Interview with Brian Robert Southwell


Interview with Brian Robert Southwell


Brian Robert Southwell was born in Sydney and lived during the Depression which saw him have to set aside his interest in aircraft in order to secure a steady wage with an office job. He spent eighteen months making a model aircraft with the support and practical help of the de Havilland aircraft company. He made friends with the son of the Swedish consul in Sydney who was an aircraft enthusiast and he was able to fly with him. When he was able to volunteer for the RAAF he began training as a pilot on Liberators. He was a member of a special squadron dropping supplies and partisans into occupied areas. He also took part in other bombing operations while stationed at RAF Derna in North Africa.




Temporal Coverage




01:01:07 audio recording

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ASouthwellBR160903, PSouthwellBR1601


AP: This interview for the International Bomber Command Centre is with Brian Southwell. He was a pilot on Wellingtons and Liberators and numerous other aeroplanes post war. The interview is taking place at his brother Don’s house in St Ives in Sydney. It is the 3rd of September 2016 and my name is Adam Purcell. Brian, can we tell, can you, or let’s start if you tell me something about your early life growing up. School and first job and things like that.
BS: What I’d done early?
AP: Yeah. Tell me something about your life before flying.
BS: Well I was always interested in flying but at the time, at that time it was, the Depression was on and we had no money to go fiddling around, looking at aeroplanes [laughs] around the joint. So I had to, I had to sit back and get an office job and that. So I was just started off doing some accountancy which didn’t, which didn’t interest me at all. I went back to flying and I built that model aeroplane. The Moth. And while I was doing that I got to know a whole lot of de Havilland’s. You know the people out out at the factory there. And they were very helpful in getting me all the drawings and all sorts of things there to operate with. And I met all sorts of people that had, a lot of them had their own aeroplanes and I got very friendly with a man called Axel Von Goes. G O E S. His father was the Swedish consul in Sydney. I was chatting away to him there and he said, ‘I’ve got an aeroplane here,’ he said [laughs] he said, ‘It’s mine.’ And his was a little, a Leopard Moth. So he bought the, he had the sort of, the Leopard Moth there and he took, took the aeroplane up to barrel there and he landed on a racetrack over there. He made a little error on the place and knocked the tail on the fence and then smashed it all up. So he, he sold, sold the wreckage to de Havilland’s. The next thing, he appears he’s says, ‘I’ve got another aeroplane,’ I said, ‘Oh no.’ So he bought a Fairchild 24 that he got [unclear] with. And he decided he’d go to England to learn a particular skill. To do a course there. So I went down to England too with a ship with the Fairchild 24 and it fell off the sling there and headed out along the bloody ground. He got away alright there. He got to England alright, did his course there and he said, ‘I’ve sold the bloody Fairchild, he said, ‘I’ve sold it to a Dutch crew. A Dutchman.’ So he sold that to a Dutchman and still get him without an aeroplane. So he started off going back home via America. So he darted into a factory there and he ordered a bloody Stinson which he bought. That’s, that’s been going for quite a long, quite a long time and we used to get the aeroplane and we’d go to do all sorts of trips around. Yeah. Brisbane, Melbourne and all around, around New South Wales there. It was a beautiful little aeroplane. What does he jolly well do? [I’m with A&A [?] at this stage of the game he said, ‘Will you come up and do some checks with me on a Stinson.’ I said, ‘Well what have you done to the bloody thing?’ And what had he done. He’d put a new engine in it. A different engine in it. A 5-cylinder radial engine in it which ruined the whole bloody aeroplane. Poor old Axel. He went to Melbourne and he got married. He didn’t get any enthusiastic from his wife and children. So that was it. Yeah.
AP: So did Axel —
BS: Was that enough for you?
AP: Did Axel teach you to fly? Was it, did Axel teach you to fly and you flew with Axel? Is that the story? Brian. Did Axel teach you to fly?
BS: I did a lot of flying with him. He was unofficial. He wasn’t an instructor. But he’d aviate the thing around the place.
AP: So —
BS: I recollect he used to be a great enthusiast at stall turns. We took this Stinson over his house at Rose Bay. He had a house in Latimer Road, Rose Bay. Anyhow, we get up top there and were doing all the stall turns and what have you, around the place and the bloody engine stopped. So we [laughs] what did we have to do? We had to land on the golf course. You can see now all the people looking out of the flats [unclear] as we went gliding past with no propeller going. Oh dear. Oh dear.
