Archive number: 382
Date interviewed: 05 June, 2003
You are listening to the interview audio
Rex, could you tell me please a bit about where you were born and bought up?
Yes David [interviewer], I’m an air force brat. I was born at a place called Werribee in Victoria, which is close to Point Cook where of course, as you probably know the RAAF [Royal Australian Air Force] was
born. My father at that stage was an air force officer, stationed at Point Cook and we had a home at Werribee. So I started my schooling as in primary school at Werribee Primary School, subsequently in about 1932 around about that time perhaps 1934, father was posted up to Melbourne, to
St Kilda Road, Melbourne and we moved to Footscray. I finished my primary school at Footscray and went on to Williamstown High School. I had no sooner settled into Williamstown High School and father was posted to London. And I went over to London and spent the next two odd years over there at school in England.
How did you find moving to England?
Wonderful, absolutely wonderful. We
moved to a place at Lancaster Gate at Hyde Park for about the first 2 months, 2 to 3 months. And my elder brother and I were only required to do an hour’s schooling a day. My mother supervised that. We spent the rest of the time around the toy shops in London. So initially certainly it was good fun. We then moved to a place called Ruislip out the west of London and I
went to a school called Fraser College at Uxbridge. Stayed there as I say for a couple… two and a half years. We came back to Australia. Moved to Brighton in Melbourne and I went to Brighton Grammar and finished my schooling at Brighton Grammar. I then joined the bank, the Commercial Bank of Australia as a bank clerk and twelve months later joined the air force. I joined the
air force as soon as I possibly could, which was shortly after my eighteenth birthday.
Tell me was the air force always your aim?
Yes it was, yes it was. I can go back to the days when I saw my father on parade at Point Cook and again at Laverton and I used to watch this big bloke with his sword standing out in front of a
platoon of airmen and think one of these days I’m going to do that and that’s exactly what I wanted to do.
Tell me a bit more about what your father did in the air force?
Dad was an equipment officer, by trade if that’s the right word, but he was also a qualified pilot he had a pair of pilots wings but he was in fact
an equipment officer. I think in those days the air force were broader in their categories of people obviously since he had a set of pilot’s wings he must have got those after World War I. He was posted to London as one of the air liaison officers on behalf of the Royal Australian Air Force at that stage he was a squadron leader. So you know
I’m not overly familiar with what he did, at the same time he was promoted as air commodore not long after the end of World War II and became the air officer commanding what was then called Maintenance Command in Melbourne. He was stationed at Albert Park Barracks. So really I’m not that familiar with what he did.
Do you know much about what he did in the First World War?
Yes, he was with the
6th Light Horse in World War I and rose to the rank of warrant officer. And he was warrant officer when he was discharged I guess.
What did he tell you about his…?
He didn’t tell us very much at all. Dad was a very big man, he was 6 foot odd and about 17 stone, he was a big man. And he talked very,
very little to my brother and I about what went on in World War I. I think I’d describe Dad as the big silent type. And he wasn’t that close I don’t think to his children, there were three boys in the family, I have a brother 10 years younger than me and an elder brother that we lost only a couple of months ago.
My elder brother and Dad were probably closer than I was with Dad but even so Jack in more recent years turned around and said Dad was a hard man to communicate with and I think he was from a domestic view point. But he loved his air force. I’m not exaggerating when I say when war broke out he worked 7 days a week
on behalf of the air force and certainly he was an impressive looking bloke in uniform because of his physical size.
And obviously that made a big impact on you, I guess?
Yes, yes he did. Yes he did. My older brother tried to join the air force but he’d been in a reserved occupation till about 19…late ‘44, early ‘45 and he ended up as a
photographer at Lake Boga in Victoria. My younger brother of course was only twelve when I came home after the war.
Tell me a bit about your mother?
Mother was…it’s strange, mother was about 5 foot 4, in other words she was very tiny compared with father. It used to amuse us to see them walking along the street, with mother with her arm up like this trying to hold his arm. She was a
strong woman, a very strong woman, she knew exactly what she wanted and she made certain she got it. I can remember as kids hearing her turn around and say, “Bert!” and Bert I think probably did what he was asked. But she passed away oh gee about 1968 around about that time she was killed in a car accident in
Fiji. She was taking her elder granddaughter on a school holiday. And they’d no sooner got there she walked out of the motel and she got cleaned up by a taxi, was killed. Father died in 1950, I can’t tell you the exact month but it was after I was back in the air force and
he had a stroke and subsequently he went up to see his brother in law on ‘phosphate island’ up at Nauru, his brother in law was the administrator I think at stage at Nauru and Dad dropped dead in the street coming home, he was in Christchurch in New Zealand.
Tell the story about how you came to join the air force?
Oh that’s easy. My eighteenth birthday father took me into our main lounge room at home. And presented me with a set of papers which was an application to join air crew and turned around and said, “Here you are, you’ve always talked about it, sign them and I’ll take them into the office tomorrow.” And it was as good as that. All I had to do was sign where the pencil crosses were and he took them away.
I was then called up, I think it was about the 17th of January ’42, for a medical examination and I passed that. And then went on what was called in those days the air crew reserve and I stayed on the air crew reserve until the 17th of July 1942, when I in fact entered the air force.
Can I just backtrack then and ask you where you were when war broke out?
Yes, I was with the Brighton Grammar Cadets at Queenscliff Army Unit, we were in camp at the Queenscliff Barracks and when war broke out, all hell broke lose and about 10 days later us cadet kids were sent back home
and the Militia moved in to take our places, it was under canvas of course, that was a big thrill, big thrill, you know being stupid young fellows, we thought this was wonderful. I might add one of the humorous things coming home on the train, we got out of the train at Spencer Street Railway station and we were in cadet uniform with our 303 rifles, which were probably darn near as big as ourselves
and some civilian bloke there turned around to us and said, “Oh we’re safe now with you fellows in uniform.” Oh dear oh dear, I might add my head sort of went so big, you know to think we were that important, humorous.
Did you have much awareness of politics in Europe at that time?
Not a great deal, you know only what you read in the paper,
as I said, Dad wasn’t not the sort of person who’d talked about that sort of thing. I can remember after the war broke out Dad coming home very late at night and then sitting in one of our rooms reading air force papers and I saw very little of my father at that stage.
When you said all hell broke
lose at the camp, what did you mean by that?
Well everybody was so excited about it, you know we thought it ….you know war broke out, it was wonderful, I don’t think any of us kids had an appreciation of what war was all about, it was an experience, an exciting experience too. Looking back on it now I feel rather foolish about it, but in those days it was an exciting experience for a young kid.
Remember we were sixteen and at that stage you don’t really have an appreciation of what goes on, of the importance of it anyway. We were a long way from the war really. I remember there was a German ship went out through the heads there at Queenscliff and the Queenscliff guns fired at it, one or two shots I don’t think there was any more of that. But that gave you a hell of a thrill you know to hear the bang.
I might add that I subsequently learned that the Larn headed south and got across to South America safely so you know one of those experiences you have as a kid.
Tell me about your call up in ’42?
It was fairly low key. I received a telegram or a letter; I forget which now, telling me to report to
the recruiting depot at Russell Street in Melbourne for call up. I don’t remember there being any great excitement in the family other than me being excited that I was finally going to get into uniform. It was you know fairly low key, we reported into Russell Street, they did the usual medical examinations and this type
of thing and then we marched down to Spencer Street Railway Station onto a train and ended up at a place called Somers Camp which was south of Frankston and into camp we went. Got our uniforms in due time and it was fairly low key, fairly low key.
So what did they have you doing at Somers?
most of the boys of course were involved in doing drill, rifle drill and that sort of thing. I was excused that because the fact that I’d been doing that sort of thing in the school cadets so it was obvious to them that I knew it. And in fact the warrant officer gave me a student to teach. He turned round and said you know, “Take him over to the side and teach him how to do it,” sort of thing. But most of the time it was taken up in studies
in learning aerodynamics, Morse, bit of navigation, you know bit of the general subjects which you need to learn as a member of the air crew. I don’t think I had any great trouble with any of them, mathematics was one of the subjects and I had done that at school you know there was any real difficulties as far as I could see.
Everybody of course wanted to be a pilot, I did too. And in fact that I subsequently learnt that father was to say the least very disappointed when I wasn’t a pilot. I gather from what my mother told me subsequently, “Your father had it worked out as to who your instructor was going to be at Benalla at FTS [Flight Training School] and who your instructor was going to be when you got to Uranquinty flying Wirraways,” and all this sort of thing.
Well then when I failed the co-ordination test and I was scrubbed from being a pilot, I rang Dad and told him what had happened and Dad, in his usual way, turned around and said, “Uh you know why’d you get scrubbed?” and to be honest with you I really didn’t have the courage to tell him that I failed the co-ordination test
and I led him to believe that I really didn’t know and he said ring me back in 45 minutes. So I rang him back in 45 minutes and his comment was, “Anyone who puts up a co-ordination test as bad as you did doesn’t deserve to be an air crew much less a pilot; what do you want to be?” During that time, from the time I joined in January to the time I got called up in July
I had studied Morse and had learnt Morse code and by the time I went into the service in July ’42 I was reasonably good at it. So I thought the only thing I could do was become a wireless operator because obviously I’m going to get through, I was scared stiff I was going to get scrubbed out of air crew the way the old man had said. So I
elected to be a wireless operator and that’s what I became. I didn’t regret it really, certainly not at that stage, I enjoyed the course very much, and I went to a place called Parkes, in New South Wales, which was WAG [Wireless Air Gunner] school. I think the old man could probably have arranged for me to go to Ballarat, looking back on it now again of course, but he didn’t, I ended up at Parkes.
And we studied at Parkes, and I went through and graduated as a wireless air gunner.
Rex, so when did you graduate from Parkes?
I think it was the beginning of
1943. From there we went to Port Pirie to do gunnery school. And the gunnery school was about 6 weeks and we graduated in April, so obviously it was after Christmas in ’42 when we graduated from Parkes. Port Pirie was interesting we did our gunnery school on Fairey Battles and it was a lot of fun, it was a lot of fun. We
had air to air firing and you had a Vickers gun.
Tell me what a Fairey Battle is?
A single engine light
bomber. It was a RAF light bomber, which proved absolutely disastrous when the real war started in Europe and they were sent out here purely and simply as a training aircraft for gunners and bomb aimers. The bomb aimers used them for bombing practice of course and the gunners used them for air-to-air gunnery. It was, you know you had a huge big target and being
towed by another Fairey Battle, some distance away and you had to try and hit it. The nose of the ammunition is coloured so that they could count the number of rounds that go through the target by the paint marks, and you know it was good fun.
What’s the target?
The target is a huge big banner; it’s a canvas banner
about 30 or 40 feet long and about 6,8,10 feet deep and one aircraft stands out from the other sideways like that and you attempt to hit the banner, oh scores were not very high.
How did you find gunnery?
I was an average shot that’s all; I don’t think it would be fair to say that I was any better or any worse than some of the
others. Some days I had good days and some days not, I think it was all according to the distance between the banner and the aircraft in which I was flying. And I think some of the pilots who were flying those Battles sometimes their distance were a bit closer than they should have been. It must have been a terribly boring job for them to be flying aircraft like that, straight and level with
gunners in the back.
How did they assess the gunners?
They simply counted the paint marks, that’s all. The bullet goes straight through the target of course and they count the paint marks and you’ve been allocated a couple of drums of red nosed cartridges and the other guy in the aircraft with you has been allocated a couple of blue nosed ones, so they can count the red ones they
can count the blue ones and this sort of thing and then assess it. But they know who owned what drums. But you know it was good fun, I subsequently caught up with a guy, post war days he’d been flying one of those, one of those Fairey Battles. He was a flying officer at the time when he was at Port Pirie but he was a squadron leader when I met with him after the war and we used to chat about it occasionally. And he used to say
it was a dreadful job.
Well because he wanted to get into the war. You know you can imagine, can’t you, flying over the water of Port Pirie with these gunners firing at a banner which was a mile behind you, you see nothing, do nothing, fly over the top of the airfield, drop off the banner, come around, land, load up again and away you’d go again, how boring.
How were you feeling
at this point?
In what way do you mean, how was I feeling?
Were you looking forward to going into….?
Of course, yeah looking forward to getting rid of the whole training cycle and hoping to get to Europe to fight the real war. The war in the Pacific had started by the time I graduated, but it didn’t interest me a great deal. I had visions of going
back to London, catching up with some of the kids I’d been at school with and getting into Bomber Command or some such thing over there. I didn’t really mind what I went onto when I got there, I was hoping for Bomber Command. But where I wanted to be was over in UK And as it turned out, that’s where I ended up. Again I don’t think
father left me alone, he took me for a walk one Sunday and said to me, “Where do you want to go?” and I said I wanted to go to the UK and he turned round and he said to me, “This is one thing I won’t put my finger in.” He said, “If anything happens to you and your mother’s aware that I helped you get to the UK,” he said, “I’d be in a lot of trouble.”
He said, “I’d have to live with it.” Anyway it was only a matter of weeks later when my posting to the UK came out. So I’ve got an idea that father may well have had a finger in it, then again he may not of, I don’t know for certain.
Where were you when you got the posting?
At No. 1 Embarkation Depot at Ascotvale in Melbourne, in other words Melbourne Showgrounds.
So tell me how you got
there from Parkes, was there anything in between?
Nothing in between, no just posted out, posted to Port Pirie, remember. Finished gunnery school at Port Pirie, became a sergeant on graduation and then the posting was from there to No 1. Embarkation Depot at Ascotvale. So nothing really in between. There had been a rumour
apparently that I was going to go to navigational school after finishing gunnery school but it didn’t eventuate. And really I made no fuss about it, I didn’t want to go there. But when I ended at embarkation depot father turned round and said to me, “I hear you’re going to Mount Gambier to do a nav course.” And I was able to look him straight between the eyes and say, “No, I know nothing about that.
I’m going overseas I hope.” You know the thing is that in those days, some guys at embarkation depot would be posted to an Australian squadron up in the Pacific, and some guys would be posted to Canada, some guys would be posted to UK and so on. Now it was sort of a…what should I say … a lottery as to where you went. And I wanted to go to UK I didn’t want to go on Beauforts or something
like this in Australia and I got my wish as it turned out but whether father had a finger in the pie I don’t know, I really can’t accuse him of it but I suspect he probably did.
Tell me just before we get overseas your objections to learning navigations?
I just done, what, 10 months of fairly intensive training as a WAG, navigation meant another
6 months to 8 months training, that was the objection at that stage. The war was going on, I wanted to get to the war, I didn’t want to spend all of my time training.
So tell me then, when you got your posting, how did you leave Australia?
We came by train from Melbourne to Sydney
and we stayed for only, for only a matter of a couple of days at the initial training school up at Bradfield Park and then from there by train to Brisbane and directly onto a ship in Brisbane. It was an American troopship, it had brought 6000 Americans out to Australia I believe and we went straight onto it. Conditions
were not the best, you slept in hammocks and various other things and we went from there across to San Francisco. From San Francisco we went by train across to a place called Camp Miles Standish not far from Boston, Massachusetts we stayed there for some months and then in April,
it would be about April ’43, it would be yes. We sailed from there to the UK
What were you doing during those months near Boston?
Doing very little, we were mostly on leave, we did some drill type activities but really you couldn’t count them as being anything of any importance,
it was a case of filling in time until we could get on a troopship to take us across to the UK, so yeah mostly on leave. I went to New York, spent some time in New York, spent some time in Boston. I think we all had girlfriends over there after a short length of time. And that was that sort of thing you know but again it was a case of, “For heaven’s sake, let’s get going. We want to get to the war!” So we
went across by, I think it was Queen Elizabeth. An enormous number of American soldiers on their way over to Europe. Landed in Scotland, trained down to a place called Brighton, South coast of the UK And stayed there until such time as I got posted on from there.
Did you do any additional training in the UK?
Yes, yes when I got posted to a place called West Frew, which was up in Scotland, which was called an AFU Advance Flying Unit and there you did more studies in terms of transferring your knowledge over from what we’d learnt in Australia on the Australian Radio Equipment to the British Radio Equipment. And that’s the equipment you were going to use once you
became operational. So we spent about 6 or 8 weeks there, did a little flying, not a great deal but did a little. From there I was posted to No. 14 OTU [Operational Training Unit] at Market Harbour, which was in UK of course. And it’s there where you crew up. AFU you know you’re an individual, get down to OTU and it’s
at OTU where you crew up with a pilot, navigator, bomb aimer and the gunners.
Tell me then about the process about crewing up?
It’s very informal. You all report to a briefing room, which is a huge big like a theatre and you mingle around and you decided without really having met the guys before
that you’d like to fly with them. And an Australian pilot, a bloke by the name of Kevin McSweeney, a flight sergeant as he was then, came up to me and said, “I’m Kevin McSweeney, I hear you did pretty well on your wireless course, would you like to come fly with me?” and I said I’d be delighted to, so he and I sort of got together and then we put our heads together and we picked ourselves
a navigator and a bomb aimer and we certainly did very well out of it. We ended up with two absolutely wonderful guys who were also very skilled in their trade and nice guys with it.
So how did you pick them?
I think mainly by their looks. Fred Homewood our navigator was a guy of 27,29 married man, came from
London he had two children and Danny Major, incidentally he was a pilot officer and the bomb aimer was a most delightful bloke also came from London with an infectious smile and just a beautiful, beaut personality. I think Kevin McSweeney might have done his homework in so far as he’d put his ear to the ground to find out how these guys were
as far as their job in the aircraft was concerned. Because he really did the picking more so than me, I was sort of with him saying do you want to fly with a couple of diggers and that was that. We picked a rear gunner; he virtually picked himself, our rear gunner turned out to be an Englishman, came from Drillingham in Kent, his background was he’d been a leading seaman in the Royal Navy
and had taken his discharge in March of 1939, he was 35 years of age and was a widower, his wife had been killed during the Battle of Britain. She was apparently at work in Drillingham in Kent and a bomb exploded near her and she was killed and the
RAF took this guy on even though he was 35 years of age. The RAF took this guy on on the proviso that he would never be anything else than a straight air gunner, they wouldn’t waste any time training him to be anything else and he was a delight to say the least.
Why would it be a waste of time to train him for something else?
Well at his age, you know 35 in those days remember air crew I think the limit was about 26 or something like that
so he was way above age really. And he and I became very very firm friends, he used to turn round to people and say, “Oh yeah, young Rex here, I was out in Melbourne in 1924 and I saw his mother pushing him in a pram,” this sort of thing. But he was a top fellow in every sense of the word, there was never any panic or anything like that with Reg. He was
one of these quietly spoken guys. Extremely good drinker, he used to turn round and tell me that he was going to make me into an eight-pint man, he never succeeded.
Tell me a bit about the plane that you were flying?
Well at OTU we were on Wellington aircraft. When we went from OTU to Heavy Conversion
Unit we were on Sterling’s and each of these periods of course you’re learning more and more and more about the aircraft. But the conversion course on the Sterling’s really was for the benefit of the pilot who was obviously going to go onto 4 engine aircraft so he learnt to fly Sterling’s at Heavy Conversion Unit. From there we went to what was called Lanc finishing school
and it was there when we converted onto Lancaster’s and I was on Lancasters of course up till the time that I was shot down.
Did your equipment change much between these planes?
No it didn’t, no, no. The equipment that I learnt to use at West Frew at Advanced Flying Unit was exactly the same as that at OTU and at Heavy Conversion Unit and also Lanc Finishing school it was Marconi gear and
it remained the same, it was just a case of learning more skills. I think you can appreciate that operating a transmitter receiver from the air in UK required a lot of practice, in so far that you’re using Morse Code of course and to distinguish messages which were for you and not for every other
aircraft in the air, requires a certain amount of experience and that’s what you’re getting during that period. You’re just get more and more experience and not only that but aircraft systems, you’ve got to learn the aircraft system of each aircraft too so that if anything happens you know what to do. So it it’s a challenge and you know you get a heck of a lot of satisfaction
out of it, the better you become, the more self satisfied you become.
Where were you posted when you became operational?
To a place called Spilsbury. I went to an RAF squadron, number. 207 Squadron which is a very long established traditional RAF squadron and it was
stationed at this stage at a place called Spilsbury, which is near Skegness on the wash on the East Coast and there you know you become an operational person on an operational squadron with all that that conveyed at the time. My skipper Kevin McSweeney and Fred Homewood the navigator they did a trip
with another crew to a German target, I forget which one now, but then we became operational, in other words your pilot has one, and the navigator have one more trip up their sleeves than you have but I can’t recall now quite how long it took us from when we got to the squadron to the time we first became operational. I can tell you the date that we first became operational
25th of March 1944 which was my first trip and it was to Berlin so I will never ever forget that. And my first three trips were Berlin, Essen and Nuremberg, and Berlin they lost, if my memory serves me right, something like 76 aircraft, Essen was down it was only about 40 odd and then the Nuremberg trip
of course was the one where the RAF lost the greatest number of aircraft up to that time and that was in the order of 100, 104 or something of that order.
Interviewee: Rex Austin Archive ID 0382 Tape 02
Tell me about the first operation that you flew?
I think to say when you go into a briefing room and you find that your first operation is the big city as it was called, Berlin, you can’t help but be excited about something like that and
probably a little scared, I don’t think that I was scared but I certainly was excited. It was a long trip and we got over the top of the target in due time without any fuss or bother. Our bomb aimer and the pilot lined the aircraft up and then the next thing I heard over the intercom was
that we’d have to go round again to do to go right through the target again because the bomb aimer had made an error of judgement on his bombing. So we then flew back against the stream of aircraft, turned round, came back again and bombed. Now as you can well imagine that, that was exciting to think we were flying against the steam of aircraft at night time and remember
you can’t see them, you can’t see them, then turned round and bombed. When we got back on the ground at Spilsbury the navigator, the rear gunner and myself went very crook about it, we said you know, lets not get killed by hitting somebody else driving the wrong way. The bomb aimer should have dropped his bombs whether he was
on the target or not and let’s get out of there and live to fight another day and I’ll say this for Kevin McSweeney he took that to heart and sort of said yes, “Well okay I take your point.” But we got coned on the way back by searchlights and that’s a scary experience when the aircraft is completely coned.
