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War Story no flight of fancy – Shot Down

November 03, 2015

Many returned servicemen are (were) reticent to discuss their wartime exploits; a renowned WA academic and economist kept much of his service record to himself, until now.

WARTIME bomber pilot, shot down over Germany and parachuting from his burning plane while bleeding profusely from numerous wounds, then surviving four years as a prisoner of war… it’s a perfect script for an adventure movie. However, the central figure’s life, as I knew it, seemed so much more mundane.

Alex Kerr was my economics lecturer at the University of Western Australia in the early 1960s, and no-one, certainly none of his students, had any idea of his extraordinary war record. Dr Kerr was the standout academic in the economic faculties at both UWA and later Murdoch University, for more than 30 years.

His urbane approach, combined with being clearly across his brief, enthused thousands of his students. And there was another important ingredient, especially at UWA – in a department loaded with broad English accents, Dr Kerr, who was educated at Perth Modern School, gave lectures that were easy to follow.

Dr Kerr was already a senior figure in my student days and was considered an expert in national income studies. In 1975, he became Murdoch University’s foundation professor of economics, and also found time for wider activities, such as working with Indonesian authorities on implementing the successful Colombo Plan to assist foreign students.

But the outwardly calm and reserved academic’s wartime experience, based on seven years with the RAAF, which took him (briefly) to flying bombing missions over Europe and then eventful years as a POW, would make your hair stand on end. And none of us knew about it until the publication of his recent book, Shot Down –a secret diary of one POW’s long march to freedom.

It is an extraordinary story, which not even Captain WE Johns could top in his long-running series of Biggies books on RAF exploits, which gripped the imagination of young boys in the 1950s.

Initially working his way into the reporting stream at West Australian Newspapers Ltd, Dr Kerr enlisted in the RAAF at the outbreak of WWII. Like so many other young men, the experience would change his life forever. Survive he did, and the rest of the book is an illuminating account of recovering good health followed by risk taking worthy of any aspect of movies on POW life, such as Stalag 17 or The Great Escape. For example, while using the years behind barbed wire to gain qualifications through Oxford and London universities, which would provide a valuable base for his future career, he also escaped three times.

Selected for pilot training, he was fast tracked because of the urgency of the time. This took him to Canada and then finally England in 1941 for the finishing touches. The battle to control the skies was being bitterly fought. He was aged 19.

Before long, he was flying twin-engine Wellington bombers, which he described as “good aircraft, easy to fly, and strong”, adding with some foresight of what was to follow that “it’s one drawback was a reputation for burning rapidly and fiercely when set alight”.

His official war action lasted less than a month. The end came when German searchlights trapped the Wellington he was flying while leaving a night bombing run over Hamburg; it was a sitting target. The account of what follows is harrowing, including the blood spattered young pilot being pushed out and parachuting to the ground. He did not expect to survive.

“The war was the best thing that could have happened to me, “Dr Kerr told me with disarming frankness.”It taught me a lot about human nature and my life.”

Shot Down has rapidly moved into its third print run, as the 94-year-old Floreat pilot and academic adjusts to his new career as a successful author. “I wrote it in response to pressure from my family,”he said.

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