AP: Very good. So, Brian where were you and what were you doing when you heard that war had been declared?
BS: What was that?
AP: Where were you and what were you doing when war had been declared?
BS: I can only just hear you.
AP: Sorry. Where were you and what were you doing when war was declared?
BS: Oh, when war was declared I was working in an office. I got out. It was pretty well into the start of the war. I was in the 22nd of July 1940.
AP: And so you, you went straight into the Air Force.
BS: Oh yeah. After, when I had to go up to Bradfield Park out at Lindfield here. And that was the ITS [Initial Training School] place. Then I had to go out to, out to Mascot, to 4 EFTS [Elementary Flight Training School] to learn to fly. And after I’d qualified on the Tiger Moth, I was sent off to 3 SFTS [Service Flying Training School] in Amberley in Queensland to fly an Avro Anson. That kept me going for a little while. I was sent home on leave and what have you and the next thing, I’m, I’m posted off to England on a bloody ship. No one recorded any of that around the place but I can assure you I was given, handed a ticket mind you. A first-class ticket to England. That took us bloody months and months. We were, we went to South Africa. Across to Fremantle. To South Africa. Went up to Puerto Rico. I had quite a look around there and we finished up getting over to England. That was an embarkation place where you decided what you were going to do. The sent us off to different, I was sent out to this ferrying. Crowded with the little aircraft. Not the Liberator.
AP: Can you tell me, Brian about your first solo?
BS: First solo. Yes. I remember the man’s name. The instructor was Mr Campbell. Mr Campbell that was running this out at, out at Mascot. All the training place there were mainly ex-civilian pilots and they were taken into the Air Force. They were made flight lieutenants and off they went. Yeah.
AP: And —
BS: More?
AP: What happened on your first solo?
BS: Oh, the first flight. I remember I took off on the one six area from the south there and I went down to the flying area training and [laughs] and had a little run around. Before I went old Campbell said, ‘Watch you don’t bloody well bend that bloody aeroplane.’ I said, ‘Alright, I won’t bend the bloody aeroplane for you.’ So I, 5 ASC I’d done the thing and it’s it didn’t took a very long flight. He was pleased to see me back I can assure you. Yeah. He died later on.
AP: So —
BS: There was a lot happened to those. He was somewhere over overseas and where you turned one engine and he turned it back into a, into a bloody hill. That was it. Yeah.
AP: Did you, did you see any accidents?
BS: What was that?
AP: Did you see any aircraft accidents during your flying?
BS: Accidents?
AP: Yeah. Particularly during your training.
BS: No. Only the, you know Liberators and what have you. There you saw the bloody Germans and what have you getting, getting all annoyed [laughs] Yeah. Because we were, we were operating a very [unclear] like up to a max number of about four in a flight you know. It made it a lot easier than the people in the Bomber Command who had ruddy dozens and dozens of bloody aeroplanes. Because we used to, we were in North Africa in a tented, tented camp shared with Americans. And the Americans fortunately supplied all the food which was, which was very good. And we used to, of a night time we used to go up the Adriatic Sea and you’d see the Mount Vesuvius as you went past there and you’d go right up to the top and you’d go up to the Danube. And you’d go about twenty miles down the Danube and you’d let all the fellows out. All the Yugoslavs. They were, they were quite interesting people except that they didn’t speak much bloody English. They did, they did what they could. Yeah.
AP: So, what did you think of wartime England?
BS: What did I?
AP: What did you think of England when you first got there?
BS: How’d I get there?
AP: What did you think of England when you first got there?
BS: Oh, I thought it was, it was excellent, yeah. I liked it very much because I had, I had a lot of relations over there. In Maidstone in Kent. And I used to visit him quite a lot on my leave. He was very popular with a lot of my crew because he owned a bloody brewery [laughs] . Fremlin’s Brewery. One other thing. English people were very good.
AP: Did you, did you see much effect of the war in England?
BS: I saw a few bombs around in London while I was there. But as I say I used to spend most of my time down at Maidstone in Kent. I kept away from the action of the aircraft. Because this person as I used to go to see in England her daughter is down in Melbourne. She’s still here. And the place in England it was absolutely fantastic with the aircraft people. And there was some people in the, who I used to go and stay with there at Maidstone he used to or she used to have people in for dinner. Anyhow, this particular night they brought in this flight lieutenant but he was actually First World War. So he sat back and told us all about what it was like as a controller and what have you in England. He said, he was up in the tower there. He had the green light, you know. The red light there to operate in. A noise came over and he said, ‘I’ll give this bloke the green light.’ So he gave the green light. This bloke came and landed. Unfortunately, he was a bloody German. A Focke Wulf 190. He thought [laughs] this is good. He goes along and then another German came around and there was three of them altogether they caught. All Germans. On the green light. Yeah.
