Interview with Rex Searle. Two


Interview with Rex Searle. Two


While Rex Searle was an air frame fitter with 601 Squadron he was evacuated from France at the start of the war. He returned home for a short leave but didn’t want to wake the family so waited patiently from 4am until 6am when his mum started her day. He remustered from an air frame fitter to a flight engineer and was based at RAF East Moor. After his operational tour in Europe he was posted to Egypt where he experienced bombing first hand. After the war he worked for the Ordnance Survey before returning to the RAF.




Temporal Coverage




00:35:53 audio recording


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ASearleROJ170926, PSearleROJ1709


CB: Today is the 26th, Tuesday the 26th of September and I'm back talking with Rex Searle again about his experiences. And we've just put out on the table an amazing chart used during the war showing Britain on the left and then the continent of Europe. But what he's got on this are all the destinations. His ops. And they go as far as Chemnitz which is near Dresden and as south as Mannheim and Saarbrucken. And when you're looking at that Rex, what does that bring to your mind?
RS: Well, it takes me back to those times I would say. Yes.
CB: So, you've got the concentration in the Ruhr.
RS: Yes. That's right.
CB: I'm stopping it a bit because I've got a cough.
[recording paused]
RS: They're all particular. All of them.
CB: What was the worst of those raids would you say?
RS: The worst?
CB: The worst op that you did.
RS: The worst op. Oh, I don’t know. I can't. I can’t even think of them.
CB: No. But the longest, the longest trip was to Chemnitz.
RS: The longest one. Well, it goes up to the German side.
CB: To Chemnitz.
RS: Yeah. Yes. That would be it. Yeah. Chemnitz. Chemnitz was it?
CB: Yeah.
RS: Yeah. Chemnitz.
CB: So, you've got to go right across the whole of Germany.
RS: Yeah. That's right.
CB: And then back again.
RS: Yeah [laughs] indeed.
CB: And they're waiting for you both ways.
RS: That's right. Yes.
CB: And as the engineer you're thinking what?
RS: What am I thinking? I’m thinking it’s dark up here and you can't see very much. Yeah.
CB: And you're wondering about the engines.
RS: No. I wasn’t. No.
CB: Right.
RS: No. No.
CB: Because they're so reliable are they?
RS: Absolutely. Yeah.
CB: Yeah.
RS: Well, normally they’re —
CB: So your role there is as a look out for night fighters, is it?
RS: Oh. Well, yes. That would be it. Yeah. Partly. Yes.
CB: Yeah. And how often did you see fighters when you were on operations?
RS: Quite a few times but I don’t know how many.
CB: Yeah.
RS: Never counted them.
CB: But the main danger was the flak, was it?
RS: Yes, it was. Yes. Absolutely.
CB: Did you get some of that quite close?
RS: Yes. In fact, we received quite a bit of it [laughs] yeah.
CB: And when you got back what was the ground crew's reaction to you getting the aeroplane bent?
RS: Well there was not much reaction from them at all. No. Not really.
CB: We’ll pause there.
[recording paused]
RS: They got on the, on the air and spoke to us about it. Yes.
CB: A German.
RS: Yeah. Well —
CB: While you were on an operation.
RS: I wouldn’t say they were German. Somebody in France.
CB: Oh.
RS: So it could have been anybody.
CB: Yeah.
RS: Yeah.
CB: But while you were on an op. While are you on an operation was it?
RS: No. Not exactly. No.
CB: Or was it later they asked you about bombing civilians?
RS: It might have been later. Yeah.
CB: Yeah.
RS: Yeah. I really don't, really can't get into it now.
CB: No. The reason I asked you is because some people have mentioned that Germans — we were dealing, jamming their frequencies but they were getting into the —
RS: Yeah.
CB: Bomber Command ones.
RS: Yeah.
CB: As well. And asking the crew how they felt it was, what it was how did they feel about bombing civilians.
RS: Yeah. Well, it was all in a day’s work, you see.
