One of the brave young airmen who volunteered during the Second World War was my father; William Thomas Balmer. He was Born March 7, 1925 and he died April 21, 2017. Following his death, as I collected his photos, documents and souveniers, it dawned on me others might be interested in what many of these young men went through.
What follows is some relevant sections of his biography, a few 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 company 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, with much urgency everyone would deplane and line up for the sole ‘one-hole’ convenience, the women first, the men had to wait.
• When he was done with his duties, and when the 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.
• The company eventually flew Lockheed Lodestars, but he recalled them flying some De Havilland and Waco products, and some Fairchild 82’s (he recalled sitting in the cabin on these trips looking at the pilot’s feet over his head).
• He recalled that at that time there was a lot of military traffic, mostly mono-planes with 18 cylinder radials. (Bill said his secret goal was to work on those airplanes.)
• He recalled the occasional arrival of transient 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 wartime work on the Cat-trains building the Alaska Highway, but then he saw a recruiting advertisement in the local newspaper looking for recruits for the RCAF (Royal Canadian Air Force). His parents refused to allow him to join so he decided to wait until his 18th birthday so that he could join despite their opposition.
The War Years - LAC W. Balmer - CAN R222790
A note of explanation - 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 experiences in his later years, but he NEVER glamorized any part of it. The following information is related from his few stories and from documents discovered after his death. 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 short clip is from that recording;
(This entire interview is available at the bottom of this page.)
• Bill described wanting to “go to war” but his family was not supportive.
• On 24 April 1943, a month after his 18th birthday, he joined the RCAF, (2 months later he would be in England)
• He traveled by troop-train from Grande Prairie to Halifax. He recalled 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 then traveled to Europe on the ship the “Louis Pasteur”, (He would return nearly 3 years later on the "Ile de France").
• While at sea they were afraid of German U Boats. He recalled excitement among the crew during the crossing when the German battleship the “Scharnhorst” was sunk, as it was ; “..a German Battleship that fast enough to catch us.”
• In England Bill was posted to Fighter Command in June 1943. (The unit had been identified as 'Army Cooperation' before this.) The Air Force was reorganized again and his unit became " # 39 Wing RCAF" . They were comprised of three squadrons numbered ; 400, 414, and 430. His unit was #414 and they flew Spitfires for the whole war.
• It appears that his 39 Wing operated from English soil for most of Bill's first year of war, then they were reorganized and identified as # 39 Reconnaissance Wing (39 RCCE) RCAF for “D Day” June 5, 1944.
• 39 RCCE Wing was operational during the June 5th D Day invasion although it was several days later they moved across the Channel to Caen, France, and then on July 1, 1944, to Sommervieu, France.
-39 RCCE Wing moved along with the fighting, flying from any available location in order to keep up with the “Front” while it moved through France, Holland, Belgium, and ultimately Germany.
-William referred to two squadrons; "our Spitfires...." and "...the Mustangs across the field…”.
-Bills unit used camera equipped Spitfires with the camera behind the pilots head aimed out a glass port horizontally along the wing. They could take vertical or oblique (angled) photographs as they flew only by banking the aircraft. Marks on the wing were used by the pilot to compose the picture. Lines of useful photographs would require the aircraft staying at one fixed elevation and maintaining a "knife-edge" side-slip. This would place their aircraft at some disadvantage to any enemy aircraft they encountered. Bill once said; "They were not offensive early on, all they could do was open the throttle and escape with their photos." Where the early models of Camera Spitfire had no weapons but by the end of the war they had become fully armed and offensive.
-When these aircraft returned their film would be removed and developed as quickly as possible then evaluated for enemy activity and locations. The developed photographs were then rushed to the front-line troops that needed the information. (Historic records show that 39 RCCE were processing more than a million photos per week by 1945.)
- 39 RCCE would move locations frequently in order to be near the units that needed their support. Bill stated that ; "because of our constant proximity to the Front 39 RCCE were the only Air Force Units considered as 'Front-Line' troops.” They were themselves were attacked directly (see below) "...especially early on...".
-Historically 39 RCCE was the first unit to spot the V-2 Rockets in operation and pursued and identified their launch sites thereby helping to prevent that threat from developing.
-In March 1945 39 RCCE crossed the Rhine with the First Canadian, Second British and Ninth U.S. Army. They were the first Allied unit to fly off of German soil, and when they reached Lunneberg they had advanced as far as any Allied Air-unit would advance during the entire second world war.
Bill's Postings and Locations / Dates of Operation
(taken from either Bill’s notes or Squadron records)
2. Louis Pasteur (to 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 (* It was near Saltou 39RCCE encountered Bergen - Belsen prison camp.)
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 places (above) are recorded in William’s documents, or unit records)
( *** Other dates (above) found @ Ref: https://www.airrecce.co.uk/WW2/units/RAF_Group.html )
• 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 months for all hostility to end.
• Around this time Williams photographs become more frequent (and likely legal ?)
• 39 RCCE RCAF was disbanded in Germany late in August 1945.
Details From Bill’s Pay Book Records;
• His pay book records the issue of rifle # 13727 on Aug. 1944
• He was located 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 but “... 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. He was awarded the CVSM and Clasp, 1939-45 Star, France and Germany Star.