AP: That’s, that’s incredible. Alright. So when you, you first get, got to England you would have gone to Bournemouth, I think.
BS: Bournemouth.
AP: Yeah.
BS: That’s right. There were places there. One was Bournemouth and the other was Brighton.
AP: Yeah.
BS: Yeah. Yeah.
AP: What did you do after you’d finished at those places?
BS: What did you say?
AP: Where did you go next after, after you’d just —
BS: I went on those trips to — out to the Middle East.
AP: Did you do an Operational Training Unit course in England?
BS: Did I what?
AP: Did you go to an OTU [Operational Training Unit] in England?
BS: What did you say?
AP: Did you go to an OTU in England?
BS: I think you’d better call [unclear]
AP: Ok. Alright. Let’s, you were talking about going to see your relative in Kent. What, what things did you do on leave?
BS: What would I do with the people in Kent? All sorts of people. They used, they used to take me to see, put on a bloody show. Show all the locals what the RAF were and what have you. Yeah.
AP: Did you [pause] ok. Tell me how you met your crew.
BS: Which?
AP: How did you meet your crew?
BS: They were just picked out. I didn’t any. I had two bloody gunners out there and [laughs] they were very nasty little fellows. They were interested in taking, escorted away from the establishment. Constantly, ‘Get away and don’t come back here.’ I took them back to Australia. Salmon. Ted Salmon and Mr Kipp. I forget the other one’s name. [unclear] No. I can’t remember the —
AP: Right. So you went to the Middle East.
BS: What’s that?
AP: What did you do in the Middle East?
BS: In Italy?
AP: In the Middle East. In the Middle East.
BS: Oh sorry. We used to operate out of Derna. That’s on the North African coast there. We were all living in tents and it wasn’t very comfortable I can assure you there. And we used to do bombing raids on Tripoli and Benghazi and on the ships and what have you. We knocked a few ships off the place. And Crete. We used to go give old Crete a bit of a, a bit of a rumbling over. I had the air forces, the Lord Trenchard, he came down to see us at the squadron and he said, ‘I’d like you to try and get rid of some of these [unclear] like Maleme at Crete. And he said we’ll have all goes on this. So, he was alright. About five bloody days we hopped down in at this place. You’ve never seen such fires in all your life. Yeah. It’s the question of you’re getting around getting this information because there’s so many other people have gone now that can tell you where all these things were and what have you.
AP: This is why I’m talking to you now Brian.
BS: Yeah.
AP: While you’re still here.
BS: Oh, I know. I belonged, when I, I retired in 1976 and I would join a lot of these historical societies and what have you there but they were more interested in writing books out themselves rather than about the people that were involved in those days. So —
AP: Can you, can you tell me something about when you were operating out of Libya?
BS: Out of where?
AP: I think you said Derna.
BS: Derna. Yeah.
AP: You said you were based in Derna.
BS: Yeah.
AP: What, what was that place like to live in?
BS: That was very interesting. Very, very old houses and that there and on your day off you could go down into the village. A lot of them were just as left you know. People living in there and they were quite, quite to do with, but what we used, of all places we needed the bloody Arabs and, but the Arabs were the American source of pistols. And the Americans used to get on a truck and go out in the desert and find one of these big Arab compounds and get themselves a nice Beretta or some other gun [laughs].
AP: What, what things did you do to, to keep yourself amused? What did you do to keep yourselves amused when you weren’t flying?
BS: When I was flying?
AP: No. When you were not flying what did you do in Derna?
BS: I used to go around. The man that ran, who was the managing director of the brewery. He was, he was a very friendly. He used to put me on to all sorts of people that he knew to put you on to about what goes on around the place.
AP: And, and what’s sorts of things were going on around the place? What sort of things did you go and do?
BS: Well, there wasn’t much out there to do other than to go to the pictures. But I never used to be interested in theatres. No.
AP: Alright. Were there, were there any superstitions or hoodoos on your squadron?
BS: Any hoodoos?
AP: Or superstitions or anything.
BS: No. No. No.
AP: No. No squadron lore. Oh, worth a try. Ok. Let’s talk about your operations for a little while. In, in the Middle East what sort of work were you doing? What sorts of targets were you bombing?