CB: Yeah.
RS: As far as we were concerned.
CB: Yeah. Of course. Was it something that you ever talked about or —
RS: No.
CB: As a crew.
RS: No. No, we didn't. No.
CB: We're stopping a mo.
[recording paused]
CB: We've got the service record now so let's just look at a few things there which shows that you were at 1666 HCU at Wombleton. Which you went to in June ’44.
RS: Yeah.
CB: Until July. And at the end of July you went to a Canadian squadron. 432.
RS: 432 Squadron. Yes.
CB: And that was at East Moor.
RS: Right.
CB: And you did thirty three ops in that.
RS: Yeah.
CB: And finished early in March.
RS: Yeah.
CB: ‘45.
RS: Oh.
CB: It looks as though you then went on to Blyton. Number 62 base. And I just wondered what you were doing when you were there because you’d finished your ops. Were you an instructor?
RS: God. You’re asking me something now. I can't remember.
CB: Then you went to 16 OTU.
RS: Yeah.
CB: And you were released on the 21st of November ‘45 according to the record here.
RS: Yeah. Oh well, good.
CB: Yeah.
RS: You’ve got it then.
CB: Right. But the war was a pretty active place or operation and, but it came to an end in Europe while you were still in the RAF. Two months after you'd finished your ops.
RS: Yeah.
CB: To what extent do you remember what you and the crew did when VE day came on the 8th of May 1945?
RS: Do you know I haven’t a clue. Haven’t a clue.
CB: So it wasn't a particularly memorable —
RS: No.
CB: Time. When you were, when you got your release from the RAF what were your job options then?
RS: Looking for a job, I suppose. Must have been. Yeah. Yeah.
CB: And you ended up with the Ordnance Survey.
RS: Yes. I did that. Yeah.
CB: What happened? What were you doing there?
RS: Ordnance Survey [pause] I can’t remember about that either.
CB: Working for the Civil Service can be a very memorable experience but it can be less memorable as well by the sound of it.
RS: Yeah [laughs]
CB: But you worked there, didn't you for four years.
RS: I did. Yeah. Yeah.
CB: So what prompted you to return to the excitement of the RAF in 1950-51?
RS: Now, what can I say about that? Well, I suppose it was an opening and I was making something of it.
CB: It was a job you knew.
RS: Yeah.
CB: Did you want to return to flying?
RS: Yeah. Yes. That's true. Yeah.
CB: And what sort of things did you do when you were there?
RS: I can’t remember now.
CB: The interesting thing about —
RS: I just, I just don’t know. I don’t know.
CB: But you stayed in for some years, didn't you?
RS: Well, apparently so. Yeah.
CB: And when you finished the war you had risen to the rank of warrant officer. They then changed the terminology for aircrew warrant officers to master aircrew, didn't they? And so as an engineer you became a master —
RS: Master engineer.
CB: Engineer.
RS: That’s right.
CB: Was that the title you left the Air Force in in ‘46 or was it only that it had come in while you were working for the Ordnance Survey and so when you re-joined you came in as a master engineer?
RS: I don’t know. I can’t remember now.
CB: We’ll just research that.
[recording paused]
CB: It seems we got that wrong. That you finished the war as a sergeant and then got promoted when you were further, when you re-joined the RAF and then became flight sergeant, warrant officer and then master engineer. And there was a, when you were in Singapore was there this sign on the door that said, “All the old masters inside.”
RS: No [laughs] I don’t remember that. No.
CB: He denies it for obvious reasons [laughs] Now, one of the curious things or the realities of the experiences of the war are the shock people experienced in certain circumstances and how that effectively caught up with them later. That resulted in people having nightmares or sitting up and shouting or what. Or just taking calm.
RS: I don’t anything happening to me at all.
CB: What do you remember? Do you remember anything happening from your point of view?
RS: No. Not really. No.
CB: What was the most shocking experience you had in the war?
RS: Most shocking experience. Oh, I don’t know. The proximity of other aircraft I think in, in flight. Yeah.
