west of Martinique when this ship was torpedoed and sunk by U-156. The surviving crew were then taken POW and later released.

      The captain of the U-Boat 156 was Werner Hartenstein, later in the same year 12th September 1942 Hartenstein and U-156 sank the Cunard Liner ‘Laconia’, of the 3250 passengers there were only1370 survivors. This incident was made into a well known film and is often on TV.

      For my records, I would be pleased if someone could give details of the date William past away. Thank you.

      Best wishes

      John White

  2. Hello John,

    I have visited your site and found it most interesting. I am now trying to track down the location of my Uncle's BEM.
    My uncle died on 07 June 1969 at Birkenhead, South Australia. After the war he spent most of his working life with the Australian Merchant Navy, mainly on coastal ships.
    Ken Grierson