I think it’s fair to say that I was at that stage of the game very scared, very scared and I don’t think the rest of the crew were any different. Because normally once you get coned you stayed coned and the anti aircraft will get you. We were fortunate enough that we didn’t, we managed to escape it, so on we went. I ended up by doing
….well I claim thirteen trips, I completed 12 and we got shot down on the 22nd, the night of the 22nd, 23rd of May, ’44 on my thirteenth trip.
Where was the target on that day?
On memory I think it was Brunswick, I think it was Brunswick we were going into. It’s a long while ago now I can’t remember exactly, but I
think it was Brunswick. We’d been there before and this was another trip back. Yeah I can’t be absolutely certain.
So tell me how you came to be shot down?
We got attacked by a night fighter, a German night fighter and they put the starboard wing on fire and
the petrol tanks of course are in the wings of these aircrafts and the wing was just completely on fire. The noise if you can remember the old blow torches that builders used to have, you know that enormous sound they used to make, well it’s exactly the same sort of sound with the wing on fire with an aircraft travelling along at 100 odd miles an hour and the flames coming out the back.
Our pilot turned round, Kev McSweeney turned round and said, “Get out of here!” Not quite in those words, but that’s what he meant and away we went. My job was to run down the back, put my parachute on, run down the back, open the back door and lock it open so then the gunners could follow me out and that’s exactly what took place. At the time I got there the rear gunner was
Carl Reg he was coming out of his turret and sliding forward, mid upper gunner was moving out of his turret and I went down and I lock the door, I don’t remember doing it but Reg, twice our rear gunner tells me, “Yes you locked the door, it was right,” and I sat on the step with the flames going past underneath me and to the side of me and Reg’s comment was, “You’re a bit slow chum so I kicked you out,” so he obviously gave
me a hand to get out with the aid of his boot. And I don’t remember pulling the ripcord, but no doubt I did, well obviously I did. And then I floated from 22,000 feet. Unfortunately the wing came off after I got out and after the two gunners got out. The wing came off and the fellows down the front
were trapped in the front of the aircraft through not being able to get out through the forward escape hatch. The skipper, and I’m on hearsay here of course, the skipper turned round to John Lowry the engineer and said, “Go down and see why Danny Major, the bomb aimer hasn’t got out, I’d like to get out too.” Apparently Lowry went down the front and he
was trapped down the front too. So the aircraft then subsequently blew up and again I reiterate I’m on hearsay because McSweeney and these other blokes told me about it. The aircraft blew up in midair and McSweeney, the pilot survived virtually unhurt. Fred the navigator survived, but he was knocked around a bit and
Danny Major the bomb aimer and John Lowry were killed. It’s just one of those things, we’ll never know why the bomb aimer didn’t get out. We suspect that perhaps in the attack on the aircraft he may well have been killed, whilst he was in the front, since he lays on the front on the escape hatch when he’s in his normal bomb aiming position. He may well have been dead in the aircraft,
but we’ll never know. I identified his body, the day after and I wasn’t looking for wounds, I was purely and simply looking to see who it was, it was very difficult to tell who it was and I identified him by his brevet and his rank and said that that was who it was. But I didn’t, I wasn’t looking
to see whether he’d been shot or not. And the same with Lowry, I identified him too and you know all I could tell was that they’d hit the ground going very fast and in any case I think my mental state was such that I didn’t want to look too hard.
where did you land?
I landed in a ploughed field at a place, a small little cluster of farmhouses. There would have been no more than half a dozen houses there and the field I landed in was ploughed and when I could see, remember you’re going out at
half past twelve at night so it’s as black as the inside of a cow, there are no lights on on the ground you have no points of reference to see where you’re going to land and I hit the ground obviously pretty hard, my flying boots had come off obviously when I pulled the ripcord because of the sudden jerk, so I came down without flying boots on
and I didn’t realise I’d been hurt until I went to stand up and then I realised that I had a broken ankle. I tried to move and frankly I couldn’t. I won’t say that I was petrified or anything like that, but I was cold, wet, miserable and when I went to stand
I realised all I could do was hop not walk. So I sat myself back down on the ground again and pulled the parachute over the top of my head and said, “That’s it, that’s it.” so I tried to light myself a cigarette, there was a wind blowing but I couldn’t light the cigarette, whether it was the wind or my hands shaking so much I don’t know and I wouldn’t like to admit that my hand was shaking too much but I guess it probably was.
Were you wondering whether you might be taken prisoner at that point?
Well I knew I was going to be taken prisoner, you know it was fairly obvious, since I couldn’t get away I was going to be a prisoner and that’s the best thing that could happen to you sort of thing. It’s an experience which I look back on now,
what should I say. Satisfied that there wasn’t anything really that I could do. And there isn’t really, if you can’t walk then what are you going to do, it was raining gently, as I say I was cold, wet and miserable and very lonely and thinking to myself, “What the heck am I doing here?”
you know you tend to think to yourself, you know, what’s Mum and Dad going to say about this. I had a girlfriend in England, what’s she going to say about this. It’s those sort of those that go through your mind, I was more concerned about Mum and Dad, thinking that they were going to get a message that says that ‘We regret to announce that your son has been posted missing’, but at least I
knew where I was, but you can’t tell them that, you can’t communicate, so you know you feel pretty miserable about the whole deal. I crawled away a little distance from where I’d hit and I pulled out my so called escape kit and as I say it was a ploughed field and I sort of dug into a bit of a plough, one of the plough marks and put my
escape kit in there, we had always been told get rid of your escape kit. So I did that.
Why did they say that?
Because it had maps in it and that sort of thing, it had silk maps and it had wakey [amphetamines] tablets, chewing gum, various things like this that would help you escape if you were fit enough to do so. I might add I’ve read subsequently that the people
who escaped after being shot down was one percent, one percent of guys that got away and obviously they would be guys who were unhurt when they hit the ground, so your chances weren’t very big. So I got rid of that, as I say pulled the parachute over my head and said right come and get me. The following morning at dawn or shortly after, two or three guys, I can’t remember
whether it was two or three men, farmers obviously they had Wellington boots on and that type of thing, they arrived, they had shotguns and with them was a younger fellow, I’d guessed he would have been 13 or 14 and he had a rifle and he insisted on pointing the rifle at me, the adults were yakking at him, but it didn’t matter he had that look in his eye, he looked as though,
“I’m going to shoot this bastard,” sort of thing you know, and that worried me a bit. But knowing that I was with the adults, I sort of thought to myself well I’m pretty safe really. These guys helped me across the field to a path alongside and there was a bicycle there and they gave me this bike and escorted me, me holding the handlebars and hopping to a farmhouse
and I gather that it must have been the senior man in the little gathering. Took me inside there, the woman of the house could not have been nicer. She was a typical German farm lady you know, fairly wide not terribly tall and she tut tutted, put me on a chair in front of the wood fire, put a chair
for my leg and was as nice as could be. She gave me a slice of bread, brown bread, German bread which I’ve never tasted before and some butter on it I guess, which tasted foul to my palate it was, the whole thing wasn’t very acceptable but I did my absolute utmost to make certain
that I smiled and thanked her for it. Shortly afterwards her son and daughter arrived and they were kids of about 12 and 14 and they came down and they stood alongside of me and tried to talk to me. I might add that I did German for the last year at school, so I had a little smattering of German but their German was way about my head, I couldn’t converse with them. Stayed there for some day (UNCLEAR)
and became the subject of interest of everybody around the place, everybody was coming to the kitchen door and looking me up and down and “gul, gul, gul” at me to which I couldn’t reply and then they’d disappear and somebody else would come. In due time I heard a lot of commotion outside and a little guy who was about five foot four and about
15 feet across the shoulders arrived in an impeccable uniform and with a revolver nearly as big as himself, he screamed into the house, jabbed me in the ribs with this gun and again oh boy was he performing, I think he was probably abusing the farmer for being kind to me, I heard the word Terror Flieger a couple of times, so I guess he was.
Sorry what does it mean?
Terror Flyer, the Bomber Command guys in about that time of the war Goebbels and his boys were brainwashing the German populus that we were killers of women and children you know that sort of thing, stirring up hatred towards Bomber Command people. Anyway
this guy finally decided that it was time we went and his offsider who had not said a word the whole time, he just stood alongside him, also in the same uniform and didn’t say anything, he just stood there. Anyway they took me out to the car, I hopped out to the car, which was very similar to a V.W. I’m not certain that it was. I was bundled in the back
seat of this car and the two of them took off. And the intriguing part about it was and I couldn’t help but have a …nearly have a grin to myself about it was that the guy who had been saying nothing was in the right hand seat, remember they’re left hand cars and he had his gun pointed at me straight between the eyes, I’d been searched, I’d been put into
a vehicle by this little so and so and here was a guy not even looking where the car was going with a gun at me, so I sort of moved the barrel over a bit that way for the first time, and back it came again, so I moved it over the other way and tried to look as though, “Look, what the hell this all about?” finally he gave it away. They took me back to where the aircraft had crashed. On
the way back we picked up the navigator Fred Homewood and then we went back to the crash site and it was there where he made me get out of the car and identify the bodies of Danny Major and John Lowry and I did that.
What did the plane look like?
Oh it’s completely smashed up. Where the bodies were was right alongside
the nose of the aircraft. The aircraft when it blew up obviously, a Lancaster breaks forward of the pilot’s seat, it breaks off there and it breaks off behind the mid upper turret. So what I saw was purely and simply the front nose of the aircraft and it was smashed
to bits with the bodies alongside. They also took us past where there were a couple of engines in a field and we went past reasonably close to them and other parts of the aircraft. And Fred and I stayed in that car until they took us to a place called Meppen which was a Luftwaffe [German air force] Base,
night fighter aerodrome and they took us back to there and put us in cells. Now Fred and I were there together to start with for some time. I can’t remember now whether it was that afternoon or that night I should say we were joined by the mid upper gunner who had been injured, he joined us originally
and then the rear gunner Reg Tyce arrived and that’s all. So there were in fact 4 of us, four of us there and we stayed there for some time and they gave us something to eat, but we were locked in individual cells. In due time we were put into a vehicle and taken to
a place called Munster put on a train at Munster, under guard of course and taken down to the air crew interrogation centre at Frankfurt. Now when Reg Tyce arrived he who was uninjured, this is the rear gunner guy, he was uninjured but had been captured shortly after we’d been shot down,
in fact he was caught the following day and he said that he’d, the vehicle that took him to the night fighter drome had a couple of coffins in the back and he said he didn’t realise of course that he was sitting on either John or Danny Major, but he would have been. The trip to Frankfurt was relatively
all right except that we had to change trains at Cologne and at Cologne the local population on the Railway Station abused hell out of us, they spat on us, they attempted to punch at us all this sort of thing and I’ll say this for the German guards that were looking after us they turned their backs on us and put us into a little group,
there was about half a dozen of us because there had been other people picked up in the local area, other air crew picked up in the local area and there was about half a dozen of us and the German guards who were guarding us push us all together and turned their backs on us and went so far as to make it look like they would shoot any of the civilians who wanted to lynch us or push us in front of a train or whatever they
wanted to do. But it’s not pleasant to stand there and have people spit in your face, that gets up you know but there was nothing you could do about it.
Was it a big crowd?
I’d say 20, 30 people. And they’re all yelling at you in a foreign language of course which is always threatening. They may have been saying you’re nice people but because of the
language and everything else it is frightening.
Could you understand anything they said?
Not really, not really, because they were screaming at you, they were very excited and all you could do is stand there, there’s nothing you can do about it. You’re very helpless, you’re very helpless, but
when I saw the guards turn round and as I say put their backs to us I thought, ‘Gee whiz you know, this is something.’ But obviously the guards had been directed they were to get us safely to somewhere so they did their job. Nothing I could do just hope for the best.
But there was a point there you were in fear of your life from the crowd?
Yeah I think you are. You certainly expecting the worse because the crowd was very, very threatening and very excited, they seemed to be very….no doubt there may have been one or more amongst them egging them on to do us over.
Had you flown any operations
No I don’t think so, not that I can recall, no. I think we did Frankfurt, yes but a different Frankfurt, there’s two Frankfurts. There’s a Frankfurt in the (UNCLEAR) and there’s a Frankfurt further up towards (UNCLEAR) but it is a frightening experience to have people there, you know, we had heard stories back in UK
of air crew being lynched and you think perhaps this is what’s going to happen again and you’re going to be the subject of it. But as I say there’s nothing you could do.
Was there much evidence of bombing damage in Cologne when you were there?
Not that I saw, not that I saw, no, no. But
you know it’s one of those things I guess it’s part and parcel of being in Bomber Command, that that sort of thing happens, what do you do? Nothing you can do, if you want the honest answer, there’s nothing you can do. We went by train through to Frankfurt, went by vehicle from Frankfurt
up to the camp, to the prison at Frankfurt for interrogation centre. Put into a cell, individual cells again up there and at this stage remember I hadn’t had any treatment for my ankle at all, none at all and that starts to worry you just a bit you think gangrene and all these sorts of things. Anyway into a
cell there, very small cell, full of fleas, a palliasse on the floor, you know a thing full of straw, lots of fleas and you were there and it’s soundproof pretty well, so you stay there. I was taken out twice for interrogation, the first time the guy, superbly dressed in a superb
uniform, a rotund man I would guess in his fifties, who sat me down in front of him and offered me a cigarette, “Do you smoke?” “Yes I do.” “Have a cigarette but don’t smoke it now,” you know that sort of attitude. He then interrogated me, and when I say interrogate me it was more a case of me being somewhat surprised
at seeing in his office, schematic diagrams of some of our radar equipment which we weren’t allowed to discuss in the bar, you know supposedly secret equipment and here he’s got schematic diagrams of it in his office and that was no doubt done to shock you. I look
back on it now and say and it did, it did shock me. He was quite pleasant there was no threatening or anything like this at that first interview. He asked me where I came from and we were allowed in those days to give name, rank and number and home address and that’s exactly what I did, and when he turned around and said, “Oh, you come from Brighton,” and I said, “Yes,” and he said, “I used to live
near there.” “Yes, I know.” “131 New Street Brighton.” “Yes, oh yes. I know that. That’s near the Dendy Street gates,” and you think, “Jesus!” you know and this guy claimed to have been a wool buyer before the war and he claimed that he was with a company with an office in the Rialto building in Melbourne.
Now the Rialto building in Melbourne had a school called the Austral Coaching College and when I was in the bank before I got into the air force I was studying for my Banker’s Certificate and Austral Coaching College was where I went so when he said he was in Rialto buildings I knew exactly where he was talking about. Anyway he was relatively pleasant, he just asked questions about the squadron, about the aircraft,
what bomb load it carried, what the target was and all this sort of thing and I just kept saying, “I’m sorry Sir I’m not permitted to say. I’m sorry Sir I’m not permitted to say. I’m sorry Sir I don’t know,” this type of thing and he turned round to me in the end and said, “For a member of an air crew you’re not very bright Austin are you?” and I’d just about reiterated again, “I’m sorry Sir I’m not permitted to say,” you know, it was like a repetitive watch.
Anyway he turned around to me and said he would get my leg treated; he never ever did. I got sent for again a few days later. On the night we were shot down we had a young Canadian navigator with us, he was doing his first operation, remember I mentioned earlier about doing a trip. This guy Flight Sergeant Stacey, I have no idea what his name was, he
came out to the aircraft to do his trip and we took him to Germany and left him there and he survived and this interrogator guy turned round to me and said, “There is another man in your crew. There was another man on the aircraft and if you don’t tell me who he is and what he is and everything else we will of course have to have him shot.” And again it was a case of, I’m sorry sir I’m not permitted to say.’ That worried me a bit having to
deny the fact that Stacey had been with us but orders are orders and we had been told not to. Anyway Stacey survived the war I know that for sure. But he sort of used that as a lever to try and get me to talk, I didn’t, sorry sir I’m not permitted to say. In due time I was taken from solitary, I can’t
…… .yes I did, I did have a wash whilst I was there, yes I did, I managed to get a wash. And met up with Reg Tyce and Fred Homewood when we were marched out of there.
Do you remember how long approximately you were in solitary?
I think it was 6 days; it was 6 days, yeah. So it’s not very long. It seems a lot longer.
It would have seemed a
long time and you don’t know what’s ahead.
The point is that it’s you don’t know whether it’s morning, noon or night. They give you something to eat twice a day, nothing very much believe you me so you’re not quite certain what’s going on.
What was the food?
At morning you got a cup of soup and a slice of bread, and that’s exactly what you got a night time too. And when I say soup I mean an ordinary
cup, nothing very much.
Was the ankle hurting?
Yeah it was, yeah I was getting very concerned about it. Once we left there we went to a transit camp and at the transit camp they wrapped my foot up with a paper bandage, which is what they used in those days. And from there we went to the permanent Stalag [Stammlager – POW camp for other ranks] and when we got to the permanent Stalag
the doctor there was a proper doctor, British Army major who had been captured at Dunkirk and he took me in hand, they put me into the hospital, small hospital they had there, they set my ankle, put me in a plaster up to the knee and I stayed there for some time. The two guys who were off-siding to the doctor,
one of them is an Australian who is now a doctor up on the Gold Coast, he came back to Australia and did medicine and the other one, a bloke by the name of Eric Stevenson was an RAF officer, he was an RAF navigator flying officer, he also did medicine after the war and finally retired out would you believe, an Air Vice Marshal Director General for Medical Services for the RAAF.
He lives in Canberra and I was down not so long ago to his party they threw for him for his eightieth birthday. But after that into a room in the Stalag with another bunch of senior NCOs [Non Commissioned Officers] and that’s where we stayed till end of January
1944, we marched out from Stalag Luft 3, marched for a few days staying in farmers’ barns overnight to a place called Springburg. At Springburg we got into cattle trucks and from cattle trucks up to a place called Lückenwalde which was another very
large prison camps which had all sorts of nationalities in it and we stayed there until we were released by the Russians.
And when were you released?
In end of April 45, yeah. And then we stayed there with the Russians until such time as the Americans sent through
some trucks to bring us out. The Russians refused to allow us to come out on those and we stayed there until such time as the Russians provided trucks drove us to the Elbe and we were back into the hands of the Yanks.
What did the Yanks do with you?
Well they took us to the local aerodrome
and we were able to have a shower and get cleaned up and they gave us a meal. Interesting from the point of view of I can distinctly remember having a slice of white bread and thinking it was a cake, you know it’s extraordinary how the old memory plays tricks on you on things like that.
The train trip for Springburg to Lückenwalde was interesting in so far as an enormous number of guys were pushed into these cattle trucks and locked in of course. There was insufficient room for everybody to lie down; there was insufficient room to do anything, so some sit up, while some stand up, some lie down while the others were sitting down and standing up and this sort of thing.
Toilet facilities were not there; in fact we bored a hole through a nail hole in the side of the cattle truck. One guy had a knife and we manage to make the hole a bit larger, a bit larger and I was the only guy who had a Red Cross suitcase which was made out of fibre
and out of the suitcase we cut a funnel and that was our urinal, the funnel out through the side. And unfortunately I was the guy paying the provided the fibre and I was the guy who happened to be near the hole, so I was the guy who held the funnel whilst the boys were using the funnel and believe you me I had it everywhere.
I was wet, I was wet right up to the shoulder, trying to hold this funnel while the guys in a moving cattle truck and the guys are trying to fire through this hole. Boy you can imagine, did I smell!
Interviewee: Rex Austin Archive ID 0382 Tape 03
Rex, tell me a bit more about your journey from the camp to Australia.
Well as I say we travelled in Russian trucks to the River Elbe where the Allies had met up, the agreement was that the Brits and the Yanks would go as far as the Elbe
and the Russians would meet up the other side. We walked across a pontoon bridge into the hands of the Americans, the Americans in turn took us to an airbase called Halle and fed us up. They gave us a meal and we managed to get a shower and so on and so forth. We then flew by American Dakotas to Brussels
and we stayed in Brussels at St Anne’s Barracks which is in the centre of Brussels. We stayed overnight there, I have an idea we might have stayed two nights. We were then taken back to the airfield and we were flown home in the back of Lancaster’s by the RAF, we landed at a place called Horsham and from there we went down back to Brighton
where I started off in England in the first place. And I stayed at Brighton for some months, weeks. Anyway Brighton was a wonderful reception centre, we were pretty thin and worn as you can well imagine, but whilst we were at Brighton the POWs [Prisoners of War] were put on special rations. We had nice looking waitresses who used to insist that we took our pills
at the right time and so on and so forth. I was fortunate enough that I had had friends in England as you well know from my schoolboy days and I stayed with them outside London, mostly more time there then anywhere else. There was also a POW club up in Sloane Square where one could stay at no cost and again food was put into us pretty rapidly.
So we were given plenty of time to rehabilitate. Reissued with uniforms and our personal effects which had been in storage from the time we got shot down were returned to us. So by in large the stay in London after the war was a very happy one. I was able to stay with Mr and Mrs Savage who had been our next door neighbours pre-war days when I was in UK
and I was able to help them out of course by getting tinned food for them and that type of thing. In due time we were taken by train up to Scotland to Greenock and we went on board a ship called the Orion which was an ex P & O liner, pretty well all of the people on board were ex
air crew POWs out of Germany, there was a small element of Royal Naval officers coming out to Australia but by in large it was all POWs. We went across the Atlantic to Panama and on the way across the Atlantic the war ended in the Pacific, so the whole total war was over. From there Panama, we went through Panama Canal to New Zealand
and landed at Wellington and stayed overnight at Wellington and then onto Sydney. We landed at Sydney, the Victorians such as myself were put on trains and sent down to Melbourne and the Sydney fellows dispersed around New South Wales and of course the Queenslanders were put on trains up to Brisbane. We were given a very warm reception in Sydney. Two-decker buses drove through the main streets and there was plenty
of waving and cheering and what have you. And the same thing happened to a large extent in Melbourne except in Melbourne we were put into cars and we had a car cavalcade through Melbourne out to the Melbourne Cricket Ground where we all dispersed to our various homes. And the Tasmanians were kept overnight and then put on a ship and taken back down to Tassie. So that’s it in a nutshell.
What was it like seeing your family again after that time?
