He joined up underage at just 16 and witnessed almost every major invasion or operation carried out by the British Army in the Second World War.

Austen Austin, aged 91, spoke out on the 75th anniversary of the event which saw him pitched headlong into the greatest conflict ever.

The mass mobilisation of the Territorial Army, of which he was a member, was announced on September 1, 1939 – two days before war was declared.

Mr Austin, from Kings Heath, originally signed up with brother John, 17, when he was just 16 – below the legal age. They told the recruiting officer they were twins.

But as he explained, he was desperate to get involved in the war he knew was coming.

“The Territorial Army is normally operating at about half strength but by about mid 1939 you could not get in – every unit was full,” Mr Austin said. “We all wanted to get in and get some training so that we would be ready for the war – after all, you can get killed if you don’t know what you’re doing.”

Mr Austin had just returned from two weeks training at Bulford Camp, in Salisbury Plain when he got the fateful message from his mother.

“I came home from training on September 1 and my mother immediately told me that the six o’clock news had said that we all had to return to our units immediately. The Territorial Army had been mobilised.”

One of the few men able to drive, Mr Austin began his official Army career being transferred to the 1st Anti-Aircraft Division, which had been tasked with trying to get London’s woefully inadequate defences up to scratch.

Austen in 1942 (on right) with his brother John (on left) in Alexandra just before the battle of El Alamein
Austen in 1942 (on right) with his brother John (on left) in Alexandra just before the battle of El Alamein
 

He said: “We were taking around ammunition, guns, sights, to all the London sites. When the Blitz started properly in June 1940 it was all up and running but if it had started earlier than that there would have been no proper anti-aircraft defence.”

After the Blitz, by late 1941, the army was in desperate need of young men, and he was ‘combed out’ of the increasingly under-used anti-aircraft service and stuck on a ship to the Middle East.

Joining the 10th Armoured Corps, Mr Austin was put to work driving tank transporters – huge lorries which ferried the armoured fighting vehicles as closely as possible to the front to preserve their tracks for combat.

He was present at El Alamein, the decisive battle when the 8th Army defeated General Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps and its Italian allies, setting in motion a campaign which would see the Germans kicked off the continent for good.

It was at this first major allied land victory that Mr Austin suffered his only wound when he was hit by a shell splinter in the leg. But he was bandaged up and was back in action the same day.

He also carried out vital intelligence work, which would prove important to groups like the famous Long Range Desert Group, checking the accuracy of maps held by the 8th Army’s HQ – making sure routes still existed, were passable and what kind of vehicles could use them.

Soon after the breakthrough of El Alamein, Mr Austin’s work on maps was rendered obsolete because the advance was so quick and he was transferred to the 5th Infantry Division. After victory in Tunisia the 5th Division took part in Operation Husky, the invasion of Sicily, which claimed 6,000 Allied lives.

He said: “As we approached Sicily we saw loads of bodies in the sea – Allied paratroopers who were supposed to have invaded before us.

“It was a reminder of how dangerous the mission would be, if we even needed one.”

Within a few weeks the Allied forces had taken control of the island, and the 5th Division moved on to Italy, first in September 1943 and then taking part in the Anzio landings in January the following year.

During that campaign he had just travelled with his comrades to Naples for a break when nearby Mount Vesuvius erupted and the men were charged with restoring services in the area.

Austen Austin in 1940 in London, aged 17
Austen Austin in 1940 in London, aged 17
 

Days later they were ordered to Salerno, where they were given the most harrowing of duties.

“We had to take all these bodies to interments,” he said. “In two days I must have buried 200 men. It was an awful job.”

Mr Austin was at the historic capture of Rome, but almost immediately transferred with his unit to Palestine for refitting. He then took part in the battle for France, after landing in the south of the country before ending up in the devastated Germany as the war ended.

“The level of devastation was incredible. Every town was completely destroyed, we found, until we were stationed in Magdeburg which was almost undamaged. But then they decided it was in the Russian zone so we had to leave sharpish.”

Mr Austin wanted to highlight the contribution of the Territorial Army to the allied cause: “It is now 75 years since we were all called up and there’s not many of us left now. We were the first to answer the call.

“I was overseas for five years until I was demobbed in April 1946. In some ways it was the best thing I could have done.

“If I had waited to be called up, it would probably have been in 1941, and at that time they were looking for people for the massive expansion of the RAF and more specifically Bomber Command. They suffered absolutely horrendous losses with around 50 per cent being killed, so I think I was quite lucky in a way.”

Mr Austin, one of nine children, was named by his father after Austen Chamberlain, the Birmingham-born British Foreign Secretary.

He married Margaret in 1948 and the couple had seven children, first living in Kings Heath and then Quinton. Mrs Austin died two years ago but Mr Austin still lives in Halesowen.