Interview with Rex Alan Austin


Interview with Rex Alan Austin


Rex Alan Austin was born in Werribee, Victoria in Australia on 4th of January 1924. Rex’s father served in World War One in the middle east and then transferred to the Australian Flying Corps, later known as the Royal Australian Air Force. Schooled in Australia and then Britain, Rex went back to Australia and joined the RAAF in July 1942. Rex talks about his initial training in Australia and his disappointment of not being able to become a pilot. After initial training he heads to Britain, via America. Rex then describes his posting to an OTU and the being crewed up, describes a miscalculation and landing in a turnip field. Goes to RAF Wigsley for a conversion course and then Syerston for Lancaster finishing school. Rex was then posted to East Spilsby to start flying operations to Berlin, Essen and Nuremberg. Goes on to talking about operating over Brunswick and being shot down. Rex had a broken ankle so waited to be picked up, and was subsequently interrogated by German military personnel and eventually ended up in Stalag Luft iii. Rex and others were marched out to Spremberg for Luckenwald camp. Russian forces arrived at the camp, and eventually Rex landed in Brighton and then headed back to Australia by ocean liner. Retired after the war but he re-joined as a supply officer. Rex talks of marriage and family, and having two sons, one retired as an Air Vice Marshall and the other as a check group captain with Quantas. The interview finishes with Rex’s opinions of the legacy and treatment of Bomber Command.




Temporal Coverage




01:09:14 audio recording


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AAustinRA160616, PAustinRA1601


JH: This interview is being conducted for the International Bomber Command Centre in Lincolnshire. A part of the Oral History Project. The interview is John Horsburgh and today I’m interviewing Rex Austin who was a wireless operator with 207 Squadron. RAF. We are at [unclear] in Faulconbridge, New South Wales and it’s the 16th June 2016. Good morning Rex. Perhaps we can start by, with your birth date and where you were born.
RA: 4th of January 1924 at Werribee, Victoria.
JH: Thank you. Maybe we can talk about your early life and I’m interested to see if there is any family history in the First World War.
RA: Yes. My father was, served with the 8th Light Horse in the Middle East. I don’t know too much about it because he very rarely discussed anything about the First World War. However, following on from that my father transferred from the army to the Australian Flying Corps which subsequently became the Royal Australian Air Force on, I think from the date of about the 1st of April 1921.
JH: That’s interesting. So he would be one of the originals in that. In the RAAF.
RA: Yes.
JH: So your father, did he have a country, he grew up in the country. On the land. How come he ended up in the light horse?
RA: I’ve no idea why he ended up in the Light Horse. He was not a country boy. The best I know is that after leaving school he studied accountancy. Became an accountant but he was, when he joined the army he was living at East Kilda in Melbourne.
JH: So you grew up in Victoria. Tell me a bit about your early life and your schooling for example.
RA: Well, I did my primary school at Werribee. I started high school at Williamstown in Victoria but after three months I was taken to England as a school boy. My father was appointed in the staff of Australia House in London. He was at that time a squadron leader. And I did two and a half years to three years as a [unclear] at Frays College, Uxbridge. Whilst we were living at a place called Ruislip in Middlesex. Father took ill over whilst we were over there and we came home in 1938. Yes. ’38. Thereafter, I attended Brighton Grammar School in Melbourne and finished my schooling there.
JH: So, Rex, did you, did you join up from school or did you leave school?
RA: No.
JH: And had a job somewhere.
RA: I left school in 1941. Joined the Commercial Bank of Australia as a bank clerk. On my 18th birthday I filled in an application form to join aircrew in the RAAF, and on the 17th of July 1942 I was called up for full time duty.
JH: So the fact that your father was, was in the RAAF may have influenced your, your decision to go for the air force rather than the army say.
RA: Yes, certainly. That was very true. I, as a small child used to see my father on parade at Point Cook and Laverton where he was officer in charge of field troops and I used to think to myself one of these days I would like to be in the same position. So I had a long term, long standing desire to be in the air force, and my father supported that thought.
JH: He would have been very proud I should imagine when you, when you did sign up. So, Rex tell us a little bit about the training you went through in Australia before you set sail for the UK.