BS: Well we were doing all the bombing up in Tripoli and Benghazi and the shipping around the place. But we were also but I got, I was in hospital for a little while and I had to go with a couple of other blokes to fly with and they took me to see [unclear]
AP: What — ok. So, you were flying. What were you flying? Liberators or Wellingtons?
BS: Oh, sorry, I told you we went up to Belgrade. Belgrade. And —
AP: And what did you do at Belgrade?
BS: At Belgrade we had a look at the locals at low level. Because those Liberators you know had huge bloody engines. Four engines in them in there and when you came down low you used a lot of fuel and with the fuel there was a whole load of flames coming out of the bloody thing. Oh yes.
AP: And what, what other fun things did you get up to in aeroplanes?
BS: A couple of times around, a couple of trips. On one, one of the COs as a matter of fact. He said he’d like to go and have a good close look at Belgrade. He didn’t realise how close it was going to be [laughs] Because Belgrade’s got a lot of bridges around the place. Anyhow, we levelled out and it was all lit up. We were right on the bloody deck there and there was people running everywhere. We went flying up and away and then it was to Derna again. To get up to Derna was six hours and going back was six hours. And all, all these men from, the Yugoslavs and what have you they couldn’t speak much English around the place. They used to be parachuted out the back of the, back of the Liberator.
AP: So, you were dropping parachutists.
BS: Yeah.
AP: As well as bombs.
BS: Also, a whole lot of supplies they used to give them. All sorts of stuff for the locals to live, you know. There was gold and all. You name it, it was around.
AP: So, this was what you used to deliver with the Liberators.
BS: Yeah.
AP: Wow. Wow. So, what, what did you do next? Where did you go after that?
BS: Where did I — ?
AP: Where did you go after that?
BS: I went on, I went to do a flying school at the RAF school of flying. I was in an airfield for about a month on Airspeed Oxford aircraft. That was a very nice interlude. Resting. Yeah.
AP: Did you, did you, you were an instructor I believe.
BS: Oh yeah.
AP: Can you tell me something about that?
BS: It was quite interesting. The chief there, he called me in and told me this, ‘Listen,’ he said, ‘I wish you could keep [unclear] a lot of people wanting to pay, to come for flying in the RAF.’ And he said, ‘The parachute girls are alright,’ what have you. ‘We’ll give them a ride.’ So I was appointed the overseer to the passengers.
AP: So, when —
BS: He’s dead now. Bill.
AP: When you were —
BS: When I got [pause ] I’m just trying to think there. I went to this flying school. What he said there was that the people who were a much higher rank than I was. I was a warrant officer at that time. So he said, ‘You’d better get yourself a commission.’ So I said, ‘That’s alright. Thank you very much.’ So he said, ‘Go in and see this place.’ I went down to a magnificent old house in 5 Group and listened to what I had to say. They had this magnificent big old table there with, magnificent carved chairs and what have you there and all these people asking me silly questions. And I think they thanked me very much for my interest and I said, ‘Thank you,’ and off I went out. A couple of days later the bloke said you’d better get down to bloody Melbourne and get yourself some uniforms, the officer’s uniform store. So, I went down to Melbourne — to London at least and went to a place in Saville Row of all places. I was in there for, I went a few times. I had to go in there to check out. Then I was, another day I had to go down to get a uniform, not a uniform, an overcoat. I wore it. A beautiful overcoat from Saville Row in London. Yeah.
AP: And that was part of your officer’s uniform?
BS: The real old-fashioned tailors and they were sitting up on top of a bloody chair and this little —
AP: What —
BS: I’m sorry if this is a little bit boring for you.
AP: That’s alright. I’m coming up with questions. Its ok. So, you’re in London. Right. At Saville Row and all that sort of thing. What, what did you think of wartime London?
BS: What was this?
AP: What did you think of wartime London?
BS: I can’t hear you.
AP: What did you think of London during the war?
BS: London itself?
AP: Yeah.
BS: Oh, I didn’t [unclear] impressed with it. Yeah.
AP: Was it —
BS: There was very opportunity to get around looking at all the sights around the place.
AP: And what sorts of things were you looking at in London?
BS: Have you seen Felicity’s little, did she show you that?
AP: I did. Yes. Very good. Alright. So, who were you instructing at Lichfield? Who were you teaching?
BS: That’s 27.
AP: Yeah.
