One of the brave young airmen who volunteered during the Second World War was my father; William Thomas Balmer. He was Born March 25, 1925 and he died April 21, 2017. Following his death, as I collected his photos, documents and and souveniers, it dawned on me others might be interested in what these young men went through.
Attached below is some relevant sections of his biography, some of his many photos and some of his stories, (a best as I recall them.)
L.A.C. William Thomas Balmer (CAN R222790)
Pre-War Years @ Yukon Southern Airways
•In 1942, at the age of 17, William (Bill) Balmer got a job at the new Grande Prairie airport working for Yukon Southern Airways. (The owners were Ted Field and Grant McConchie.)
• Bill said;”I did everything; pump gas into the planes, clean them, load and unload mail, clean the 12’ x 16’ office, and even cleaning the one hole’r”.
• He recalled his excitement when, one day, an actual Herman Nelson heater arrived to help him preheat the airplanes. Prior to that they used plumbers’ blow-pots with open flames that required constant attention to prevent spectacular results
• He recalled that when the incoming flights landed, the women would deplane and line up first for the sole ‘one-hole’ convenience, the men had to wait.
• When he was done with his duties, and when loads allowed, he could occasionally hitch a ride up to Fort St. John and back. Yukon Southern’s route then was Edmonton, Grande Prairie, Fort Saint John, Fort Nelson, Watson Lake, Whitehorse and return to Edmonton. (CLICK ON PHOTOS BELOW TO ENLARGE)
Yukon Southern Airways Fairchild 82 in Grande Prairie Alberta 1943.
A very young, very proud young fellow.
• They eventually flew Lockheed Lodestars, but he recalled they used some De Havilland and Waco products, some Fairchild 82’s (he recalled sitting in the cabin on these trips looking at the pilot’s feet over his head), and various twin engine and biplanes.
• He recalled at that time there was also a lot of military traffic in those days, mostly mono-planes with 18 cylinder radials. (Bill’s secret goal was to work on those airplanes.)
• He also recalled the occasional arrival of flights of “Lend-Lease” aircraft, one story he told from those days went like this ;
A flight of Air-Cobras arrived en route to Russia. The first Air-Cobra touched down on the icy runway and proceeded to go “this way and that” until it finally crashed to a stop in the snow bank. We all ran out and tried to wave off all the other landing aircraft, but failed to be seen and so could only watch as each of the rest of the flight, in sequence touched down, slowed, and taxied off under complete control. The first aircraft was flown by a male American military type (with apparently little Arctic experience) but they discovered that each aircraft except the first was piloted by a woman. .
* Most records don't reflect women pilots flying Lend-Lease aircraft on this side of the Pacific.
• Bill considered leaving Yukon Southern Airways for the Yukon, hoping to get work on the Cat trains running out of there building the Alaska Highway, but then he saw a recruiting advertisement in the local paper looking for recruits for the RCAF (Royal Canadian Air Force)
The War Years - LAC W. Balmer - CAN R222790
* Bill very rarely talked about his war years. Short cryptic phrases were used if the topic came up. He did seem to become a bit more comfortable talking about his experience in his later years, but he NEVER glamorized any part of it. The following information is collected from his few stories and documents discovered after his death, and the audio clips are from an interview Bill did in 2013 at the age of 87 with his Grandson Liam who was 10 at the time. The following is a short clip from that recording;
(This entire interview is available at the bottom of this page.)
• Bill once described wanting to “go to war” but his family was not supportive.
• When old enough he enlisted on 24 April 1943, age of 18, (2 months later he would be in England)
• He went by train from Grande Prairie to Halifax. They were nervous along the way because the train tracks in Quebec were being blown up by French Canadians who did not support the war.
• They made Halifax and travelled to Europe on the “Louis Pasteur”, but would return on the "Ile de France".
• They were afraid of German U Boats (and, he recalled excitement during the crossing when the German battleship the “Scharnhorst” was sunk, as it was ; “..a German Battleship fast enough to catch them.”
• Bill was Posted to 39 RCAF Wing June 1943. (This would be at the time that the unit was transferred from 'Army Cooperation' to 'Fighter Command', then reorganized again as # 39 Wing for the first time.