RA: I went to number 1 ITS. Initial Training School at Somers in Victoria. When I graduated from there I was advised my co-ordination was such that I couldn’t be a pilot, and I was given the opportunity of being a wireless operator, air gunner or a navigator or an air gunner. I chose wireless. My father was very disappointed when I advised him that I could not be a pilot. Extremely disappointed. Anyway, he no doubt organised that I would go to Parkes to do my wireless training. Turn it off.
JH: Well that’s ok. We’ll carry on. But I think everybody, from what I hear, and my father was no exception, wanted to be a pilot. Dad ended up being a navigator. So that’s, that’s what, what he did. So, so Parkes was wireless operating training plus gunnery combined.
RA: No. No. Gunnery was at Port Pirie in South Australia. We did nine months as I recall. Nine months training as wireless operators. Then six weeks at Port Pirie to do gunnery training.
JH: And it’s interesting combination of wireless operator and gunnery. Did you actually get involved in any gunnery in operations?
RA: No. No. I followed through as wireless operator both in Australia and in the UK purely on wireless as a wireless operator. After I was shot down I was re-mustered to signaller and awarded the S-Wing rather than having a wireless badge on my, on my sleeve, and a AG brevet.
JH: Ok. So let’s, so you passed, passed out and where did you set sail for the UK? Was it from Sydney or from Melbourne?
RA: From Sydney. From Sydney. We were transported by train from Melbourne to Sydney. Stayed at Sydney for about three weeks before we embarked on a ship for North America.
JH: Was this like a parade down George Street to the ship? How did it happen?
RA: Yes. Yes. It was a parade. A formal parade down to the ship. We embarked on a ship which was an American ship called the [pause] that I can’t remember.
JH: Was it a passenger ship?
RA: Yes.
JH: Yes.
RA: It was a troop ship which had brought Americans out. American soldiers out to Australia. We travelled to St Francis Cove. Crossed America by rail. And ended up at a camp called Camp Myles Standish. Myles Standish in Taunton, Massachusetts. And we stayed there for about a month before we loaded on another troop ship. I think, I think it was the Queen Elizabeth, to travel across the Atlantic. Six days as I recall and landed at Greenock in the UK and travelled by train from there down to Brighton, UK. And I stayed there for about a month.
JH: What sort of training was involved in Brighton for that month?
RA: Nothing. Nothing. No training at all.
JH: Square bashing.
RA: Square.
JH: Yeah.
RA: I suppose it was square bashing but [laughs] like all good things they started off with a large numbers of uniformed people marching down the road and as the march kept going more and more people disappeared off the road, back of the troop. So that it ended up with a few blokes marching down all, all with a drill instructor looking at them. The others had disappeared to the local pubs.
JH: Not to the pub. Yes. What was the, one of the favourite pubs you remember there?
RA: I don’t remember.
JH: Yes.
RA: I don’t remember.
JH: Yeah. Yes. So then at some stage you got assigned to further training unit.
RA: Yes. I was posted to —
JH: Was it West Freugh?
RA: West Freugh.
JH: West Freugh. Yes.
RA: To do pre-OTU. I think, I think by memory we were there about a month and we were then posted to Market Harborough to do OTU on Wellington aircraft, Wellington 1C. I crewed up at OTU. My pilot was an Australian. The rest of the crew were English men.
JH: Can you remember much about your crew? Did you crew up very quickly?
RA: Quite quickly.
JH: Or did it take some days?
RA: Oh some days but it was relatively quickly.
JH: Yes. Did you know your pilot beforehand?
RA: No. No. I did not. He was on Number 26 Pilot’s Course in the Royal Australian Air Force. He was a sergeant.
JH: What was his name?
RA: Kevin McSweeney.
JH: Kevin McSweeney. Yes.
RA: We also crewed up with a rear gunner by the name of Reg Tice. T I C E.
JH: Rear gunner.
RA: Yes.
JH: Yes. A rear gunner. And the navigator was Fred Holmwood. H O L M W O O D. Who was —
JH: Reg Holmwood. Yeah.
RA: He was a pilot officer. McSweeney was a sergeant. I don’t think there’s much to say about the training at the —
JH: Yes.
