Archive | January 2016

Shot Down: Alex Kerr’s incredible WWII survival story


Shot Down
A secret diary of one POW’s long march to freedom
By Alex Kerr
Published by Big Sky Publishing
RRP $24.99 in paperback ISBN 9781925275179

Having previously served in the CMF, Alex Kerr enlisted in the RAAF in April 1940 in the first course of pilots in the Empire Air Training Scheme. After undertaking training in Australia and Canada he arrived in the United Kingdom in December that year. In April 1941, he was posted as a pilot to No. 115 Squadron RAF, flying Wellington Bombers. In May 1941, on his fourth operation, Alex was shot down over Hamburg.  Badly wounded and unable to get out of the escape hatch, his life was saved by his rear gunner, who pushed him from the burning aircraft. Alex managed to open his parachute before losing consciousness.

During the next four years as a prisoner of war, Alex studied and passed exams for a Certificate in Social Studies (Oxford University) and a Bachelor of Science in Economics (London University). Alex spent his 21st birthday in a POW camp, where a Canadian prisoner named Calvert gave him an egg for his birthday, a rare treat. During his time as a prisoner, Alex was involved in three escape attempts, one of which included the construction of a ‘record breaking’ tunnel. He succeeded on his third attempt.

During his years of captivity, Alex kept a diary on which the book Shot Down is based. It’s an incredible story. In his foreword, Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston (retd) described the book as a fascinating read and at the same time a careful and accurate record of life in the POW camps.

There is no doubt that Alex Kerr’s strength and courage are an example to us all.

At the link below you’ll find a very interesting talk that Alex Kerr gave a couple of years ago on his prisoner of war experience. It is worth watching and it will be an excellent lead in to the book.


The Best Gallipoli Yarns


The Best Gallipoli Yarns
And forgotten stories
By Jim Haynes

Published by Allen & Unwin
RRP $29.99 in paperback  ISBN 9781760111793

Jim Haynes is a prolific Australian spinner of yarns across many subjects. If you don’t believe me, check out his website at this link: – he has a special passion for Australian storytelling.

In this book The Best Gallipoli Yarns, he brings together a collection of yarns, poems and recollections… stories of recruitment, memories of life in the trenches, accounts of the fighting and of coming home.

He has arranged the material in chronological order to produce a coherent and readable collection.

Many of the pieces are previously unpublished or long out of print. Some of them were written soon after the events they describe, while others were written later. They are stories, writes Haynes in his preface. They are not intended to be military reports or offer the depth of the work produced by military historians.

Having said that, it is the first hand accounts that give us a real sense of the events at Gallipoli and the emotional and physical impact on those who took part.

This is a collection full of poignancy, horror and sadness, as well as dry Aussie humour. It reminds us that Gallipoli was more than a military campaign. These are the forgotten stories and yarns that are at the very heart of the Anzac legend.

Moral Injury: Unseen Wounds in an Age of Barbarism


Moral Injury
Unseen Wounds in an Age of Barbarism
Edited by Tom Frame

Published by UNSW Press
$39.99 in paperback
ISBN 9781742234656

This is a collection of essays from ex-soldiers, military historians, chaplains and psychologists that examines the unseen wounds sustained by Australians deployed to armed conflict zones, on peacekeeping missions and humanitarian assistance as well as disaster relief.

This book is the outcome of the first Australian moral injury symposium held in February 2015. The symposium considered two related questions.

Firstly, what evidence supports the existence of moral injury and is moral injury a new experience or simply a new name? And, secondly, if moral injury does exist, how does any Australian experience of moral injury compare with that sustained by the personnel of its operating partners?

The book is divided into six perspectives:

  • Historical
  • Personal
  • Ethical
  • Psychological
  • Practical
  • Religious

This is an important book in that it examines the Australian experience whereas much of the previous knowledge about these issues came via American or other studies.

As Tom Frame writes in the conclusion, there is much more to be known about moral injury:

… this book and the further inquiry that it suggests is propelled by a common concern for those who have been affected by uniformed service. It is also an expression of esteem and respect. – Tom Frame

It is the first book in a series to be produced by the Australian Centre for the Study of Armed Conflict and Society (ACSACS) – a UNSW Canberra Research Centre at ADFA.

You can see more about the centre’s activities at


Flying Kangaroo: Great untold stories of QANTAS


Flying Kangaroo: Great untold stories of QANTAS
By Jim Eames
Published by Allen & Unwin
RRP $29.99 in paperback
ISBN 9781760113551

This book is a departure from the usual fare of serious military history books that I write about for this blog.