• It appears that his 39 Wing operated from England for Bill's first year of the war, then they were reorganized as # 39 Reconnaissance Wing (39 RCCE) for “D Day” June 5, 1944.
• 39 RCCE was operational for support of the D Day invasion although it was several days before they moved across the Channel to Caen, France, then on July 1, 1944, to Sommervieu France.
-39 RCCE Wing then moved with the “Front” through France, Holland, Belgium, and Germany flying Spitfires and Mustangs.
-William referred to two squadrons; the Spitfire units and the Mustangs “..across the field…”. The camera equipped Spitfires would take vertical and oblique (angled) photographs as they flew along pre-determined paths at one fixed elevation. (This would place the aircraft at some disadvantage to any enemy.) When the aircraft returned these photos would be developed as quickly as possible and evaluated for enemy activity and locations. The developed photographs were then rushed to the front-line troops that needed the information.
-39 RCCE would move locations frequently in order to be near the units that needed their support. They were themselves occasionally attacked directly (see below). Bill stated that because of this “.. constant proximity to the Front 39 RCCE were the only Air Force Units considered 'Front-Line' troops.”
Locations / Dates of Operation (from either Bill’s notes or Squadron records)
2. Louis Pasteur (England ?)
5. Kirton in Lindsey (RAF Airbase near Lincolnshire)
6. Hibaldstow (RAF)
7. Kirton in Lindsey
8. 128AF Redhill
9. Odiham (RAF) 28 June 1943
10.Horsham (RAF Horsham St Faith)
12.Old Sarum-Salisbury (RAF) 20 Jun 1944
13.Tilly (Likely Tillbury Docks), marked in Bills notes; “ > Caen”
14.Sommervieu France 1 July 1944
15.St Honorine (B.21) 12 Aug 1944
16.D’Arcy - Evereoux (?)
18.Avrilly France (B.34) 1 Sept 1944
19.Fresnoy-Folny 5 Sept 1944
20.Diest/Schaffen (B.64) 20 Sept 1944
21.Eindhoven Netherlands (B.78) 4 Oct 1944
22.Petite Brogel (B.90) 6 March 1945
24.Damn Germany (B.104) 30 March 1945
25.Rheine (B.108) 8 April 1945
26.Wunstorf (B.116) 15 April 1945
27.Rheinsehlen (B.154) 26 April 1945
28.Saltou (* and Bergen - Belsen)
29.Luneburg (B.156) 6 May 1945
(*F.M. Montgomery accepted the surrender of all Axis forces at Hacklingen 7 May, 1945, just 6 km from the main Luneburg Airfield.)
(** The underlined places (above) are recorded in William’s documents)
( *** Other dates (above) found @ Ref: https://www.airrecce.co.uk/WW2/units/RAF_Group.html )
(**** See Photos at: http://br36dundas.org/39recce/39recce.htm )
• Although Williams unit was only a few kilometers from the site of the formal surrender of the German forces in Northern Germany on May 7, 1945 it took some time for all hostility to end.
• Around this time Williams photographs become more frequent (and likely legal ?)
• 39 RCCE was disbanded in Germany later in the summer of 1945.
From Bill’s Pay Book Records;
• His pay book records the issue of rifle 13727 on Aug. 1944
• He was in Caen France a few days after D Day ?
• 2 March 1945 he was paid out (Pounds 9-8-0 in England) and $552.40 Canadian
• 17 March 1945 he returned Sten Gun Mk III SN 609767 to 39 Wing Armoury
• Leave Authorized;
• 13 to 14 April 1944 “ Not permitted to wear plain clothes”
• 2 Jan 1945 (1400 to midnight)“
• 13 Feb 1945 (1400 to midnight) “
• 5 March 1945 (0800 to midnight)“
* This is ALL of the leave recorded in his pay book (nearly 4 days off in >3 years !)
** There is a “Return Excursion” ticket from Portrush to Giants Causeway, Ireland, cancelled but not dated (likely 13-14 April ?).