Mixed feelings, mixed feelings. This might sound snobbish, it’s not meant to be nor is it….I was somewhat aghast at the Australian accent, having been in a prison camp mainly with RAF guys and having been away in UK for so long
I together with a lot of my friends I found out since, most of my friends. When we landed in Melbourne and started talking to our next of kin. The first thing that hit us was the Australian accent, it is a harsh accent whether we like to admit it or not and it was very different. And I know that when I met my father and he said, “G’day son how are you?” I sort of went, “Oh,”
you know, it was unexpected but it was I guess a natural reaction, but believe you me you get used to it very quickly. Whilst I was at Melbourne Cricket Ground and remember I was in fact on strength there, my father asked me if I would help out with meeting some of the air force POWs who at this stage just coming out of Japan,
out of Asia anyway and I of course volunteered to do so. I had the privilege of meeting 2 RAAF ex POWs from the Pacific War and I found I couldn’t help them at all, these guy were so traumatized by what was happening to them, what had happened to them and what was happening
to them that they really didn’t need any assistance from me. It was an extraordinary experience, one that I value very much, but I had to turn round to my father after only a couple of days and say, “Look Dad I’m sorry I’m wasting my time, I’m wasting their time, they can’t be helped.” And he took the point and said, “OK if you fell you’re not
achieving something, if there’s no sort of relationship between you just because you’re POWs, then give it away,” and that’s what I did.
What had they been through?
Well they’d been POWs in Singapore, they’d been prisoners much longer than I had, they didn’t really appreciate anything that had gone on in Europe in terms of
POW’S. I rather think that I probably didn’t appreciate anything that went on in their war and we had nothing to talk about, there was just nothing that one could….no common ground at all with them. It was a case of both these guys were airmen and it was a case of get them uniformed, get them back into uniform again and leave
them to their own devices, and I think they appreciated that I was doing that too.
So what were you doing with them over that couple of days?
Trying to talk to them, trying to tell them what was waiting for them in terms of Medical Rehabilitation; remember all of us were sent to Medical Rehabilitation for some length of time. I had to go to Healesville Sanatorium for I think it was 30 days or something like that.
Let them know what leave entitlements they had and I’d been briefed on this before they came, before I spoke to them. But they didn’t seem to hear me, there just wasn’t, there wasn’t that spark between us. I think they rather thought that you know he’s a scrubby old warrant officer what would he know about what went on in the Pacific and perhaps
I was a little impatient with what I thought they should be doing. But it was an experience which I valued but which I feel I failed on.
What did you feel they should be doing?
They didn’t seem to be happy to be home. As I say I think they had been traumatized to the extent that they were
living in a bit of a world of their own, if I can put it that way. You know we came home perhaps because we had time to recover in England and the boat trip etcetera, I think we came home excited to be home, looking forward to being home and we’d had the opportunity rehabilitating our mental thoughts
whereas these guys hadn’t had that, I think they both been flown home, in fact I’m pretty certain they had, so they hadn’t had that experience. No doubt in time they’d have come completely good the same as we were, it was too early. I think that’s the result in a nutshell.
Tell me then how you adjusted to post war life?
With difficulty, I look back on it now and say I think I was probably a little wild, I certainly had some mannerisms which rubbed people, my family anyway my Mum and Dad up the wrong way, I tended to be a loner
and I think I probably went overboard with the taste of freedom. I was no longer subject to out of bed at this hour, into bed at that hour, meals would be at this hour and so on. That’s one of the things as a prisoner you develop fairly firm habits in terms of what you do with your time, you know the Germans had us
on roll call at say 9 o’clock, every morning you were there at 9 o’clock, every morning you stood there till the Germans finished counting you all and that could take an hour or more, a couple of hours at times, more than that at others. In the afternoon you had exactly the same thing, lights went out at a given time so you knew what you could do from
one time to the next and that’s what prison camp is really about it’s very, very monotonous. There’s nothing that really excites you, I attempted to do some studies whilst I was behind the wire and you could not have had a better opportunity to study than whilst you’re behind
the wire. There were guys there RAF officer, RCA [Royal Canadian Army] officers, Australian officers and so on who are highly qualified in every conceivable profession that you can think of, apart from medicine and there was one guy there who wasn’t even the doctor as far as the camp was concerned, he was a squadron leader, RAF or Rhodesian one or the other squadron leader ex fighter pilot but he was in fact his profession was medical,
solicitors holy we had plenty of solicitors there, we had engineers there, we had one guy Canadian who had been a lecturer in economics at a University in Canada now if you wanted to study economics what better than to have a guy like that who would take all the time in the world because you’ve got it, you’ve got a full daytime to study and these guys could help you out.
It’s extraordinary from the viewpoint of professions or professional people who can take you for these subjects. There were guys there who studying law under very highly qualified law people and doing university examinations from UK and you could do this through the Red Cross. There were other guys doing all sorts of subjects, you name it and you could do it
whilst you were in prison camp. But that only, really that only lasted till January of ’45, once we marched out of the permanent prison camp of course as you would expect everything went by the board. Apart from any other problem instead of having as had been at Stalag Luft 3, eight or ten guys to a room, we ended up in dormitories of 200, 250
that sort of thing and under those circumstances you could hardly expect people to study, particularly when you’ve got three tiered beds and nothing else, so you know studies went by the board at that stage and I might add that food became so very short that you couldn’t have expected people to study anyway. So that’s you know to fill in your time behind the wire is very monotonous.
You’ve got to think of something to do and try and follow it through and I decided that I’d improve my standards of knowledge of radio and my instructor and there was three of us, three guys studying radio with this fellow and this fellow was a graduate engineer in electrical engineering from UK and was a radio specialist in the RAF so what better man.
So did you have textbooks?
Oh yes, yes, oh yes.
Tell me a bit about how the classes were organised?
Well they were loosely organised of course, it was a case of someone turning round and saying oh what would you like to do, do you want to do law, company law what do you want to do? And the guy who was going to run that class would make himself
known he’d invite you along and along you went and invariable there would be textbooks there which were required, they came through the Red Cross. The Red Cross provided those so everything was there but it was loose, you know there wasn’t any business of mark the roll or anything like that, there was none of that as you would …you wouldn’t expect it to be otherwise. There was an extraordinary
people, one of the guys a bloke by the name of Percy Northropp who was a RAF flight sergeant, Percy Northropp was the middle weight amateur champion in boxing for the Northern Counties in UK, he took boxing lessons. Wing Commander Stanford Tuck who was an RAF fighter pilot of great note during early stages of World War II
he had a qualification in fencing, so he taught fencing and I think he had been an Olympic representative, I could be wrong there but I think so, now these were the sort of people which you had. There was even a professional golfer there who took golf lessons, now you didn’t have a golf ball or anything like this but you had golf sticks and you had woollen balls and
he could teach you how to swing a golf club properly. If I had only been that interested in golf at the time, I regret now that I didn’t go to his lessons. But you know these are the sorts of people that were there. You name it, you name the profession and you would find somebody in that camp who was an expert at it.
Did the Germans monitor the subjects?
Not as far as I know, they probably did if
you wanted to do civil engineering and digging holes or something but no as far as I know, no they didn’t.
And were there exams?
There were exams run through the Swiss Red Cross. The University could set examinations and they would be done through the Red Cross and they would be monitored by a monitor in camp, so yes people could do examinations, I don’t think
they could have done medicine or dentistry or those sort of subject but certainly with the economics, commerce, law yes they could do that.
Were there special areas of the camp for classrooms?
There were library areas you could do it in the library. And the library was a reasonable place to do this sort of thing, it would take 5 to 10 people I suppose and well take it a step further
I guess if the numbers were such, they would have been able to use the theatre, there was a theatre at Sagan and it could have sat people down there, probably take twenty, so you know the opportunity was there but I don’t think a great number of people availed themselves of it. Outdoor sports
there was volleyball, in winter we even constructed an ice rink which was about the size of a hockey pitch and poured some water onto it and we had our ice rink, since pre-war days one of my hobbies had been ice skating, it was a delight to borrow some skates and get out on the ice rink. They weren’t proper
skates in so far as they weren’t firmly attached to boots but they were clip on ones that you could hand around. There was that sort of thing. At one stage we had an oval which was big enough to play cricket and there was a cricket match the Aussies versus the Poms of course as you would expect and the captain of the Australian team
returned to Australia and played with New South Wales for a while…Keith Carmody was his name and he was captain of Western Australia, now these guys were first class operators, there was a soccer pitch and some of the guys played soccer. I tried it once and got sacked, they invited me to be goalkeeper and I let too many balls in and they sacked
me pretty quick and lively.
Seeing as we’ve really started to talk about the camp in detail, can you describe what it looked like?
Yeah, it was a large squarish area with a German barracks out at the front of it. Just inside the main gate was the little
hospital where the doctor and his fellows operated from and then there was a series of huts divided into rooms, honestly I can’t remember how many rooms, but there was about 8 guys to a room and I would think we probably have 12 rooms. Now each room
had a fireplace for heating in winter and believe you me you need it. There was a toilet at one end, which was a thunderbox, it had to be emptied everyday so nobody ever used it, urinal in the same area, a small kitchen where each room would have a time for cooking and one or more members from each room
would be (UNCLEAR) or weekly to do the cooking for the room and they would look after their own room in terms of food.
You said no one used the toilet, what was the alternative?
There wasn’t, there wasn’t you just tried to make certain you didn’t need to go use the thunderbox at night because as I say somebody had to empty it and it was very often the guy who used it had to empty it.
So it was used
in the day?
Yeah it wasn’t used during the day no, no, no, you had a very large toilet block in the centre of the compound and all it was, was a huge big pit with about what they used to call it 50 holes, there was no partitions or anything like that, it’s purely open. I’ve often turned round and said while you were sitting there you had to be a bit careful that it was your own bum that you were wiping
because there were so many other fellows at the same time. And of course in terms of showers we had cold showers, in winter there was a wooden, or series of wooden tubs and there was a roster kept and they heated up enough water for you to sit in this wooden tub and splash yourself down and you got that probably once ever 12 to 15 days.
The rest of the time was up to yourself, you could boil a cup of water and shave with that.
What was the food like?
Without the Red Cross parcels it would have been pretty poor, the Germans provided sauerkraut, some meats, cheese in very small quantities.
You basically lived on Red Cross parcels, these Red Cross parcels contained tinned cheese, a bar of chocolate and when I say that I’m talking about what we called a D Bar, good solid chocolate, cigarettes, tinned milk, tinned meat and those type of things which
could be you know tinned up and we got those, when I first went down it was one parcel a week, it then subsequently became one parcel between two men and then towards the end of the war of course it disappeared altogether.
What sort of contact did you have with the outside world while you were there?
There was a radio in the camp and I’m talking about Sagan weather permanent camp, there was a radio in
the camp and we got the news for instance. There was a secret radio in the camp and it was manned by some of the RAF officers, I don’t know where it was, all I know is that of a night time
one or more officers would come round and they would read to you very quickly the latest BBC News. We knew for instance of the invasion before the Germans had, it was announced to the Germans and that was the sort of thing that kept your morale up. Each of the sleeping blocks had a map of Europe pinned up on the wall and they were pretty big ones and you
could go along there when the BBC News said something about the Russian Front, you could go along there and just casually have a look and see where the town was that they were talking about. And it provided a lot of information to you. There was also of course blokes there that spoke and wrote perfect German and the Germans provided
us with German newspapers, so the joke would be of course that one of these guys would turn round and tell us what the German news was and then you’d hear the BBC News and then you’d go ‘haw haw’, you know, we know more than they do. I might add that the Germans also broadcast every afternoon a news report and we had a guy there who was an ex-Scotland Yard
Special Division detective who could interpret, listen to the German news as it was said and write it down in English shorthand, now that’s not a bad sort of facility to have and he would then tell other people, read it from his own shorthand as to what the German news had been all about. A most extraordinary bloke, he’d had been down behind the wire for a long time too.
So ones that could speak German would keep that secret?
Well no I don’t know that they would. The guys, some of those guys who could speak German perfectly, the Germans knew that they could speak German perfectly, and remember most of the guards around inside the camp, ‘the ferrets’ as we used to call them, those guys could speak English too so you had to be a little bit careful of what you were talking about if there was a German guard around the place.
And they used to walk around at night time with their Alsatians to make certain no one escaped or try and make certain that no one escaped.
Was it possible to get letters from home?
Yes, yes, they took a long while to get there but you did get them. And similarly you had the facility to write home yourself. I can’t remember the exact
number now but there was a printed form that you were allowed write in terms of a letter it was about so long and about so wide and you wrote to your family and that in due time went home through the Red Cross and similarly your family could write to you and you got letters. They were unrestricted in terms of numbers coming from one way; we were restricted in how we could send going the other way. Similarly
with personal parcels, Christmas 1944 I received my one and only clothing parcel from my mother which contained khaki shorts, open neck khaki shirts and some underwear and this sort of thing, now the only trouble was when it arrived there was a foot or more of snow on the ground, so having shorts and things like that didn’t help but no doubt they were
sent with good intentions and they thought, ‘Christmas oh yeah, well he’ll need summer clothing’, he didn’t need summer clothing at all. What he would have liked is some thick woollies.
Remind me whereabouts in Germany were you?
A place called Sagan, it’s south east of Berlin, at a place called Upper Silesia, now when it snowed
over the Christmas time and so on it was you know it gets fairly cold, I had my 21st birthday there of course in January ’45 and the boys in my room grabbed me, stripped me naked, took me outside in the snow and they gave me 21 bumps in the snow, they threw me up and caught me twenty times,
on the twenty first occasion those so and sos didn’t catch me with the result I ended up naked in the snow, then they wouldn’t let me get back in the room and believe you me I had fears at that stage of the game of my future, I was a little concerned about frostbite. There was a German guard standing there with his Alsatian and that
Alsatian had eyes on me and I had eyes on him. They finally let me back in the room and then they turned round and decided that I was wet and cold and that I needed drying. So the buggers put me onto the table and they dried me and you can imagine how they dried me, with towels as hard as they could go, oh dear oh dear, they livened me up no end and I thought that was the end of it till later
on in the afternoon, and remember winter it gets dark about fourish. I was taken for a walk by Reg Tyce, this rear gunner of mine and Reg turned round to me and said, “Come on chum we’ll go a walk,” so we went for a walk around the perimeter of the camp and when he got back here was these guys from my hut, from my room, lined up each side and down the end of
it was a bloke by the name of George Lloyd who was the senior NCO in our room and George is standing down there with a tray and it was an absolutely magnificent chocolate cake, the blokes had saved up their semolina and everything else over a period of time and they made a chocolate cake which would have been 12 to 15 inches square and on it was Happy Birthday to Rex.
And with it they handed me a key, which was also so big with 21 on it, and it was in fact made out of cardboard with silver paper over it taken from cigarette packets. Now you know those sort of experiences, gee you know you really, you really feel it and they’d alerted other
people in the hut as to what was going on that it was my 21st and the number of other members from that hut and other huts who came over and shook me by the hand and said Happy 21st I hope you’re not here for your 22nd. It’s quite extraordinary, and they’re memories, which will never leave you, never leave you. No my 21st was something, Jesus when I was getting thrown up in that snow I can tell you I was a little concerned.
The mateship amongst the POWs must have been important?
Oh very strong, very strong, oh yes. There was a pecking order. What should I say…the guys who’d been there the longest were sort
of what should I say, given a bit more respect, than the guy who were new treegies. It was a case of, ‘When did you get shot down?’ ‘I haven’t been here long.’ You talk to someone and he said, “Oh of course I captured on Crete in ’41.” and you go ….there was that to it. The camp I was in was an officers’ camp; they were except for say 20
perhaps 30 NCOs, all the rest were RAF, RAAF, RNZAF, Canadians you name it in terms of dominions, colonies whatever you like and they were all officers and they varied in rank from Group Captain McDonald who was a senior British officer down to us senior NCOs, in fact the room that I was first in Sagan had an LAC [Leading Aircraftsman] in it, he had been
captured at Crete and he in fact was the Group Captains batman, a most delightful bloke but he was still a leading aircraftsman and that’s pretty extraordinary in that sort of camp. With the junior officers and senior NCOs there was no problem, there probably wasn’t any problem across the board really as far as ranks were concerned except that but you treated officers
as officers. If it was a squadron leader you were talking to you called him, ‘Sir’, unless he said otherwise, if he turned round and said, “Call me Bill.” you called him Bill. Group Captain McDonald, our senior British officer, was only late twenties, early thirties and he in his welcome speech turned round and said, “In this camp discipline is going to be stronger, you will experience more than you probably will on a RAF base back home,
but when we’re playing sport or anything like that I’m McDonald not Sir, you don’t turn round and say, ‘Excuse me Sir would you pass the ball,’ you say, ‘Pass the bloody ball McDonald!’ and that’s exactly what we did when the senior officers played the junior officers or the senior NCOs at soccer they’d be a bunch of blokes standing alongside the field and every time the poor old group captain got near the ball you’d hear the bunch of voices
Go, “Pass the F…ing ball McDonald!” and he’d grin like mad, he reckoned that was great.
Were there a lot of Australians there?
26, I believe.
So there was not that many?
In our prison camp. Remember there’s a lot of prison camp, there’s a lot of compounds. Now Bularia the compound I was in was one of five compounds at Sagan. Sagan was Stalag Luft 3 it had
a series of compounds, North compound, South, North Compound, East Compound, West Compound, Centre Compound and down the road was Bularia, there might have been a South Compound but I was in a place called Bularia which was just down the road from Sagan, from Stalag Luft 3, we were still Stalag Luft 3.
So did the Australians stick together?
Not to any great extent, no not to any great extent. We knew each other certainly by sight, if not by name
at this stage of the game I have lunch twice a year with a bloke by the name of Bruce Loane and Bruce was in our camp he was a flying officer at that stage and Bruce takes me to lunch on the 22nd of May and I take him to lunch on the 23rd of November and that’s the anniversary of the times when we got shot down. So yes we’ve
got that but that’s the only guy really that I have a great deal to do with. I probably am closer to Eric Stevenson the guy I mentioned earlier who retired out as our Director General of Medical Services. Eric and his wife and Lorraine and I went over to a squadron reunion; he was on the same squadron as me. We went over to a squadron reunion
in UK in ’96 and we see a bit of them and also Dr Cornish up on the Gold Coast, I see him occasionally, but there’s a POW Association.
Interviewee: Rex Austin Archive ID 0382 Tape 04
We are still on the topic of the camp in Germany. Were there hygiene or health problems in the camp?
No I don’t think so, certainly not in the permanent prison camp you know, you had the availability there to keep yourself clean
there may have been some minor diet type problem but nothing that I was aware of. As you would appreciate the food is not terribly good and for instance the leg that I had in plaster for so long, the muscle has never recovered completely, you know one leg is thinner than the other and that’s purely and simply because of the diet but
when we got to Lückenwalde and there, there were no Red Cross parcels and the German rations were very inadequate at that stage where things like dysentery and those sort of problems came in. And we all suffered from starvation to either a large or a lesser extent. I can remember lying there in
bed in the days when food was short and someone would yell your name and you went to sit up suddenly in bed and you would black out, you know you’d shake your head and then have a look to see who was talking to you, that sort of thing came in but I don’t think there was any really bad problems, I don’t think so. When the Russians first came through I happened to up on the third tier bed
under the control of the doctor because I had yellow jaundice, but I recovered from that and I don’t think there has ever been any major fallout from it. Some of the guys suffered from psychological problems, ‘barbed wire fever’ as they used to call it. Blokes just didn’t behave the way you would expect them to behave
but you’d become very tolerant behind the wire and that was one thing that Group Captain McDonald in his welcome speech at Sagan said to us, “Whilst you’re behind the wire you will be required to rub shoulders with guys who under normal circumstances you wouldn’t be bothered with.” And that is very true
you learn to swallow the words if you were going to go crook about something, you learn to turn around and shrug your shoulders and sort of say so what. And he at the time said I’m certain it’s an attribute, which you really should have, is this sense of tolerance, which you’ve just got to have. If you’re going to punch up every bloke who disagrees with
you, you’re going to be in trouble. So you learn to roll with the punches if I can put it that way.
Did living in such close quarters cause tensions?
Yes it does to some degree. But again the tension is there, but what you do is you get out of the room and go for a walk until you simmer down.
If someone says something you don’t like instead of turning round and starting a full blown argument you might have a little bit of an argument and then get out of the room and go for a wander, go and walk it off. Because remember you know you’ve got a quarter of a mile or something like that round the camp inside the wire where you can walk. And you know the subject gets changed by the time you get back.
the Group Captain mean by saying he wasn’t sure that was an attribute you should have?
Because I think what he was saying was that you become too tolerant instead of standing up on points of argument you tend to turn round and wander away, which is exactly what you do and that necessarily a good thing if you’re going to be an officer in the service you know
you’ve got to be prepared to stand up and say what you think. I think that’s what he was getting out.
And ‘barbed wire fever’, what did you see of that?
Well we had one guy commit suicide. One young Canadian fellow at night time climbed
out of his room and climbed up on the roof and attempted to jump over the wire from the roof, he was shot in so doing and everybody sort of said Dickie did it deliberately. I understand he had a major domestic problem back home and
that’s the worst manifestation of it; the other is just the fact that guys tend to forget what they’re doing, it was often a joke in permanent stalag that Doctor Montwieg who was the army major that I mentioned before who’d been captured at Dunkirk, that he would start playing a game of Bridge in this hut and then excuse himself because he wanted to go to the toilet and he would be found somewhere else later playing Bridge in another hut, he’d forgotten to come back you know
that sort thing. If you’re not careful people tend to become lax in personal hygiene, they allowed beards to grow, you’re not allowed to have a beard of course in the air forces, they would grow beards, they wouldn’t change their clothes often enough and so on. They would normally be spoken
to about it. Group Captain McDonald brought out a ruling that RAF officers, well officers and senior NCOs would not grow beards, the problem of course is because in winter it was so damn cold and it’s pretty hard to keep up with shaving, it’s pretty hard to keep up with keeping your clothes clean, but you’ve got to do it, you’ve got to do it.
What sort of disciplinary measures could the officers resort to if someone was disobeying?
They couldn’t whilst they were
there, but the threat was over the top of your head, that when we get you back to England, you could be court martialled when you get back to England, that type of thinking. I never heard of anyone who that was done to maybe there was I wouldn’t know but that was the sort of threat.