RA: At the OTU. There was one incident we, McSweeney, on one of the early solo trips he overshot and we ended up in a turnip field off the aerodrome. And I was virtually unhurt except that I caught a boot in the teeth when I went forwards. McSweeney was alright and he was climbing up through the pilot’s escape hatch and he happened to accidently kick me in the teeth.
JH: Any damage to the props?
RA: The aircraft, I believe was a right off.
JH: Really. Yes. So, so from there you went to do a conversion course.
RA: Went to Wigsley to do —
JH: Yes.
RA: A conversion course.
JH: Wigsley.
RA: Wigsley. RAF station at Wigsley.
JH: Yes.
RA: Where it was on Stirlings.
JH: Yes.
RA: Then to, to Lanc Finishing School.
JH: Where was that? The Lanc Finishing School.
RA: I don’t know. I can’t remember that.
JH: Doesn’t matter.
RA: Syerston. Syerston.
JH: Oh yes. Did you, did you do any nickel raids part of that?
RA: I didn’t. The pilot did. Pardon me. By nickel raids you probably refer to —
JH: Dropping leaflets. Yes.
RA: No
JH: Yes. Part of the training.
RA: No.
JH: Yes. Yeah. I’m interested to see how you were assigned to a squadron. In your case it was 207 Squadron.
RA: I’ve no idea.
JH: You just come, just the assignment came and —
RA: Posting.
JH: The posting. Yeah.
RA: On the conclusion of the Lanc Finishing School.
JH: Yes.
RA: We were posted to —
JH: East Spilsby was it?
RA: Yes.
JH: Yes.
RA: Yeah.
JH: Yes. So what was it like? So this was ’44.
RA: Three.
JH: 1943.
RA: Yeah. About ‘43/44.
JH: Yes ok. So tell me a little about what it was like arriving at East Spilsby. Your first days on the squadron as a new crew.
RA: I don’t remember anything special about it.
JH: Yeah.
RA: I think we were one of a couple of crews that arrived. By that time McSweeney had been commissioned as a pilot officer. And as far as I was personally concerned I fitted in to the signals empire if you can call it. And that was that.
JH: Yes. And how long after was your first operation, real operation after you arrived at East Spilsby?
RA: Well our first operation was the last of the Berlin trips in March ’44. Yes. March ’44.
JH: So your first operation was Berlin.
RA: Yes.
JH: That, that’s being thrown in to the deep end to me.
RA: It was.
JH: Tell me, tell me can you remember much about that operation?
RA: No. No. No. I can remember that the old bomb aimer called, ‘Go around again. We’ve missed the aiming point.’ And we turned around and flew against the —
JH: The stream.
RA: The stream.
JH: Yes.
RA: And turned back and bombed from, from the aiming point. The crew were very annoyed with McSweeney for doing this, however good. We fortunately got away with it.
JH: Yes. Talking before, you, I think you did thirteen operations before you were shot down and you mentioned one operation. One raid to Nuremberg.
RA: That was —
JH: I —
RA: Berlin was the first trip.
JH: Yes.
RA: Essen was the second trip. I think, if I remember rightly Berlin, we the Command suffered something like seventy odd losses.
JH: On the second Berlin raid. Yeah.
RA: On the Berlin raid we were on.
JH: Oh yes.
RA: Yes.
JH: Yeah.
RA: The second trip was Essen and I think if I remember rightly it was only about forty, something like that, aircraft lost on that raid, which I felt was improving. The third trip was to Nuremberg and of course it’s well known that there was about a hundred aircraft lost on that raid. At that stage I felt to myself well Berlin, Essen, Nuremberg — you can’t find three worse targets than that to go to, so I was very confident. And I think that the crew, that we were very confident. We were success.
JH: Successful. Yes.
RA: In completing our tour.
JH: Yes. One thing I was going to ask was on a raid like that as a wireless operator were you able to hear other crews talking?
RA: No. No. You should stuck, stuck purely and only to your own messages.
JH: Yes.
RA: Yeah.
JH: Yes. Were you able to see that, you know, the raid, it wasn’t a good raid. Things were going. Going badly. Did you get a feel for that on an operation?
RA: The Nuremberg trip?
JH: Yes.
RA: Yes. We did. We were aware that other aircraft were being shot down but I think we were so — [pause]
JH: So, what? Busy on your —
RA: Yes.