BS: Lichfield. Staffordshire. Is that? Where the potteries were. All the potteries were around there.
AP: Can you tell me a story or two from Lichfield?
BS: Oh yes [laughs] I can. At Lichfield it was very interesting because there is a big cathedral church at Lichfield. It’s the only one in England with three, three spires on the thing. So, I had a friend, he was Warrant Officer Webb and he used to fly the Moth Minor. That was for recreation. He would go for a ride in the Moth Minor. So, he called me up and he said, ‘How about we go for a real run around in the Minor?’ So I said, ‘Alright. We’ll go running around in the bloody Minor.’ So away we go. Anyhow, he didn’t do much around there. He got right down on the spires. He was amongst the bloody spires there [laughs] And when we got back, we got back to the to the RAF station there and the CO was really jumping up and down, ‘What on earth were you annoying [laughs] annoying the bishop down,’ [laughs] He said, ‘You were flying down his spires.’ So anyway, we dined off that for a while.
AP: What was the —
BS: I’ve never been so close to a spire of a church in a Moth Minor.
AP: Can you, can you tell me about the pubs in England? The pubs. Did you go, you know when you were on time off, when you had time off did you go to the nearest pub to have a drink or something?
BS: I used to go, it took me a lot of time to get the train down to Maidstone in Kent. To my relatives there.
AP: Alright. So, what, what happened after Lichfield?
BS: When I finished up all my operations and what have you they said you were going to go, you were going home. I said well that’s very good. Off we go home. I get down to the bloody docks there and we were going to New York. Here we are sitting, sitting and there’s a bloody great Cunard liner. The Aquitania was there and it was full of American troops on the way home from Europe and what have you there. Crammed on that ship was sixteen thousand army people. Yeah. Sixteen thousand. I was very glad I was in the officer’s mess to get a decent feed. What else would you like to —
AP: So, you went, you went to New York on that boat.
BS: Oh sorry. That was another one. When we got to New York what was it? Oh, we found, they found out that the air attaché was an Air Marshall Williams and he was in the Pentagon. And they organised all these, these aeroplanes they’d bought, the only places we had for them was they organised a bloody crews for them. So, the snag was that you had to have an instrument rating to fly in America. So they had to find somebody to do this. So I get shoved off. I shove off to Chattanooga in Tennessee. To Smyrna, Tennessee. I was down there for a month to do all my training for the white card and what have you. That was it. I got my white card. Yeah.
AP: What, what sort of training did you have to do for the instrument training?
BS: The training out at Smyrna was absolutely excellent. First class. The visit to the Pentagon was a very interesting thing. It was a huge place.
AP: Tell me more about that. Can you tell me more about the Pentagon? Can you tell me more about the Pentagon?
BS: I’m not really sure but, Felicity and I think she seems to know more about me in those days these days.
AP: Right. So you did your instrument rating training in the US. What happened?
BS: Oh yeah.
AP: What happened then?
BS: Well, I was able to fly anywhere in the United States with my white card. With a Liberator. I could just trundle out, fill up the tank and off we’d go. That was it. Yeah.
AP: And, and so where did you go?
BS: Oh, I went to Kelly Field the place I went to. They were very good. The instructors at the place. They were a lot of ex-airline pilots and they were very good.
AP: And, and what did you then do with that instrument training?
BS: Around New York we were really feted. They treated us like bloody kings. It was quite a novelty, I think. The American there. Aircrew flying around New York. But after it was Pan American that would go with them around the place and they used to have special trips from Australia to New York. For a hundred and thirty-four dollars Sydney to New York. So, I would go there every time of the week. I wanted to. My sister, she was there for twenty eight years at the consulate there. Yeah.
AP: So then, after you did this training in, in the US then you flew to Australia. Can you tell me about that?
BS: After I’d finished the training thing I was a trainer. Up to Sacramento in California. Sacramento is the capital of California and I was told to take one of these great new aeroplanes which I did. Got the aeroplane. Off I trundled with this great monster and that was it. That was, then after I’d arrived back in Australia I got sent off down to Tocumwal. I knew some fellows in the air force and I sort of said, ‘Listen. There’s no future in joining the bloody Air Force.’ I got out of there very rapidly.
AP: Can you, can you tell me a little bit about flying across the Pacific? What was that like in a Liberator? The brand new aeroplane. What was it like to fly across the Pacific in a brand new aeroplane?
BS: Across the Pacific. Well it was quite, it was quite plain because we didn’t have all the things there are around now. Radios and what have you. I remember it took us, took us to go from Sacramento to Hickam Field in Honolulu there, it took us about twelve hours. Yeah.