How effective was it?
I think it was effective, I don’t think
there was any cases that I heard of where people did things which would justify a court martial. The sort of thing that happened to us, when we were at Lückenwalde and remember I’m talking about after the invasion probably mid September, round about that sort of time of
’45. I gave up smoking, saved my cigarettes and bought a loaf of bread. A loaf of bread was seventy cigarettes and Reg and I decided that I would give up smoking, he wasn’t very keen on his idea and we bought a loaf of bread. Black bread, bought it from the senior NCOs’ camp which was opposite us
and we had it by the side of our bed, our beds and it was stolen and we reported the stealing of it. Group Captain McDonald threw a complete parade of all the people in that compound, announced that Tyce and Austin had a loaf of bread stolen and turned round and gave them a hour or two hours, I forget which now for the loaf of bread to get returned and
if it wasn’t returned then if the culprit was found he would be court martialled, if that couldn’t be found within the next ration period, when the next lot of bread came up, the first loaf of bread would go to Austin and Tyce and then the remainder would be cut up on behalf of everybody else, and that’s exactly what happened. No culprit was ever found and the next time bread was issued and it wasn’t issued you every day, it was issued every
few days, Reg and I were given a loaf of bread, then they calculated what the ration would be for everybody else. And that’s the way it went. But that’s an extraordinary thing to happen I think and remember the compound at Lückenwalde had a bunch of Polish officers in it, there were Russian soldiers going around the place, cleaning out
rubbish bins and all that sort of work so we have no idea where that bread went to. Except that but there shouldn’t have been so many people would know where the bread was because it was hidden, it was near our bed sure but it was hidden and that makes you think well it must have been someone in the hut. But there are 250 blokes in the hut and how would the guy use it anyway, you know
how does he explain to his friends that he’s got a loaf of bread.
How did the different nationalities get along?
No great problems, no great problems. They stuck to themselves, we stuck ourselves basically.
When you say ourselves, who do you mean?
Well the RAF Compound, the RAF mob if you can call it that way, crowd. When I’m talking RAF I’m talking RCAF, RAAF
and so on south huts, we sort of stuck to ours. The Poles were a couple of huts further down from us and I think they pretty much stayed by themselves. There were a few Polish officers with us who were members of the RAF, obviously they would go down and talk to them and that sort of thing but basically we didn’t mix, we didn’t mix. They had their live to live, we had ours but those guys were Poles who were captured when war started
3rd of September whatever it was.
How did the German Guards treat you?
We didn’t have a great deal to do with them, not at my level. The escape committees had relations with German guards and that sort of thing and I understand
there was no harsh feeling between them. Whilst we were at permanent camp at Sagan we had a fellow shot through the hand. Within a prison camp they always have barbed wire, you’ve seen the things and then about 10 yards inside that would be a warning wire as it was called and it’s only hand high as you walk along and you can run your hand along it as your walk. The pathway’s there, there’s the barbed wire,
there’s the warning wire and then about 10 yards further in is the barbed wire and they have these guard boxes. One of our guys at Sagan was running his hand along the wire and one of the guards in one of the boxes shot him and hit him in the hand. Now whether it was deliberately at his hand or whether it was at him and hit him in the hand, you will never know. I
understand that that guard was immediately relieved of duty and posted elsewhere. The story behind it being that he’d been fighting the Russians and he was a bit around the twist, and hated everybody. I can’t honestly speak as to how the escape/exercise people got on with guards, cause I didn’t have anything to do with them. The only time I had
anything to do with them was one occasion when I ran out of our block and there were two steps down and the commandant was coming the other way, the commandant of the camp was coming the other way and I didn’t know that, I opened the door early in the morning, very early in the morning and I jumped those two steps and low and behold I ended up in the arms of the commandant and I just about knocked him over. In fact I thought he and I were both going to be on our backs and he pulled himself
up sort of thing, looked at me and said, “Ah and who are you?” and I said, “Austin Sir.” “Ah you’re Australian!” and I said ,“Yes.” “Ah, you colonials. You are bad fellows.” We parted; he went his way I went mine. Funny days, funny days.
Yeah that’s an extraordinary story.
Did you have to salute the guards or anything like that?
No you were supposed to salute German officers, as a senior NCO, I was suppose to salute any German officer, never did. The only person I ever saw saluted was the commandant and when we had our morning count, rapells as they were called, morning parades, when the whole thing was over the adjutant of the camp would
salute the commandant as he handed back, you know he’d hand the camp back having decided the right number of people were there he would salute our adjutant and our adjutant would salute him, but otherwise no. They didn’t ask for it.
And tell me what were escape committees?
I don’t know a great deal about them because I wasn’t on them but there was an escape committee at
Sagan, I understand it was, it’s senior man was Wing Commander Elliot and he had under him a team of officers whose job was to dig the tunnel and all this sort of thing. But frankly as a senior NCO that was outside my camp. That wasn’t the sort of thing that they discussed with us. In fact I think it is kept very, very quiet within the camp, I rather think that from what
I’ve heard at the time and since they were a very, very close-knit people.
Well when you said you were talking about the relationship of the escape committee and the guards I didn’t quite get what you meant?
Well the escape committee guys used to bribe guards to get things right, they would bribe them and then blackmail them. I understand the sort of thing they did was provide the guards with coffee and things like this that we had and the
poor old guards of course were ordinary soldiers and they could sell that coffee on the black market for good, what to them was good money. Now having accepted one or more items of food for resale, then the guys would turn round at the appropriate time and say, “Now we’ll tell the commandant on you, if you don’t give us so and so.” And you know it’s a bit underhand I suppose in some
ways but a bit immoral but who’s to make that judgement.
Was escape something that was generally talked about?
No. no it wasn’t. By the time I got shot down the camp at Bularia, the huts were
probably, well two steps off the ground, three steps one, two, three yeah three steps off the ground so the floors could be easily seen underneath. The only thing that went down through them was the fireplaces because they were of brick and tile construction, they went onto the ground. Everything else was wide open. Now this meant that the German,
ferrets, guards, daytime guards who wander around the place with their Alsatians would just send an Alsatians in underneath the hut and that Alsatians would smell out anything that was going on. So there were no escapes from Bularia whilst I was there. The big escape from Sagan, from Stalag Luft 3 went out from East camp I think, the night of my first
trip, 25th of March ’44 and that was when 50 officers got shot. But that was before my time. I met a couple of guys that had been involved in escapes, Geoffrey Cornish, this doctor from the Gold Coast was one of them but had nothing to do with it myself whatsoever.
Did you have any knowledge at that time of
what was happening with the Jews in Germany?
No, no. Not Jews as such. When we were in the train going from Frankfurt up to Sagan to our prison camp, our train pulled up alongside a set of cattle trucks, which were full of displaced persons as we knew them then and these people were clambering at
the window which was barbed wire and yelling out at us in a foreign language and that frankly was about all I saw of them. So no, I did not.
So they would have been going to a concentration camp?
Yes they would have been, but you don’t learn this till afterwards.
So you didn’t know they existed, those camps?
Not really, you heard. Again at permanent camp and I’m talking about early
’45, there was a guy and if I remember rightly his name was Brydon and he came and joined us in our room, he had been one of these guys who’d been captured in France in civilian clothes and he had been sent to the famous concentration camp of Buchenwald and
he’d been there for some months before he was identified as being a member of the RAF and was put into a proper prison camp, now he told us what it was like at Buchenwald. And he was in a sad way. They’d slept out in the open for weeks and all this sort of things. So yeah we learnt then, but that was the first I’d heard of it.
So at that time, were you wondering what the future might hold for you?
There were times at
Lückenwalde – and remember, we got there in February and we weren’t really released till well till the Russians came. Food was so short in terms of Germans supplies and there were no other supplies coming through that if you went to move suddenly,
you temporarily blacked out. When I say that I mean you, your eyes sort of didn’t focus properly. At that time I used to think to myself, ‘Gee how long is this going to go on for?’ and because whilst we were hearing how the Allies were coming forward and so on. There was the Battle of the Bulge took place and that was a setback to the Allied forces and you wondered how
long it would really take to get as far us and you wondered to yourself, ‘If this goes on too much longer I’m going to be a real cot case. Perhaps Mrs Austin’s boy is not going to make it after all.’ but that’s all. And I don’t suppose you really take it seriously but you think to yourself, there’s a thought in the back of your mind, thought in the back of your mind.
Did you even feel that you were
threatened by what the Germans might do to you?
Well needless to say rumours, look rumours in a prison camp are rife all the time. And there was a rumour that the Germans would make certain that air crew didn’t get back, but I don’t think anyone took that seriously. My father after the war told me that in fact that was part of the case
that the Germans held onto the air crew blokes as long as they possibly could as a means as bartering for better terms but of course it didn’t work. It was just one of those things. No I think by and large I felt pretty safe.
I’d like to ask now about the daily routine in the camps from what time were you
woken and how were you woken?
No you weren’t. There was a morning roll call, every morning 7 days a week. And you had to be at that roll call unless you were medically unfit to move. During the time my leg was in plaster, I was excused from going out onto rapel. But the moment the
plaster came off I was onto rapel. Now that is the thing that gets you out of bed because you’ve got to have breakfast before you go, so guys of course, don’t they work on the assumption that I go to rapel and come back and have breakfast. Now breakfast remember was two slices of bread and a bit of butter and a bit of jam. So it didn’t take too long to prepare, or too long to eat if it comes to that. So you know there was no great problem there.
You got out onto rapel and you stood there until such time as the Germans allowed you to give up and we used to line up in fives and the old Germans would go along and believe you me they were pretty crummy counters. It didn’t happen everyday but it happened very often, that they got the count wrong and then they’d start all over again, line up, line up, line up, and then they’d start their count all over
again and then they’d do their sums and then finally the commandant would be able to say right the right numbers are here. Now then you had nothing to do until lunchtime and of course that was your time, whatever time you had decided lunch would be or your room or whatever it was. After lunch the same thing again until the afternoon rapel and at afternoon
rapel you went through the same jolly thing that you went through at morning. Line up, by huts, and of course they would send a German guard through the hut looking for people who were still in bed and making certain they were legitimately still in bed and that’s it. And then lights out would be, when it got dark I guess is the best way of saying that.
And it didn’t matter what you were doing all of a sudden the lights went out. And from the guard towers of course, they had searchlights and they play them all round the compound looking for people who were trying to escape or trying to go from one block to another and that used to be a bit of a joke some blokes would get caught in a particular block when the lights went out, so they’d wait for an appropriate moment and they’d dive out a window of one block and run like mad to the next one and dive through the window
probably with an Alsatian hot on their heels.
So what freedom did you have to wander within the compound?
Anywhere you wanted within the compound, yep. You could go anywhere you want. Some blokes even took holidays as they called it, they would swap with another fellow in another room in another block. So you know you’re in Block 1, I’m in Block
6, so you and I would swap and this meant of course that I’d be living with the guys that you’d been living with and vice versa and they would call this a holiday. And it’s probably a good thing when I think about it now, it was probably a good idea.
Was that a problem as far as the Germans were concerned?
No I don’t think so. Remember the Germans count on numbers, if there’s 8 blokes in a room, that’s it, there’s 8 blokes in a room, they’re not
And tell me how who was responsible assessing the medical fitness to go to rapel?
Our own doctor gave you a chit. He was the guy you reported sick to; he was the guy who made the decisions. And he had as I say a small hospital there, I think it had about 3 or 4 beds in it and that’s all.
He could do some operations; there were a few blokes who had tonsillectomies done, that type of minor operations. A few blokes of course arrived there with broken limbs and he was able to do that, but there was no x-ray machine everything was done without x-ray.
Was he a POW?
Yeah, yeah oh yes. Everybody who treats you from the padre downwards, there was a padre there in Sagan who was a Methodist I think, and he used to go and there was also a Roman Catholic padre and he used to go, they used to go round and have church services on a Sunday. There was a dentist who was also of course a POW
he looked after dental care, I don’t know if he was anything other than extremely busy although I would also look on the other side, if you’re air crew, your teeth are going to be pretty good anyway otherwise you wouldn’t be there.
Where did the doctor’s equipment come from?
Red Cross. They provided all sorts of things like that, they provided music instruments for the band, we had a
an orchestra there, at permanent camp and they had instruments provided by the Red Cross. Unfortunately we also had a fellow learning the bagpipes provided by the Red Cross. And if you know what a bloke learning to play the bagpipes was like, you can sympathise with us.
It seems to me really these facilities
in a way depended on just upon who was taken prisoners?
In terms of education, that’s true. And I guess in terms of people in the orchestra yeah that’s probably true too, you know you had to have people who had prior experience wouldn’t you?
But what if like the Germans hadn’t happened to have captured an Allied doctor you would have been in trouble?
I think they had lots of Allied doctors.
You know, Dunkirk, Crete, North Africa all these places would have had medicos captured but medicos tend to stay with their troops particularly British Army people, they’d stay with their troops.
Did he fix your ankle?
Doctor Montrieg, together with Geoff Cornish and Eric Stevenson without an anaesthetic, they sat me on the end of the table and said, “This will hurt, you can go crook
if you like.” Geoffrey Cornish told my mother after the war, “I never knew that he knew so many four letter words.” And I can tell you I let fly. They had a look at my leg after the war and they said, “We don’t propose to do anything, it’s all right.”
So they did a good job.
What did they actually do, did you know?
Just pull it into shape, apparently it was like that
and they just pulled it into shape. Sat me on the end of this desk, operating table, I forget what it was now, but they sat me down the end and a couple of blokes around the waist and a couple of blokes down on the ankle and the physiotherapist by the way, was a physiotherapist with the Collingwood Football Club pre-war.
How long was it before you could walk properly?
Oh about 3 months I think it was. It was a long while because again, the type of diet was the problem.
As a member of Bomber Command were you especially conscious of the risk of the camp being bombed by Allies?
No, not really, no it never entered my head that our camp would be bombed.
No., no. I don’t think there was ever any danger of that. When we were at the transit camp between Frankfurt and the permanent camp up at Sagan, we were in this transit camp and some B-17s – the Yanks came over and bombed the local town and
a couple of bombs were about a mile from us. That livens up your thinking because you’re in canvas tents and you think, ‘Christ if they come too close the tent’s not going to give you too much shelter.’ Similarly when we were at Lückenwalde there was a move afoot to evacuate us from Lückenwalde and they took us down to the local railway station supposedly to evacuate us
to somewhere and the Yanks came along in their Thunderbolts and fired, beat up the trains and that didn’t thrill us too much either. Cause here we are in a goods yard and these Thunderbolts are diving down and shooting hell out of trains, we thought we hoped they stayed away from us a bit and don’t come to this marshalling yard, and they didn’t.
So how far away were you from…?
I’d say about a mile away, about a mile away from it. It was very interesting actually on the ground to watch these blokes in these Thunderbolts.
Describe what you saw?
Well they dived down from about, oh God knows what height, 6 or 8 thousand I guess feet and they come down practically vertical, had a tremendous roar of engines and then you’d just see them go ‘rooomf’
as they pull away and you hear the ‘crumf’ of the bomb hitting and see the smoke come up.
How many of you were there watching?
Well this was the whole of the Brit or RAF contingent that was at Lückenwalde. I don’t know what the Germans thought they were going to do with us. But we stayed down there one or two nights I forget which now. And then we marched
back to camp again, back to the rooms again. So you know, what their intentions were I have no idea.
Was there any panic?
No, none at all.
What was the general reaction?
The general feeling was good on you fellows, that means we can’t move, because if they are shooting up the trains we won’t be moving and at that stage we didn’t want to move because the Russians were very, very close, we knew
Had you any notions that you might be liberated by the Russian?
Yes, yes we did. Remember the move from Sagan across to Lückenwalde was in front of the Russians, as the Russians came forward so we knew where the Russians were in fact you could hear the guns of the Russians coming closer when we were at Lückenwalde
you could hear them, so yes we knew the Russians were very close. And there was a bit of a saying there, you know ‘Joe [Stalin] for King’, roll on the Ruskies, Joe for King. And of course they did in fact arrive. There’s a few aspects of that which were interesting in so far as the Russians released the camp by
just driving a tank through down the main gate and just went straight through, took all the power with them and everything else, they didn’t worry about electricity they just drove straight through. And the Germans subsequently a couple days later tried to fight through us to get to the Elbe. They wanted all …all the Germans wanted to do is give themselves up to the Americans they didn’t want to be captured by the Russians and when these days of course we know why
So at one stage we were with the Russians then probably 24, 48 hours later, we were just about with the Germans again and then we were with the Russians and stayed with the Russians.
Did the Germans put up any resistance to the Russians?
Not from our camp, no they took off. The first thing we knew the Russians were so close was when all the guard boxes were no longer manned. The Germans had
gone, they just disappeared.
What was your reaction to that?
Oh wonderful, wonderful, wonderful, wonderful. We thought this was really something. It perhaps wasn’t quite as good in fact and we expected it because I think, guys thought that once the Russians came we would be immediately evacuated
back to the American lines and that of course didn’t take place, it took some weeks before we managed to get to the American lines.
Interviewee: Rex Austin Archive ID 0382 Tape 05
Rex I just wanted to start our discussion by …I was interested in if you knew of your family history and when they came to Australia?
No I don’t know a great deal about it, all I know is that my Grandparents immigrated from Ireland and that my Grandfather on my mothers side went down to Tasmania
and was working in Tasmania for some years before they came back from Tassie just before the First World War, but no I don’t. I know very very little about them, it was never discussed.
Was there a strong cultural link within your family to the motherland, to England before you travelled back, was that a part of your upbringing, a strong connection back to England.
Yes I think there was, yes. Father used to often turn round and say, ‘When I retire from the air force
I’m going to retire in Kent.” Unfortunately he never made it of course. But obviously he had a strong tie towards UK anyway if not Great Britain.
And so the family was quite excited to travel over there with his posting?
Yes, yes they were yes I know that my mother’s attitude was you know, we’re going home
as well as Dad. Dad was very pleased I know when he got the posting I can recall that even as young as I was, the excitement in the house and of course as you can well imagine in those days people didn’t travel very far, you know to go to England it was 6 weeks in a boat. And air force officers in those days travelled first class so we as kids were first class passengers on a thing called
Moultan going over and the Narkunda coming back so yeah it was something special and of course to come back here as a school boy having been to school in England was even more important, although it had disadvantages. And the disadvantage of course was pre-war days I came back here with the BBC accent and that was not good at school.
I was known as the boy with the BBC voice and that was fighting words. Blokes who came up with that sort of comment you wanted to thump them.
So what were the advantages then, you said it was good to come back as an English schoolboy having been a school-age boy?
Because mainly because of the fact of subject for instance I had done French in England they do it, start it off at primary school so when I came back here I did French for
a couple of years and I was way out in front compare with my compatriots. British history was very much a subject over there; European geography was very much a subject, whereas out here they were pretty peripheral really. Although no British history was more important out here than Australian history, we didn’t have too much history. So from that viewpoint yes I had certain advantages.
From the personal viewpoint as I say the boy with the BBC voice didn’t go down to well with me.
Let me ask you about the other way, when you went to England how were you received at school there?
A bit of a …what shall I say, I don’t quite know the right word, but we were an oddity, there was one other Australian at Frase College, so from that viewpoint yeah we were
a bit odd. Frase College had its own scout troop and when my elder brother and I were in the Scouts we went to a camp at Lake Windermere with the Scouts and Lord Baden Powell came up and we were immediately introduced to Lord Baden Powell as one of those kids from the colony, you know, “Australia, ever heard of it?” sort of attitude. But as a scout of course we were very proud to have been introduced and shaken hands with Lord
Baden Powell and that’s the sort of minor thing, looking back on it now quite minor but in those days of some importance to us.
So there was a definite prejudice toward the colonial dominion?
I think that always existed over there. No one seemed to know whether you were a colonial or a dominion so you were referred to generally as colonials. Not that the terminology was that disparaging but it was to some degree.
I don’t think Australians like being known as colonials. But you struck that during the war to, some of the English officers you met seemed to think that you know he’s only a colonial, be it the standard of dress, standard of behaviour and things like this they tend to turn round and say, “You’re a bit of a colonial aren’t you?” It never worried me one bit.
Was there a pride in that?
I think there was
to some degree yes, yes, turn round to the Poms and sort of say, “Well, we came over here to fight your war for you.”
Was Frase College a boarding college?
It was yes, but I was not a boarder but it was yes a boarding school.
A proper English education?
Yes, oh yes, very much so. We weren’t allowed to use our Australian accent on certain words, I remember only
too well, our English teacher was a Miss Harris and I can remember having my knuckles rapped for saying ‘France, dance’ instead of ‘France and dance and chance’, you know that sort of thing, that’s probably why I came home with the accent that I had, because it had been drummed into me during the time I was there.
And it makes it all the more interesting that when you came back you found the Australian accent grating?
Exactly, exactly right, yes
yes exactly so I came back here and found that the Australian accent did grate yes, but as I say said earlier, it doesn’t take you very long to get out of your bad habit if it is a bad habit. Although I believe I still tend to refer to France as France, but then again since the war of course I spent nearly four years in France in Paris
so perhaps it’s a rub off.
I guess what I’m trying to get an idea of is just how important the empire, the idea, the notion that the empire was to you at the beginning of the war, or at the beginning of your service?
Yes, I think it was important, I think it was important. Travelling over to England and back in those days of course involved going via Malta and these sort of places
that were part of India, that were part of the British Empire and I think that having been to those places in the back of your mind even though it may be at the forefront is the fact that there is a British Empire or there was a British Empire, now of course there was a British Empire and it was terribly important in world affairs. And of course also the fact that whilst we were in England
as schoolboys we had the opportunity of going along to a lot of formal functions where father was representing and if it was possible than the kids came along to. And the sort of thing I mean by that is the Aldershot Tattoo and those sort of functions which impresses you very much particularly when you’re a kid. So yes I would say
it probably in the back of my mind it probably had quite an important place.
Did you follow the events of the war quite closely in those years before you signed up; there was about 3 years before?
Yes, I think in perhaps what’s best described as a romantic sort of way. Things like the Battle of Britain for instance.