CB: Right. Did your Halifax collide with anything else?
RS: No. No.
CB: But there were some near misses or —
RS: Oh, yeah. Yeah. There was.
CB: Because it's the it's the depth of night isn't it? Pitch black. How do you see other aeroplanes?
RS: How do you see other aeroplanes?
CB: Can you see from the exhaust or —
RS: Well, it depends on what sort of lighting there is from the ground actually. Yeah.
CB: So, near the target —
RS: Yeah.
CB: You've got a silhouette.
RS: Yeah.
CB: Against the fires.
RS: That’s right. Yeah.
CB: But in transit in and out what extent does the weather give you concern about other aircraft? Because you try not to fly in moonlight don't you?
RS: No. I didn't try not to fly at all. No.
CB: What I meant was you can see planes more easily in moonlight.
RS: Could have been I suppose. Possibly. Yes. Yeah.
CB: Going back to an earlier stage you were stationed in Egypt.
RS: Yeah.
CB: We tend not to think about what happened there very much but actually the Germans also bombed Egypt. What happened to you when you were in Egypt?
RS: In Egypt?
CB: You were in a hotel weren't you?
RS: Yes. I was in a hotel. Yes.
CB: And what happened in the hotel?
RS: That's right. Yes. What happened there?
CB: Didn't the German plane come over and give you a present?
RS: Well, you know, in effect I suppose. Yeah.
CB: What did it do?
RS: Yes.
CB: What did it do?
RS: Well, well I think it caused a bombing experience ahead and I was up in the air above the bed in the, in this, in a hotel in Alex. Yeah.
CB: Nothing to do with Houdini. This was the blast.
RS: Sorry?
CB: Nothing to do with Houdini. This was the blast of the bomb.
RS: Oh no. Well, I don't think so. It might have been. Yeah. It could have been.
CB: Just thinking of you levitating.
RS: Yeah.
CB: But what did that experience have on, effect did it have on you in later years?
RS: I don't think it had any effect. I can't think of anything. No.
CB: But in your, going now fast forward to your thirty three ops you saw some extraordinary things there.
RS: Yeah.
CB: Some were —
RS: Yeah.
CB: Easy to dismiss. Others were more frightening. What was the most frightening thing that happened to you on a raid?
RS: The most frightening thing. I think the most frightening thing was receiving some incoming [pause] warfare.
CB: The flak.
RS: Yeah.
CB: The flak.
RS: Yeah.
CB: Where did that hit the aircraft?
RS: Hit the aircraft in, on the starboard side mainly. Yes. That's right.
CB: And what effect did it have on the aircraft? Apart from making holes.
RS: Not a lot. No.
CB: Did it sever the hydraulics or —
RS: No.
CB: Nobody wounded.
RS: We carried on. Yeah.
CB: And did the shrapnel come near you?
RS: Well, yes. Yeah. There was, yes there was one bit of blood drawn and that was on the bomb aimer.
CB: Oh.
RS: And that was the only thing. The only thing that was against him.
CB: What happened to him?
RS: Well, he just got something on his thumb.
CB: Right.
RS: Bleeding.
CB: That stopped him pressing the bomb button, did it?
RS: Yeah. I expect so [laughs] Quite likely. Yeah.
CB: I'm going to go fast sideways to your son Michael to see what he reckons that you've said in the past. What do you reckon Mike?
MS: What? About the —
CB: The effect of —
MS: The effect of the of the war in general?
CB: Yeah.
MS: I know that during his life he did have nightmares. Not, not often but just occasionally and he'd wake up sweating and would be calling out in the night and I believe that went on into quite late in life.
CB: And who was he calling out to?
MS: Just generally shouting out. Not really coherent. It was obviously a nightmare and of course I was vaguely aware of it but I was told that it was because he’d, had been bombed. The main experiences of that was in Alexandria as he has said. And previous to that when he was stationed at Tangmere with 601 Squadron he used to go and see his sister in Portsmouth and that was badly bombed. So I think there was some quite nasty experiences all in all.