JH: On your —
RA: Looking after ourselves.
JH: Yes. Yeah. Were you in the mid-stream? Towards the front of the stream?
RA: Towards the front as I remember.
JH: Yes. Yes.
RA: But we certainly saw a lot of what we thought at that stage were German Scarecrows. We’d been told about them and I don’t think it sank in ‘til we got back to base that the raid had been so costly in those, the thought of losing so many aircraft.
JH: Rex, I’ve heard about these Scarecrows. What was that?
RA: I have an idea, knowing what I know now, that there was no such thing as Scarecrows. The briefing was that there was no mention of them other than the fact that when we came back the intelligence people sort of pooh-poohed the idea that they were aircraft going down all the time but it was. We were led to believe that they were Scarecrows. The Germans had some way or other of making it look as though —
JH: I see. Kind of simulating a Lancaster exploding in mid-air.
RA: Yeah. Yeah.
JH: Ok yes, yes. Are there any other operations? I’m going to ask you about the operation when you were shot down in a minute. But apart from Nuremberg are there any other operations that —?
RA: No.
JH: You’d like to mention.
RA: No. No. No.
JH: Ok. Well, that’s amazing that your survived a raid like that. Tell me, tell me what happened on your thirteenth operation.
RA: The operation was completely normal until we got hit. We were attacked by a fighter in the starboard wing which sounded to me as though it was [pause] if it rained on a tin roof. That was the sound of it. It turned out to have been a German fighter. Came up from underneath. He was not sighted by anybody in the crew.
JH: Was this the upward firing?
RA: Yes.
JH: Jazz music.
RA: Yes.
JH: Yes. Yes.
RA: But we didn’t know that at the time of course.
JH: Of course. You can’t see it.
RA: No.
JH: Yes, yes that’s right.
RA: But near the rear gunner, Norman, the mid-upper gunner gave no warning at all. And it was only a few seconds later that the captain of the aircraft realised that we were fatally hit and called on the crew to get out.
RA: Were you over the target or on the way?
JH: On the way in.
RA: Yes. What was the target that night?
JH: I think it was Brunswick.
RA: Brunswick. Yes. Brunswick.
JH: Anyway, the navigator — I was busily operating the wireless set at the time and the navigator told me get out and get out quick. So I proceeded to, in accordance with the normal evacuation drill, get out. I got out of the aircraft.
RA: You had your chute on you or did you have to find.
JH: I used to fly with my parachute by hand. At hand.
RA: Yes.
JH: So I strapped it on.
RA: Yes.
JH: Ran down the back over the main spar and ran down to the back. Saw the mid-upper gunner and the rear gunner were both exiting the aircraft. So I locked the back door and the aircraft opened and persuaded [laughs] persuaded, prepared to evacuate. And that’s what I did.
RA: Something you probably didn’t actually practice was jumping out of a Lancaster.
JH: Oh we used to I’ll say this, McSweeney used to make us practice evacuating the aircraft.
RA: Yes.
RA: When, whilst we were on the ground.
JH: Yes.
RA: But I would think it was that part of the training — I can’t recall how, how many seconds it took to get out but it was very short and sharp.
JH: Yes. Did you, all the crew manage to get out of the aircraft?
RA: No. The engineer and the bomb aimer were both killed. I identified the bodies the following morning and it appeared to me that they were both in the nose of the aircraft when they hit the ground.
JH: Yes. So, so you landed. This is at night.
RA: Yes.
JH: Were you picked up straight away?
RA: No. I was picked up. I broke my ankle when I landed. I didn’t realise it at the time but it didn’t take long for the pain to get heavy. I stayed where I was in a ploughed field and it was a misty night I think. I do recall light rain. I pulled the parachute over the top of my head and said I knew I couldn’t do anything. I tried to walk. I couldn’t. All I could do was hop. I disposed of my escape kit by burying it as much as I could in the furrows of a field. When I accepted I would not be able to escape. I pulled the parachute overhead to keep as dry as I could.
JH: It was raining that night.
RA: Raining gently.
JH: Yes.
RA: You know, that misty sort of rain.
JH: Yes. Had you seen any of the other chaps?
RA: No. No.
JH: You were on your own.