I can probably quote you quite a number of fighter aces from there, which stick with me even now. Cobber Khan, Paddy Finucane, our own Bluey Truscott but there were a lot of others that got publicity out here. And the Battle of Britain was something of tremendous important to me at that time. I might add that even now in the air force association
we have a celebration of the Battle of Britain on the 15th of September every year here in Sydney at the Cenotaph and we follow it up by a formal luncheon at Parliament House so we still celebrate and commemorate the Battle of Britain. Now there were also other things like the Fall of Singapore of course that worried the living daylights out of most people. The
battles in the desert, the Fall of France you know these sort of things, yes, yes they certainly had an effect on it and I think they probably generated a lot of interest in me joining the service, the quicker the better. It’s probably you know I don’t know whether the word romantic is the right word but certainly there was a strong desire
to go and have a fight for the not only just for Australia but for Great Britain and the Empire.
How did the news of Japan entering the war affect you and your family?
I can remember father being very disturbed with it. The attack on Hawaii and so on. And I think what it really meant to him was it was more work, more worry for him.
Remember Dad at that stage was a group captain so you know there was an additional workload went on him. As far as I personally was concerned, I think again it is a just a case of repeating myself, saying what I needed to do is get in it and get into the service and get in as soon as possible.
Why do you think it was important to you to go to England rather than fighting in the South Pacific where Australia
was directly under threat?
I liked my stay in England pre-war days as a schoolboy, I liked the English, I liked the country, I liked most things about it. And the publicity of course given to such things as the Battle of Britain meant that the war over there seemed to be more important at that stage then the war out here. And I
think in the back of my mind also was the fact they had the most modern aircraft and if you’re going to fight then they’re the ones to be with. This had some influence, or is evidence by some of the influence when I went back to UK in the service when we were at the Advanced Flying Unit as I mentioned, you flew up in Scotland. We were asked did we want to go to Leitchfield, which was an Australian
OTU where you crewed up with other fellow Australians and my reaction was, ‘No, thanks very much, I’ll go to an English O.T.U and crew up with Englishmen.’ and that’s virtually what I did. I had an Australian pilot certainly but the remainder of the crew were Englishmen.
Because of that perception of a superiority?
No, no I think because my attitude was, ‘They’re locals, they know what the weather’s like in over this way, they know the area,
so who better to fly with than people who’ve got some sort of feel for the local area’.
How much did the threat of invasion of Australia or the direct threat to Australia played on your mind while you were away in Europe?
I don’t think it played very much at all. I think I was pretty confident once the Americans got into it in large numbers, the threat of invasion to Australia
was negligible. I don’t think it ever worried me. Before I went, before the American build up started to come, yes I was concerned, but after that, once the Americans moved in, boy I was pretty confident that General MacArthur would look after home.
I’m interested in you choosing the air force of all the services, given your father’s significant role
in the air force and I guess maybe that reputation you would have to live with. Why did you choose the air force instead of another service?
Romantic schoolboy stuff, seeing father out there standing in front of a platoon of fellows in a nice looking uniform, sitting in aeroplanes, as a young kid I would be taken over to Point Cook or Lavington or somewhere with Dad and we were,
my brother and I were allowed to sit in aeroplane and play with the controls and things like that and I think that engenders in you a desire to emulate, and Dad had a pair of pilots’ wings, to emulate your father. And it wasn’t till I got older and in fact realise what flying was all about that perhaps the, what shall I say, grandeur of being a pilot was quite as important to me.
Can you tell me then about a fear of failure that you may have had during that early training phase. Was there a fear?
Yeah of course there was a fear of failure, yes. People got scrubbed all the time. On our wireless course, I can’t remember now what the percentage of blokes were who failed the course, but there was quite a lot. I would think at a rough old guess you know I’m just guessing but I would
think a quarter of them didn’t make the grade. You might find that difficult to believe but Morse code was the pre-eminent thing you had to know. You had to be able to do Morse at 22 words a minute to graduate and some of the blokes just didn’t have the aptitude if I can use that word, to be able to do that so they were scrubbed, they went off and became straight air gunners.
So yes there is a fear of failure, but all that does is make you work harder, have someone turn round and say to you you’d better pick up your socks or and I certainly had in the back of my mind, ‘God my Dad will kill me, if I fail.’ so I made certain I didn’t.
Was there a stigma amongst the lads for people who were scrubbed?
Not a big one, there was slightly yes you know,
‘Oh Bill couldn’t make it he’s gone out to Pirie as a gunner’, there was that but it’s only a minor one. I don’t think it was something if you met anyone you looked down at him because he failed because everybody knew how competitive it was and how it really was outside their heads. Now people could turn round to me and say well you know you can’t be
much good you failed as a pilot, I failed as a pilot because I didn’t have the co-ordination to do it now is that my fault the answers no it’s probably not.
Blame your genes.
Well I tried in 1953 it would be, I got posted from 1 Squadron up in Butterworth, up in Tanga I should say not Butterworth, home to Australia for navigator
training, I was a warrant officer at this stage, and when I went to Archerfield the flight commander there insisted I do what they call flight grading, in other words I did 10 hours flying in a Tiger moth at the end of 10 hours flying in a Tigermoth the wing commander who I knew and he knew me turned round to me and said, “Do you want to go solo Rex?” and I said, “Not particularly,” and he said, “I’m delighted to hear that, your coordination is dreadful!”
So there you are. No it didn’t worry me at all. I did the nav course; I passed the nav course and became a navigator, which gave me all the satisfaction I wanted.
How difficult then was that phone call back to your dad to say that you’d failed the coordination test?
Difficult, difficult. I guessed what the reaction was going to be.
And it was, it was very difficult. I thought about it for some hours before I did it. I rang him at the office during the day, I should have perhaps say that Dad and I saw very little of each other after I joined the air force – a. I was in camp and b. he was working so hard that you know he would come home normally after I’d either gone to bed or gone out of a night time and he would be back at work before I
got out of bed the following morning., that was on those occasions when I was on leave, so we didn’t see a great deal of each other. When I graduated and was at embarkation depot at Ascotvale at Melbourne, then we saw much more of each other, he and I could … in fact I used to go into his office a couple of times till he banned me.
You seem very comfortable I guess with that relationship now but at that time was it
really affecting you, this failure and having to call your father and having him influence your career, did it really affect you, or to what extent did it affect I guess is the question?
I think it did, I think it did, I didn’t want the other lads to know that my father was in the air force for fear that they would think that I would get preferential treatment.
Now Dad did at one stage turn round to me and say, “If you get on in the air force you will get on in spite of me not because of me.” and I think that was very true, unfortunately I had to let some of my colleagues know that I had a father in the air force because on one occasion when we were up from Somers to Melbourne,
I took a bunch of my friends ice-skating at St Moritz Ice Skating Rink in Melbourne; it’s since closed up and a bloke by the name of Bell commonly known as Dinger of course, fell over and broke his arm and our instructions at Somers were always very clear, if anything goes wrong you are to report back to Somers and we will look after you. Now the guy with the broken arm at what
9 o’clock in the evening, I didn’t see us going back to Somers, so I rang home. Got hold of Dad and said, “I’ve got a bloke by the name of Bell here who’s one of my friends from Somers and he’s broken his arm what do we do?” and he said, “Stay where you are, I’ll ring Ascot Vale and I’ll tell them to send an ambulance to pick him up.” So I said, “Thanks very much.” So I then had to turn round to the others and say, “We are not going back to Somers. We are staying right here.
There is an air force ambulance going to come and pick us up, pick him up, and that’s it.” And they said, “Oh you can’t do that, you’ve got to go back to Somers.” “No, no, no we don’t have to go back to Somers.” And in the end I had to turn round and say, “Listen, me old man’s a group captain and he can fix these things and I’ve spoken to him and that’s the way it’ll be.” And the blokes sort of went, “Gee, he’s got a father that’s a group captain.” Oh, you know, this sort of attitude. And of course, needless to say the word went round like wild fire. “Austin’s father’s a group captain.” you know
and you can imagine the reaction, “The fellow oh he’ll get on, he’ll get on.” and he didn’t.
Can you tell me a bit more about the wireless training at Parkes?
Not a great deal more, it’s pretty straightforward, you learn basic radio repair work, you learn basic radio theory
wireless theory and the rest of it is practical work. Learning you probably spend very nearly half your time doing Morse learning to send and receive Morse and the rest of the time is spent on those sort of really basic subjects. At the time they seemed terribly important and terribly difficult but they’re not really. I look back at it now and say, ‘Crikey I
could do it left handed!”
Radio repair work is learning principles of electronics and stuff?
Yep, that sort of thing but of course the word electronics wasn’t really known then, it was basic radio theory. You had to learn to fix the radio if something went wrong, to fault find it, to find out where the fault was, identify the fault and then fix it if possible. That’s really what it amounts
Was that while you were in the air? Was there specialist ground crew who would normally take care of that?
Oh yeah if you couldn’t fix it in the air then it came down and the ground crew radio mechanics would fix it down below, if it was possible otherwise they’d replace the item. And this carries on right throughout your time as a wireless operator/air gunner. It’s basically fixing problems if something
goes wrong and if it’s possible to fix it in the air, it may not always be so.
What was the quality of the equipment like at that point?
Very basic, compared with what we got when we got to England the other stuff out here was very basic. The American stuff hadn’t arrived by that time, once it arrived of course it was a different ballpark altogether but the stuff we had in the little aeroplanes that we did our radio training in was very basic.
of aircraft were they?
Wackett trainers I trained in, little single engine thing which was used for training pilots and was used as a wireless trainer as well. Quite a small single wing, single engine aeroplane. But it had radio gear in it and the basic training started off by tuning in the radio and listening to the local radio
station you know, but it’s military equipment not quite like we have in civilian life these days. But it was military equipment and of course you had earphones and you learnt to tune it in.
The Wacketts were part of the RAAF fleet prior to the war?
Yeah I think they entered service just after the war started.
And pilots weren’t being trained at Parkes were they
at the same time?
No, no, no, these were staff pilots, guys who had their wings and were employed on this sort of work taking wireless operators up for an hours flight while the wireless operator played around and then they’d come back down again and they’d pick someone else up and away they’d go again.
And how could they assess you while you were in the air?
They can’t really; all they can do is assess what you write in your logbook. You have a flying logbook,
a wireless logbook I should call it and once you learnt to basically train in radio stations then you operated against a ground station at Parkes on the RAAF Base and they would be calling up aircraft, sending messages to them via Morse and you would have to log these and when you came down the instructor would take your logbook then assess it and see how many messages you got, how many messages you should have got and didn’t get and
so on and the accuracy of what you were doing of course and this was where one of the problems comes in. Because you get a tremendous amount of static, well you did in those days you probably don’t now, a tremendous amount of static and this sort of thing and you’ve got to learn to read through that.
And that’s just experience?
Just experience that’s all it comes, I think. Perhaps an ear for it but just otherwise just sheer experience. Train, train, train, listen, listen, listen.
Can you describe for me what the wireless set up was in the aircraft, where the equipment was in relation to you?
Yeah straight in front of you. You’re sitting in a seat, the pilots up there, you’re sitting in the back and you’ve got a wireless set in front of your which have got all sorts of coils and things like this in it, for changing frequencies and there it is in front of you and you just you know with your earphones and you were just tuning it in. You’ve got a Morse key alongside
and you’ve got to send messages. You might get a message saying, ‘what’s the weather like’ or ‘where are you’ and you’ve got to send a message back by Morse to the guy on the ground and he might try and confuse you by sending something stupid and what I’ve written down can’t be right so you go back to him and ask him to repeat it and this sort of thing and when you get down the instructors assess you.
Now apart from that there was also a lot of classroom Morse where you just sit in a classroom of 20 blokes all with Morse keys and the instructor up the front sending Morse and they increase the speed, you know they might start off at 5 words a minutes. I might add you start learning Morse by singing it for heavens sake – “A da. da. B da. do. da. C…” this sort of thing, you learn it by singing it and then you have an instructor
who’s send it to you and he increases the speed as he thinks fit. So today you might do ten words a minute and he makes certain that all his students can do 10 words a minute, tomorrow he takes us up to twelve words and minute and that sort of thing. Then again exactly the same in the reverse when you’re sending to him.
Those singing lessons must have been quite entertaining?
Look I taught myself, I was in the bank from leaving school to the
time I joined the air force I was in the Commercial Bank of Australia at a Branch called Sandringham down in Melbourne and I used to lock myself in the….close the door into the big strongroom of a lunchtime and I would sit there and with my Morse book and I would be singing it to myself with the door closed and then when lunch was over I’d get Mr Turner who was our accountant to let me out and go back to work and I did this for 6 months. Till such time as
I knew my Morse inside out.
So you were one of the stronger performers at that stage, having done cadets and this preparation?
Yeah I think that’s probably fair to say. Yeah I had an advantage, I had an advantage in so far as I had an air force background in terms of rank structures, I knew ranks, one rank from another and remember blokes coming in off civvy street wouldn’t know whether a corporal was the OC [Officer Commanding] of the wing or who he was,
I had that advantage. I had done some minor studies whilst also during that six months in aerodynamics, those types of subjects, a bit of mechanics on engines so yes I probably had some advantages over the other guys who were just straight direct entries.
Did the guys sort of band together and help one another; were you offering assistance in the study?
Oh yes, group study you tried to help everybody, if you saw a bloke who was a bit weak then you tried to help him out. Some of them accepted it; some of them were a bit reluctant to accept help from others. But basically it was a team unit, team effort. You didn’t like to see blokes scrubbed you know they could be the bloke in the bed next door to you
who you got to know very well.
It must have been really good to be part of a group like that, to be part of a team where everyone was looking out for each other?
It is, it is, it’s great, it’s good, it teaches you team work all the time, it’s great stuff.
And what about the instructors were they very supportive were they there to…..?
Mostly yes, mostly yes you always get the odd bloke who seems to resent being an instructor or doesn’t like the shape of your face or the way you part you hair or something,
you’ll always get that sort of bloke but by and large they were there to help and they did their utmost to do so, I think they closed their eyes to a few things that went on to perhaps they shouldn’t have. You know you wouldn’t expect otherwise would you.
And leave into Parkes would that be available over weekends?
Yes, I think leave to Parkes
was available from Friday afternoon till Monday morning except that but you were suppose to be in back in base Sunday night. Leave otherwise was about every 6 weeks something of that order. I got down to Melbourne about 3 times I suppose during the 6 months, 7 months whatever it was I was at Parkes
and you know as far as I was concerned that was often enough.
Had there been an air force base at Parkes prior to the war or was that set up?
No but it started very early in the war though, started very early in the war. By the time I got there in ’42 it was pretty well established.
And was the local population quite receptive?
Oh tremendously so. Oh yes the CWA [Country Women’s Association] used to have a dance every Friday night or Saturday night I forget which now, oh yes, yeah
we all had our loves in the local village. They were absolutely tremendous to us, the hospitality was enormous. I went home to 2 or 3 different girls’ places, I was invited home for dinner and that sort of thing you know so that was very nice. We went on picnics. Oh no complaints at all and it was there of course where I first went into a hotel and
first bought a packet of cigarettes, I’d never done those things before but boy you know you’re a man in uniform, you must be able to go to a pub and have a cigarette.
Was there a strong drinking culture in Parkes?
I wouldn’t say it was a strong drinking culture but there was Friday night you know go and have a beer with the boys.
So then you shifted down for your gunnery training at Port Pirie?
Did everyone come with you; did you shift as a group?
Yes you shifted as a course
As a course.
As a course, I was on Number 30 Course and the whole of 30 Course of those who graduated from Parkes went down to Port Pirie and of course the same things down there. You’ve got to a cultural of helping each other as far as ground studies are concerned obviously you can’t
help a bloke in the air because he’s got to fire the gun so you can’t do much there but you can certainly on ground studies.
Can you give me more details of what you had to learn?
The theory of air to air firing, in otherwise that you don’t fire at the thing you fire in front of it because it’s moving. A little bit of theory of what
shall I say ammunition, how ammunition’s made, what it does when its in the air sort of thing, what else was there? A lot of mantling and dismantling and so on with guns, just the sort of general things you’d expect for people learning something about armaments. A little bit, very little bit by gunners on bombing.
The theory of bombing in terms again of lead times and all this sort of thing. But basically it was a very practical type course.
And what guns were taught, which ones did you have learn?
The Browning and also the Vickers. The British aircraft were armed with a Browning point 303 the Lancaster had two
in the back, four in the back I forget which now, two up above on the mid upper turret and two out the front so you learnt something about Browning guns and you learnt to put them together and pull them to bit again and all this sort of thing and the same with the Vickers gun. So it’s really a practical type course.
And was there grounded gunnery practice or was it merely the Fairey Battles that you spoke of in terms of practice?
No we did….I was going to say we did a bit with revolvers but I think that was just an introduction to short arms, I don’t think it had any bearing on the course I think it was just part of our drill. On all these courses you get a fair amount of ground drill, firing machine guns or various types, firing rollers of various types and this sort of think and I think at
Port Pirie that was basically what it was.
How important was physical fitness to your role, as a wireless air gunner?
Well you trained as wireless air gunner so therefore you can be employed in either category, some of the guys I know who went over to England for instance were given the opportunity to fly as air gunners rather than a wireless operators and if they had a,
I won’t use the words fear, but they didn’t feel comfortable flying as wireless operators then they would fly as air gunners and a couple of times I did exactly that but not on operational flying I would at OTU and various other places I would get down the rear turret and play around and pretend I was shooting, simply to keep your hand in really but in far as being a straight wireless operator was concerned
you could have been a straight wireless operator without having any gunnery knowledge.
Was the idea simply that there was another backup there as well that you could fill others roles should something happen?
Sure, sure if one of the gunners get knocked off then you’ve got spare gunner on board haven’t you, but towards the end of the war the RAF did away with that thought and their wireless operators became signallers
they wore an S wing and they were not trained as gunners. They were just straight wireless operators. I don’t know, it’s a bit like we trained navigators and bomb aimers out here in the early days then subsequently there were specialist navigators and specialist bomb aimers, most of whom I might add were scrub pilots anyway.
Interviewee: Rex Austin Archive ID 0382 Tape 06
Rex I wanted to jump ahead now to your time at the Operational Training Unit where you were introduced to the Wellingtons?
Could you tell me about your first impressions?
That it was much bigger than any other aircraft I had ever flown in. It was what we call a geodetic construction, in other words it was canvas-covered and was a very well known aircraft
in the earlier days. It was more roomier than anything else I had even been in and it also had greater speed than anything I had ever been in so from that view point I was absolutely thrilled to bits that here I was on Wellingtons, an aircraft that had such a wonderful reputation and of course at OTU is where your pilot starts to get checked out on more modern aircraft.
So you start off by doing some hours of him doing circuits and bumps with a flying instructor and then he graduates to flying it on his own. And I might add that on his first solo with my skipper which was in the afternoon, nice day, he came in too fast too steep, we hit the runway with a what sounding ‘thulnk’ we bounced up in the air,
he pulled the wheels up and attempted to overshoot, the aircraft sank back onto the runway, bounced back into the air and we got about a mile off the airfield before he had to crash it into a field and he did that and we all walked away from it, well there was only three of us onboard, the rear gunner, skipper and myself and we walked away from it but having written off an aeroplane. So he was not the most popular
pilot at the OTU that afternoon. The amusing part about it was it was a turnip field and with the canvas construction as you can well imagine the turnips came through the side of the aeroplane, it sounded like a machine gun going off and the aircraft filled with dust. I went from the wireless seat up to see if he was all right, I knew that I was and here he was trying to get out through the pilot’s escape hatch and as
he went out through the pilot’s escape hatch, he kicked backwards and he kicked me right in the mouth with one of his flying boots, so I had a split lip with blood coming down but that’s all, and loose teeth. When the ambulance arrived they chased us of course, when the ambulance arrived the doctor looked at me and I could see the look on his face, ‘Oh my God, you know what have we got here?’ when he found out that all I had was a badly split lip and
a few loose teeth, he looked quite upset he was very disappointed, but he insisted that I get in the ambulance, oh in fact he insisted the three of us get in the ambulance and took us off to sick quarters and cleaned us up or he didn’t but one of the people cleaned us up and said, “Right that’s it, off to the mess you go and have a beer mate.” so we did but McSweeney was in a bit of trouble over it. The following day
the flight commander called both Reg Tyce and I in and individually not collectively, but individually and said, “Look do you want to keep flying with this bloke?” and both of us said, “Yes, yes we do.” and he said, “OK fair enough but if you don’t we’ll find you another crew.” “No thanks. I’m quite happy with…” you know it was one of those inexperienced accidents that happens, sheer inexperience;
his first solo.
So why didn’t you get a more experienced pilot?
Oh there probably wasn’t one, they’re all at OTU, you know they’re all guys with about the same amount of experience.
Surely an incident like that really shakes your nerve, isn’t it difficult to get in the plane and go back up the next day?
No, no it certainly didn’t with Reg or I. The amusing part about it was when I got out of the aircraft out through the pilot’s escape hatch, by the time I got out there
Reg Tyce was standing on the wing of the aeroplane laughing his head off at us and that was typical of our rear gunner he turned his turret sideways after the aircraft stopped moving I guess, turned his turret sideways, pushed himself out and then ran alongside and jumped on the wing to see if we were all right but that you know typical bloke, the sort of bloke he was right throughout all the time I knew him.
So you were obviously quite well protected in you position, your seat or padding
No I didn’t, I should have but I didn’t. I put one hand on the transmitter and one hand on the receiver, put my knees on edge of the table and just pushed like mad when I knew we were going to go in, just pushed as hard as I could pushed myself into the back of the seat. Now the aircraft slewed sideways so I ended up with a big bruise along my right-hand, right hip but that from the aircraft seat,
nothing else just from the armrest, nothing else and it was truly bruised no worries, no worries. And probably I don’t know I can’t recall clearly now but I would expect that probably his next, McSweeney’s next couple of landings I probably was watching a bit carefully.
How was he, did he get straight back in without any visible concern?
No visible concerns, they might have taken him on another check ride but
I can’t remember whether they did or not. No, no we followed through and there was no problem.
So were the conditions quite difficult for the pilots to adapt to over there, was that part of his trouble?