CB: And what about when he was with the BEF because originally he was in France and evacuated.
MS: Yes.
CB: At the time of Dunkirk although not through Dunkirk.
MS: No. He came out through Boulogne and I believe it was on the last ship to leave.
CB: Yeah.
MS: And he had to help unload ammunition from it and stack it on the quay side so that that that he and his companions and the army people could leave for Dover. In later years I did ask him what the crossing was like but he always said he could never remember the crossing but he remembered arriving at Dover and being given a cup of tea, a bar of chocolate and a railway warrant to go home. Which, he got home at four o'clock in the morning and he didn't want to wake the household so he waited for his mother to come down at six to light the stove. He sat in the kitchen waiting for her.
CB: Amazing.
MS: Yeah.
CB: Tracing shock and reaction to it is a bit of a challenge and I just wondered whether there were any experiences in the BEF time because the squadron was destroyed. The aircraft were lost in total.
MS: Yes. Well, I believe one managed to return home but the other, only half the squadron went out there. He was flown out in a Bristol Bombay going out but coming back of course there was nothing to bring him, bring him home except that he came back in a petrol bowser to Boulogne.
CB: Yeah. We've got that on —
MS: Yeah.
CB: The first part haven’t we?
MS: Yeah.
CB: So we're just trying to track down the origin.
MS: I don’t recall him saying any frightening experiences there.
CB: No.
MS: Although personally when, when I was working for a civilian airline later on I was working from Lille Airport and I I went out to find where he was stationed and nearby there was a graveyard with, with the graves of British soldiers. And they were shot by the Germans. I think they were executed by them just a day or so after he’d left. I thought that's another close call.
CB: Sure. Right. We'll stop there a mo.
[recording paused]
CB: In terms of the, the nightmares unless you had a soundproof house it would be difficult to avoid hearing it. So, what's your recollection of that?
MS: I just vaguely remember that. Remember it and being told that dad had had a nightmare. And in later years, I mean it was my mother that told me that it was due to war experiences.
CB: To what extent did he tell his wife, your mother what he'd done? What was his experience?
MS: It was many years before I actually got, I mean it’s like everything he did. He never really talked about it but I saw it. I mean, as a boy I'd see his medals. I'd say, ‘What's that for?’ He’d say, ‘Oh, that's because I stayed out late on Friday night,’ you know. It was comments like that. I could never actually properly working things out.
CB: No.
MS: Because he never really talked about it. It was only when he was really in his seventies that I started getting some of the story.
CB: Yeah.
MS: Which I've managed to record and put down.
CB: What, to what extent Rex, back to Rex now, did you feel you wanted to tell your wife about your experiences? Did you want to do that or did you want to avoid talking about it?
RS: I don't know. I don’t really know. I never thought about it really.
CB: I mean, after the war you went into civilian occupation which was Ordnance Survey.
RS: Yeah.
CB: Something must have created a yearning to return to the RAF. Your wife was settled.
RS: Yeah. I was doing a job that I knew.
CB: Right.
RS: That's right.
CB: And did you need to tell your wife why you were returning to the RAF?
RS: No. I don’t think so. I don't think I had to tell her that. No. I can't think of any other reason why I should do.
CB: So I'm just going to go through the service record such as it is which —
RS: Yeah.
CB: Is slightly varied compared with some of the other documents. But what this says is that you had your medical category sorted as A1G1 on the 13th of December 1950. Then that you were in the RAF and you went to 4 School of Technical Training which presumably, as an engineer would have been your refresher would it?
RS: It must have been.
CB: Yeah. And then it says that in, later in, that's in ‘51 you went to St Eval which was a Coastal Command —
RS: Yeah.
CB: Airfield wasn't it?
RS: Yeah.
CB: What were they? What were you flying there?
RS: What were we flying? What on earth were we flying there?
MS: Shackleton Mark 1s.
RS: Who?
MS: Shackleton Mark 1s.
