Rex Boyden survived wounding at Gallipoli to become an ace pilot

Name: Rex Boyden
Date: 1918
Unit: 18th Battalion AIF, discharged from AIF and joined Royal Flying
Location: Gallipoli

The Boyden family certainly carried out its fair share of duty for Australia with four brothers fighting in World War I and a fifth in World War II. Amazingly all survived although three were wounded and one became a prisoner of war.

Originally from Melbourne, the family moved to Sydney in 1905, where the five boys and a girl had a happy childhood, with much time spent on or in the Harbour.

When World War I broke out Rex was the first to enlist in the AIF in January 1915. His brother Stewart signed on in May. Both were in Gallipoli and both survived - but it almost wasn't so.

The most amazing survival story was that of Corporal Rex Boyden who was wounded in an attack on Hill 60. He lay in no man's land for two days before managing to crawl under cover of darkness back to the New Zealand trenches. He was transferred to a hospital ship and later transported to hospital in London where the doctors gave him little hope of survival.

While in hospital he wrote many letters, several of which described the action in which he was wounded. In a letter to Australia he wrote.

"As you know I have been wounded & have had the closest shave of 'over the cliff' that ever I wish to have."

"Up to 2 months ago the doctors & sisters thought there was little chance, but I am thankful to say, that now I have taken a turn for the better & am enjoying convalescence.

"I can scarcely realize that I have travelled 12,000 miles since last I saw you - & when I look back at all the things that have happened since I left & close shaves I have had - it seems marvellous that I am alive to tell the tale.

"When we were in Egypt we were camped 8 miles from the pyramids at a place called Helliopolis near Cairo - one of the hottest places in Egypt especially in the middle of summer. Many of our chaps went down with sunstroke.

"There is not time or space for me to relate my first experience of the place (Gallipoli) but I will jump to the night when lying in our dugout on an outpost position. We suddenly got the alarm & were ordered to take up a new position on the left of where we were stationed at a place called Hill 60 or Chocolate Hill.

"I had just returned from posting our sentries, as I was in charge of them & had returned to my dugout & trying to drop off to sleep, when suddenly I was being tugged sharply by my Lieut. (who was in command of the outpost) & ordered to rouse the rest of my men & form them up, call the roll, & and report to him, as we were to rejoin our company. There were about 16 or 20 to rouse up & I had a bit of a job, because it was pitch dark & every now & then a bullet would zip past me & make my hat nearly stand on top of my hair, & also the chaps had got a bit strewn around in different dugouts & I had a job to find them.

"Well I got them together at last & before long we had returned to the company.

"This was just after midnight & we began to pick our way along down the gully towards the beach in single file until we got on to the beach where we formed 4 deep and marched towards our new destination Hill 60. It took us close on 5 hours to arrive near the place & it was just breaking day.

"We had arrived at a Gurkhas trench & were quietly ordered to fix bayonets & charge our magazine of the rifle with 5 rounds of bullets.

"We knew then what we were meant to do, as I expect you have already guessed - a bayonet charge & to take the trench at all costs: - the first line rushed out & before 5 minutes were up we heard the yells & groans of the fallen chaps & presently one by one wounded fellows were crawling back covered in blood.

"This was enough for us, our blood was up & when the order came for our line to charge, we were not lacking although nerves all on end.

"Once into it we lost the funk which I bet each one of us had before charging but when once in it, one forgets himself & hardly knows what he does - we were fairly madmen let loose, this is the best explanation.

"What happened I can scarcely remember except that all of a sudden I felt a thud in the left side of my stomach & for a minute thought someone had hit me with the butt of his rifle. I turned round to see who it was, seeing no one near enough to do it, suddenly knew I was hit, & I toppled over.

"Unfortunately I did not lose consciousness - I wish I had - although I can not remember much what happened except that we had captured about 250 yards of trench & were suddenly ordered to retire to the last trench we had captured - well I happened to be farthest out so I was left there while every man retired to the trench.

"Any minute I expected the Turks to rush over me in a counter charge on our men, but fortunately they were not game enough - well I lay there from Sunday morning about 7 o'clock until about 5 o'clock Tuesday morning. To me it seems weeks & the funny part was that I had given myself up for dead, and it was not until sometime Monday I think, when I suddenly thought to myself 'Hulloa! I am still alive, perhaps I am not going to die after all." (In fact Rex Boyden had been protected from stray bullets by the bodies of dead comrades lying between him and the Turks.)

"So I began to try to think out a plan of getting back - well I had to wait until it got dark again for me to crawl in - and as bad luck would have it - it was a full moon light night and as was as bad as day; so I had to wait all night, until the moon went down about an hour before daylight, & it was in this hour that I tried to crawl in.