Leading Aircraftsman (LAC) William Thomas Balmer, (Reg: CAN R222790), was Honourably released from the Royal Canadian Air Force on 26 April 1946 with CVSM and Clasp, 1939-45 Star, France and Germany Star.
(TOTAL SERVICE: 1081 Days Service (or 36 Pay Periods at $7.50 each) which included 808 days overseas (@ $1.50 bonus). His Final Pay Out = $556.60)
Williams War Stories:
-Most of Bill’s time was spent riding a ‘dispatch motorcycle’. HIs main responsibility was to take the exposed film removed from the Spitfire ‘camera aircraft’ once they returned from reconnaissance flights and deliver it to the ‘Photo Unit”. Then, according to Bill, he drank NAAFI Tea ,which he recalled, “had a peculiar taste, but you grew to like it.”, while the negatives were developed and printed with a reference grid placed on them for the Army gunners.
As soon as they were ready he then rushed them by motorcycle to the front line units (artillery, infantry, armoured or whoever needed the information). He recalled that the time in between the return of the camera aircraft and the start of a resulting artillery barrage was sometimes only minutes and usually less than an hour.
Above - LAC William Balmer on his Harley ? (The sten-gun that had been on the front forks was removed as;
"..it was just too cumbersome so I removed it".)
-William recounted once the need to be alert because the Germans were know to stretch wire across the road “just at neck height” to catch the unwary motorcycle rider.
-He was also assigned to 39 RCCE Service Police. Sometimes, he said, it seemed the most import police work he did was guarding the mess hall from marauding starving civilian populations, occasionally he said; “I just looked the other way”.
-Once or twice he mentioned an incident when some inebriated soldiers “machinegunned” their initials into a hanger door, it took little imagination to picture him being one participant, (he seemed to know a lot about the ‘sten-gun' that was involved.) He carried a ‘sten-gun' often and several times remarked about what an inaccurate and useless weapon it was. He also carried a "38 Webley revolver " which he described as "...uselless, it wouldn't kill anybody, unless you threw it at them".
-He once described shooting at enemy aircraft; ".... but I never hit them of course, we just wern't equipped for that."
-He recounted an incident late in the war when German bomber flew low over their airbase. This caused some urgent reaction, but instead of dropping bombs it lowered its wheels and landed. But the gear collapsed, or was retracted, and it “...belly landed”. Inside it were only the two German pilots who" he said, "were looking to surrender”. He recalled they were very happy to have, “landed alive” … “…because for them the war was over you see.” (CLICK ON ANY PHOTO BELOW TO SEE ENLARGEMENT)German Bomber that "surrendered " to 39 RCCE RCAF.
Captured German Aircrew (William Balmer - Far Left).
German Air Crew looking "None-too-sad" ?.
-Although he must have seen much action, he rarely talked about it, only occasionally mentioning that the “ Germans were trying to kill me” and occasionally about being bombed or shelled.
-William stated once that, “The Germans knew more about what we were doing than we did. One night the lady on the German ‘PR’ Radio, that we all listened to, said; “39 Reconnaissance Wing, one day soon we are going to pay you a visit, and the Mustang squadron across the field from you too.” “ A day or two later, in the morning we were operational, two hours later there was nothing left.” ….. “They would hit us with Mescherschmidt and Focke Wulf aircraft, and with 88’s… much better stuff than we ever had.” He said; "They were very good with those 88's".
-This incident (above) is likely the one told of by Lloyd Robertsonat : http://www.thememoryproject.com/stories/894:lloyd-george-ike-robertson/
( 16 members of 39 RCCE Wing were killed in this one “air-raid” on their Eindhoven base).
-He spoke of an incident when “…high ranking Brass visited our airfield and….we didn’t even know, security could be that tight…..”. He named Churchill and Field Marshal Montgomery. (*Research shows this was possible, both were actually present within a few kilometers of Bills unit when they crossed the Rheine River, and a few weeks later Montgomery arrived again for the surrender of Nazi Axis forces which took place May 7, 1945 less than 6 km from the Luneburg Airfield where Bill would have been stationed at that date.)