RS: Oh yes. It was, wasn’t it? Yes. That’s right. Shackletons. Yeah.
CB: Yeah.
RS: Shacks.
CB: So, as a former Halifax man —
RS: Yeah.
CB: You didn't get the link between the Shackleton and the Lancaster.
RS: Yeah.
CB: But did you enjoy flying in the, in the Shackleton?
RS: Well, I enjoyed any flying that we did. Yeah.
CB: Then you went to Leconfield and 120 Squadron. Then you obviously went on to instructing because there was an OCU.
RS: Yeah.
CB: Then you went back to St Eval and went to a number of places including Singapore. Was it?
MS: Well, he did fly, he did fly Lancasters.
CB: Oh, he did fly Lancasters.
MS: Oh yes. I remember 210 Squadron was Lancasters.
CB: Was it?
MS: He transferred to that.
CB: Right. That might have been the OCU bit.
MS: Yeah. 236 OCU. Kinloss.
CB: This is the challenge of service records. That they have some things in and not others. So it doesn't mention that.
MS: That was it. It says course ending 23rd of May ‘52 were Shackletons but you turn the page and he’s flying Lancasters on 210 Squadron.
CB: Right. Well they did use both didn't they?
MS: Yeah.
CB: It's just that Shackleton was a bit more up market.
MS: And then later on I know he went from St Eval to St Mawgan and he was flying Mark 2 Shackletons.
CB: Right. A bit more power. Okay. So you eventually left the RAF some years later. When was that?
MS: I’m sorry I —
CB: Yeah. Do you know when he left the RAF?
MS: Oh, when he left.
CB: Yeah.
MS: That was [pause] that was the late 60s.
CB: Right.
MS: That was after we were married. Wasn't it, Lynn?
LS: Yes.
MS: Yeah.
LS: So it'd be ’67, ’68.
MS: ‘68. Something like that.
LS: ’68, ‘69.
CB: It looks as though —
MS: ‘68, ‘69.
CB: I'm now catching up with another piece of documentation. That he went to Seletar.
MS: Oh yeah. He went to Changi first.
CB: Right.
MS: That would be, we flew out in 1958.
CB: Yeah.
MS: In fact, my mother and I —
CB: No. You were there before me.
MS: Yeah. He waved us off at Hendon.
CB: Oh, did he?
MS: And we went out on [unclear] Airways. Yeah. We got to Changi. We stayed with some friends for three weeks.
RS: Yeah.
MS: My mother had to find accommodation. So when he arrived we were already set up.
CB: Right.
RS: Yeah. Had a house. Yeah.
MS: Yeah. And then, yes then later on you transferred from Changi to Seletar.
CB: Right. 34 Squadron.
RS: Yeah.
CB: And in ‘61 a quick, just a single trip by the look of it to Japan from Seletar.
MS: And he did fly another. I mean he had a few eventful trips. As I say there's the one where he was flying back from — was it Vietnam? Somewhere. The old Saigon or something where you were flying over the South China Sea and you had a hydraulic leak. And you were catching the oil and putting it back into the —
CB: Reservoir.
MS: In to the reservoir which is up the tail end. So he spent the whole trip with, with the cups, catching the oil as they filled up and putting it back in the reservoir. And I have seen that recorded in the Beverley write-ups somewhere. That they did, that that happened on an aeroplane but they didn't say who but I know it was my father.
CB: Amazing. And then you went to the Central Air Traffic School in ‘64. And it looks as though you finished in, when do you reckon? This ends here at, in 1965.
MS: No. It would be later than that, Chris. I’m sure it was. Lynn, was he in the air force when we got married?
LS: Yeah.
MS: Yes. He was, wasn’t he?
LS: I went to see him at Northolt.
MS: Yes. You came over to Northolt to see him, didn't you?
CB: I've got here that he was posted to Northolt on the —
MS: That's right.
CB: 12th of July ‘65.
MS: What was it called? Beverley Close wasn't it?
LS: Lysander Road.
