Bill Balmer survived five years in German POW camp

A WELL-known and popular figure in the Ballymoney Royal British Legion, who survived five tough years in a World War Two German prison camp, has died at the age of 88.

Bill Balmer’s life was so full of stories he even crammed his experiences into a book and as testament to the high regard he was held, there was a big turnout at his funeral service at St Patrick’s Church of Ireland in Ballymoney.

Mr Balmer, from Gault Park, died at Causeway Hospital, Coleraine, just three days short of his 89th birthday which would have been on July 12. He is survived by his wife of 64 years, Lizzie, brother Andy and sisters Nellie, Mary and Annie.

Mr Balmer’s coffin was draped in the Union Flag and standards from the Royal British Legion and the UDR Regimental Association were on display.

Rev Brian Howe recalled Mr Balmer’s long and varied life.

The minister said: “William (Bill) was born in Coleraine 12th July 1922, the son of William and Annie from Ballymoney. The family lived in Adams Place opposite Union Street Orange Hall. Born at 6am on the 12th his mother always reminded him that he was born to the sound of the Lambeg Drums hence the name William. Bill had three brothers and five sisters -John, Bobby and Andy, Nellie, Mary, the twins Sadie and Elsie and the youngest Annie.

“Educated at the Eden Elementary school, his first job on leaving school was working for Boyd’s Engineering in Bendooragh working in the Blacksmiths shop. But the families’ military influence was never far away, in 1938 along with a friend he cycled to the army recruiting office in Kilrea intending to join his father’s old Regiment the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers. Unfortunately for him and to the benefit of the Royal Navy the Recruiting Officer knew his father and realised Bill was too young to join.

“In 1939 after hearing stories from his father of how Royal Marines had rowed to the beaches of Gallipoli and evacuated his Regiment and having seen an advert in the local paper he decided he was going to apply for the Corp. In June 1939 he travelled to the Royal Marine depot in Deal. “Training was due to last a year but due to the onset of war, September 1939, his training was condensed and he was sent on his first posting. “Engagements with the enemy at Boulogne and Calais followed; he was taken prisoner on 26th May 1940 and marched into Germany to STALAG V111-B where he and his fellow prisoners were subjected to a gruelling 12 hour day in the work camps. He was liberated on 2nd May 1945.

“On 15th March, 1947, Bill’s luck changed when he married Elizabeth (Lizzie) Ann McKinney, Lizzie was to become a devoted partner and his life long friend. In 1949 Bill volunteered for the prestigious Commando course and on winning his Green Beret was posted to Malaya as part of 3 Commando Brigade, he was 27 years old that year. After tours in Malta and north Africa Bill left the Marines on 11th July 1953.

“After his discharge Bill was employed as a postman in Ballymoney, walking a 22-mile route every week before he decided that it would be quicker on a bicycle. He had 31 years service with the Post Office.

“He joined the B specials and the Royal British Legion that same year, serving as the Legion’s branch chairman from 1972 – 1979, and on the Services committee with his good friends Annie Dobbin and Sam Anderson.

“Not only did Bill serve in the Legion, Lizzie, devoted as ever, served beside him. She was awarded the Legion’s Merit Award Bar for outstanding Service to the women’s section. The B Specials were disbanded in 1970, but Bill’s military skills were recognised and he was asked to join the UDR which he did in 1972. His young nephew David Dickie was also a member of the unit and Bill soon took him under his wing whilst on operations.

“Bill served in the Ballymoney Company until 1979. His most satisfying military experience was undoubtedly completing the arduous commando course and earning the coveted Green Beret, an achievement of which he was justifiably proud.

“Outside the military and their British Legion life, Bill and Lizzie enjoyed their trips to Canada with Lizzie’s sisters Sarah and Martha, many happy hours were spent there and many winter nights passed telling the wider family of their exploits.

“2009 saw his book ‘My Service Life’, published. Bill spent many hours with the author Ronnie Gamble producing an amazing insight into Bill’s life and his many sacrifices, many of these exploits he previously had only divulged to a chosen few.

“He was the consummate Marine, feared by all enemies and loved by all Company Sergeant Majors. A quiet dedicated Husband. He will be sorely missed by his devoted wife Lizzie, his brother Andy and sisters Mary, Nellie and Annie, and all the extended family and friends whose hearts he touched.

“In his last few months Bill spent some time in the Model Nursing Home and was in and out of Coleraine Hospital where he received excellent care from all the staff in both locations and the family wish to pass on their sincere thanks to all who attended to Bill over those months,” said Rev. Howe.

Mr Balmer was interred in Ballymoney Cemetery. Fittingly, for a man who gave so much time to the Royal British Legion, donations were given to The Poppy Appeal.