No, no I think it was just the fact that it was much a bigger aeroplane than he’d been previously used to. It was at OTU when I lost my first good friend, 15th of September 1943
I was detailed to go to a Battle of Britain march at a place called Kettering and I came back from that march and in the middle of the airfield at Meekatharra was a large burnt area, you know something had burnt, when I got out of the truck at the sergeants’ mess turned round to someone and said, “You know what happened?” and they said, “Fatal accident this afternoon.”
“Oh yeah, who was it?” And this bloke turned round and said, “Your good friend Jimmy Fraser.” Jim and I had been in the same form at school at Brighton Grammar and we’d train together and everything else and his family were friends of my family. And it turned out so they told me that his pilot and remember these blokes are terribly inexperienced, his pilot lost an engine on the port side and was turning port at the time and she just went straight in so
this was not long after our own prang, in fact it was exactly 10 days. So I lost Jim there and that rocked me up a bit you know I’ve know Jim since we were kids. And all of a sudden he’s no longer with you. And of course needless to say he slept in the bed next to me; we had to pack his stuff up and so on and so forth. Then write to his family and that’s a difficult letter to write when you’re twenty
years of age.
What did you write to them?
I just wrote and said to Mrs Fraser, “I’m terribly sorry, but you would have heard by now that Jim’s been killed. I can assure you that he died instantly and he would have, he wouldn’t have know what happened, by the time he realised that the aircraft was going in, he’d have hit. If he was only at 500 feet, which was what they told me, he was he wouldn’t have any idea.”
Anyway life went on and then would you believe 10 days after that our other good friend, we’d been to OTU and everything else, AFU and everything else together a bloke by the name of Ted Newton he went in and was killed so at that stage of the game, Rex was getting a little concerned about this, you know you think to yourself, ‘Gee whiz hey, hey who’s next?’ as long as it’s not me it what’s it matter.
But Jim went in, Ted pardon me went in at night and I didn’t see anything of it all. He was apparently on a night cross country, the aircraft iced up and in a shallow dive went in, hit the ground about 50 yards from the control tower at another airfield, I forget the name
of the airfield and it burst in flames on impact, Jim was killed there was one survivor, the rear gunner survived but everybody else was killed. So the accident rate at OTU was very high.
Was this a failure in the instruction or the training system?
No, no it was just the guys were inexperienced for the job that they were
being asked to do that’s what it amounts to.
Is it the need to get pilots…?
Need to get people trained yep.
And this had no impact on you as you were taking off, this not affect your nerve as you were going on your training runs?
No I don’t think so. You know at that age you’re pretty fireproof or you think you are, no I don’t think it worried me other than the fact that
again I had to write a letter to Newton’s people he had an aunt down in London and she wrote and told me could she please have his personal effects and she would send them home. And I did that, I took his effects down
to London and got into a lot of trouble, a lot of trouble, the RAF did not like that one bit and in fact they sent me down to bring them back again, they had to go through the all the bull’s wool that goes on you know, it gets posted to Uxbridge for storage and all this sort of thing, and then they sort everything out, what they didn’t know was that I’d been through his personal effects anyway and
any letters or anything like this that I saw that I felt were not to be seen by (UNCLEAR) or his parents I burnt those anyway, but anyway I went down and got stuff and took it back, but they rapped me over the knuckles solidly over that, “You can’t do that area.”
How much red tape and ‘administrivia’ was there surrounding accidents of the kind?
Well there was you know, they
used to form what they called a committee of adjustment and that would be two blokes, two air crew officers normally, they would go through people’s kit and they would destroy things which they felt should not been seen. You know if a bloke happens to be married and there’s photographs of girls in his kit well they get rid of them, the photographs. If there’s letters there to people who they can’t be certain of well then they get out to you know that type of thing and it’s probably good thinking
but when you’re young and silly it’s not and I went down to see Ted’s relations in London and they were charming people. As far as I was concerned I was doing the right thing but the RAF didn’t think so.
You’d begun your conversion to using the Marconi equipment at the AFU?
At AFU. Exactly the same equipment,
yes exactly the same equipment at OTU
Can you explain to me how it was more advanced than what you’d been using in Australia, in what ways it was more advanced?
Oh it was more powerful to start with, you didn’t have this business of pulling coils out and all this sort of thing it was much easier to tune, it was just more modern equipment.
Were there added features, extra features to it?
Yes it had a few extra features I can’t recall exactly what they were now but there were
better features, it had a better frequency range, it certainly was much more powerful in terms of transmission and the receiver was far, far better than we’d had out here, far better.
Less noise and static and that sort of thing?
Yeah that’s right yep. And again a much larger frequency range. By in large you know I liked the Marconi it was good stuff, there are still some of them around in museums but
that’s about all you’d see it now. But it was one of those things, OTU was interesting except for the fact that as I say I lost two of my best friends. That tends to make you look in the mirror a bit but I don’t think it lasted very long. I had to go and break the word to Teddy Newton’s girlfriend; he and I were
both taking out girls from the local land army hostel and the night that I heard about Ted I had to go down there, because the four of us were going out together and turn round and see the matron there tell her the bad news and get her to bring Ted’s girlfriend to the door so that I could break the news and of course the usual old story, hysterics and all this sort of thing,
and all the girls all gathering around her trying to console her for what happened and that upsets you a bit but anyway all I did was go over to the pub and get tanked and that’s all you can do under those conditions.
It was probably a good segue as you were saying before into the general attitude you found in Britain to the war. How did the way the public accepted the
losses and the extent to the battle compared to Australia. Did you notice the way the public dealt with it?
I didn’t really know it here in Australia, I didn’t really know it so it is difficult to compare, but in England the losses used to be in the paper, not necessarily very accurately but if there was a major Bomber Command raid then the paper next day would say, you know, “700 aircraft
raided yak yak,” and, “45 aircraft are missing,” you know this sort of thing. I think probably the attitude of the English people is probably expressed by a lady in the train when I was going from Spilsbury, my squadron up to Sheffield where I had another girlfriend, pardon me same girlfriend but she’d moved to Sheffield
when this woman sitting in the train and she was an elderly lady turned round to me and she said, “Are you from the base?” because the train went right past the base and I said, “Yes I am.” and she turned round to me and she said you know, “There is not enough money in the mint to pay you young fellows.” now that’s exactly what she said, ‘there’s not enough money made in the mint to pay you young fellows’, and that I think was the attitude.
After the Nuremberg raid which received tremendous about of publicity over there because of very heavy losses, I was up at Betty’s place in Sheffield and went to the local pub and I did not buy a beer, Betty’s father turned round and announced to his mates that Rex was on the raid last night, which had received all this publicity and I joke you not, I was the toast of the
pub and that gives you a big head if nothing else you know you sort of think, ‘God Blimey, you know we are doing something worthwhile.’ and honestly there has been a lot of contention about Bomber Command killing women and children and all this attitude but at the time and what we were fed in the way of news and everything else you really felt that you were doing something worthwhile.
And whilst there was no doubt a little thought in the back of your mind well maybe it might be the wrong night for me it was only a tiny thought and away you went. Certainly after I’d done those first three trips Berlin, Essen and Nuremberg I thought we were fireproof you know. McSweeney and I had worked out what we were going to do when we finished our tour, the tour was 30 trips, and we’d worked out what we were going to do at the end of our tour and all sorts of things.
Let me ask you about that split life, the fact that one night you’re out flying over Nuremberg and involved in one of the epic air battles of all time, the very next night you’re back in a local pub with everyone buying you drinks and were sleeping in a nice warm bed.
At Betty’s place, yes.
Is that a bizarre split world, I mean I guess if you think in terms of you think of people at war being in trenches?
I agree with you there, I couldn’t agree more.
There used to be a saying over there that we fought our war between sheets. Meaning that you’d go out on a trip, you came back, normally early in the morning, very early in the morning, well certainly very late at night in winter, it would be one or two in the morning but in summer of course where you had to take off very late you’d probably get back in daylight. And you’d be debriefed by the intelligence officer for an hour or so or perhaps less
go up to the mess, have a quick bite to eat and to bed. So you know there was, there was a complete split. On the night that you weren’t flying you could either go to the cinema or go to the pub and there were plenty of occasions where you’d just go to the pub.
One of the dangers of flying in Bomber Command was that they used to give you what we called wakey tablets, I don’t know what you would call them these days but they stopped you from going to sleep. Now if for some reason or another and this did happen a number of times you’d take your wakey tablet at 8 o’clock, you were taking off 8.30, 9 o’clock and you had a long trip in front of you and you were feeling
a bit tired, you’d take a wakey tablet, get out to the aircraft and they’d scrubbed the trip, so you had a wakey tablet inside you which said you couldn’t go to sleep, what do you do? Go up the pub, yeah that’s right. They also of course had WAAF [Women’s Auxiliary Air Force] dances and that sort of thing too, dances on base. So there was always something there and I don’t think you really gave a thought, well tomorrow night I could be knocked off, I don’t think you gave a thought
How did you find splitting your mind between focus and being operational and coming back and relaxing and just being in a completely different headspace, was that easy for you?
Yes it is, because you’re so damn tired, you’re so exhausted when you get back from the mental energy as well as the physical aspects of it. You know you sit in a chair like this for eight hours and all you can do
is move your legs and move your back and move your shoulders, that sort of thing and there’s also the tenseness of operational flying, you get back and you’re very, very mentally exhausted so you hit that pillow and boy you’re out.
Is that one of the most difficult parts of the job on the wireless is the focus and the concentration for that period?
The concentration of it yep, yeah. And it’s the same for all the crew;
it’s not just you. No the gunners are exactly the same they’ve got eyeballs sticking on their nose just about by the time they get back and of course they also suffer much more with the cold. The front end crew the office crew, the pilot, the navigator and the wireless operator in a Lancaster anyway were invariably warm because the hot air system came in just by the wireless operator
but the gunners, crikey no they have heated suits, their suits were electrically heated but even so I can remember old Reggie coming up front to you know rest for a while after we get back and we’re over England and everything’s all O.K. and he’s got icicles all over his face, because his face is not electrically heated. So yeah there’s a lot of strain on
and of course the poor old skipper up the front he’s worse than anybody probably, probably worse than anybody.
You alluded to you know a problem of lifestyle being the availability of alcohol, the cultural of alcohol. Was there a risk of alcoholism as a method of coping with the stress?
Not that I noticed. Remember you’re talking
about fairly young blokes. No I didn’t see and signs of anybody becoming an alcoholic, there were certain guys that propped up the bar every night but they only propped it up for a while, they’d be the first ones into the bar when stand down came but they were probably in bed by 8 o’clock and I’m talking about nights when they weren’t flying. No I didn’t see
And what about troubles with the wakey pills, presumably it was an amphetamine or something that was…..?
It probably was I don’t know exactly what it was. But yeah you’d go to the pub and have half a dozen pints and by the time midnight comes you’re right anyway. The pills were suppose to keep you awake for 6 hours I think if I remember rightly so you know no worries, no worries, go and drink it off.
Did you ever come across anyone
who was discharged for LMF, Lack of Moral Fibre?
Only one guy. When I was at Heavy Conversion Unit on Stirlings we had a RAF flight sergeant, crikey I can’t think of his name off the cuff, very nice bloke, a navigator and by repute, I never flew with him, but by repute a very good navigator and he came back from leave and said, “I’m not flying any more,
my wife won’t let me.” He slept in a room, same room as me but a few beds down, we did our utmost to talk this guy into flying, into continuing. Because he really had no, he didn’t have any reason to stop, it wasn’t as though he was a bad navigator and got lost or anything like that. He, I understand, was a very good one, but he wouldn’t listen to us, he wouldn’t listen
to us. Our own mid upper gunner came back just before we got shot down and said that Daisy his wife had said he wasn’t to fly any more, she reckoned it was dangerous yak, yak, yak, yak but we talked him into changing his mind. And I understand that he wrote to his wife and said he was staying on the station to do gardening. My only comment is I’ll bet Daisy got one hell of a shock when she found out he was posted missing,
missing as a gardener. I never saw Wally Chinery[?] from the night we got shot down till now, I never ever put eyes on him. He went to a different prison camp to the one I did and when he came home after the war, I was down south, he was up in Yorkshire somewhere and I never went and saw him. He and I were never that good friends anyway and neither with his wife, I wasn’t that friendly with Daisy either.
But yeah they’re the only ones I ever encountered; now the flight sergeant navigator bloke was posted out within a matter of days and we understood he was posted to Uxbridge for discharge or for disciplinary reasons anyway. But you know you hear stories of guys forming a hollow square and blokes having their wings taken off and their rank and all this sort of thing, no I saw no sign of that at all.
There was never anyone who broke down or couldn’t cope in the sense of mentally breaking down?
Not that I met. A few blokes who whinged but no one I ever met burst into tears or anything like that. The nearest I saw to that was when Jimmy Fraser got killed, Ted Newton burst into tears over that one and I went
and got the doctor, told him what had happened and said Teddy was a very great friend of his, same as me. And the doctor said, “How are you?” and I said, “I’m fine thanks very much.” so he said, “Right, I’ll come with you.” He came down to the quarters, had a talk to Ted and gave him some medicine, medication I should say and that was that. But I never saw anybody else.
Did you find with a lot of the married men that there was a tearing between a responsibility to the country
and a responsibility to the family?
Yes, yes, yes, saw that with our navigator and our bomb aimer. Danny Major the bomb aimer got married in February and was killed in the May and we all went to his wedding of course and Danny they had no children as you would expect but Danny was,
I won’t say he was reluctant to fly that would be silly, doing him a disservice, but he indicated what he thought of 30 trips and that was that he wasn’t going to do any more than that. He would do his tour full stop. Now Fred the navigator was exactly the same mind, he remember was married with two children and our crew were invited to join Pathfinders and that normally came after you’d done about
7 trips, the Pathfinder people would be looking for recruits and they picked experienced crew of the better sort and our crew were invited and both Fred and Danny and our mid upper gunner old Wal all turned round and said, ‘No, we’ll do 30 trips full stop. If the war’s still on after we’ve finished our 30 trips then we might think about it. But
not Pathfinders.’ Pathfinders had to do 45 trips without a rest, but that was their complete responsibility, that constituted two tours, where Manforce people did 30 trips, 6 months rest back for another 20 so they did 50 trips. These other blokes turned round and said, “No way, no way, no way, no way.” and that’s my experience of it. McSweeney and I both single,
both Australians, both said, “Oh yeah we’ll do that, we’ll go to Pathfinders no trouble.” but these other blokes pulled the rug immediately and said, “No way and as you go as a crew not as individuals.” we never went to Pathfinders.
You can understand their decision at the time?
Of course I could. I certainly could understand Fred’s, I was less sympathetic towards the other two because Wal didn’t have any children, he had Daisy, no children,
and Major hadn’t been married very long, he had no kids, no real domestic responsibility, his wife was a sergeant in the army, ATS, what was that, Army Territorial Service but yeah O.K, I certainly accepted Fred, I said yeah no worries.
McSweeney and I spoke about it and he said you know the other blokes won’t be in it will we do our best to get them and I said, “No, don’t worry, don’t worry.”
Was there quite a bit of prestige associated with the Pathfinders?
I’ll be honest with you in my opinion much more than there should have been. Yes it was just another group in Bomber Command, it was No. 8 Group
it was led by Air Vice Marshal Bennett, an Australian, and there seems to be more prestige now than there was at the time. Now you go to Pathfinders, you don’t have to go to Pathfinders you volunteer for it, then if you volunteer then you must accept the responsibilities for it, so yeah but
these days the Pathfinders seem to think themselves up there, well as someone said we used to lead you into the target and that isn’t necessarily true. But it’s just one of those things.
Tell me about the bond between the crew. You said you acted as a team, you worked as a team, you had these other guys who had very different lives to you single Australians, how tight was that bond?
Oh no, no,
no, when you went out you normally went out as a crew, every once in a while you went out as a complete team, ground crew and air crew. Lancaster’s on operational squadron had a ground crew of about the same number 7 or 8 guys and they looked after the aircraft of the ground they did all the repair work and did all the servicing and everything else. And these guys would be there when you took off and they’d be there when you came home
and they used to take tremendous pride in their aeroplanes, they made certain they were clean and everything under the sun. When you’d go out down to the pub the rest of the crew, all of them would probably come with you if it wasn’t all of them, there would be Reg and I and probably McSweeney, the skipper. If you went out as 16 then it was all crew,
everybody. In our crew Wally Chinery and John Lowry were the two blokes who invariably when you saw one you saw the other. I think Reg Tyce and I were another two. Major and Homewood were originally that way because both of them were officers from the very early stage and they were in the officers mess, when McSweeney was commissioned he moved in with those three, so you had a pilot, navigator, bomb aimer used to knock
around together see one, see three and with the others the same. But if you went down to the pub it would be a case if you done a night flying test or done a cross country something right back and someone would turn round and say, “I think we’ll go to the pub tonight what do you think?” More often than not there would be the whole 7 of you.
What about the relationship to ground crew then, did those worlds remain quite distinct?
Oh our relationship with ground crew was clean
and close you know Bill, Jack, Tom and Harry except for the officers, RAF airmen don’t call their officer by their Christian name but they certainly did with us Australians but it was very good, it was very good. The ground crew would wish you all the very best before take off as I say they’d see you off and they’d be there when you came home. And the sort of comment was, “Don’t you bastards get
our aeroplane knocked around tonight,” you know that sort of attitude. And it was very very good, very good I used to think there could be nothing better they’d be a wireless bloke there and I’d turn around and say, “How’s the wireless going?” “Oh I’ve ground tested it Rexy and she’s right you know there’s no problems with it, there’s no this that and the other or I’ve changed this I thought so and so could be better,” and you know wonderful, absolutely wonderful.
But you didn’t actually
socialise outside the work environment with the ground crew?
Oh yeah we used to take them off to the pub.
O.K I thought you meant the 7 air crew went off to the pub?
No, no the seven air crew would go and the 7 or 8 I forget whether it was 7 or 8 ground staff blokes but yeah we’d take them to the pub, not every night, not every time we went, but at least every second week.
Can you tell me a bit about the history and tradition of 207 Squadron?
Yep, 207 was a World War I squadron which was disbanded in the early 30s and came back again World War II days. It was a originally I think
on Wellingtons, then it went onto Manchesters and it was the first squadron on Manchesters in the RAF and then onto Lancs. It had moved around from 3 or 4 different RAF bases of course as squadrons tend to do but it was a squadron of valuable tradition and was very ably led by,
well when I got there a Wing Commander Wheeler who was one of the what shall I say most highly decorated fellows at that time in the RAF a man in his forties who had flown in World War I, who had then flown with Imperial Airways between the wars and was back flying with the RAF at the time I met him. He unfortunately got shot down and killed on about his fourth or fifth mission.
And he was replaced by a Wing Commander Gray who was a pre-war RAF officer who had up till this time of the war been over in Canada running a training base over there and he had been pulled back from there to be the C.O of 207, he was a much younger man and he won himself a DFC [Distinguished Flying Cross] I think on about his third trip or something like that
but they were a wonderful bunch of blokes, wonderful bunch of blokes. My flight commander was a squadron leader A.N. Jones who got shot down a week or ten days before me and was in the same camp but in the adjoining hut. He was a squadron leader and I met him again after the war in Tengah up in Singapore by that time he was wing commander and was O.C. Flying I think something like that.
But he was a RAF bloke too most delightful bloke, I could tell you some stories about him, I better not, not for the tape anyway. But no, he was a good guy and in fact it was through Jones that my skipper survived. Normally we flew with what were called chest high parachutes, you had a parachute harness on and you had a parachute that clipped
on in front of you. The night that we got shot down McSweeney had what was called a pilot type chute on in other words one you sat on, the harness was already done up and everything else and you sat on it. Wing Commander then Squadron Leader Jones had ordered this pilot type chute for himself got himself shot down before it was delivered and the girl in parachute section handed it over to McSweeney.
And now if McSweeney had had a chest high parachute on the night we were shot down he may not have had time to put it on. So you know Jonesy did us a good favour and when I saw him up in Tengah I congratulated him on his chute and told him what had happened. And he said, “Oh Austin you know some good things come out, don’t they,” you know, but a most delightful bloke, he used to
drop down and see me at stalag every once and a while just to say G’day. Look I enjoyed serving with the RAF, I found very few guys who I couldn’t take to, very few. There were a few Poms who are absolute snobs, you know if you weren’t an officer then you weren’t worth knowing but very, very few of those.
The rest of them were good guys.
Interviewee: Rex Austin Archive ID 0382 Tape 07
Rex I was wondering if you can describe Spilsbury aerodrome to me?
Oh dear as it was then, it was a war time Drome in other words it was constructed early in the war it had a few permanent brick buildings such as the control tower, operations room and those things but the rest of it was
war time construction Nissen huts and that type of thing. The officers had also Nissen Huts, you know what a Nissen is? Oh sorry Nissen hut is like half an orange turned upside down, in other words a curved top not terribly long normally had about 6 to 8 people in it and that the sort of general construction it was.
It was some distance; the sergeants mess would have been probably nearly a mile from where we flew. I used to have a bicycle which I rode up and down, and which someone used to share with me, I used to ride it down for flights of a morning and then when I wanted to go back for lunch I very often walked and found it parked outside the sergeants mess and I would watch it very carefully to see who was doing this to me, never ever did find out.
I would ride it back down to the flights and whoever was kind enough to look after it for me would leave it so I could ride it back of a night time but lunch time used to be a walk for me. But it was a very much dispersed place, some bellman hangars and that’s about it, very difficult to say anything special about it. Lorraine and I have been back since in the nineties and all that is left now
is a ploughed, a wheat field which the runways have been ploughed up and there’s one hangar left and that’s it, it’s very dismal looking place now.
Was it a grass tarmac, or grass landing strip?
No, no, asphalt, asphalt hard standing in a runways, one long runway.
And there were hangars, but they were just used for repair work, were they?
Generally the planes would be lined up?
Out in the open, out in the open. Yep, which was a good thing really, if there’s going to be any problem leaving aircraft out in the open that will soon show it up. But you know it was uncomfortable but it was a wartime field. You know you didn’t have the niceties that the permanent RAF fields had. The senior NCOs we had showers
the officers had baths and every one in a while McSweeney, remember was a pilot officer by this time, Mac would turn round and say, “Want a bath?” and I’d say, “Yeah I want a bath tonight,” right. So he would go and stand guard and I would go in and have a bath and he would go into the adjoining bathroom and if we heard anybody, footsteps outside there were two blokes who never spoke to
each other for fear of me being caught. It was funny, funny.
