Shot Down. A Secret Diary of One POW’s Long March to Freedom.
Big Sky Publishing, June 2015, 199 pages
Over the past decade or so, I’ve written about Australian pilots in the air war against Germany, exploring, among other things, how they coped in combat and with the after effects of battle. In some cases, their very identity was linked intrinsically to their capacity to fly and, indeed, for some, their need to fly was so strong they thought little of the cost. I began to wonder how they would manage when ‘wingless’, when they were taken out of operations not through combat injury but because they had been captured.
Even from the first day of the Second World War, Germany claimed airmen as prisoners of war. Australian airmen were a minority. Of the servicemen captured in Europe, 8,591 were Australians, and 1,476 of those were airmen serving in the Royal Air Force and Royal Australian Air Force. This equated to approximately seventeen per cent of Australian prisoners. Australian airmen were imprisoned throughout an extensive and ever-growing German prison network and many of those captured in Mediterranean and Middle East actions had previously been incarcerated in Italian camps. Each branch of the armed services managed its own facilities but, even after the Luftwaffe established its own camps, airmen were not confined exclusively in Luft camps. So it was for Sergeant Alex Kerr, a graduate of the Empire Air Training Scheme’s No. 1 Course, who was imprisoned by the Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe.
Twenty-year-old Alex had been operational with No. 115 Squadron as second pilot on a Wellington for less than a month when, on 10 May 1941, he and his British crew members were on their way home after a successful bombing run to Hamburg, one of Germany’s most fiercely defended targets.
With little warning, a night fighter announced its presence by firing on, and hitting, the rear turret. The pilot made every attempt to evade but the German fighter pilot fired again. Bullets ripped through fabric and metal and Alex was knocked backwards as he was hit. As the aircraft began to burn, as the fabric-covered Wellington was apt to do, he lay there, cursing the German pilot, and, for several seconds, knew the stark fear of the helpless.
Alex lost consciousness. When he awoke, his fear had gone, replaced by a ‘lulling, lethargic calm, a slowness of movement that could well be fatal in an emergency’, and so it would have been if Dave, the rear gunner who had amazingly survived the attentions of the night fighter, hadn’t shoved him out of the stricken aircraft, thus saving his life.
The West Australian’s injuries were so severe there had been talk of medical repatriation. After months in German hospitals, he was sent to a prisoner of war camp. He had had a relatively easy time of it in the hospitals, even quite enjoying the ‘gentle and friendly attitude’ of medical staff and fellow prisoners. He had even valued kindnesses from orderlies working behind the backs of German guards to acquire treats for the patients. But now, as Alex ‘saw barbed wire close up for the first time’ he ‘realised its grim purpose’. No chance of repatriation now. He was just a number.
Alex was incarcerated in Stalag IIIE, Kirchhain, then Stalag Luft III, Sagan, Stalag Luft VI, Heydekrug, Stalag 357, Thorn and Stalag XIB, Fallingbostel. In the final months of the war, he trudged across Germany in the Long March. After narrowly escaping death when the column was strafed by Allied aircraft, he and a mate escaped to Allied lines and freedom. These are the bare bones of a fascinating memoir which, as indicated in the foreword, reveals a man of great resilience and integrity who demonstrated strength, courage and devotion to his mates.
I will just point out here that this memoir is an important addition to Australian military history. Not just because of some of the particular aspects, which I will touch on below, but because there are significantly fewer accounts by Australians taken prisoner by the Germans. For example, in a review article covering books written by or about Australian prisoners between 1980 and 1989, Hank Nelson listed 48 works. Of those, 40 related to prisoners of the Japanese, two dealt with prisoners of Japan and Germany, and six are about prisoners of Germany and Italy. In his 2002 survey of the ‘prisoner experience as literature’, Peter Stanley noted that of the 500+ books in the Australian War Memorial’s Australian prisoner of war catalogue, three-fifths deal with prisoners of the Japanese, prisoners of the Reich account for a third, and those relating to captives of the Italians take up less than a tenth of the shelf space. The proportions have barely changed. To its credit, Big Sky Publishing’s catalogue includes a number of prisoner of war accounts dealing with captivity in Germany.
But back to Alex. Largely based on the diary he kept during imprisonment, Shot Down is written in such a matter-of-fact style that the reader on occasion has to peer through the lines to the full emotion of living in close confinement without a release date in sight, where ‘wingless’ airmen could not contribute to the fighting war effort and were so isolated from credible sources of war news that they could only trust that the Allies would eventually prevail. It is hard to imagine just what being a prisoner of war meant, but I had a go at it, as I wanted to get a good look behind the lines that Alex did not write, and to hear what he did not quite say.