-On March 25, 1945 he would have celebrated his 20th birthday, two weeks later 39 RCCE encountered Bergen-Belsen prisoner of war camp. Bill was there to photograph and document the worst horrors of the Second World War. (Some of his photos of this camp survive to this day, see below.) Records show 39 RCCE RCAF among the first to arrive and that some members of 39 RCCE RCAF continued to visit the camp and carried food and water to the survivors for several weeks.
-In the recorded interview with his Grandson Bill responds about the nature of any 'good' that might come from all this;
(This entire interview is available at the bottom of this page.).
-When the war was over he found himself in England awaiting demobilization and return to Canada. He entered a lottery and won a nice English automobile. It sounded like he and his friends enjoyed that car greatly, but one day he was given the chance to return to Canada way ahead of schedule. He gladly accepted the opportunity and “threw the keys to the car away to one of his friends” who was still waiting in England to go home.
-He described carrying two duffle bags, one of his German trophies in addition to his kit bag. He stated that when he boarded the train he turned back for his second kit bag only to find someone had stolen it when he turned his back.
-When William returned from over-seas (late 1945 or early 1946) it was his intention to rejoin Yukon Southern Airways (by law they were required to hire him back). But, then one day he saw an advertisement for the Alberta Forest Service. He applied, was accepted, and went to Forestry School in Kananaskis on the ‘veterans training benefit’ in January 1947.
When interviewed Liam asked what was it like when they returned from the war. Here is a clip with Bills answer;
(This entire interview is available at the bottom of this page.).
-William was 18 at the time he went to war, he was away for over three years, until this adventure he had never left the farm.
Recollection of George Balmer ( Bill's son):
-I do not have many memories of my father talking about his war-time experiences, he kept it mostly to himself. At the age of 87 Bill was interviewed by his Grandson LIam, that interview contained the most detail I recall offered by Bill at any one time. (That interview is available at the bottom of thispage;
-As a child I recall finding his photo album from the war. I must have been snooping because I never recall him showing these photos to anyone! Some photos were of a young man sitting suavely on his motorcycle, some were of crashed German aircraft, some were of places he had been and things he had seen. But the most striking were at least 20 or more photographs kept separated in the back of his album that he once acknowledged he “…took during the clean up of Bergen-Belsen prisoner of war camp.
These photos were of piles of dead or dying people; in rows, in piles, in pits, and live ones standing and staring into the camera. They were mostly naked or dressed in simple pyjamas and all were so skinny their bones and joints were clearly visible. They were of hundreds of dead and starving people. I never mentioned finding them and he never ever talked of them.
During a visit to his home in later years I noticed that all those particular photos were gone, save two which were posted in the back of the album, face down. I assumed that he had removed them and I speculated that he had probably destroyed them? Years later, at his 80th birthday party, I asked him about those photos and he said; “Yes, they disappeared, I assumed one of you boys had just taken them to school and lost them.” I assured him this was not the case but I imagine he or someone else who knew they existed took a hand in their disappearance.
Those two photos remain in his album still, pasted backwards.
-I recall other photos in his albums taken of the Nazi trophies he had “procured”. There was a selection of Lugers, pistols, binoculars, knives, swords, cameras, too much to recall. Some of these items I identified as the same knives and swords that hung on the wall in the living room of the old family farmhouse in Bear Lake.
(* Almost all these items had disappeared by the time of his death. )
-The most detail ever I heard personally from dad about the war was in his later years when he was being questioned by my wife, who seemed at the time to be an intermediary. One thing he told her was; “I saw things that were so terrible, I don’t even want you to know about them.”
Williams Photo Selection from 1944
Left - Williams 1944 photo of St Johannis Church in Luneburg in 1944, Right - Same location today.
Left - Williams 1944 Photograph of Luneburgs Old Harbour, Right - That same location viewed today.
Below is the majority of the interview between Bill and his ten year old Grandson in 2013 when Bill was 87. This was likely the most detail anyone ever heard from him at one time regarding his war (44 Mb File - takes time to load.).
CORRECTIONS OF FACT OR ERRORS ? - PLEASE CONTACT ME TO ALLOW ME TO MAKE IMPROVEMENTS.