What area of England is it situated in Spilsbury?
Is that south east?
Yes, yeah I’d guess you’d call it south east, yeah.
What were the weather conditions like during the winter?
Cold, cold but
I was never there when it snowed I was at various other places when it snowed but not there and perhaps, perhaps that’s remember I got there in February and I got shot down in May so I was probably too late for snow anyway.
Was fog a major problem there?
No, no not really, no we didn’t have a major problem with fog. It was very close to the wash
you know, it was very close indeed. No we didn’t have a problem weatherwise. We landed away from base once but that was because of lack of fuel rather than weather as I recall.
I was hoping you could walk me through an operation from the briefing, just sort of an average operation from the perspective of
a wireless air gunner?
O.K. well you’d first, you’d start off with briefings by the signals leader he’s the guy who is charge of all the wireless operators on the base and he would give us a briefing on specific wireless communications. What was expected of us, what we would do and so on. Then we would join in on the
general briefing, each speciality would have this special to type briefing. In other words the bomb aimers would be briefed by the bombing leader, navigators by the nav leader and so on now then you have a general briefing. The general briefing is with all crews together your pilot, navigator, bomb aimer and so on all in one line across and all the crews who were flying that night would be there.
Now the briefing then would be of a general nature, target for tonight is and the blind would go up and you’d go ‘EEEEE’ or you’d turn around with a big smile and say, “That’s not bad.”
On average how many crews would be going up, how many planes would be going up?
A squadron consists of 18 aircraft so you’d probably have 16 I would think 16 sometimes you get a maximum effort, get the whole lot but
more often than not it would probably be about 16 aircraft. If that squadron’s operating.
And was 207 the only squadron based at Spilsbury?
It was when I was there but it subsequently was joined by another squadron, I can’t remember the name of the squadron, it was after I got shot down, there was another squadron joined it.
But on most operations would you rendezvous with other squadrons or you’d be assigned to the same target and they’d be flying out from?
Oh yes, oh yes,
most times I think it’s fair to say the whole bomber force would be going to the same target at different times, because at night time remember you were flying with no lights on or anything like that, so you’re going out as a bomber stream and you’re going out in waves. One squadron aircraft would be taking off at 12 minutes after the hour and the next one might be 24 minutes after the hour and so on.
And you then climb to height and you go over the top of a particular point in UK and set course from there for the target.
And at a briefing would they set your height and speed at which to be travelling?
Well yes, oh yes, right down to the last few seconds. You will be over the top of Reading at 10.45 and 15 seconds you know that sort of thing. So you would get a very solid
concentration of aircraft over the top of one place and you would then set course and you would remain as a main bomber stream, now that wasn’t invariable there could be two targets that night so some would be peeling off to one target and the others going the other way, not necessarily going the other way, but same general direction but another target and different timings and different heights perhaps.
And you return path would obviously be set at a
higher or lower altitude?
Your return path would be drawn out for you with the exact routes you are to fly on the way back same as on the way out, you’ve got an exact route which way to go. And yes you would be told what height to come back at, now you can’t guarantee that because of casualties, damage to aircraft and so on but as far as possible you stick to those times. So yeah it was very
carefully planned indeed very careful.
And when you go to your aircraft and board what’s the first job that you have to do as wireless air gunner?
I’m just trying to think what’s the first thing I used to do. You don’t switch anything on much until the engines are going, remember you’ve got an
got to have a supply of electricity, so once your in the aircraft and settled down and the skippers got the engines going, then you would be able to turn round and check out everything. Remember the wireless operator’s also got a radar screen, which was an early warning device supposedly, an early waring device to show other aircraft, underneath the aircraft and behind it and this was looking for fighters of course
it came up as a tiny little blip on a screen and according to the speed of movement of that blip you could tell whether it was a fighter aircraft or another bomber aircraft crossing your track or anything like this. So you checked that out.
When were you first introduced to radar, was that in the UK?
Oh yeah, yes of course. I have an idea
we may have had, we may have had some radar when I was at OTU but certainly we had it at Lanc finishing school.
Was it a fairly steep learning curve for you to be introduced to this new technology?
Oh yes, from that viewpoint yes. But these were very basic things. The radar, the fighter warning radar we had in the Lancaster had an unfortunate habit of
freezing up and you know it was about as useful as a hip hop in a singlet when that happened. But yes you had that and you had your transmitter and receiver and everything like that to check out.
Would you be communicating with air traffic control?
No, that was done by the pilots, by the pilot or the engineer and that was done verbally.
Could you overhear all of that?
Oh yes, yes, you’re on what we call intercom every blokes got
a set of earphones and you could talk to each other so yes I was on intercom and I heard them, hear them call out for taxi instructions and so on and so forth. But really there wasn’t a need to do any of that on operational sorties because it was wireless silence. The aircraft would be controlled by an Aldis lamp, you will leave your dispersal at 10.13, you will taxi out that way and you would get onto the runway
behind the guy in front, who you knew the guy in front was going to be and everything was done by an Aldis lamp. The bloke would gave you cancellations by Aldis lamp, he gave you and a Verey pistol, and he gave you take off instructions with an Aldis lamp.
So when do you go to work, so to speak, when do you have..?
The moment you’re airborne is really where you start work.
And what do you start doing, what do you do?
out to see if there’s any messages coming through but for the aircraft, if there’s a cancellation, any abortment any changes to wind speeds and directions which the navigators already been given, if they have more recent advice then they would send it to him via the radio. But we maintained radio silence on the way out.
And in you were not transmitting at all you were only receiving?
No, only receiving. And of course you also
used your radio to tune in, you were given certain frequencies where you tuned in to what you hoped was German night fighter instructions right and you tried to break those out by tuning into it and pressing the Morse key.
So that they couldn’t speak between communications.
Well you hoped not, yeah you hoped not.
How did you jam that, by pressing a Morse key?
Just by the Morse key yeah.
I’ve heard about people had microphones hooked up to engines and that sort of things,
Yeah. Some of the aircraft, rumour had it, I’m not absolutely certain of this myself but rumour had it there were microphones in some of the engines and when the transmitter was connected to the microphone and they just used that noise to block out everything.
Was there a risk in that tactic in that you were giving away your signal by transmitting as well?
Yes there was and there was also
a risk in it of the aircraft warning device too because it relied on a radar transmission which hit an object and reflected back and subsequent to the war the Germans had turned round and said, “Oh we reckon that was great, we could home in on it.” And probably they did I don’t know. But when you think of it now you think, “Good God! I hope that wasn’t true!”
As a wireless operator we you keeping a written notes about all the communications coming in?
Oh yes you have a wireless operators logbook and you write down everything that you do, every time you transmit something it’s in the logbook, every time you receive anything it’s in the logbook and these would be examine when you came back from an operational flight, the following day, this guy the signals leader would be going through the logbook and making certain, see if there is any weak links because some guys
wouldn’t be bothered keeping them properly. There was a certain amount of that.
Onboard was it just you and the navigator could hear the incoming, were you hearing the signals you were receiving?
No, only me.
Only you, and you would pass on any changes to wind, speed and that sort of thing to the navigator via the intercom.
No I’d write it, invariably write it on a signals pad and hand it to him.
the intercom was a form of transmission, is that right you didn’t want to…?
No, no that was purely inside the aeroplane but you don’t want to interrupt just in case the very time you start talking the gunners want something done you know. You might have someone on your tail, silence is golden during the time you’re flying.
Where are you in relation to the navigator?
Just behind him about as close as you and I are.
Can you describe your workspace?
About so wide, about so deep, say about half a metre wide, a third of a metre deep, you had sufficient room to operate without being cramped.
And facing the front?
Facing the front and with a little window there and we used to use a trailing aerial, you’ve probably heard of these things. Trailing aerial used for low frequency transmissions and it was a
drum of wire with a break on it and you used to wind this thing out and it used to drop out, something I think about 30 feet below the aircraft and trail backwards of course. And you wound that out when you were on your way out and you wound it in before you landed otherwise you’d leave it on the fencepost as you came over the fence on the way in to land. And has been known to decapitate people
so you had to be a bit careful with it.
Would you ever have fighter escorts?
No, not at night time, no, no, how could they, they can’t see you, well you hope they can’t see you, no no. There were occasions when we would be warned that there would be a couple of mosquitos going out on a trip and told to watch out for them
but I think that was more to alert us to the fact that there could be mosquitos in the stream and don’t shoot them down because they’re twin engine aeroplanes and twin engine aeroplanes were not things we liked.
How often during your time at 207 Squadron were you required to man a gun?
Never, never, not once did I ever climb into a turret….you’re speaking of operationally
And that suited you fine?
That suited me fine yeah I was up in the warmth, up the front. No, no we had Wally Chinery as I say, mid upper gunner, and Reg Tyce down the back and that’s all that was needed. And if the forward guns had needed to be manned Danny Major, the bomb aimer took that job, so no I did not.
Which enemy aircraft did you fear the most?
I think Ju 88s, I think Ju 88s.
They were probably the best German night fighter they had lots of speed, they had lots of armament and they had good endurance so …and the Germans had lots of them.
Did you have a healthy respect for the enemy pilots; did you respect their airmanship?
I don’t think the question ever arose.
How did you feel about them, is it possible to put that into words how you felt about the Germans?
I didn’t have any hate for the Germans, I had never met any up till the time that I got shot down. You knew that they were trying to knock you off but that doesn’t make you hate them, there was no cause to hate them really.
Certainly when you were flying over their territory you were wide awake, a bit on edge but that’s all really. No I don’t think I hated them.
Could you tell me what your job, whether there was any extra specific specialist task
you needed to do on an operation as a wireless operator. Was there anything as you were coming towards the bombs site that you were required to do?
Not really, not really, on some trips the navigator would compute a wind and there would be a need to send the details of that wind back to Group Headquarters that would be the only time in which I would break radio silence.
Coming up to the target, yep I’d be listening out as carefully as I could, because Group Headquarters at times would change the winds that the Met people had given, by virtually using these winds that we found, you know many other aircraft don’t take it just us, many other aircraft found and transmitted back and than Group would average those winds out or come to a conclusion that the wind
which we had been told to use to navigate on was incorrect use the following wind and I would get these down and give them to Fred, give them to the navigator and what he did with them was entirely up to him. It was not my responsibility once I handed him the details. But that’s the only time where you would do anything really constructive towards the trip other than as I say watching out on your radar for fighters and that’s about
all. I used to help Fred on his radar plotting when we were within range of the G as it was called from UK It was a device that enabled him to plot his position very accurately, but it needed a bit of manipulation on the set and the set was in his compartment and I would stand there
and do it for him, but that was purely a crew arrangement it wasn’t something that all wireless operators were required to do or anything else, in fact they weren’t required to do it at all. But Fred and I had this system and it was purely a crew arrangement. And I liked doing it for him; I used to love doing it for him.
Were there long stretches where you had nothing to do and nothing to concentrate on?
Yes, oh yes.
Was boredom or lack of focus a
problem then at any point?
No I don’t think so, no I don’t think so because remember you’re looking at this radar thing for fighters and that can, that keeps you on your toes because you want to make certain that you don’t miss one, if there’s one about you want to know where he is if it’s possible. So unless the radar had packed up as I say through icing up or something like that,
you’d be on that all the time at the same time you’re listening out for something, so you’re really whilst you’re not …what should I say, actively engaged in navigating the aircraft, you’re actively engaged in flying it.
The radar was transmitting to the rear and beneath?
Would you be picking up your own aircraft behind, other bombers?
Oh yes you could do, but you could tell the difference,
because of speeds you know a Lancasters 175 knots, yeah I think it was 175 knots, a fighter is very much faster than that, so if you had a closing speed then all you do is turn round to the gunners and say, “Hey you know there’s something out the back there it’s so and so down,” and you could judge pretty much the degree down and give him a warning,
So when there’s mass raids or a large numbers of aircrafts over a bombsite, is your radar screen full of detections?
No, no, no there’s not too many aircraft, there’s not too many aircraft below you, there’s not that many aircraft below you, you can tell whether it’s a friend or foe as I say mainly through closing speeds but certainly through direction
turn round to a rear gunner and say, “Hey there’s an aircraft 30 degrees down but and it’s a thousand yards behind,” and you are likely to get a voice say, “Yeah I’ve got him in sight he’s another Lanc.”
So when you return to base then your logbook is required to …
be examined Signals Leader
Signals leader, would that be done the next day?
Were you required to be present at the Intelligence Debriefings?
No, the whole crew would be debriefed as a crew by an Intelligence officer after you landed. Nothing, the Signals Leader wouldn’t even be there, wasn’t necessarily there. Perhaps the wing commander might be wandering round, having a look, having a talk this sort of thing but generally not. I should say generally not as far as Signal Leaders are concerned, more often than not the wing commander would be.
But the following day you’d have an appointment with the sigs leader, “See you at 10 o’clock, OK mate,” and you’d see him at 10 o’clock and he’d say, “Yeah OK. I got your log from last night I don’t see any problems. How’d the trip go? Yak, yak, yak, thanks very much, by the way you’re on again tonight,” you know that sort of thing.
Did you have any personal or crew rituals when you landed safely?
Yeah we used to have a song
which we used to sing as we taxied in.
C’mon sing it for us.
Give us the words at least?
I can’t even….no I’m sorry I can’t think of it now…something about McSweeney carries on……I can’t even think of what the tune was now.
It would be like a football victory song?
Yeah that sort of thing, once we got taxi
instructions, the aircraft’s on the ground and we had taxi instructions then we would collectively sing this song to McSweeney. Oh gee I used to know it off by heart as you can well imagine. But no I cannot, I honestly cannot remember it now.
Did you have any superstitions that you followed, or lucky charms?
I had a lucky charm, yeah I did, it didn’t do too good did it? My young brother, my brother who’s ten years younger than me
as I say he was only a kid when I left, he was twelve when I got back so he wasn’t too old when I left and he gave me a little koala bear about that big, say about what 5,6 centimetres, 10 centimetres at the most, oh half that isn’t it, he gave me that and said, “Here all the best mate,” and I used to fly with that, it did not survive while getting shot down.
But I used to put it in my pocket, the crew knew I had it but I think they were the only ones that did and I used to put it on the wireless table, jam it between two things on the table and it sat there.
So Flight 13 didn’t worry you beforehand?
No, no, it certainly didn’t. I don’t think I even knew the number, you know, you don’t, it’s
a funny thing, your target is 30 trips you know that’s your ambitions is 30 trips so when you do them you think to yourself, oh that’s you know I’ve got to get thirty trips in, had I got near that number I bet then I would have turned round and said I’ve done 28,29 you know that sort of thing, I don’t honestly think that I would have known. It certainly didn’t make
me think Christ this is number 13. It was a Sunday night as I recall but 12 dots up there instead of 13 cause I reckon the other half was worthwhile having a bomb on but not to me, not to me.
You’re out on flight 13, had you dropped your payload?
No, no we were on the way in to the target, we were
just a few miles and when I say that I mean forty miles in the German border from Holland we were on our way in. And perfectly confident, it was a nice night there was no problems that I knew of, there were no problems as far as anyone else was concerned as far as I know but out of the blue this happened.
Did you detect it on the radar?
No, never saw a
thing, never saw a thing. And he came up from underneath and hit us hard. We suspect, but again this is being wise in hindsight of course, that it might have been one of those fighters that had fixed guns pointing up, you’ve probably heard about these they had them up at an angle. And we think this guy was probably way down there, detected us and just pulled straight up underneath us because he got us as I say in the bottom
of the starboard wings. As far as I know nothing hit the fuselage, the actual fuselage itself as far as I know.
Do you know what type of aircraft it was?
No, no I don’t think he was seen by anybody. All of sudden you’ve got an aircraft on fire.
Could you hear it, could you hear the artillery hitting?
Oh yes oh yeah there was one hell of a bang.
A series of bangs and that alerted me to something going on, and I was off intercom of course at the time and when I came back on intercom it was then when I heard McSweeney turn round and say go and Fred Homewood the navigator alongside me, he was as I say I facing there and he was about
there, he turned round to me and said, “Go, go, go quick!”
Did you transmit an emergency signal?
No didn’t have time to touch anything. Out the back quicker than I (UNCLEAR).
So the fuel tanks were in the wings, they were hit directly by fire?
Yes they were well and truly on fire.
So a very large explosion was what you heard was the actual fuel tank exploding?
Or that occurred in the minutes following?
No, no that occurred later, that occurred later. What I heard was the
shellfire or whatever it was hitting the aircraft and then the roar of the fire as I mentioned earlier it sounded like a blowtorch but a very loud blowtorch, so at that stage of the game and I might add the inside of the aircraft became very light, you’ve got windows and when you’ve got that sort of fire then you can you know and the astrodome just above my head
it becomes pretty light and at that stage I took off. Grabbed my parachute, put it on and down the back to do the job I was trained to do and that was get down there open the back door and lock it open.
Did you feel on automatic pilot, did the training take over?
I don’t remember even locking the back door, in fact I thought afterwards, gee did I lock that back door, oh you know but Reg Tyce the rear gunner who went out after me
Said, “You certainly did Ace, you got down there and locked the back door.”
Do you recall, did everyone remain quite calm before bailing out?
I didn’t hear any sign of any problem.
When McSweeney told you to go, navigator said to go they were calm?
Yep, oh yeah, and in fact McSweeney when he found he couldn’t get out the front, and remember we had that second navigator bloke on board as well who was suppose to go
out the front, Fred Homewood told me he was standing alongside to McSweeney and McSweeney turned round to the engineer who normally stands alongside the pilot’s right seat, turned round to John and said, “Go down the front and see what’s wrong with Danny,” and Lowry went down to see what was wrong with Danny and his further comment was, “I’d like to get out of here too.” But he, it was
conversational tone. Fred was so impressed that he wrote a recommendation for McSweeney to be awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross after Fred got home after the war and the RAF said no. And I’m rather inclined to think that it would have to be that way. How else could you do it? McSweeney evaded,
he wasn’t hurt when we got shot down, he was going out of the aircraft and everything else and was partly deaf because of the explosion and the speed of which he went down, but he evaded and ended up with the Dutch underground. The Dutch underground handed him onto the Belgian underground, he was captured by the Gestapo in Brussels
and put into prison, he was threatened that he was going to be shot a few times by the Gestapo [German Secret Police] but nothing happened, he was then put, subsequently put on a train to be taken back to Germany, he escaped from that train and hid up in the woods until the Allies came forward and by the end of the war
McSweeney was back flying Lancasters with another squadron and another crew. And that guy got nothing out of the war, no DFCs no nothing. And in fact the worse part about it is because he was never registered as a POW he didn’t get any of those niceties that POWs got at the end of the war like 30 days medical rehabilitation leave and that sort of thing, he didn’t get any of those things, he was an evaded he wasn’t a
POW. So he was a first class operator believe you me. When I knew him, when we got shot down McSweeney did not smoke, he certainly he drank but he didn’t smoke. When I met him after the war I met him, when he came home I was in Melbourne and his ship, the name escapes me, docked in Melbourne so I went to see him and he produced
a cigarette case about the size of cabin trunk and said, “Here, have a fag.” He’d obviously taken up smoking and moreover when he got back to England, he went to see Danny Major the bomb aimer who was killed, went to see his wife and tell her what happened and he also went to see John Lowry’s parents, he ended up by marrying
Danny Major’s widow and they came back to Australia.
That must have been a great reunion when you met up with him in Melbourne?
Oh it was tremendous, tremendous, tremendous. I’d had a watch which my father gave me before I left to go overseas and I had it stolen in Brussels on the way back myself and when we were at St Anne’s Barracks some so and so knocked it off when I was washing my face one night. And McSweeney turned round to me and said, “Oh where’s your watch?” and I said, “Oh I lost
it.” and he said, “Just a minute.” put his hand in his pocket and said, “Here’s another one.” and he gave me a very, very nice watch. He was like that, he had a cabin trunk and it didn’t matter what you wanted, if you wanted a clean collar, McSweeney would produce you with a clean collar, if you wanted a clean shirt, he had a clean shirt, if you want a pair of shoes McSweeney’s got 2 or 3 pairs, you know he was the sort of guy who just was a superb man in every sense of the word.
He and I kept in contact for a few years but I lost sight of him after the war after a few years, after 10 or 12 years, I don’t know where he is now.
He wouldn’t have been too worried by his lack of recognition, by the RAF?
Probably not, but I used to feel you know I used to think, geeze, poor old Mac if he’d have been captured, made a POW he would have all these niceties which I got, which he didn’t get.
Luck of the draw, whether he’s still alive or not I don’t know.
Had you thought about or had you been briefed or did you know anything about what fate was like for you as a POW in Germany when you knew that that was where you were going, had you had any briefings on it or had you thought about it before?
Yes you get briefings about what’s going
to happen in terms of interrogation, you know there are people who had escaped from POW camps who could, air crew people who could come home and brief the RAF as to what the score was. And we had briefings from those sort of people that if and when you get captured this is what’s going to happen to you. You’re going to end up at a Dulag Luft [Durchgangslager Luftwaffe – POW transit camp guarded by the German air force], they’ll put you into solitary, they’ll brief you, they’ll threaten you,
they’ll do this, they’ll do that but then again they may not they might, there would be a nice interrogator who tries to get under your belt by being very nice that sort of thing, yes you got a briefing on that. But what you haven’t…..you don’t get a briefing on what actually happens in a prison camp as such. The
emphasis is on escaping, evading and if you do get captured on what’s going to happen when you get interrogated and how to battle against that or defend against that. So you are warned that some of the interrogators might be very, very nice, offer you cigarettes, chocolates, “We’ll do this for you. We’ll do that for you,” but it won’t happen fellows you know they’ll tell you that but it just doesn’t come to pass,” so that sort of….that’s
where the emphasis is not on what’s going to happen actually inside a prison camp.
So when you were lying there in the field and you knew that that’s what was going to happen, you were going to be captured, were you fearful of any particular ideas or was it fear of the unknown?
Oh I think there is always a fear of the unknown but at the same time I don’t think that worries you too much.