AP: Can you tell me a story about that trip? Can you tell me a story about that trip? About that?
BS: No. Strange to say it was very uneventful. The four engines all went nicely. And I, [unclear] Amberley, Queensland. I remember getting back there about 5 o’clock in the afternoon. I was most relieved. The locals were alright. So I got down on the bloody deck and flew over Redcliffe. Ambled in. There was nought to do there. The customs were all, had all gone off for the night so had to come back the next night to do our customs check. Yeah.
AP: And how many hours were on that aeroplane when you arrived?
BS: Oh, I couldn’t tell you. [unclear] Maybe thirty something hours.
AP: And you did almost all of them. Pretty cool.
BS: Well, it was all a piece of cake sitting back in a nice bloody new aeroplane, you know.
AP: So, so what happened after that?
BS: Well I got sent down to Tocumwal. I was popular down there because all these people down at Tocumwal thought that they were going to America to pick up these aeroplanes.
AP: What, what did you do at Tocumwal?
BS: After that, after that I joined, joined the A&A [ANA?]
AP: And can you tell me some stories about that flying perhaps?
BS: Australia deteriorated in a lot of areas as regards to the RAAF.
AP: Sorry? Say again. What were you saying then? What were you saying then, Brian?
BS: What was I saying?
AP: What were you saying just then?
BS: What was I —
AP: What were you saying? Ok. Don’t worry. So could you tell me a story about A&A?
BS: A&A. Well it was quite interesting. I started off on a DC3 and a DC2. Very good flying. I was the first officer at the front there writing out books and everywhere you had bits of bloody paper to fill in around the joint. Yeah.
AP: And what —
BS: A&A unfortunately deteriorated rather more than some [unclear] to whatever [unclear] staff didn’t like us very much. That’s when I had the, they had that Convair that John was talking about down at Woollongong.
AP: And can you just, because we weren’t recording the conversation earlier can you tell me your story about the Convair and Sydney Harbour Bridge.
BS: Oh yeah. Well that was a remarkable aeroplane. The Convair. because you sit over the top at nine thousand feet there and all you’ve got to do is slam the wheels down and look out and see where the runway is and what have you. And you adjust the rest of the, the rest of the descending and you could go down from the Harbour Bridge down to [unclear] there. Very bloody quickly time. Yeah.
AP: So it was a very, a very manoeuvrable aeroplane.
BS: Oh yeah. There was a, there was a 340 [unclear] TAA [?] and so on.
AP: So you had a fairly varied flying career. I think there’s something like twenty-seven thousand hours in your book.
BS: Twenty. I finished with twenty-seven thousand and seven.
AP: And seven.
BS: Yeah.
AP: And what is, or how many different aeroplanes did you fly?
BS: What with, as a passenger, that was quite a bloody aeroplane so I managed to get wheedled into a little [unclear] and have a look in it.
AP: As a, as a pilot what is your favourite aeroplane?
BS: Oh sorry. As a pilot I only flew the, the Wellington I flew. That was another. Another bomber.
AP: What, what was your favourite aeroplane? What is your favourite aeroplane, Brian?
BS: The Liberator was my favourite there. You could really get around in that.
AP: I’m sorry. I did, I missed that. What was your favourite?
BS: The best one I used to fly around in was a little Stinson with my friend. The Swedish consul’s son.
AP: Very good. So, what, when did you retire did you say? When did you retire from flying?
BS: When did I — ?
AP: Retire. When did you retire? When did you stop flying?
BS: Oh sorry. Age sixty. ’96.
AP: And what did you do then after you retired?
BS: They very condescendingly gave me a private licence notice. I never ran it up. The only thing I’ve ever flown in, a chap offered a ride in his private aeroplane which frightened me no end. It was a bloody Rapide. A de Havilland Rapide.
AP: You told me a story before as well about Keith Smith.
BS: Who’s that?
AP: Did you tell, you told me a story about Keith Smith before.
BS: What’s the name?
AP: Keith Smith. You told me a story before about Keith Smith.
BS: Keith Smith.
AP: Keith Smith.
BS: Oh Sir Keith Smith. Yeah. I used to work in an office once. I used to go around and see old Sir Keith about is writing the cheques out and do all sorts of things there. I got friendly with him. He was a very nice man to talk to. And another fellow I used to talk to was Sir Hudson Fysh you know, from Qantas. He was another good fellow.