Imagine living in an environment where there was no silence, in such profound intimacy that every breath, every sniff or snort, every fart and stomach grumble, every nightmare, every mood swing, every shift on lumpy palliasse and bed board-deprived bunk, every surreptitious movement under threadbare blanket was heard by every other man in the overcrowded barrack. Even thoughts were not private because, after living in such close proximity, almost anyone could read them and so, the only real solitude was in the cooler. Just imagine the tension building as men from all walks tried to muddle along with people so different in personality that they probably wouldn’t have bothered knowing them in ‘real life’. Consider trying to be cheery, friendly and tolerant when all you wanted to do was wring the bloody neck of the bloke who spilt the last teaspoon of the communal store of sugar. Imagine having to fill your time with any sort of busy-work just so you wouldn’t go crazy with inactivity. It almost defeats me to picture it, and I am sure it would defeat me to live it.
Alex, however, was made of much sterner stuff than me and despite everything, fared so well that he gained from his experiences. He also demonstrates that community can exist in enforced communal living. Indeed, it is one of the strengths of this memoir that Alex portrays a balanced account of life in a German prisoner of war camp. Monotonous, with great deprivation, yes - if not for regular Red Cross parcels, the men would have starved on German rations - but to compensate, lifelong friendships developed and were nurtured, and the foundations of many future careers were laid. In addition, much was discovered about goodness, kindness and humanity, and evil, in enemy, friend and self.
Like many other camps, Stalag IIIE had some benevolent guards who treated their charges reasonably well along with its share of tyrants ‘who had maltreated us’. Indeed, ‘Stalag IIIE was a camp in which violence had earlier been used and prisoners have been bashed by guards and subjected to harsh treatment ordered by the commandant.’ And so, after they had left Kirchhain, when Alex and his fellow prisoners were asked the names of the Germans who had traded with them, they handed in a list which included only the names of those who had mistreated them, knowing full well that the malefactors would be punished severely. To Alex’s credit, he does not let himself off the hook by refraining to include a story where he and his friends, perhaps understandably, exact retribution, especially when it seems he is not entirely sorry for his part in the scheme: ‘In retrospect it is probable that most of us felt rather guilty about the result’. And here is one of the reasons I like this memoir so much. There is nothing pretentious or literary about it. It is simple and unassuming and Alex is honest and open.
Counterbalancing the darker side of humanity is a story which reveals true kindness and highlights all that is good about the ‘brotherhood of man’. Harry Calvert, who was older than Alex, had developed a well-earned reputation as Stalag IIIE’s most successful trader. As Alex sat on his bed contemplating how to celebrate his 21st birthday, Harry poked his head in the door: ‘I heard it’s your birthday today’. There were no secrets in a prisoner of war camp. Alex confirmed that it was indeed his birthday. ‘Happy birthday, Aussie’, Harry said, as he placed a precious egg in Alex’s hand. It was the first egg the West Australian had seen for a year, and a gift from a man Alex had barely met, even within the close confines of a prison camp. It was a gesture of compassion and generosity he would never forget.
As well as revealing the positives and negatives of the human condition and how many adjust to life without liberty, Alex recounts little known aspects of captivity in Europe. For example, he and 51 other prisoners tunnelled out of Stalag IIIE. He was on the run for ten days. He never forgot that ‘feeling of triumph and excitement’ during that, and subsequent escape attempts. ‘It was an exhilarating feeling knowing you were winning a dangerous cat and mouse game with maybe a disastrous result if you lost. The adrenaline was coursing through your veins almost continuously.’ Alex was one of the last to be recaptured. Fifty-one of the escapees were returned to camp. But not Harry Calvert, Alex’s birthday benefactor. He was the only casualty, shot for no apparent reason.
The Great Kirchhain Breakout was the largest, most successful escape attempt to date, yet, surprisingly, little has been written about it. Alex’s account is thus more than just a wartime memoir. It is a valuable addition to escape literature and, because of Australian involvement, our military history. So too is his description of life in Stalag Luft III. Rather than the usual officer-centric escape focus of the prolific Wooden Horse or Great Escape narratives, Alex offers a rare NCO perspective of everyday life and friendship in that most famous of camps.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this review, I am interested in how men cope in captivity, and I was concerned that perhaps Alex had not ultimately coped with four years of imprisonment. This wasn’t because Alex had confessed to it (quite the contrary as I will discuss below) but because of the lack of emotion in some parts, such as Harry Calvert’s death, and a dispassionate style which might indicate that nothing had touched him. But Alex had coped and did so remarkably well. His prison life was full of activity such as arts and crafts, sport and music. When the prison education system was established, he signed up. Not only did he relieve the monotony of camp existence through study, but he received the sort of education few Australian lads could ever dream of attaining. He received a Certificate in Social Science from Oxford University (he did so well in this that Oxford considered the standard he had achieved under camp conditions to be equivalent of that required for University Honours) and a Bachelor of Science and Economics degree from London University. If anything, the dispassionate style is a reflection of the fact that Alex felt that his prisoner of war years had not been overly harrowing; ‘they did not seem so important to me at the time’. Yes, Alex had managed well in captivity and there are a number of reasons for this.