QANTAS, of course, has played a pivotal role in the development of Australia and in lessening the tyranny of distance, a phrase added to the Australian lexicon by Geoffrey Blainey.

Author Jim Eames is well placed to write such a book, having been a press secretary to the Minister for Aviation and a former Director of Public Affairs for Qantas. He has lived and breathed aviation and has an insider’s knowledge of the airline. His insights make for an entertaining read.

It isn’t just a book of anecdotes although there are many of those. Stories that come to mind include the successful effort to smuggle Lady Diana Spencer out of Australia back to England immediately prior to her engagement to Prince Charles. The subterfuge needed to avoid press attention was worthy of a spy thriller.

Stories of Gough Whitlam as a VIP passenger bring a smile as does the story of how the famous line ‘QANTAS never crashes’ made it into the film Rain Man.

There are also stories of some of the great characters of the early days of QANTAS, the like of which we won’t see again in the modern corporate world of aviation.

Most of all, Eames tell a great yarn. I think this is great summer reading.

If you’re an aviation buff, you’ll probably think the same.

PM Literary Prize winners rags v riches tale, says Brian Toohey

The Spy Catchers

The Spy Catchers: The Official History of ASIO, 1949-1963, Vol.1 by Professor David Horner

While I was busy being sick just before Christmas, I missed the announcement that two titles I’m familiar with in writing about military history books had shared the Prime Minister’s Literary Prize in the Australian History category for 2015:


Charles Bean by Ross Coulthart (HarperCollins Publishers)

The Spy Catchers—The Official History of ASIO Vol 1 by David Horner (Allen & Unwin)

Well done to both authors.

What alerted me to this was Brian Toohey’s article in The Australian Financial Review (23-28 December 2015) – ASIO’s official history has a $1.75m subplot

It is a revealing article in that it quotes the figures ASIO has reportedly invested in its three volume official history, not all of which ends up in the pockets of the authors, of course. However he does compare this with Ross Coulthart having to rely on author royalties from his publishers for any return on his effort in writing the Charles Bean book.

Toohey does make one mistake in the article. He suggested that given the size of the grants and the ‘paucity of sales’, it might be better to subject future literary funding [from government agencies] to competitive tender. The contract for writing the ASIO history was certainly subject to open tender. I remember remarking on it at the time.

If the benchmark was always to be commercial success, I suspect many important books would not see the light of day.

I know there have been several criticisms of David Horner’s The Spy Catchers, but that does not diminish, in my opinion, the value of having attempted to capture the history of the establishment and early days of Australia’s primary intelligence agency.


New book honours VC Heroes of World War I

VC Heroes

Victoria Cross Heroes of World War One
The Valley of Death at Gallipoli
By Robert Hamilton

ISBN 9781925385007
384pp, in hardback
Published by Atlantic Publishing
Distributed in Australia exclusively via QBD Bookstores


Local bookseller QBD has taken something of a risk with this book, electing to order stock exclusively for their stores, an unusual move for a bookseller.

QBD director Steve Robinson said the company wanted to ‘pay homage to the 628 heroes of World War I including Australia’s Victoria Cross recipients’ of which 64 were Australian.

I was immediately intrigued by the introduction which says that this book is ‘an exhaustive record of the feats and lives of 627 extraordinary men’, which meant that one man must have won the VC twice.

The answer to that puzzle comes on p.234 under the headline: ‘The Great War’s double VC winner’. You will have to read the book yourself to discover the story.

There are familiar Australian names in the book, including Lance Corporal Albert Jacka, the subject of Michael Lawriwsky’s book ‘Return of the Gallipoli Legend: Jacka VC’, published in 2010.

As I read through this, I was immediately struck by the ‘ordinariness’ of the men who displayed the greatest acts of bravery under fire.

They were drawn from the ordinary and every day jobs and professions of civilian life, to which many of them returned, no doubt with the VC tucked away in the back of a drawer. Others, of course, were awarded the VC posthumously. Sadly quite a few survived the war but died from the effects of wounds only a few years after the war.

There were carpenters, commercial travellers, labourers and teachers; sons of gardeners and doctors; miners and farmers; plus of course the professional soldiers.

This is a wonderful collection of stories supported by an equally wonderful range of photographs. It has clearly taken a good deal of research to pull this together.

If you want to obtain a copy of this, I know that you won’t be able to miss it if you go into your local QBD store, where it is on sale for $39.99 (as against the RRP of $79.99).

QBD, a bookstore chain that started in Queensland, is well represented in most states (except Tas and WA) – check out the website for a store near you – or go online and order the book.

Link to purchase online at QBD

It would be good to see QBD’s initiative in making this book available locally rewarded with good sales.

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