Sergeant Alexander Ballentine served in the Royal Air Force during World War Two. Known to family and friends as Alex, he was born on 11th August 1922. Alex was the son of Alexander Ballentine and Margaret Ballentine of Clonmohr Terrace, Ballymena, Co. Antrim.
He enlisted in the Royal Air Force as a teenager in 1940, serving throughout the war until demobilisation in 1947. He joined Bomber Command’s RAF 214 Squadron and was a rear gunner in Short Stirling bombers. Before the outbreak of World War Two, he had been a founding member of Wellington Street Boys’ Brigade in Ballymena, Co. Antrim. He attended Ballymena Academy Grammar School where he played rugby. A keen sportsman, he also played cricket for the Co. Antrim town team.
Sergeant Ballentine had returned to Northern Ireland in May 1942 to attend his father’s funeral in Ballymena, Co. Antrim. The late Mr. Ballentine was held in high esteem in the local area, known for his work in the legal profession with Caruth and Bamber.
During the Second World War, Ballentine was a prisoner of war for 3 years at the Luftwaffe-run Stalag Luft III in Zagan, occupied Poland. Cinema-goers will recognise the name as the setting for the movie The Great Escape.
Ballentine at War
On 11th June 1942, the Luftwaffe shot down Ballentine’s plane near the Frisian Islands off the Dutch coast. At the time, Sergeant Ballentine was 19 years old. He was the rear gunner on Mark I Short Stirling R9326 BU-G. The plane was part of a minelaying sortie off the German coast as part of Operation Gardening. British Pathé archives show footage of this crew in the short film ‘On The Chin (1942)’.
The crew took off from RAF Stradishall, Suffolk at 2300hrs on 11th June 1942. to lay mines in the Nectarines II area that covered the Frisian Islands. They had laid their mines in cloud cover, having spotted an airfield on the island of Borkum to plot their position. They decided to return to Borkum beneath the radar level to drop 4 250lb bombs on the airfield.
|Last Name||First Name(s)||Rank||Role||Information|
|Tonkin||AR||Sergeant||Pilot||RAAF. Prisoner of War.|
|Ransome||GH||Sergeant||Co-Pilot||RAF. Prisoner of War.|
|Horne||WD||Sergeant||RAF. Prisoner of War.|
|Honeychurch||CC||Flight Sergeant||Observer||RCAF. Prisoner of War.|
|Morton||GD||Sergeant||Flight Engineer||RAF. Prisoner of War.|
|Goodey||SG||Sergeant||Air Gunner||RAF. Prisoner of War.|
|Beagles||LC||Flight Sergeant||RAF. Prisoner of War.|
|Ballentine||A||Sergeant||Rear Gunner||RAF. Prisoner of War.|
Capture on the Frisian Islands
After taking a hit from anti-aircraft fire from Borkum off the coast of Germany, the plane came down on Memmert Island. With the rear turret in which Ballentine sat out of action, the Stirling bomber crash-landed on the beach. In 1942, the island was a bird sanctuary with nothing more than a warden’s hut. The unexploded bombs and the damaged plane remained on the beach.
They deployed a dingy, but changeable tides and shallow water made it difficult to float. The next step was to burn all documentation and attempt to set fire to the stricken plane followed by a ration of rum. German soldiers eventually found the men taking them to the only small cottage on the island where they ate black bread and gull’s eggs.
Soon a Luftwaffe guard detail arrived, taking the crew to Dalag Luft at Oberursel, Germany for interrogation. Later POW camps included Stalag Luft VI at Heydekrug and Stalag XIB at Fallingbostel before the crew arrived at Stalag Luft III. Transport between camps was in cattle trucks in difficult conditions.
Great Escapes and Liberation
The real-life escape from Stalag Luft III took place on 24th March 1944. The tunnel dug came up short of the nearby forest meaning escapees did not make it very far despite an air raid disabling the camp’s electrical lights. Of 77 men who made it through the tunnel, only 3 escaped. Luftwaffe guards killed 50 men. The rest returned to capture in the camp.
In early 1945, German guards forced the men from their camp on what would become an 800 mile forced march through occupied Poland and Germany. Some days, the marching column came under attack from their own RAF. The prisoners soon learned to wave their greatcoats showing the white lining and the planes of the Royal Air Force held their fire.
Through the march, the men found themselves locked overnight in large 2-storey barns eating nothing more than black bread. In early May 1945, no guards came to wake the men so they set off into the nearest town. Unaware the area had been liberated by the British 6th Airborne Division, they came to an abandoned German military hospital. The Flight Engineer stole an ambulance and drove off in the direction of the advancing Allied forces. They met a US Army Jeep and received some food before carrying on.
They arrived at a British base and kept a low profile until they could return to the United Kingdom. VE Day came and went without their knowledge and they returned home less than a week later.
Life after the War
Alex rarely spoke of the war but maintained a diary after his freedom, arriving back in Ballymena, Co. Antrim on 14th May 1945. After the war, he gained employment with the Department of Agriculture in Northern Ireland where he met his wife Audrey. The couple had 3 sons, Paul Ballentine, Ashley Ballentine, and Mark Ballentine.
The family lived off the Holywood Road, Belfast, Co. Down. Alex continued to work in the Civil Service until 1982 when he became Chief Executive of Seed Potato Promotions NI. He held that position until the age of 79 years old.
Alexander Ballentine died on 28th January 2008 aged 85 years old. His funeral took place at James Brown and Sons’ Funeral Church, Newtownards Road, Belfast, Co. Down. His grave is in Ballymoney Cemetery, Ballymoney, Co. Antrim.