Oscar Oesar: man of mystery

In 1946 Oscar Oeser, like many men who had fought in World War II, migrated to Australia. His arrival had already been announced in an article published in The Age on November 24, 1945.

The Council of the University has approached Wing Commander O.A. Oeser of the Royal Airforce and lately of St Andrews University Scotland to the professorship of psychology, which was recently established by the Victorian government.

The Age readers learnt that Professor Oeser had served as a pilot officer in the R.A.F. from 1940 and was promoted to Wing Commander in 1943. His wartime service was therefore accepted as being with the R.A.F. and anyone reading the report would have accepted these “facts” without question. And so, Oscar Oeser settled in as the Foundation Chair of Psychology at Melbourne University and from 1974 to 1976, as a prominent member of the East Melbourne community, became the third president of the East Melbourne Group.

He died in February 1983, his secrets still intact, and it was not until much later that his actual wartime service began to be revealed.

Oscar Oeser was born of German parents in Pretoria, South Africa in 1904. He was a brilliant student and by 1921 was fluent in five languages. By age 22, he had had completed a Bachelor of Science degree at Pretoria University, followed by Master of Science degree, graduating with first class honours from Rhodes University. At 24, he began working as a senior lecturer in physics at Rhodes.

In 1927, he was awarded the Currie Overseas Scholarship to the University of Marburg in East Prussia and took a Doctorate of Philosophy. However, he was horrified by the rising tide of Nazism within his department and moved to England, completing a second Ph.D. at Cambridge University in experimental psychology. By the age of 27, he had graduated from four universities in three countries and gained Doctorates in two separate disciplines.

From Cambridge he moved to Dartington Hall in Devon where he spent two years teaching, before transferring in 1933 to the University of St Andrews in Scotland as foundation Chair of Psychology.

When war broke out in 1939, Mary, his wife of five years, and their two children returned to Australia, while Oscar Oeser volunteered and theoretically, was placed in the Royal Airforce Reserve. In fact, he was immediately seconded to Bletchley Park, where he worked with Dr Alan Turing in Hut 3 de-coding and analysing enemy messages, that were then dispatched to government and military commands.

As his biographer, Dr Rod Buchanan wrote, “It is not hard to imagine why Oscar was recruited: as well as being trained in a range of sciences, he spoke fluent German and both culturally and psychologically, understood German society and thinking.”

In 1943, he left Bletchley Park to join the Allied invasion of Sicily, leading a troop of soldiers which, as the German forces retreated, followed the army and seized signalling equipment, including up-to-date coding machines.

In early 1945, Oeser was recruited by Commander Ian Fleming of Naval Intelligence – later to write the James Bond books – for a special and very dangerous mission, to lead a Commando raid on Hitler’s “Eagles Nest” above the Bavarian town of Berchtesgaden. The building perched at the top of a mountain, with the only access through huge bronze doors, set in an arch, leading to a wide stone passage and a lift which ascended 123 metres or 407 feet up though the mountain to the chalet.

Oeser’s T-force team was the first Allied force to raid the chalet and capture the German signalling equipment. They also raided other sites in Germany, including “liberating” a van operating as a transmission centre, with up-to-date Enigma machines. In all, the T-force seized more than seven tons of German cryptographic material.

The war over, Oscar Oeser was given a further task, placed with the British Control Commission for Germany and Austria, where he was the head of a unit testing and assessing civilian officials for positions in the post-war reconstructed German government.

In mid 1947, he was finally released from government service and came to join his family in Melbourne to begin a third life, this time as a distinguished academic at Melbourne University.

Later the couple divorced and in 1979, Oeser married Yvonne Raphael, a businesswoman, with an upmarket optical business in Collins St, and two boutique fashion wear shops in the same area. They lived in Gipps St, East Melbourne, and, in spite of busy professional lives, were deeply involved in local issues.

 

Under Professor Oeser, the University of Melbourne Psychology Department became a highly thought of research and teaching centre. While at St Andrews, Oeser had undertaken longitudinal research on the effects of poverty and unemployment in Dundee. In Melbourne, backed by the Pilgrim Trust, he led a group of researchers studying the effects of poverty and unemployment on individual goals and aspirations, social structures, attitudes and prejudices. In 1953 he worked with Professor Brian Lewis (architecture) to develop a model city plan for Prahran.

 

“By the time the eyes of the world are turned on this country because of the Olympic Games, Prahran will have established itself as the most far-sighted Australian community” – The Herald, December 7, 1959.

He also had time for other issues, including an address to the Victorian Federation of Mothers’ Clubs on the treatment of left-handed children:

“No child should be forced to change unless a neurologist, a psychologist, and an oculist had first been consulted” – The Argus, September 9, 1953.

In 1958, he became Dean of the Faculty of Arts. He was a foundation member of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies and of the Australia institute. In retirement, he took up a position with Western Mining Corporation’s Human Relations Unit from 1970-1973.

Oscar Oeser died on February 22, 1983, aged 79. His post war life was that of a distinguished scholar and teacher. Under the Official Secrets Act of 1939, his wartime record could not be released until after his death.  •

 

Jill Fenwick, committee member,
East Melbourne Historical Society
[email protected] and emhs.org.au

 

Caption: Professor Oscar Oeser. Department of Psychology collection, c.1950. Picture: University of Melbourne Archives.

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