RA: On my own.
JH: Yes. So what — what did you think to do? Obviously you couldn’t get away.
RA: Yeah.
JH: Were you going to walk into the nearest village?
RA: I couldn’t walk.
JH: Yeah.
RA: I couldn’t walk.
JH: Yeah.
RA: All I could do was hop.
JH: Yes.
RA: Which I found out pretty quickly.
JH: Yes.
RA: At dawn the following morning three adults arrived. They were armed with rifles or shotguns of some sort. Two with a youth who also had a gun.
JH: Did you carry a revolver yourself?
RA: No.
JH: Yeah.
RA: Completely unarmed.
JH: Yes.
RA: The adults treated me such that they told me to get up and I got up on my right leg. Then they motioned me to go with them which I did. I hopped across this ploughed field and at the side of the field was a pathway, a dirt pathway. And there was a bicycle there. And so they told me to use the bicycle. So I hopped along with them with me and they took me to a house that was a collection of three or four, four or five houses adjoining the field I’d landed in and then they took me in to a house there. They knocked up the owners and they put me in to the house. The lady of the house was kindness personified. She, she asked me how old I was and I said I was twenty. She chatted a bit but in a language I didn’t understand. Took me to the kitchen. Stoked the fire up. The kitchen fire up. Put a chair, my leg on a chair and I sat there until such time as the police arrived.
JH: Yes. Yeah.
RA: Subject to the viewing of every bloody interplay near and far I think. The farmer had avoided the girl who was fourteen or fifteen and they chatted around me a bit too.
JH: Yes.
RA: I I had so many American dollars on me in my money belt. So I gave them American money. They were thrilled to bits.
JH: Yes.
RA: I gather that they had a uncle somebody or other, somebody or other who was an American.
JH: Yes. Yes.
[Telephone ringing]
JH: I’ll just pause it here.
[Recording paused]
JH: Ok. Back again. Rex, we were talking about your being captured and was in a village. What, what happened next?
RA: After some time the police arrived. They took over proceedings. Screaming out. In particular one fellow in a very smart uniform screamed at me and the people around me who were [unclear] me and I was then put into a to a VW type vehicle. The two men guarding me — one drove and the other one sat facing me. He was in the front seat. Sat facing me with a large revolver pointed straight at my head. I pushed the revolver out of the way on one occasion. All I gained out of that was a large number of words which I again couldn’t understand that I was led to believe that if I did it again he’d pull the trigger. So I didn’t do it again. I was taken back to the sight of the major part of the aircraft and motioned to look at the two bodies and say who they were, which I did. Then I was taken to what I understand was the Meppen night fighter base. Taken by car and put me in to the local jail. The air force base. I remained there for two or three days. They treated me. It was quite ok. Wasn’t quite up to the standard of the Savoy or [unclear] but at least they, whilst I didn’t get my leg treated in any form at least I was able to have something to eat and I think I probably slept a bit. I then stayed there and they gathered up aircrew from both the American and the Brits.
JH: Including some of your crew.
RA: Including my rear back gunner. Rear gunner. Navigator. That’s all.
JH: So four of you.
RA: Four of us.
JH: Yes.
RA: And we were taken to the railway station and under guard put on the train to what turned out to be Dulag Luft. The interrogation centre.
JH: This is in Frankfurt is it?
RA: Yes.
JH: Yes.
RA: Yeah.
JH: Tell me a little bit about what it was like to [pause] to suffer the interrogation.
RA: The interrogator was a well-dressed German. He spoke perfect.
JH: Was he Luftwaffe or Gestapo?
RA: No. Military uniform. So I guess Luftwaffe. And initially started in solitary confinement and you stay there for four or five days but the person who interrogated me [pause] claimed, when I said, I admitted I was an Australian. [unclear]. But I said I was a student but he claimed that he had lived in Melbourne and knew where I lived because he’d been a wool buyer at some stage or other in his life. And believe it or not he actually mentioned the school I went to and told me where it was.
JH: My goodness.
