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Basil Harvey AUSTIN was born on 9 Apr 1913 in Slinfold
Engeland. He died on 23 Jul 1977 in Hillcrest Durban. LIEUTENANT
BASIL HARVEY AUSTIN.
Lieutenant B. H. Austin was the wireless operator and gunner of a South African Liberator aircraft that crashed near Warsaw in the early hours of August 15, 1944 while dropping supplies to the beleagured Polish soldiers during the fateful Warsaw Uprising of 1944.
Basil Harvey Austin, known to his friends as "Bunny", was born at Slinfold in Sussex, England, on April 8, 1913. Later, with his parents, he moved to Bexhill-On-Sea in that same country. He was educated at Harewood Preparatory School where one of his playmates was Reganald Maudling, destined to become a leading politician and once tipped as a potential Prime Minister of England.
From preparatory school Austin went on to Brighton College and after serving as a cadet in the Metropolitan Police Force, he transferred to the Palestine Police with whom he served from 1935 untill 1942. While being repatriated to the United Kingdom in 1942, Austin's ship was torpedoed in the Mediterranean and after being rescued he reached Durban in May of that year.
Austin later enlisted in the South African Air Force and after an initial disappointment at not being accepted as a pilot, he trained to become a wireless operator and aircraft machine gunner. He was subsequently posted to No. 28 Squadron, a Dakota transport unit that operated a shuttle service from Pretoria, carrying war goods and personal to and from North Africa.
Later he joined No. 31 Squadron, South Africa's first heavy bomber squadron. This squadron was equipped with American long distance bombers and based at Foggia in Southern Italy. Here at Foggia, Bunny Austin become a member of the crew captained by Jacobus Lodewickus van Eyssen, a Johannesburg mining executive. Austin soon gained a reputation of being an expert wireless operator and a no mean handler of the machine gun. Bunny Austin was popular with his crew mates and together they flew on a number of dangerous bombing missions over the heavily-defended oilfields of Rumania. Then came the call to drop supplies to the soldiers of the Polish Home Army fighting for their lives in the burning city of Warsaw.
On the evening of August 14, 1944, with the sun still high in the heavens, Liberator "a - for - Abel" took off from Foggia and headed towards the Adriatic at the start of the long, hazardous flight to Warsaw. It was loaded with cannisters containing arms and ammunition for the soldiers of the Polish underground army. Accompanying this aircraft on one of the most herpic and futile gesture of the Second World War were another seven Liberators from the South African No. 31 Squadron. These Liberators had to fly 1800 miles through some of the most heavily defended night-fighter hot spots to reach the battered Polish capital. There they had to go down to 200 feet and fly through a heavy curtain of merciless anti-aircraft flak to drop their badly-needed supplies.
Just before 1 AM on the morning of Augustus 15, Captain Van Eyssen's Liberator crossed the Vistula River at 600 feet when fifteen miles south of Warsaw . When two miles east of the Vistula and three miles from the burning city, the Liberator was coned by searchlights. Six flak guns opened up, found their target and began pumping destruction into the aircraft. With two engines out of commission and the aircraft ablaze, Captain Van Eyssen gave the command to abandon the Liberator. Bunny Austin helped his mates and saw to it that they had their parachutes connected by both hooks before shoving them through the escape hatch. When it was his turn to leave Austin dived headfirst through the open bomb-bay. He landed heavily amongst tall trees, some thirty feet above the ground and swung suspended by his parachute, like a new-born baby from a stork's beak.
