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Dexter, David St Alban (1917–1992)

by Michael McKernan

This article was published online in 2016

David St Alban Dexter, c.1942

David St Alban Dexter, c.1942

Australian War Memorial, P08424-033

David St Alban Dexter, (1917–1992), army officer, historian, public servant, and university administrator, was born on 8 January 1917 at St Albans, Hertfordshire, England,  the second of five sons and one daughter of English-born Walter Ernest Dexter, Church of England chaplain, and his Victorian-born wife Dora Stirling, née Roadknight. His father, a much-loved senior chaplain in the Australian Imperial Force (AIF), returned to Australia with his family in 1920 and his appointment was terminated. David lived at Kilsyth, Victoria, until 1923 when his father failed on his soldier-settler block, and then in clergy houses at Romsey, Lara, and West Footscray. 

Educated at Geelong Grammar School (1930–35), Dexter accepted an appointment as a student teacher at Grimwade House, Melbourne Church of England Grammar School. He studied history at the University of Melbourne (BA Hons, 1940). On 8 October 1940 he enlisted in the AIF and in March the following year volunteered for commando training. Commissioned as a lieutenant in July, he was posted to the 2nd Independent Company (later 2/2nd Commando Squadron). British specialists rigorously trained him, and about 270 other recruits, in secret on Wilsons Promontory. He was impressed by the concentrated nature of the instruction, which emphasised mobility, initiative, and speed.

The novice company arrived in Portuguese Timor (Timor-Leste) in December 1941 and then spent a year waging guerrilla warfare against the Japanese. A short, strongly built man, Dexter revelled in the bush life and independence. With the cooperation of the local people, ingenuity, and some luck, the company confused and harried much larger Japanese forces until their position became too dangerous; those who survived were evacuated to Darwin. Dexter was mentioned in despatches.

From June 1943 the company fought in New Guinea. During an operation in Japanese-held territory in the Ramu Valley in September, Dexter, now a captain, suffered five bullet wounds. He returned to Australia in March 1944, having been mentioned in despatches a second time. Between April and June 1945 he served with his squadron in New Britain. Promoted to major in June, he commanded the 2/4th Commando Squadron on Tarakan Island, Borneo, from September. His AIF appointment was terminated in Australia on 16 January 1946. He remained proud of the 2/2nd, describing it as ‘a pretty good unit, something quite remarkable, there hadn’t been anything like it in Australian military history’ (Dexter 1976). There were only twelve such Australian squadrons formed during World War II.

On 29 September 1944 at St Mark’s Church, Camberwell, Melbourne, where his father was the minister, Dexter had married Freda Doris Irene Harper, a teacher. Reluctant to resume a career in education, in 1946 he joined the Department of External Affairs in Canberra and worked closely with the minister, H. V. Evatt, with whom he attended the second (1947) and third (1948) sessions of the General Assembly of the United Nations Organization. He admired Evatt’s ‘vast intellect,’ describing his time with him as ‘that of bag carrier’ (Cleary 2010, 330). In 1955 he headed the foreign aid branch of the department, working under a new minister, Richard (Baron) Casey. Dexter was involved in the Colombo Plan and with formulating systems of foreign aid associated with the South-East Asia Treaty Organization and the UNO. He attended a number of international conferences on aid, and in 1959 was appointed a counsellor to the Australian High Commission in India.

In 1946 Dexter had accepted a commission from Gavin Long, Australia’s second official war historian, to write volume six of Australia’s official history of World War II. In doing this he consciously adopted the method of the first official historian, Charles Bean, when writing his own official history, by gathering all his material into six ‘master diaries.’ Much of his writing was undertaken while he served as first secretary of the Australian High Commission in Ceylon (1952–55). He completed his lengthy manuscript in 1959 and the book, The New Guinea Offensives, appeared in 1961. It was warmly reviewed as ‘a splendid readable and authoritative account’ (Mackie and Ross 1992).

Appointed secretary of the Australian Universities Commission in 1960 on the urging of (Sir) John Bunting, he relished his new opportunities. Sir Leslie Martin chaired the commission and had the ear of Prime Minister (Sir) Robert Menzies. Dexter found that ‘any recommendations you made were bound to go through’ (Dexter 1976). He wrote much of the commission’s findings on Australian universities (the Martin Report). Resigning from the commission in 1967, he was recruited by the Australian National University (ANU)  as registrar (property and plans) where he had responsibility for development of the grounds and buildings. Successful completion of numerous projects has been attributed to his ‘sensitivity to people's needs and aspirations, combined with huge administrative competence, a card index mind, close attention to detail, and Puckish energy’ (Mackie and Ross 1992, 11).

Dexter retired in May 1978 on medical grounds. He retained great respect for the people of South-East Asia, most notably the Timorese, for whom he felt a special affinity. He was also a regular researcher at the Australian War Memorial, to which he had donated his father’s important letters and diaries. His book, The ANU Campus, a history of the ANU site, was published in 1991. Survived by his wife and five children (one son had predeceased him), he died at home in Canberra on 15 March 1992 and was cremated. A generous and gregarious man with many friends, his first and lasting love was for Freda and their children. He had a wide interest in politics and respected politicians and parliament.

Research edited by Brian Wimborne

Select Bibliography

  • Australian War Memorial. PR000249, David Dexter Papers
  • Cleary, Paul. The Men Who Came Out of the Ground: A Gripping Account of Australia’s First Commando Campaign: Timor 1942. Sydney: Hachette Australia, 2010
  • Dexter, David. Interview by Hazel de Berg, 26 July 1967. Transcript. Hazel de Berg Collection. National Library of Australia
  • Dexter, David. Interview by Mel Pratt, 25 August–21 September 1976. Transcript. National Library of Australia
  • Dexter, David. The New Guinea Offensives. Canberra: Australian War Memorial, 1961
  • Dexter, David Jnr, Personal communication
  • Doig, Colin D. A History of the 2nd Independent Company and 2/2 Commando Squadron. Carlisle, WA: Hesperian Press, 2009
  • Funeral Oration: David Saint Alban Dexter. Unpublished manuscript, 19 March 1992
  • Mackie, J.A.C., and I.G. Ross. ‘David St Alban Dexter.’ ANU Reporter, 24 June 1992, 11
  • National Archives of Australia. B883, VX38890

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Citation details

Michael McKernan, 'Dexter, David St Alban (1917–1992)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/dexter-david-st-alban-307/text29034, published online 2016, accessed online 23 September 2019.

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