Vale Bob Dingle: 1920-2016

Weather observer, Bob Dingle, using a theodolite near Mawson Station in February 1955.
Weather observer, Bob Dingle, using a theodolite near Mawson Station in February 1955. (Photo: AAD)
The 1957 Davis Station team (L-R): Nils Lied, Bruce Stinear, Bob Dingle, Alan Hawker and William Lucas.

Pathfinder at war and in the Antarctic

Bob Dingle, who was deeply involved with the establishment of Australia's continental Antarctic stations in the 1950s and spent seven winters on Australian and American Antarctic stations, died in a Tasmanian nursing home on 5 September, aged 95.

He was born William Robert John Dingle at Stithians, Cornwall, England, on 5 November 1920, the only surviving child of William Dingle, petty officer, Royal Navy and Miriam Jane Dingle née Reed. He was educated at the nearby Helston School, which he left in 1936 to join the General Post Office as a clerk and telephonist.

With the advent of World War II, he enlisted in the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve and trained as a wireless operator/air gunner, serving operationally with Nos. 78 and 35 Squadrons. By mid- December 1943, he had been awarded a Distinguished Flying Medal as a member of an elite pathfinder crew, which had successfully flown 38 missions including six to Berlin, four to Hamburg and two to Turin. On his next mission to Frankfurt, the starboard inner engine of his Halifax inexplicably caught fire. All attempts to extinguish it were unsuccessful, and the pilot gave the order to bale out. The navigator's parachute failed to open and the pilot and rear gunner stayed with the plane – three fatalities, all New Zealanders, all with the Distinguished Flying Cross.

Dingle landed alone in a ploughed field and walked through the night, spending the next day hidden in a haystack. At dusk he began walking again but about half an hour later he spoke to a farmer who put him in touch with the Belgian underground. On January 6, 1944, he was caught, in a random search by the Gestapo, boarding a train to Brussels, and spent the rest of the war as a POW.

Demobbed in 1947, he migrated to Australia in 1949 and the following year joined the Commonwealth Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) as a trainee weather observer. Often seconded to the Australian National Antarctic Research Expeditions (ANARE), he served at all five Australian Antarctic stations – Heard Island in 1951, Mawson in 1954, Macquarie Island in 1956, Davis Station in 1957 and at Wilkes in 1959 when it was transferred from the United States Antarctic Research Program (USARP) to ANARE. He was awarded the Queen's Polar Medal with a dated clasp (Antarctic 1954-55) as the sole weather observer in the party of 10 that established Mawson Station and an additional clasp (Antarctic 1957) as officer-in-charge of the five-man party that established Davis Station.

In between his Antarctic postings, Dingle served at numerous isolated meteorological stations including Port Hedland, Norfolk Island, Willis Island, the Giles Weather Station in Central Australia and many RAAF stations. Later he was granted special leave from the BOM and spent two winters with USARP – at Byrd Station in 1962 and Plateau Station in 1967.

In August 1968, Dingle was the senior Australian weather observer on the US Navy ship Eltanin and over the next three-and-a-half years he served on 18 consecutive marine cruises. After 25 years with the BOM, he retired in 1975 and moved to Swansea on the east coast of Tasmania.

After an extremely varied and adventurous working life, he spent 40 years as a generous and active member of the community in this small town. He was a quiet, introspective and extremely private man, who loved his small house, and his flower and vegetable garden. Mister Dingle, as he was universally known, shared his vegetable produce and many daffodils with neighbours and friends. He visited the sick to see how he could help and for many years audited the local Anglican Church accounts. Periodically though he would take off alone on bushwalking trips around Tasmania. At home he enjoyed listening to his extensive collection of classical symphony and choral music on tape. An accomplished photographer, he held slideshows for local volunteer groups. A book of his Antarctic photographs was published in 2011 (Antarctica: Photographs by Bob Dingle. Text by Susan Gordon-Brown, published by Blurb.com, Melbourne).

Herbert J.G. Dartnall 

This is an edited version of an article that appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald, 12 October, 2016.

Herbert Dartnall is an Antarctic freshwater biologist who has served on British, Australian and South African research expeditions, including four months on Macquarie Island (1989–90) and one year at Davis research station (1991). He is a polar historian and long-term friend of Bob Dingle.