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Desmond Otto (Dooley) Muller (1913–1994)

by Michael O'Brien

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Desmond Otto Muller (1913–1994), engineer, army officer, and public servant, was born on 17 August 1913 at Albury, New South Wales, only son of Victorian-born parents Henry Otto Muller, agriculturalist, and his wife Lillian Idalia May, née Osborn. Desmond was educated at Bendigo High School (1927) and Melbourne Boys’ High School (1928-30), before studying engineering at the University of Melbourne (BCE, 1934). He was employed at the university as a testing officer before moving to the design and testing branch of the Munitions Supply Laboratories, Maribyrnong.

On 10 December 1938 Muller was commissioned in the Royal Australian Engineers, Citizen Military Forces. When World War II broke out in September 1939, he was an early volunteer for the Australian Imperial Force. Lieutenant Colonel (Sir) Clive Steele arranged his appointment as a lieutenant in November. Posted to the 2/3rd Field Company, he sailed for Britain in May 1940 and, promoted to captain in July, arrived in the Middle East in December. While in Britain the 2/3rd Field Company had been assigned to the 9th Division.

Known as ‘Dooley,’ Muller adapted to the change from civil to military engineering well, using his professional skills and developing his ability to command his men. The field company served at Tobruk, Libya, from April to October 1941 and for most of that period he was its acting commander. On the evening of 11–12 April the 2/3rd achieved the remarkable and hazardous feat of laying five thousand anti-tank mines, an event celebrated in verse by one of its sappers, Frank Bingham:

‘Dooley’ scratched his tousled locks and racked his puzzled brain …
Then called his long lieutenant in, to ease his mental strain.
He said, ‘Now listen, Ray, we must strengthen all our lines
So tonight you will take 9 Section and lay Five Thousand Mines;
And when you get them finished, report straight back to me
In the meantime I’ll have more work from the acting C.R.E. (Maughan 1966, 138)

For his initiative and courage in leading dangerous night operations at Tobruk, Muller was awarded the Military Cross and mentioned in despatches (both 1942). He was promoted to temporary major in December 1941 (substantive, April 1942) and placed in command of the field company, which saw action in Egypt from July 1942, culminating in the battle of El Alamein (October-November). Back in Australia in February 1943, the following month he was promoted to lieutenant colonel and appointed commander of the 1st Divisional Engineers, but assumed that role in the 9th Division in July. He was mentioned in despatches (1944) and awarded the Distinguished Service Order (1945) for his management of the division’s engineering operations at Lae and Finschhafen, New Guinea, between September 1943 and January 1944, during which his ‘excellent command and drive’ included ’constantly moving well forward making engineer reconnaissances frequently under enemy observation and fire’ (AWM 88). On 3 March 1944 at St Philip’s Church of England, Sydney, he married Marion Lucas, a nurse in the Australian Army Medical Women's Service, who later took the names Maryanna Elisa Catherine. From May to August 1945 he took part in the liberation of Borneo, before returning to Melbourne, where he transferred to the Reserve of Officers on 26 October.

In 1946 Muller entered the Commonwealth Department of Transport, dealing at first with rail standardisation. He was appointed assistant director of civil engineering in 1948 and in 1950 visited Bangkok to attend a United Nations Organization conference on transport systems. During the 1960s he was an adviser for the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization and in the 1970s the government of Malaysia. He was then appointed construction manager with the Department of Works, Darwin. In December 1974 he transmitted the first news of the destruction wrought by Cyclone Tracy, by driving south to find a functioning radio transmitter. Suffering poor health, he retired in 1977. Respected for his service decorations, he was a man for whom others came first. He was a stalwart of his regimental association and he strongly encouraged the writing of its history. In later years he suffered from Parkinson’s disease and dementia. Survived by his wife and their son and two daughters, he died on 2 November 1994 at Heidelberg, Victoria, and was cremated.

Research edited by Brian Wimborne

Select Bibliography

  • Australian War Memorial. AWM 88, AMF O/A 21
  • Herald-Sun (Melbourne). ‘Others Came First for This Engineer, Soldier, Diplomat.’ 10 November 1994, 59
  • McNicoll, Ronald. The Royal Australian Engineers. Vol. 3, 1919 to 1945: Teeth and Tail. Canberra: Corps Committee of the Royal Australian Engineers, 1982
  • Maughan, Barton. Tobruk and El Alamein. Vol. 3 of Series 1 (Army) of Australia in the War of 1939–1945. Canberra: Australian War Memorial, 1966
  • National Archives of Australia. B883, VX243, MULLER, DESMOND OTTO
  • Ward-Harvey, Ken. The Sappers’ War with Ninth Australian Division Engineers 1939–1945. Newcastle, NSW: Sakoga in conjunction with 9th Division RAE Association, 1992

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Citation details

Michael O'Brien, 'Muller, Desmond Otto (Dooley) (1913–1994)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2020, accessed online 23 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, (ANU Press), 2021

View the front pages for Volume 19

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