MS: Lysander Road. Sorry. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah, we lived in Lysander Road.
CB: And then on leaving the RAF what did you do? In ‘60. In when, six? When was that?
MS: So we, we got married in ‘67 so it was after that.
CB: Yeah.
MS: So it would be about ‘68 probably ‘68 or ‘9.
CB: Okay. What did you do after leaving the RAF?
RS: I’m just trying to think now what I did do. What did I do? Can you remember?
MS: Yes. You managed a supplier. A building supplies business.
RS: Oh yes. Yeah.
CB: Near here?
MS: In London.
CB: Oh, in London.
MS: It was Hammersmith.
CB: Oh right.
MS: I remember that we lived in Wiltshire at the time. I remember telephoning him and we were talking in the evening because he used to stay in the office to save driving back to Reading.
CB: Oh.
MS: And we were just talking and there was, I think it was evening. Anyway, I was talking to him there's, you can hear in the background there was an almighty bang and it, it turned out to be an IRA bomb gone off in Hammersmith.
CB: Oh really.
MS: And I said, ‘What was that?’ He said, ‘I don't know. A bomb I expect.’ And we carried on talking. And yes, it was a bomb. It was the IRA bomb this time.
CB: Yeah. But it didn't demolish the building supplies. The building supplies place so —
MS: I forget where the bomb was but it was a few streets away.
CB: Yeah. Disconcerting.
MS: Yeah.
CB: Right. I think we've done pretty well.
RS: Yeah.
CB: Thank you.
[recording paused]
CB: Now, in the days of St Eval of course, going back to that. Flying Shackletons, they're doing searches for submarines and they do various patterns of search and then they'd do other exercises but it could be cloudy. So would they fly in more than one aircraft at a time?
MS: Yeah. I remember there was one, one time there was three aircraft out in, over the Atlantic somewhere. And two of them were doing vectoring onto each other. Exercises. And they actually found each other in cloud. They just crashed into each other so both crews were lost. My father was in the third aeroplane. And my mother was in the NAAFI at St Eval when the news came through and she just fainted at the news. And of course it was a very tense time until he turned up.
CB: Yeah. Very.
MS: Very tense. Yeah.
CB: Do you remember anything of that yourself?
MS: I remember the occasion certainly because it was, you know it's one of those things that sticks in your mind.
CB: Yeah.
MS: Yeah.
CB: What age were you then? Roughly.
MS: I would have, I would have been going to school in Newquay so I suppose I was eight or nine. Yeah.
CB: Quite a shock for you too.
MS: Oh yeah. Yeah. Well, you don't fully appreciate it at the time.
CB: No. Good.
[recording paused]
CB: What else did he do on these flights?
MS: Well, I remember as part of the crew he used to actually relieve the pilot and sit in the pilot’s seat and fly at a very low level. And one of the things they used to do was to fly at a lighthouse and then just lift the wing. You'd lift the wing over the top of the lighthouse as you got there.
CB: This was to put the worries up the lighthouse keeper.
MS: Yeah. That’s right.
CB: The keeper. I suppose.
MS: Yeah. Yeah, I remember him saying that.
CB: Yeah.
MS: That even the pilot was sitting there, standing next to him going [sharp intake of breath] [laughs]
CB: Lucky not to be caught marshalled really.
RS: Letting all my secrets out.
CB: Yeah. That’s, that's the key.
MS: Yeah. So I think, you know they used to share the duties but I know that there were occasions. Well, they used to have two crews on board but there was only one flight engineer.
CB: Oh.
MS: You think, why?
CB: Extraordinary.
MS: Yeah. I remember doing that because he used to come back absolutely shattered.
CB: I can imagine.
MS: You know, he'd be up over the Atlantic for about fourteen hours, you know but with just one, one flight engineer. The other crew, you know the crews would relieve each other.
CB: That's why they were pleased to have you back. Because they were short of flight engineers.



Chris Brockbank, “Interview with Rex Searle. Two,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed June 23, 2024,

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