German patrols were active in the vicinity so Austin decided to walk away in the direction of the village of Aleksandrovo, fifteen miles south-east of Warsaw. He later took refuge in a girl's convent where he was tended by members of the Polish underground army. When movements were heard outside an alert was sounded at the approach of a German patrol and Austin was hidden in the bed of a twelve-year-old girl, Urszula Stupik. Next morning Austin was guided to a Russian field post where Austin gave himself up. Later other members of his crew joined him. The survivors were Captain Van Eyssen, the pilot, Lieutenant D.R.F. Holliday the navigator and Lieutenant B.H. Austin of the South African Air Force and Flight Sergeant S. Lichfield and Sergeant George Peaston of the Royal Air Force. Three other members had been killed. They were Lieutenant R.G. Hamilton, the second pilot whose parachute failed to open in time and two members of the Royal Air Force, Segeant H. Hudson and Sergeant L. Mayes who had been killed by ack-ack fire.
The five survivors had to suffer days of intense interrogation at the hands of the Russians before being flown on to Moscow where they were handed over to No. 30 British Mission.
On September 4 Captain Van Eyssen and his two South African crew members left Moscow on the first stage of their repatriation to South Africa. Three days later they reached Cairo. After recuperative leave in South African, Van Eyssen, Austin and Holliday returned to Italy to resume their interrupted tour of operations with 31 Squadron.
When the war ended Bunny Austin went back to his job at the Public Works Department in Pretoria. Tragically, as with so many others, Bunny found it difficult to settled down and he grew restless with the nagging urge to go back to the scene of his rescue. He yearned to once again meet the Poles who had helped him, particularly the partisan leader who had risked his life in leading him to the Russian field post. He also wanted to trace Urszula Stupik, the twelve-year-old girl who had saved his life by hiding him in her bed. He was determined to repay the debt of gratitude he owed this young girl who would have suffered a fate worse than death had the Germans discovered him that night.
When Austin announced his intention of carrying out his one-man pilgrimage to penetrate the Iron Curtain and help his former Polish friends, people tried to tell him that he was attempting the impossible. But his mind was made up and on January 11, 1958 Bunny Austin set out from Pretoria on his sentimental journey to Warsaw. The project proved far more complex than even Austin had expected and he became involved with an altruistic Polish organisation in what turned out to be an intriguing episode of espionage with all the ingredients of a first rate suspense thriller. But reach Warsaw he did and he was re-united with former members of the Polish underground movement who had assisted him to escape the Germans. Austin returned to South Africa in March 1958 after having succesfully concluded his one-man mission. Five years later his book URSZULA was published describing this adventure and how he had managed to snatch the now twenty-six-year-old Urszula Stupik from beyond the Iron Curtain and bring her to the safety of Paris.
It was not until the late sixties that I was able to meet up again with my old friend Bunny Austin who I had not seen since being together at Foggia. Past years had not dealt kindly with this brave man. He was suffering from an eye irritation caused by a drop of petrol dripping from a Liberator bomber. Despite having undergone a number of operations, his left eye was now useless and he had been unsuccesful in his claim for compensation from the military authoristies. Our reunion gave us the opportunity to catch up on the events of the intervening years. In may 1947 Bunny Austin had married Susan Naude, member of a well-known family of staunch National Party supporters in the Northern Transvaal town of Pietersburg. Susan's uncle, J.P. Naude, was the local Member of Parliament. Affectionately known as Tom Naude, (he was one of South Africa's best loved politicians and became President of the Senate.
A short time after his return from Poland in 1958, Bunny Austin resigned from his job at the Public Works Department in Pretoria. He then ran a farm trading store which did not prove a financial success, acted for a time as Messenger of the Court at Pietersburg and later was employed at a Pietersburg firm that manufactured cement building blocks.
During 1974 Bunny Austin and his wife left Pietersburg to join their married daughter and her family living in Durban. Here, surrounded by his grand-children, Bunny Austin ultimately found the peace of mind that had so long escaped him. Unfortunately, his health deteriorated and in April 1977 he was moved to a nursing home suffering from Parkinson's Disease. Bunny Austin passed away on July 23, 1977. A memorial service held at a Durban funeral chapel was attended by members of the family and a few close friends that included "Happy" Holliday, the navigator of Bunny's crew that had crashed in their Liberator near Warsaw.