"How I did it I don't know as every movement was pain, but at any rate I managed it for about 25 yards where the parapet of the New Zealand trench was - of course they could not see me, so I had to call out; presently one of the stretcher bearers pulled me over - it was marvellous I was not hit, as the bullets were flying past me (during the two days); with the exception of 2 or 3 scratches of them, I was not hurt; but I will not weary you with much more but just to say that I was left on the peninsular another 3 days before being got away to the hospital ship. For about 10 days I was not allowed a drink or anything to eat so you can imagine what a bag of bones I was by the time I reached England."

After he was wounded, Rex was attended to by some of his mates. One of them told Rex's mother, Daisy.

"Rex did not know where he was hit, asked Pte Collyer to open his clothes & find out. He was bleeding profusely one wound through the abdomen & one through the lung. Rex cried out for water but Major Lane told Collyer not to give him a drop, or it would kill him.

"Rex seemed to lose consciousness. Collyer spoke to him & asked if he had anything he wanted to say - no reply - then he said 'how do you feel now Corporal' - no answer. So he took every one of his things from his pockets & his watches from his wrists, & put his hat over his face, thinking he would die very soon: he gave Rex's things to Leo Corrigan to send home to me.

"For 3 days there was charging & counter charging & no one could fetch Rex, who was lying between the enemy's trenches & his own; on the 3rd day when they went to get him, they found he was still alive - poor Major Lane's head was blown right off about the 28th August."

Back in Australia, Rex Boyden was discharged from the army after recovering from his horrific wounds but he wasn't one to give up the fight. He worked his passage to England and received flying training at the Air Branch of the Royal Naval Air Service and was in active service over the North Sea and France till the end of the war. Despite his severe wounds, he passed the medical examination because there wasn't one - just an officer standing behind him and firing a gun to test his reactions. Rex obviously passed.

By June 1918, he was flying planes in France and wrote to his brother Lance to describe some of his activities.

"I am getting along nicely at flying & am learning to become a stunt pilot - this morning I looped the loop, spun, rolled, side-slipped & did vertical banks right & left & flew with right hand & left hand alternately - they are not so hard as long as one remembers the position he is in the air at the right moment & of course keeps an eye on the instruments.

"For instance to loop the loop all you have to do, is to keep the engine running & dip the nose, until the speed indicator registers 85 to 90 knots an hour, then steadily but quickly pull lever nearly right back, so that the nose of the machine lifts, until it is nearly right above your head, then with a swift jerk, pull it right back & keep your eye open until you see the second horizon & immediately cut off engine keeping lever in same position; the machine will then come right round, completing the loop & as you start to rise again, jab forward the joy stick & switch on engine & it is all over.

"It is all done in about 15 seconds from the time you start to dip the nose.

"The 'roll' is the hardest & gives you the worst 'inward' feelings; it is similar to the loop, except the engine is cut off all the time & instead of going straight over, you come over sideways & finish up with nose pointing to earth & spinning which is brought about by straightening rudder & gradually releasing stick forward, until nose is nearly on horizon & then push engine throttle on-

"I would love to take you up Lance, am sure you would enjoy it, also young Scratchem (Arthur) - wouldn't he think it fine."

On his return to Australia, Rex Boyden continued to fly, clocking up more than 5000 flying hours in the next few years. He flew for a private company and then spent some time with Guinea Airways, piloting Junka machines from Lae to the goldfields at Wau. He then flew with Australian National, New England Airways which eventually became Airlines of Australia.

He flew in many dangerous situations, particularly in New Guinea, where he survived one crash caused by engine failure which forced him to try a pancake landing among the trees. The plane nose-dived into a swamp and Boyden was not seriously injured.

But his luck finally ran out in 1937 when he was killed in the crash of a Stinson Airliner in the MacPherson Ranges between New South Wales and Queensland whilst on a trip from Archerfield Airfield in Brisbane to Mascot (now Kingsford Smith) in Sydney

Rex Boyden was pilot and also on board were a co-pilot, Bev Shepherd, and five passengers including a representative of Lloyds of London.

The plane disappeared while heading for Lismore to pick up four passengers and nothing more was heard of it for 10 days. Weather conditions were poor with high winds and low cloud conditions.

It was only due to the perseverance of a lone bushman, Bernard O'Reilly, that the crashed plane was located. O'Reilly was told by neighbours they had seen the plane fly over them heading towards Lismore. He worked out the route and trekked through the bush till he located the aircraft after hearing calls for help.

He found two survivors, both passengers, both in poor condition but alive. A third survivor of the crash had fallen to his death while trying to walk out of the ranges to fetch help. The survivors reported the Stinson had caught fire on crashing into trees on a ridge and they had been unable to help the others escape.

So ended the story of a man who had escaped death on many occasions in war and while flying in remote areas such as New Guinea.

The material for this article was supplied by Ron Boyden of the Australian Capital Territory and Mrs Elinor Walker of New South Wales


Last updated: 31 May 2019

Cite this page

DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) (2019), Rex Boyden survived wounding at Gallipoli to become an ace pilot, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 21 January 2021, http://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/stories-service/australians-war-stories/rex-boyden-survived-wounding-gallipoli-become-ace-pilot
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