It shows 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 war was spent riding a ‘dispatch motorcycle’ transporting photographs. The exposed film was removed from the Spitfire ‘camera aircraft’ once they returned from reconnaissance flights and delivered it to the ‘Photo Unit” . Bill recounted waiting and drinking 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 on them to aid the Army gunners.
As soon as they were ready Bill 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 once recounted his need to be alert because the Germans were known to stretch wire across the road “just at neck height” to catch the unwary motorcycle rider.
-He was also frequently assigned to 39 RCCE Service Police. He said it often seemed the most import police work he did was guarding the mess hall from marauding starving civilian populations, and "...occasionally..." he said; “...I just looked the other way”.
-Once or twice he mentioned an incident when some inebriated soldiers “machine-gunned” 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 weren't equipped for that."
-He recounted a specific incident late in the war when German bomber appeared and flew low over their airbase. This caused the expected 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.” See below;
(CLICK ON ANY OF BILL's PHOTOS BELOW TO SEE THEM ENLARGED)Bills photo of a Focke Wolfe FW 200 that "surrendered ".
Captured German Aircrew (William Balmer - Far Left).
Bills photo of German Air Crew looking "...None-too-sad" ?.
-Although he must have seen much action, Bill rarely talked about it. When he did, he occasionally said simply that “The Germans were trying to kill me”, "....fairly frequently early on". He occasionally told of running to trenches and laying in pits waiting while they were being bombed or straffed by German aircraft or shelled by German artillery. "They would hit us with Mescherschmidt and Focke Wulf aircraft, and with 88's.......much better stuff than we ever had.....They were very good with those 88's ! "
-William stated once that, “The Germans knew more about what our unit was up to 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,' he said; " in the morning we were operational, two hours later there was nothing left.”
He said; "Once, near Eindoven, we were cut off for three days and they attacked us every day. You took your weapon with you everywhere then, even to the latrine. They would attack and you would just grab it and run to the slit trench".
-This incident Bill spoke of (above) is likely the one described by Lloyd Robertson at : http://www.thememoryproject.com/stories/894:lloyd-george-ike-robertson/
( 16 members of 39 RCCE Wing were killed in this one “air-raid” ! ).
-"But" Bill said; "..security could be extremely tight". 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 as passing through his unit. (*This was a claim I discounted until my research showed both named individuals were actually present when the Allied units including 39RCCE crossed the Rheine River in the advance into Germany. Again a few weeks later, May 7, 1945, Montgomery arrived for the surrender of Nazi Axis forces less than 6 km from the Airfield where Bill would have been stationed on that date.)
-On March 7, 1945 Bill would have celebrated his 20th birthday, three weeks later 39 RCCE encountered Bergen-Belsen prisoner of war camp. 39 RCCE RCAF arrived at the camp immediately behind the first advancing soldiers to encounter the horror.
*** I seems, from historic research (IE * "Distance from the Belsen Heap, Mark Celinscak, Universtiy of Toronto Press), that the first units were not prepared for this discovery. Allied command left the German guard units in place in the camp and wisely (?) arranged for as many Allied servicemen as possible to be transported to the camp and allowed access in order to witness the horrors. Local residents were also forceably transported to the camps and utilized in the clean-up. I could speculate this became Allied policy.***
There are records of some 39 RCCE RCAF continuing to visit Bergen Belsen and carried food and water to the survivors for several weeks, until the unit moved on. Bill was one of many individuals to photograph and document the worst horrors of the Second World War. (Some of Bills photographs of this camp survive to this day, see below.)
-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 Bill 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 a duffle bag full of his German War 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 arrived back in Canada 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 just 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):
-My father did not talk about his war-time experiences, he kept it mostly to himself. At the age of 87 Bill was interviewed by his Grandson, Liam, and that interview contained the most detail I recall ever offered by Bill at any one time. (That interview is available at the bottom of this page);
-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! In it were photos 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 alarming and attractive to me as a child were 20 or more photographs kept separated in the back of his album.
These photos were of hundreds of dead or dying people; bodies in rows, in piles, in pits, and barely live ones standing and staring with large eyes into the camera. They were mostly naked or dressed in simple pajamas or even just rags. All were so skinny their bones and joints were clearly visible. There were many hundreds of dead and starving people. I never mentioned finding them, and he never ever talked to us of them.
More than twenty years later, during a visit to his home, the album was present and I noticed that all those particular photos were gone, save two which were now posted in the back of the album, face down. I assumed that he had removed the rest 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 last two photos still remain in his album, pasted backwards, at the South Peace Museum in Grande Prairie Alberta.)
-I recall other photos in his albums were of scenery, military parades, and the German ( 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 remember as the same knives and swords that hung on the wall in the living room of the old family farmhouse near Bear Lake.
(* Almost all these items had disappeared by the time of his death. )
-The most details I ever heard from dad about the horror of war was, when in his later years, while he was being questioned by my wife, who seemed at the time to be able to draw him out about the topic. One thing he told her was; “I saw things that were so terrible, I don’t even want you to know about them.”
Comparisons - 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.
More of Bill's photos can be found by downloading these .pdf files;
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.).
For more 39 RCCE Photos go to : http://br36dundas.org/39recce/39recce.htm
For more operational stories about 39 RECCE Wing go to;
CORRECTIONS OF FACT OR ERRORS ? - PLEASE CONTACT ME TO ALLOW ME TO MAKE IMPROVEMENTS.