RA: And he was quite friendly. Gave me a cigarette. To every question he asked I said, ‘I’m sorry sir. I’m not permitted to say.’ ‘ I’m sorry sir. I’m not permitted to say,’ and he told me that, obviously my ankle was pretty badly swollen at this stage. He looked at it and said, ‘Oh we’ll treat that. You tell us something. We’ll swap some knowledge,’ and I said, ‘Sir, I’m sorry. I’m not permitted to say.’ In the end he turned around and said, ‘For a so-called educated man,’ — boy, he’d called me, ‘For a so called educated boy you don’t know very much, Austin.’ Piss off, attitude. I never did get my ankle treated or my leg treated by them at all and I spent about seven or eight days in solitary. Then all of a sudden together with the two other — no. One other member of the crew. We were taken out and moved on to billets subsequently to Balaria.
JH: So that was the next trip. To Sagan.
RA: Yes.
JH: In what is now in Poland or Silesia.
RA: Yeah.
JH: Did you know where you were going? Did they tell you where you were going?
RA: No. I had no idea. No idea.
JH: Yes. So, so you ended up in the railway station at Sagan.
RA: Yes.
JH: And Stalag Luft iii and you went to the Balaria compound.
RA: Yes.
JH: Which is the other side of the town.
RA: Yes.
JH: Yes.
RA: Yes.
JH: Yes.
RA: That’s the story.
JH: Yes. Well as an aside my father was, was there at the same time as you. At Balaria.
RA: Yes.
JH: So, so, this was — what? What date was that, going, going into Balaria?
RA: Well, I was shot down on the 22nd of May.
JH: Yes.
RA: And I think.
JH: In ’44.
RA: Yes.
JH: Yes.
RA: I think it was about the 1st of June.
JH: Yes.
RA: That I ended up in there.
JH: Yes.
RA: In Balaria.
JH: What did you think of the camp when you got there?
RA: I think my, my reaction was thank God I’m safe.
JH: Yes. And I believe it was extended at some point.
RA: Yes.
JH: Was it full up when you got there?
RA: I don’t know. I honestly don’t know.
JH: Yes.
RA: We were six blokes in a room to start. That became eight very soon after. And remained at eight until we marched out in January ’45.
JH: Yes. So your hut-mates. Were, were they English or were a mixture?
RA: No.
JH: Of Aussies, Canadians.
RA: No. No. They were all Englishmen.
JH: I think this was after the Great Escape.
RA: Yes.
JH: Would that be correct?
RA: Yes.
JH: So. And we all know what happened there so I’m guessing but you can tell me there weren’t that many escape activities going on at Balaria.
RA: I don’t think so.
JH: Yes. The reading I’ve done I haven’t heard of any.
RA: No.
JH: Yeah. So you were, you were there for what, about a year?
RA: Yeah.
JH: And —
RA: Well, we marched out of Balaria on the 28th of May err 28th of January.
JH: Yes. So the Russian front. You could probably hear the guns. Would that be correct? The Russian front.
RA: Yes.
JH: Advancing from the east. And so you just got like a few hours notice to pack up and —
RA: Got off to all false starts. Word went out, I think I’m right, when I say word went out we would be leaving at 8 o’clock at night. Finally we left at 2 in the morning. Something like that.
JH: During one of the worst winters they’ve experienced. So what sort of things did you put together for the Long March at such short notice?
RA: My rear gunner and I got a bench type seat about six feet. Yeah, six feet long. Turned it upside down. Said, ‘Right we’ll use that.’
JH: As a sledge.
RA: As a sledge. And we did that. What we did in fact, put what clothing we could keep on the sledge and off we went. We tore up some of my old shirts that I had. Cancel that comment. We tore up some of my shirts, they weren’t old, and to use as a pulling rope and we found that quite satisfactory. We got rid of that sledge when the thaw set in on the snow.
JH: Yes. So you, you had a stash of food you could put into the sledge.
RA: Each man was given one Red Cross parcel when we marched out.
JH: Yes.
RA: So we had two Red Cross parcels put on this. Reg Tice, who was our rear gunner. I made out was thirty five years of age, ex-royal navy seaman and he said that on the march I would probably get angry at him so he would look after our food. He would ration.
JH: Rationed it. Yeah.
RA: He would ration the food and that’s what we did. So he took over responsibility for that.
JH: Rex, did the whole camp at Balaria march out as one long column?
RA: Yeah.
JH: Or they split it up in to batches.