At the beginning of the book, when he talks about his formative years, Alex tells of his inbuilt sense of optimism, how faced with new, unexpected experiences he just got on with it. For example, when he was pulled from school because his father’s income had suffered during the Depression, he ‘commiserated with Dad over his loss’, found a job post haste, enjoyed what it had to offer and ‘matured quickly and tasted many new facets of life … made new friends and tried my hand at a lot of new activities…’ Alex could have easily written that at the end of the book and it would have been equally as apt because that is exactly what he did in a succession of prisoner of war camps. He clearly made the most of his camp life and the new friendships it offered. Friends coped better in captivity. They shared food and memories and supported each other. But camaraderie was more than just a means of survival for Alex. He had a gift for friendship, both giving and receiving and his relationships with crewmembers and fellow prisoners lasted a lifetime and beyond. In many ways, this memoir is a testament to friendship.
Shot Down is also a testament to optimism and, looking back, Alex believed his inherent optimism enabled him ‘to bear the vicissitudes of incarceration with fortitude’. Alex would be too modest to claim it, but I think his fellow prisoners’ ability to cope with seemingly limitless confinement would have been enhanced by his natural buoyancy.
That Alex considered his prison experience not so much ‘traumatic but rather exciting and overall beneficial’ is another reason why he survived captivity. So too is his attitude. ‘I had taken a positive view of life and had been determined to take every opportunity while in camp to improve my lot in life’. Apart from planning for his future through education, he grew in self-confidence, assumed leadership roles and developed important life skills. Without doubt, he ‘weathered the storm well’ and ‘came out of prison thankful that my life had so miraculously been saved’. Indeed, Alex admits that being shot down and imprisoned were perhaps the best things to ever happen to him. He survived for one, whereas many from Bomber Command did not. The statistics of his own training group are particularly telling. Of the forty members of his course, only twelve men were alive at the end of hostilities, and nine of them had been prisoners of war. Fully aware of how fortunate he had been, after returning home he promised himself to ‘make the most of the reprieve I had been given. I would live every day to the fullest’. And he did. The former newspaper office boy went on to enjoy a career in academia, where he became a professor and ultimately Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Murdoch University in Perth, Western Australia. Alex’s achievements and life attitude firmly demonstrate that his years spent in captivity were not wasted.
There is perhaps another reason why Alex coped so well in the post-war years. He may not have been entirely sorry for ‘dobbing’ in the cruel camp personnel but he bore no real grudge against those who acted with decency and later accepted the essential humanity of those of the enemy who, like him were just doing their wartime job. He may have cursed the Luftwaffe pilot who shot him down but Alex contacted him after the war and they corresponded. It is clear to me that there was a measure of reconciliation, given and accepted, in their exchange of letters and experiences. ‘I got a good feeling to get so friendly lines from a former adversary’, wrote the former night fighter. For Alex, along with reconciliation, came the answers to questions which had puzzled him for half a century.
Hard core aviation enthusiasts may turn away from this memoir because it is a largely an account of captivity. That would be a mistake. The book includes enough training and operational details to satisfy any aviation nut - Alex’s account of his last op is sheer, nail-biting, storytelling magic. Shot Down is also an incredibly rich life story that even offers a gentle lesson in making the most of difficult circumstances. It is also a significant addition to Australian military, aviation, and prisoner of war history. Uplifting and recommended. It is one of the best POW accounts I've ever read.
This review originally appeared on Aircrew Book Review http://aircrewbookreview.blogspot.com.au/2015/10/shot-down-alex-kerr.html
Addendum. Some time after this review appeared, Alex contacted me and told me that I had 'got it', regarding his experiences. It was a remarkable compliment, and one I treasure. Alex supported my research and gave me permission to draw from his log book (my friend Charles Page photographed it for me as I wasn't getting to WA in a hurry). Alex has figured large in my research since and made 'appearances' in some of my presentations. Just before Christmas 2018 (when I last worked on the thesis draft) I was consulting Shot Down and thinking of him and writing about him. Vale Alexander McBride Kerr, 23 April 1921-30 December 2018.