AP: What did you have to do with him?
BS: I used to carry him from Adelaide to Sydney on occasions.
AP: And you said you went flying with Keith Smith.
BS: I never flew with Sir Keith Smith. I only saw him in his office.
AP: Oh ok. Alright. Ok. Tell me your, your favourite flying story. Can you tell me your favourite flying story from your flying career?
BS: My flying what?
AP: Can you tell me your favourite story of your flying career.
BS: [unclear] No.
AP: No? [pause] Alright. How, Brian, how did you find, after Air Force how did you find readjusting to civilian life?
BS: It was very interesting Adam because as I say I was a bloody clerk you know sitting in the right hand seat of the aeroplane with bits of bloody paper and books and what have you. Do this. Do that.
AP: How, how did you find civilian life after air, the air force?
BS: [unclear]
AP: How did you find civilian life after the air force?
BS: The civilian flying was quite interesting. I used to, to fly to England with the RAF. They were very good at the OTUs.
AP: So, in, in what way were the RAF very good?
BS: Well I used to go to work at 9 o’clock in the morning. Had my breakfast. I waddled down to the flight and have a chat around the joint. Come along and so many people want to go flying today. If you could fill in. I’d say, ‘Alright. I’ll fill in. Give these people a bit of a run.’ We were going in a smaller aircraft than the Liberator. The Liberator they never ever took us to go flying with passengers in them. Around the place at all.
AP: What did you think of the Liberator as an aeroplane? What did you think of the Liberator?
BS: The RAF?
AP: Of the Liberator. What, what was your impression of the Liberator?
BS: Absolutely fantastic. I was very careful of those bloody big bits out the back though [laughs]. The rudders and things down there.
AP: And how, how easy was it to fly?
BS: Quite good. One thing, we didn’t have a lot of bombs in there. Very well. When you laid it up with six thousand pound bombs there.
AP: And were you ever involved in any crashes?
BS: No. Never any crashes. No.
AP: Were you involved in like the aftermath? Like investigating any crashes or something like that. There’s a, something in one of your logbooks I found which —
BS: We were going down to Melbourne. The little aerodrome down there. The little one for aircraft.
AP: Moorabbin.
BS: Err —
AP: Moorabbin.
BS: Moorabbin. Yeah.
AP: Yeah. So, there’s a, there are a few photos in one of your logbooks. It’s in an envelope and it says crash — Victor Hotel Charlie X-ray Delta. Higgins Field, Cape York. 5th of May 1945.
BS: Where’s that?
AP: This is in your logbook.
BS: Oh yeah.
AP: And there are some photos of that.
BS: Was it May?
AP: Yeah. May 1945. Yes.
BS: That was a very frightening thing.
AP: Can you tell me about it?
BS: Oh yeah. When we used to transfer from one crew to the other at Higgins Field. That’s the name of the aerodrome right at the top of the point there. So, these characters, they came roaring in and it was pelting with rain and what have you there. And they got caught. Caught out. They smashed the bloody thing as you see there. She was really a mess because there were bits, bits of people and bits of bloody freight and all sort of things they’d got on the joint. They brought a lot of material. Rolls of fabrics. The Tiger Moth. And in the crash they all came loose and they were rolling all over the joint. This big roll of fabric.
AP: And what was your involvement?
BS: [unclear] I went up there to have a look at the crash and I found a man with this RAF Tiger Moth. He said he’d take me up and have a look around which he did.
AP: So, you were, you were up at, where was it? You were up at Higgins Field at that time.
BS: Higgins Field. Yeah.
AP: So you were there when it happened? Brian, Brian. Were you there when the crash happened?
BS: Was I there? Yeah. I was. Yeah.
AP: Yeah. So —
BS: I was sitting with a crew waiting for the, to get an aeroplane to go flying again.
AP: And, and what happened after that?
BS: Well there was no action going there at all after all the people were dead.
AP: Yes. This is true. Can you, what was I going to [pause] yeah. So tell me, tell me the story of your caricature. I’m just looking at your logbook and I see a little caricature of you. A little, a little cartoon.
BS: Yeah.
AP: Can you tell me about that?
BS: The cartoon.
AP: Yeah.
BS: I don’t know who the artist was. That was in, sent up to Melbourne to go to London to get the cartoonist to get going but I never ever got a copy of that thing. I was going to get Felicity to copy that. It’s a beautiful head [laughs]
AP: Yeah. It is. It is. I guess we should, we should go back to the beginning. Can you tell me about your model aeroplane?