RA: One long column. As far as I know, one long column. Group Captain MacDonald moved up and down the length. There was a vehicle there. A cart which the Germans had their belongings on. And I understand that a view with, in their view beyond endurance you would be able to pack your stuff on the cart.
JH: So they did. The POWs that were suffering. Not keeping up.
RA: Yeah.
JH: They did look after them and put them in the support vehicle.
RA: I think so.
JH: Yes. Yeah. So, so I believe you stayed at various villages along the way towards Spremberg across the border.
RA: Yeah. Yeah.
JH: And sleeping in barns. Would that be correct?
RA: Yes. Yes.
JH: Yes.
RA: Yes.
JH: Was, was there a famous story about a goose belonging to a German officer?
RA: Yes. I I only heard it second hand.
JH: Yes.
RA: I can’t. I wouldn’t like to comment on it.
JH: Ok. Yes.
RA: I heard that the German officer had this goose and they purloined it and cooked it.
JH: Within minutes I gather.
RA: Yes.
JH: Yes. Yeah.
RA: And the march was before we went on the march I was asked by the doctor if I thought I could stand it and I said, ‘Yeah.’ Because they were weeding out the people who were so sick that they were couldn’t stand the march. I reckoned on it, at the time I was but fair enough. I could stand it. And it turned out I could.
JH: Yes.
RA: In fact, to be honest with you I think I did better than the older blokes in terms of being able to look after myself.
JH: Yes. What other memories have you got of that march?
RA: Bloody cold.
JH: It was one of the worst winters wasn’t it, yeah?
RA: Yeah. Yeah.
JH: What was the feeling amongst you and your comrades. Was it you felt that you were heading home or you were a bit apprehensive with the Russians breathing down your neck.
RA: I think, I think the general, general consensus would be, ‘Come on Joe. Catch up with us.’
JH: Yes. Yes. So you ended up in Spremberg, which is a rail centre.
RA: Head.
JH: Rail head. And I think you were destined for Luckenwald camp.
RA: Yeah.
JH: But I gather you — that was delayed. Your departure to Luckenwald. What happened in Spremberg?
RA: I think we were just delayed being put in the cattle trucks. And then we ended up by arriving at Luckenwald at bloody 2 in the morning, it was raining. And then we were kept outside the camp. We weren’t allowed to go in for a couple of hours. Which is very uncomfortable, you know. Buggered.
JH: I gathered from my father Luckenwald was not exactly the Hilton. Would that be right?
RA: Yeah [laughs] that’s an understatement. The place was filthy. Absolutely filthy. The three tiered beds were not too good and the food was very far between. Very few and far between. Yes.
JH: What about, tell me what happened when you were liberated at Luckenwald. What happened?
RA: Nothing. The Russians arrived. And they drove, drove their tanks through the wire. Barbed wire. And everything was all quiet.
JH: Had, had the Germans —
RA: Taken off.
JH: Taken off.
RA: Yeah.
JH: The day before or that morning?
RA: No. The night before.
JH: The night before.
RA: Yeah. Yeah. During the night before.
JH: Yes.
RA: There was one occasion when the camp was strafed by a German aircraft. I don’t know that anyone was hurt. Again, I didn’t see anything but anyway we were — what should I say? In limbo.
JH: Yes. So, so how long did it take before you finally crossed the American lines and heading for home?
RA: I’m not certain. Your memory plays tricks on these. I think, I think it would be ten days.
JH: Yes.
RA: The Americans put through a convoy of vehicles to take us out and the Russians refused to let us go. So that a lot of the blokes took off on their own. We weren’t supposed to do that. In any case they ended the war. I was in hospital. In one of the beds that was called a hospital. I had yellow jaundice. And I was feeling pretty sick so my rear gunner took off. And he was one of the ones that took off on his own.
JH: Yes. You stayed put.
RA: I stayed.
JH: In the hospital. Yes. Yeah. So eventually you were repatriated in — I think they called it Operation Exodus.
RA: Yeah.
JH: With the, with the Lancasters coming over.
RA: Yes, yes, yes.
JH: And where did you end up in the UK from that? Brighton. Was it Brighton?
RA: Yes.
JH: Yes.
RA: Back at Brighton.
JH: Yes.
