Australian Dictionary of Biography

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William Arthur (Bill) Dale (1904–1982)

by Alan Stephens

This article was published:

Bill Dale, by Geoffrey Mainwaring, 1956

Bill Dale, by Geoffrey Mainwaring, 1956

Australian War Memorial, ART27509

William Arthur Charles (Bill) Dale (1904-1982), air force officer, civil engineer and town planner, was born on 18 November 1904 at Petersham, Sydney, eldest of four children of Henry John Dale, schoolteacher, and his wife Agnes, née Roan, both Australian born. Bill was educated at Armidale High School and at the University of Sydney (BE, 1927), where he studied civil engineering. He served in the senior cadets and the Citizen Military Forces, reaching the rank of lieutenant in the Australian Engineers. In December 1925, while still at university, he resigned his army commission to enlist in the Citizen Air Force, Royal Australian Air Force. Five ft 9½ins (177 cm) tall and weighing 9 st. 6 lb. (60 kg), he had brown hair and grey eyes.

Completing flying training at Point Cook, Victoria, Dale graduated as a pilot officer in April 1926. He served with No.3 Squadron at Richmond, New South Wales, before transferring to the Unattached List in July 1928 as a flying officer. On 26 May that year at the Presbyterian Church, Kogarah, he had married Edna May Westaway, a schoolteacher. After leaving the air force, he worked in local government, notably as Wingadee shire engineer at Coonamble.

Dale was called up on 9 October 1939 for full-time duty as a temporary flight lieutenant in the Directorate of Works and Buildings at RAAF Headquarters, Melbourne. He was appointed assistant-director in February 1941. Promoted to temporary wing commander in April 1942, he was attached to the United States 1st Marine Division in July for the landings at Tulagi and Guadalcanal next month. In July 1943 he assumed command of the RAAF’s No.62 Works (Airfield Construction) Wing at Port Moresby. Displaying `exceptional qualities of leadership’, he was largely responsible for vital engineering works—runways, taxiways, revetments, buildings, supply dumps, roads and waterworks—completed under great hardship at Milne Bay, on Goodenough and Kiriwina islands, and in the Markham Valley.

In April 1944 `W. A. C.’ Dale was appointed task force engineer for the Allied landings at Aitape, in command of all Australian and American engineer troops, a force of some 2500 men. He showed `complete disregard for his personal safety by landing with the earliest wave of assault troops and making a personal reconnaissance of the airstrip in the face of enemy opposition’. Within two and a half days Allied aircraft were flying from the airstrip at Tadji that Dale’s men had prepared.

Two months later Dale again led from the front during a hazardous assault at Noemfoor, Netherlands East Indies, starting his survey while parts of the airfield were still held by the enemy. Working day and night, his engineers built a new runway 6000 ft (1829 m) long and 100 ft (30 m) wide in seven days, a remarkable achievement which enabled a squadron of Thunderbolt fighters to fly in on the eighth day. Promoted to temporary group captain in July 1944, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (1944) and mentioned in despatches (1946) for his leadership. In 1945 the air officer commanding the RAAF’s First Tactical Air Force, Air Commodore (Sir) Frederick Scherger, formally noted Dale’s `magnificent record’.

Remaining in the RAAF after the war, Dale was appointed director of works and buildings in January 1946 and made substantive group captain in March 1950. As the air force’s senior civil engineer, he was responsible for an ambitious Cold War development program. His construction squadrons built strategically important airfields in Japan, at Woomera, South Australia, on Cocos and Manus islands, and in Malaya and Darwin, invariably working in tough conditions. Popular and highly respected, the unassuming Dale consistently demonstrated professional excellence, initiative, an ability to finish demanding jobs on time and a deep concern for the welfare of his staff. He was a `wonderful listener’, believing he could learn from anyone, regardless of his or her rank. In 1957 he was appointed CBE. Because of limited career prospects within his branch, he remained a group captain until he retired on 18 November 1959 with the honorary rank of air commodore.

From 1959 to 1969 Dale was (town) clerk for the shire (municipality) of Blacktown, Sydney, and in the process `possibly held the record in the number and variety of local government qualifications he held’. He was a fellow of the Institution of Engineers, Australia, the Royal Australian Planning Institute and the Institute of Municipal Administration. In 1962 he obtained a diploma in town and regional planning at the University of Melbourne. From his home at Manly he pursued a wide range of interests including philately, Japanese art, languages, woodwork, the Boy Scouts’ Association and writing. In his spare time he had studied arts at the University of Melbourne (BA, 1949). Survived by his wife, and their daughter and son, Dale died on 31 August 1982 at Armidale and was cremated. His portrait by Geoffrey Mainwaring is held by the Australian War Memorial, Canberra.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Odgers, Air War Against Japan 1943-1945 (1957)
  • D. Wilson, Always First (1998)
  • A. Stephens, The Royal Australian Air Force (2001)
  • Shire and Municipal Record, Dec 1982-Jan 1983, p 413
  • series A9300, item Dale WAC (National Archives of Australia)
  • private information.

Citation details

Alan Stephens, 'Dale, William Arthur (Bill) (1904–1982)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 23 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (Melbourne University Press), 2007

View the front pages for Volume 17

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Bill Dale, by Geoffrey Mainwaring, 1956

Bill Dale, by Geoffrey Mainwaring, 1956

Australian War Memorial, ART27509