BS: The model aeroplane?
AP: Yeah.
BS: Well, I decided to make this bloody, this bloody model and I approached de Havilland down at Mascot and I told them what I wanted to do and what have you. And I said could I have some access to the drawings and the store. The store and what have you there. No problem at all they said. Which they did. They folded now. Folded up. The company have. de Havilland’s. They have a big museum in Salisbury. Near Hatfield in England.
AP: How, how long did the model take you to build?
BS: It took me eighteen months to make that model.
AP: Wow and —
BS: You know all these bloody ribs, you know. Bloody pages of them.
AP: And what happened then? What happened to it after that?
BS: Well, I was approached by the Australian Women’s Flying Club for an instructional thing. They wanted to use it and they said, ‘Yes we’ll look after it,’ the war and what have you, I never heard another bloody thing from them.
AP: Oh really. Not very nice.
BS: Yeah.
AP: There’s another photo in your logbook. This is logbook number three. It looks like it’s a Stinson or an Auster or something. It looks like it might be you standing next to someone.
BS: What’s that?
AP: There’s a, there’s a photo in your logbook. In 1946 I think.
BS: [unclear] Felicity here. She was looking at all these things and telling me and I haven’t a clue what she’s talking about.
AP: It looks like it’s a Stinson because there’s an entry that says Sydney, Old Bar, Coffs Harbour Casino, Brisbane and it’s in Victor Hotel Alpha Charlie Zulu.
BS: The which?
AP: Alpha Charlie Zulu. It’s a Stinson.
BS: Yeah. That was my friend Axel.
AP: Yeah. Can you tell me something of that flight?
BS: Well that aeroplane was a magnificent aeroplane but as I say I had to keep away from the A&A and CAA [?] The A&A, and they took a dim view if you went flying in other aircraft with other people.
AP: Why was that? Why? Why?
BS: It mentions in there about ACZ [?] does it?
AP: Yeah. There’s a photo of it. There’s a photo of you. And it must be you and Axel.
BS: Yeah. Yes.
AP: It looks pretty cool. Let’s have a flash through it. Now —
BS: He was, he was quite a character that bloke. I used to like him but a lot of people didn’t like him but I thought he was rather good. He was educated in England. Do you know where it is? Eton College.
AP: Eton College.
BS: Yeah. Eton College. Yeah.
AP: Something else I found in your logbook is a map of Tripoli. There’s a, there’s a map Brian, in your logbook, of Tripoli and it has anti-aircraft guns marked and it’s got a big red thing that says “Secret.” Do you know anything about that? Brian. There’s a map in your logbook of Tripoli.
BS: Is there?
AP: Yeah. What, can you tell why? Why is Tripoli important?
BS: Tripoli?
AP: Yeah.
BS: That’s the target. Target sheet that is. We were given those to sit there when you’ve got sitting there like a bloody idiot watching where the bombs go.
AP: And can you also tell me about — it looks like a Slovenian or a Polish nickel. It looks like it’s a Slovenian or a Polish nickel. It’s got a photo of Essen in it. Do you know? It’s in your logbook. You were telling me. You were telling me earlier.
BS: As I told you Felicity was looking at these things. She never told me about that. She doesn’t realise that I can’t bloody well see.
AP: It’s unfortunate. There’s also, that looks like it’s an Italian one. So, can you tell me about a nickel raid? What a nickel raid was?
BS: About what?
AP: What was a nickel operation?
BS: A nickel was leaflets.
AP: Yeah.
BS: Leaflets there.
AP: Can you tell me about that?
BS: You’ve seen one in there have you?
AP: Yeah. I have.
BS: As I told you when you opened the bomb doors all those things used to float around. Be all over the bloody place. That was it. A nickel. That was, that was a slang name for a [unclear] out of the cabin.
AP: Cool. What’s this? That’s another map of Tripoli. Alright. Well I think we’ve come to the end of my questions. So thank you very much. Thanks very much Brian.
BS: Thank you. I’m sorry [unclear]
AP: No. You’ve, you’ve told me some good stories so that’s really cool. So I’m going to turn the microphone off now and I’ll go and get Felicity. Ok.
BS: Thank you. Yeah. I’m very pleased to see that someone’s around that’s still around looking into what goes on years ago.
AP: I wouldn’t end. I wouldn’t miss it for the world.


Adam Purcell, “Interview with Brian Robert Southwell,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed July 13, 2024,

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