RA: Yes.
JH: Yeah.
RA: I don’t even know the name of the field we landed in.
JH: Yes.
RA: I can’t. I don’t think I ever did know. But I went out to Brussels from the American. The Americans took us by Dakota to Brussels and then from Brussels I went to, in a Lanc back to the UK and then by vehicle back down. Motor vehicle back to down Brighton. Now, I couldn’t tell you —
JH: Yes.
RA: The name of the airfield I landed back at in the UK.
JH: Yes. What about your trip back to Australia? I don’t know how long you were in Brighton but I guess you were assigned to one of the liners, coming back.
RA: Yeah. I came back on the Orion.
JH: Yes.
RA: Which was in August ’45.
JH: Yes.
RA: Being a warrant officer I didn’t have a cabin.
JH: Yes.
RA: Or anything like that. Half of the junior officers didn’t either. But we came back via the Panama Canal and my father met me at Melbourne Cricket Ground. We landed at Sydney and went overnight by train down to Melbourne. My dad and mum met me at the Spencer, as it was then, Spencer Street Railway Station.
JH: Yes.
RA: Dad was in uniform so we were, or I was, well looked after.
JH: I bet. Yeah.
RA: Dad was —
JH: Yeah.
RA: Dad was an air commodore at that stage.
JH: Air commodore.
RA: Yes. He was the AOC.
JH: Yes. He would have been very proud to have you back.
RA: I don’t think so. I don’t think so.
JH: No [laughs]
RA: Cut it out. Cut it out.
JH: I can cut that out. Yeah.
RA: No. I’ll tell you the story.
JH: If you want.
[recording paused]
JH: Yes. We’re back again. Rex, let’s, let’s finish off the interview by briefly talking about your life after, after you came back. I gather you worked in a bank for some, briefly, and then with another company. Tell me about how it came about that you re-joined the RAAF.
RA: I missed the RAAF when I accepted retirement straight after the war. Missed it very much. I was employed at various jobs. None of which gave me the satisfaction I had had whilst I was in the service. So I re-joined as trainee aircrew. Finished my training and subsequently took a re-muster to [unclear] officer.
JH: In Singapore?
RA: No.
JH: Was this?
RA: No. This was after Singapore.
JH: Yes.
RA: In 1957 I transferred out of flying duties to be a supply officer. I deeply regretted it initially. However, once I was settled into my new career I found it very rewarding and I got a lot of personal satisfaction out of it.
JH: And you received your commission in 1954.
RA: I was commissioned in 1954 and shortly after I re-mustered to supply officer I got posted to Paris. I spent three years and eight months in Paris supporting the Mirage aircraft projects. Subsequent to that I was posted to Staff College. And then promoted finally in my last four years to group, to the rank of group captain.
JH: And by the time you went to Paris you’d married and a family.
RA: Yes. I was married with two children.
JH: Yes.
RA: One eleven. One seven. The other one was eleven. And both boys have subsequently done very well for themselves. One finally retired out as an Air Vice Marshal the other one as a check group captain with Qantas.
JH: And he was a fighter pilot. Your younger son. At one stage.
RA: My second son was a Mirage pilots which is —
JH: Yeah.
RA: The pilot one.
JH: Well it’s a great connection with the RAAF. Your family. Right from your father, yourself and your sons. Rex, I think it’s been a fantastic interview. I’ve really enjoyed hearing your story. Especially about your time after you were shot down. And one thing I’d like to ask you is what do you — what are your thoughts on the treatment of Bomber Command after the war? And also, you know, did you have any strong feelings about the area bombing tactics?
RA: I’ll take the second one first. As far as I was concerned I had a job of work to do and I did that the best of my ability. I have no regrets about any aspect of that bombing. Bombing offensive. On the first point —
JH: This is the treatment of Bomber Command. In other words lack of a campaign medal.
RA: I don’t know that, I don’t know that I have feelings one way or the other. I never gave it a thought.
JH: I think your logbook and your, what you did, you and your crew, speaks for it.
RA: Thank you.
JH: Rex. Thank you very much. Well said. The last questions and we’ll wind up here. Again, thank you very much for the interview.



John Horsburgh, “Interview with Rex Alan Austin,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed June 23, 2024,

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