I knew that I was going to get taken to Dulag Luft, I knew I was going to get interrogated, and I tried not to show my surprise when I walked into the office there and saw the guy with these schematic diagrams and I was invariably polite which was what they brief you to do, they said don’t get angry, don’t allow emotion to come to the fore just be very nice and polite to these bloke and if they can see that’s the way you’re going to be
they’ll get rid of you quick and lively, there’s no point in talking to a fellow if he won’t talk to you.
Interviewee: Rex Austin Archive ID 0382 Tape 08
Rex I’m was wondering when you were in the field and you were confronted by the farmers with their shotguns, were you reflecting on what you had been doing in terms of the bombing and how these people would look at you as the terror flyer?
Yes, the answer to that is yes, I wondered what my reception would be like
and I thought of that long before those guys ever arrived. But they were dressed as farmers, they acted like farmers and as far as I was concerned they didn’t look as though they were about to do anything to bad with me otherwise they would have done it in the first few seconds. You know they had me sitting up in a ploughed field they could have shot me
right then and there on the spot; they didn’t, the only guy as I mentioned gave me any concern was the young fellow and I thought, gee with those adults there that young fellow can’t do much and if he does too bad. So I don’t think there was any fear there of what they were going to do after the first few moments. Sure when I was lying there in the field I thought, what’s my reception
going to be like tomorrow?
In Bomber Command you are very detached from the battle, from the conflict.
You are yes.
You said before you hadn’t met any German people until that moment. Having met these farmers and the lady that helped you, did that change how you felt about the war or felt about your role within it?
No I don’t think so because I was thinking you know
these are country people, we’re not bombing the country we’re bombing cities. So therefore there was no real need for them other than perhaps for patriotism to be upset about anything and I think that’s the way it worked out really. You know they were good genuine farming people and probably their interest in the war
was nowhere near as fanatical as you would expect city people to be.
Let me ask you then if your opinion changed again when you were confronted by this interrogator who is a wool buyer from Melbourne?
No it didn’t, that amused me that really amused me, I thought, is this bloke trying to trick me, you know the old brain was going around, really round, what’s he after, you know you’re on the end of the chair waiting
for what’s coming next in terms of someone throwing a question at you what frequency were you operating on. As a matter of fact I had removed my wing, so he …all I had on when I was arrested was my rank and that’s it, my wing had gone and I don’t think any of them asked me what category I was on the aeroplane, if they did they didn’t get an answer.
So you think he
was putting it on about being a wool buyer from Melbourne?
I don’t know, he certainly seemed genuine, he certainly seemed a fatherly sort of guy, he certainly knew the area I lived in, so that much you know I was persuaded of but whether the wool buying was a furphy or not, I don’t know but he knew the Rialto Building and he knew 131 New
Street Brighton cause when I said I lived at 131 New Street, Brighton he said that’s just near the Dendy Street gates isn’t it. And at that stage you go, “Yes it is.” “Ah yes, yes I know that area.”
Did you hear any stories of people being tortured as part of their interrogation?
No, no I did hear of people who were kept in solitary confinement for long lengths of time
and I don’t think, whether you call that torture or not I don’t know, I don’t know, but I didn’t hear of anyone being belted up if that’s what you mean, I didn’t hear of anyone doing that. It’s not a pleasant experience being in solitary under those conditions when you want to go to the toilet there’s a button you press and it drops an arm out outside, now the only person who
is going to answer that is the guard who’s patrolling up and down, and if he chooses not to take any notice of it and ignore you then you know you can get pretty uncomfortable and that happens a couple of times. In terms of knowing how long you’re there, the walls are fibre as you would expect not brick and you can put your fingernail into them and count the days doing that way
and there were plenty of signs of people in front of me who’d done that. And I just picked a spot by the side of the door and said right day one and on you go and remember there’s a light on in the room the whole time so you’re not quite certain whether it’s day or night you’re not quite certain.
Where did you take your mind, how did you mentally or emotionally escape that space?
I’m not certain that I made any conscious effort, no, no I’m pretty certain I did not make any conscious effort to remove myself from that space. I think I was more annoyed with anything else with the thought of lying down on this palliasse with all these mongrel fleas and when I say mongrel fleas. I stripped off at one stage, stood on the palliasse and watched the fleas jumping
onto me and then killing them and counting them as I went. And you know that makes you a bit annoyed because there is no need for it you sort of feel crikey there’s no need for this all they’re trying to do is humiliate me, now you get fleas in your clothes and you try and sleep of a night time and you can feel fleas, well you think you can feel fleas still
so that gets up your nose, but I think that’s about all and worrying about family, thinking you know crikey this is going to upset a few people. But I know where I am it’s just that nobody else does at this stage.
It’s generally recognised that the Germans did hold fairly closely to the Geneva Conventions for the prisoner of war was that your experience, were there any occurrence
or times where that was violated?
Well there was the one great escape as you heard about that. 25th of March 1944, 76 officers broke out from North Camp at Sagan which was Stalag Luft 3 and Hitler gave orders that 50 were to be shot and they shot 50, Gestapo took them for rides in motor cars and shot them, now that’s very much against the Geneva
Convention. Now that had happened by the time I got there and that sort of puts a kibosh on the fun of escaping, in fact I think it’s fair to say that after that the Brits discouraged escapes particularly after the Germans brought out a (UNCLEAR) that escaping POWs
found in prohibited area will be shot and when asked to define the prohibited areas they refused to do so. So that means you could be outside your own wire, 10 yards outside your own wire and get shot and the Germans could turn round and say, “Oh he is in a prohibited area.” So that also takes the shine off it not please that I had any opportunity as I saw it of escaping, I didn’t. So I make
no apologies on that. But yeah basically apart from those sort of problems I think the Germans did abide by the Geneva Convention.
Did that surprise you just given the cruelty and ferocity of the fighting and you know considering what did happen to the Jews and other people like that?
See we didn’t know about the Jews at that stage. No, people didn’t know much about
that until the last stages of the war. So you know you didn’t have a picture in your mind of that sort of thing going on, it was until quite late stages of the war that people found out what had been going on in concentration camps. Then when it came out of course…
You were in war against a bitter enemy, a very cruel enemy you know the nature of the Bomber Command work, I’m really surprised by how
well you, relatively well given the circumstances?
We were not close to a target, in fact we were a long way away from our target and the people out in the country wouldn’t be seeing what was be happening in the big cities so therefore whilst there was a hell of a lot of propaganda no doubt by Goebbels and his local papers and radio and what have you perhaps that doesn’t
impinge on farmers out in the area. No I, I’m very grateful for the way they treated me, very grateful indeed, I could have been one of these poor guys who got badly knocked around. But fortunately for me I wasn’t and for that I’m very grateful.
Did you have any significant mentors within the prison?
No, not really.
when I say that I think of Reg Tyce my rear gunner was probably my mentor. He was the guy who when food got short he became what he called the ‘Food Führer’ and he was the guy who said you can have two slices of bread this morning and nothing this afternoon. He was the guy who did everything like that. So yeah from that viewpoint yes I did.
And a very close one for which I’m everlastingly grateful to but he was the level-headed guy. When we went out on the march, Reg and I marched together, he got hold of a bench type stool, turned it upside down, broke off some legs and we used some of my shirts which we tied up,
tore up I should say and we tied them into a rope and he and I pulled our sledge with our belongings on it. When the snow disappeared and it became impossible to use that, then we packed things up and we put them on our back but he was the guy who sort of was the leader of the two of us during that time
but I will say this, I’d always admired Reg’s staying power and everything else but age caught up with him on the march, I found that he was the one who was just getting a little bit behind, you know he was 15 years older than me and that 15 years counted a bit under those conditions but once we were back into prison camp again, once we were at Lückenwalde Reg took over again
and was the ‘Food Führer’ and everything else but I was the one who stopped smoking when he couldn’t, I was the one who brought the loaf of bread, when he couldn’t stop smoking but by in large you know look he was a very very sensible, very big bloke in terms of his outlook on life and physically he was a very strong bloke.
Did you at any point need a good talking to or
was there a point where he did dispel some wisdom that changed the way you viewed the situation you were in?
Oh not any one particular time, but certainly there were times when he turned round to me and say you know, pluck up, give us a smile, don’t look so downcast, no ones going to kill you these days, we’ll get through it you know he was the encouraging sort of bloke. And
that was his nature, that was his nature. He as I say you know wait till we get home chum, come down to Drillingham stay with me and I’ll still teach you to be a nine pint man. And never ever did.
Were there any significant turning point during your imprisonment in terms of the way you looked at it, from the way that you approached?
Oh I think
so yes, look I think Lückenwalde opened my eyes to the fact that you don’t have to have three meals a day, eating onion weed doesn’t kill you. You know food can be terribly important but it’s also possible to do without it for quite some length of time. And that I think was the lesson I learnt, certainly at Lückenwalde where I saw some
people who were whinging their heads off all the time. Reg was not a whinger, under any circumstances and I think that was probably the biggest lesson I learnt. We go back to the other word we spoke of earlier, to about tolerance. Where you’ve got 250 blokes in one big dormitory there are going to be characters there who get up your nose
if it’s only the sound of their voice and Tycie on a couple of occasions had cause to turn round to me and say you know back off son, back off when he saw that I was starting to get upset with somebody. So yes he was my mentor if you’d call it that.
Was religious faith important to you?
No, no, no not at all.
I’d been to a Church of England Grammar school where I went to church every morning; I was also involved in the church outside that to but no I don’t think, I don’t think so.
Was a belief in God, did you still believe in a God when you were fighting the war?
I don’t think I did, I don’t think I did.
I think I took the attitude of well if you’re dead you’re dead full stop and that’s it, I don’t believe in life here after. I still don’t so no I would think that the answer to that is no. I can’t ever remember an occasion where I’ve prayed on behalf of Rex yeah.
Did you have any occasion where
that question of whether or not there was a God was pretty high on your mind?
Not since leaving school.
Not during your wartime experiences?
No, not during wartime experiences no, no.
In hindsight well I guess, when I say hindsight I say at the end of the war, once you’d been released, were you happy or pleased or proud with the way you had approached you incarceration?
I don’t think I gave it any thought, I don’t think I gave it any…..I think I was so damn glad to be away from there that I didn’t really give any great thought to any of it. No Simon [interviewer], no, no, no I think I was too shallow in those days and I really mean that I
was too self interested in those days to give any thought in what I could have done, may have done, should have done or anything else I think it was a case of you know, here we go, you’re home mate, you’re away from all that forget it. And I will willingly admit when I came home I was fairly wild in some ways.
I found I couldn’t sleep, was one problem I used to… I don’t know whether you know where Brighton is but it’s about 10 miles from Melbourne and quite often I would get out of bed at 2 in the morning and I’d walk into Melbourne, then I’d catch a tram back to Elsternwick which would be about 4 to 6 miles from our place and then walk home and go to bed and Mum would come in and say, “C’mon it’s time you went to work yah yah yah,” and I’d, “No, no, no
I’ll get up later,” and sometimes I didn’t and sometimes I did. And that worried my family I know that, but I didn’t know at the time, the old man used to try and have a few words with me, I couldn’t hear him or he couldn’t hear me I’m not certain which. And that was a bit of a problem, I went along to Department of Veterans’ Affairs at Dad’s insistence and spoke to them, and the Doc
did me over there and they came up with a diagnosis that I was suffering from Nervous Dyspepsia and the doctor had very good advice which I took many years later when he said, “Are you married, son?” and I said, “No sir,” and he said, “Good, good, good.” He said, “When you get married wait for a few years and marry someone very young and they’ll look after you.” He said, “I did. It’s working well.” So thirty years later I took his advice.
What other ways did that nervousness manifest itself in your day-to-day life?
Lack of sleep basically, difficulty in concentrating, drinking a bit too much I think at times, I felt lonely in some ways,
I really did. See I didn’t have anyone to talk to. At home my elder brother had not seen any war service and in any case he got married shortly after the war and was living at home sure. My younger brother was much, much younger than me see I didn’t talk there and Dad was working his stomach off. I think it’s fair to say whenever the boys would ring up and someone would turn round
and say, “Meet you at Fairs on Saturday morning,” I would be there like a dart and we would re-fight the war again, that sort of thing. Didn’t eat too much. Oh it was a number of medical type things, which settled down after some years. But you know these days they’d probably say you’re suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or something like that. There wasn’t
such a thing in our day.
So your wartime friends and the associations that grew out of that time post war were really crucial to you in terms of being able to communicate and feel…..?
Yeah they were initially, initially but all those guys all got married see people like George Ag who was a great mate of mine and we played bridge together pretty well every night on the ship coming home. George was a bit older than me
and he got married and other blokes were in the same boat. See I was bit younger than the …only 18 months to 2 years but that is a difference in terms of settling down and these other guys all came home, some of them had girlfriends before they went, some of them didn’t but they all seemed to get married and disappear around the place. And there was Rex
the bachelor. I spent a lot of money, I had a lot of money saved up so I bought myself a motor car, not long after I got home, that cost me a lot, there were all sorts of things like this that crept into it. And I look back on it now and I realise that my father was fairly concerned about what was going on but he,
if he had have been able to communicate I’m not certain I would have been able to hear anyway.
Do you think he was proud of what you had achieved in the war?
No I don’t think so. No, no, no Dad and I on one occasion had a few words about World War II cause remember he did not see active service in World War II, he certainly he was in New Guinea and so on but he was up
there as a senior staff officer and they don’t see shots fired in anger and I made some comment to him and Dad turned round to me and he said, “You know son,” he said, “Your war service is very distinguished by virtue of the fact that it is so undistinguished.” and that’s a good kick in the pants for you.
When you did find have a wife or get married and have kids, were you able
then with that closeness to share some of what you’d been through in your war experiences?
No I’ve never talk to the boys about it to any great degree. No.
Has that got easier over the years?
Oh yes, of course, of course my both the boys now have a fair idea of what went on, my younger son the Qantas bloke has quite a number of my souvenirs
and he’s interested in them and he took that up oh ten or more years ago when he became interested in all these things and Tony in the last couple of years, the elder one has started to be the same way. And one of the reasons I said to you is it possible to get a copy of this is for the fact that they’ve never heard me talk like
this and it would probably be a good thing if I could get a copy and hand it on to them and say there are don’t ask me questions all the questions have been asked and all the answers are there you know that would be something well worthwhile.
Have you spoken like this before?
No, I haven’t
In this sort of detail?
No, never., never.
Why did you decide to go ahead with it at this point?
Because of the kids, because of them, yeah
Because I knew I hadn’t talked to them.
Has the way you feel about your wartime experiences and the contribution you made and the nature of the work has the way you feel about that changed from the end of the war to now?
No I don’t think so, I don’t think so. I think,
I think perhaps being tied up with the Air Force Association has enabled me because a few of them are ex POWs has enabled me to talk about it more so than I used to. I feel more comfortable talking about it now than I used to be.
I used to feel that, gee I didn’t do anything you know I was just there I was making up the numbers. I feel that now that perhaps I did make some sort of contribution whereas I didn’t think so before but that’s through talking to people who’ve been, had the same experience. Does that make sense?
Did you feel that your contribution was appreciated by the government or the Australian public when you returned? Was there a recognition?
No, no, no I don’t think so, I don’t think so. We did our tour through Melbourne for an hour I suppose driving from Spencer Street to Melbourne
Cricket Ground and that was the end of it. You know your medals are given to you here are have this sort of thing and I got nine medals. You go to Medical Rehabilitation Centre up there at Healesville and a guy turns round to you after thirty days and says, “Righto, righto Austin, you’re right, any questions, no questions right ,
you are Austin, you’re all right there’s nothing wrong with you, off you go.” In due time I was up at Lake Boga with my elder brother who was in an LOC up there and a telegram arrived saying, “Warrant Officer Austin posted for discharge with effect the date whatever it was, please report immediately.” that’s it full stop
no one shakes you by the hand and says thank you, you know you’re on your way, you’re one of thousands and I think what you’ve got to recognise is that you’re one of thousands, nothing special, you’ve been in, you’ve done your job now go back and do something else.
I was wondering how you felt about the fact that I guess the historians that I’ve read recognise that the bombing
raids over Hamburg and Nuremberg and Berlin they’re amongst the most significant military battle –
Dresden that in Australian military history they’re amongst the most significant battles yet they don’t hold that place in the public perception, the Australian public perception –
No they do not…
As opposed to something like a Gallipoli or Kokoda.
Now that’s dead right, that’s dead right
How do you feel about that?
Lets put it this way. One of the things that does get up my nose somewhat is the fuss that the Vietnam War veterans get, we lost I think, if I remember my figures are right something like 650 Australians killed in action in Vietnam [actually 505], we lost nearly that same number on the Nuremberg raid,
one night, now putting it in perspective, now they weren’t all Australians of course but putting it in perspective I find there’s something wrong. Why do we make such a big fuss about that sort of thing and ignore something like the Nuremberg raid. I know the tremendous controversy there has been about the activities of Bomber Command during World War II
and you know there’s a lot of things been written about it. Some good, some pretty crook. We went there to do our job, we trained to do the job, by and large the guys who were in air crew were your slightly higher educated people than the average guy of the time because air crew required a
leaving certificate or equivalent, and back pre-war days not everybody did that they couldn’t afford to do it you know. We were just coming out of a Depression. So the average Joe who went into air crew was slightly better educated than his army colleagues. So what we lost in Bomber Command was 4,000 well-educated young men, we haven’t done that in any previous war
the losses in Bomber Command were greater than World War I on a percentage basis. But no one says a word about that. I’ve just written a letter on behalf of the National President and he’s going to sign it subject to his agreeing to what I’ve written to go out to Dick Smith and all these other people seeking donations towards a Bomber Command Memorial
which is the design has been agreed, the sculpture’s been agreed which is going to be built down in Canberra in the sculpture garden at the Australian War Memorial in which I point out some of the losses that we had in Bomber Command and saying you know, let’s give some recognition to it whether it achieves anything I don’t know. But let’s hope it does because I think it’s deserving of it, very much so. The losses in Fighter Command
were nothing compared with those in Bomber Command. We lost more in one raid, in a minor raid in Bomber Command than Fighter Command did in the whole of Battle of Britain. But we commemorate the Battle of Britain, we don’t commemorate any of these other, any of these other raids and I don’t think we every will, certainly not in this country because they don’t realise how important it was, or was it important I don’t know.
Did you find post war and I guess in your life since then that your POW experience dominates in other peoples eyes, dominates over your Bomber Command contribution?
Yeah I think it does, I think it does. You turn round and say, ‘I’m an ex POW’ and you know, I’ve got a gold card. You know you’ve heard about the Gold Card and it’s endorsed POW Europe
and various things like that, yes I think that’s probably true, I think that’s probably true. But I certainly don’t hide the fact that I was with Bomber Command. I wear a Bomber Command tie every once and a while and I wear a squadron tie every once in a while when I’m going to formal functions and I don’t hide that. I know of some guys who are reluctant to say that they were in Bomber Command because of the controversy over it
but everybody points to Dresden you know. 300,000 people the estimate was 300,000 people killed in one raid, ridiculous, the guys did their job, they were there and that’s what they were paid to do and that’s the way I saw it. And I make no apologies. I did my job to the best of my ability and
one can’t do more than that. And as for turning round and sort of saying you know we shouldn’t have done it, we shouldn’t have bombed those poor people. Just cast the mind back at the time when we started, when Bomber Command started to have some teeth it was the only part of the war where we could hit Germany. We were losing in the Atlantic, we were losing in the desert but we had a Bomber Command who was hitting
Germany and making them stop and think, well we hope that they were stopping and thinking perhaps they weren’t. Have a read of Max, I can’t think of his surname, book called Bomber Command and it says that all the losses and everything else in Bomber Command were a waste of time. It really blasts Bomber Command and their leaders, I don’t
take it that way, I say for the time in which it was done it was the right thing to do.
You mentioned that on a personal level you didn’t have a common ground with the Pacific POWs.
How do you feel about the ways that the public perceive there has been public perceptions or representations of their European POW experiences versus the Pacific POWs?
Well as you’ve probably
gathered from Lorraine, the guys who were POWs in Japan, both civilians and service people were given a gratuity of $25,000 per head and also of course widows of them, last budget but one. I have always said that as far as I’m concerned having met those guys straight out of Japan
having read since what went on there, having spoken to other guys who were there, I think that the guys who were in Germany had it much, much easier and therefore if you’re going to judge the Japanese on $25,000 I say the blokes in Germany are doing very well to still be alive and lets face up to it you’re only there doing you duty anyway. You can say that
of the bloke in Japan too I know, but the blokes by and large in Germany were air crew and they were there because they were doing their job, they got paid to do their job the same as I did. So what are we arguing about? Now I know there are a lot of people saying, “No, no, no, you’re all POWs, you all lost your freedom.” this that and the other it you have a look at the statistics I
think if I remember rightly there was something like 194 Australians died whilst prisoner of war in Europe, how many thousands died whilst POWs of Japan and that surely puts it in its right context.
Did your period of incarceration change the way or influence the way you feel about incarceration as a punishment or as a penalty?
no I’ve said since then you can put me behind the bars for twelve months and I’ll do it on my ear because at least I know the food’s going to be good. Which is what it wasn’t there for quite some time. I don’t think my ideas on punishment have changed at all.
How did your war experience change you?
Oh good question. It certainly matured me after some time. I don’t think it matured me immediately I came home but it certainly did after a time and the more I thought about it the more I realised that I was a very lucky fellow to still be alive and I certainly think that it’s made me more tolerant, I certainly think so.
There was still an element of intolerance straight after the war I think, but maybe it’s age I don’t know but certainly now I don’t let things worry me anywhere near that I used to. I count myself so fortunate to be 79 years of age and to still be kicking vertical instead
of horizontal or in a wooden box or in a tiny box. No I think I’m a lucky guy in every sense of the word, I’ve got a lovely wife, I’ve got 2 nice kids and Lorraine’s got 3 nice kids, what more do you want, bunch of grandkids yeah got good’uns, what more can a man want? Just to keep living till I turn eighty so that I can get my O.B.E.
Over Bloody Eighty and that’s a good gong to have. And it’s certainly one that casts my mind back to about 1944 that I didn’t think that I’d ever get.
That seems like a pretty fine note on which to wrap things up mate.
OK. Thank you very much.