207 SQUADRON ROYAL AIR FORCE HISTORY
CW ("Freddie") Hulance who was one of
David Balme's Captains on 227 Squadron.
Almost all of this tribute is based on what David himself told him.
Aged 79, David Balme was laid to rest on 2nd March 1989 in the churchyard of the small village of Gumley where he had made his home for the last 25 years. Amongst the packed congregation in the 12th century church were 6 members of his bomber crew and of the Squadron he commanded. They were probably the only ones present who knew at first hand the heroism which this distinguished scholar had demonstrated during the 1939-45 war.
David spent the first ten years of his life in China where his Father was Professor of Surgery at Cheeloo University, returning to England for his education at Marlborough College and Clare College, Cambridge, where he read Classics and graduated with first class honours in both parts of the Tripos. Then followed two years of research at Halle University in Germany and a short period as a Tutor at Reading University. Having won an open thesis competition, in 1937 he returned as a Research Fellow to Clare College. In 1940 he became a Tutor at Jesus College, but volunteered for Aircrew duty in the RAF and ironically returned to No.5 Initial Training Wing at Cambridge as an U/T Pilot for basic training in his old College.
Unbelievable as it seems now, the RAF did not at the time consider him Officer Material, and so on gaining his Wings he became a Sergeant Pilot. However, using some logic, the RAF insisted that he became a Flying Instructor because of his high academic qualifications. By a further coincidence David was posted as a Qualified Flying Training Instructor to No.22 Elementary Flying Training School at Marshalls at Cambridge, again finding himself on his home doorstep.
Many might have revelled in such a fortunate posting but David was determined to take part in the Bomber Offensive, and pestered his seniors until his wish was finally granted. After converting onto Lancasters he joined No.207 Squadron in No.5 Group on 28th March, 1943 as a newly fledged Flying Officer, and flew his first operational sortie against Duisberg on 9th April 1943.
This was the start of the career of a bomber captain who was to become a legend on those Squadrons on which he served. Early in his first tour of operations, whilst returning from a target in the Ruhr, an error by his navigator took his Lancaster off track. It was suddenly coned by intense searchlights and suffered many hits from heavy anti-aircraft fire from Flensberg on the Dutch coast.
The Germans had developed their radar-controlled defences to a high degree of efficiency by that time, and there was considered to be little hope of escape for a solitary bomber once thus 'coned' by searchlights and caught by concentrated predictive flak which was capable of following changes of direction or height with deadly accuracy.
Recalling his time as a flying instructor on Tiger Moths, David judged that one - possibly his only - hope of escape was to carry out a series of stall turns. These he had almost certainly never carried out in a Lancaster before, let alone at night; an imponderable point was - could a Lancaster - let alone one damaged as his already was - withstand such an acrobatic manoeuvre (albeit one of the less stressful) which was normally only attempted in strongly stressed aircraft weighing far less than a Lancaster? But immediate and drastic action was essential if disaster was to be avoided. Throttling back all four engines, he raised the nose of his Lancaster steeply and then, on the point of the stall, applied full rudder with all his strength so that the aircraft fell away in a nearly vertical dive, during which he was able to re-start his engines, which would have cut because of fuel starvation in the carburettors due to the manoeuvre for which they had not been designed.
David carried out this manoeuvre repeatedly, changing bearing and height to such an extent, and with such rapidity that he did indeed manage to escape into the anonymity of the darkness, leaving the searchlights groping for an aircraft which they had lost; it was a superb display of coolness, courage, piloting skill and airmanship. David successfully brought his damaged Lancaster back to his base at Langar where they found over 200 holes in the aircraft, which was classified as a complete 'write-off'.
Several days later David again demonstrated magnificent courage and determination for which he was awarded an 'Immediate' Distinguished Flying Cross. The target was Turin, a maximum range sortie. Shortly after take-off one engine failed. The standard procedure in such a situation was to jettison the bomb load in the Channel and return to base. But David was quite undaunted. He pressed on, in the full knowledge that he would not be able to keep up with the Bomber Stream, and could not be sure whether he would be able to gain sufficient height to clear the Alps. A further concern was whether there would be sufficient fuel for the long return flight - for the fuel consumption with three engines working at near maximum power was considerably increased. The lone mission was successfully accomplished, but he had sufficient fuel only to reach the emergency aerodrome at Woodbridge on the Suffolk coast.
Another example of David's grit was on 10th August 1943, in an operation against Nuremberg. One of his bombs hung up in the bomb bay. Such an event was normally dealt with by jettisoning manually over the Channel., but David insisted on returning to the target area to jettison it in the area for which it had originally been intended, even though this involved solitary exposure to one of the most heavily defended targets in the Reich.
On 17th August 1943 David took part in the pin-point attack on Peenemünde. This was rated one of the Squadron's and Command's more successful operations, and David brought back an aiming point photograph, as did all nine participating Lancasters from 207 Squadron. [David's own account of this operation, which he wrote for our Newsletter in 1985, is included in this website].
During this time David had received meteoric promotion; from being a new Flying Officer in March, he became a Flight Lieutenant in June, and a Squadron Leader, and Flight Commander by the time of the Peenemünde operation in August. So much for the first assessment of David's worth by Training Command!
The last four trips of his first tour of 30 operations were made to Berlin. Not only was the target area itself very heavily defended but the routes to and from it involved long period of exposure to night-fighter attacks. On his last operation he again flew out on three engines, but this time with the additional loss of hydraulic pressure to operate the rear gun turret . This meant that his Rear Gunner had to operate it manually, and with limited traverse, thereby increasing the aircraft's vulnerability to the favourite line of attack by German night fighters. For this, and for many other acts of bravery during his tour, David was awarded the DSO, and the whole crew were awarded the DFC or DFM.
Then followed what David described as the most boring period of his entire life. On 10th January 1944 he was posted from 207 Squadron to the Air Ministry to control the allocation of new aircraft to Squadrons. It was a job which carried great responsibility and required not a little diplomacy, but once again he said that 'he made a nuisance of himself' in pursuing his wish to return to operations. In March 1945 he finally succeeded, and was appointed to command No.227 Squadron as a Wing Commander. The handover brought a great surprise; on entering his new office at Balderton, he found that his predecessor was none other than Wing Commander ER Millington, whom he had taught to fly at Marshall's in 1941. Neither man had any idea of the other's identity before their meeting.
The war in Europe was nearing its end, but not before David had completed another six operations with his new Squadron. His last operation was to bomb Berchtesgaden, which was thought at the time to be a heavily defended fortress from which Hitler would make his last stand. The operation was not well planned, as the approach was over mountains which screened the target, so some crews had to return without releasing their bomb loads. However, not so David; yet again he displayed his bravery, making a second approach to obtain the accuracy which his determination demanded.
After the defeat of Nazi Germany had been accomplished, there remained the task of defeating Japan. A force of Bomber Command squadrons was to be formed - Tiger Force - to contribute to the bomber offensive in the Far Fast. David relished the opportunity and when 227 Squadron was not selected for Tiger Force he used all the influence which he could muster to take over command of No.49 Squadron. He handed over 227 Squadron to Wing Commander Brian MacMillan, a Pathfinder veteran (who, after 227 Squadron was disbanded, joined his former Pathfinder AOC, AV-M Don Bennett, in British South American Airways. Sadly he was the Captain of the ill-fated Star Tiger, a Tudor IV aircraft lost without trace in the infamous Bermuda Triangle).
The two Atomic Bombs brought about the Japanese surrender, and the newly-formed Tiger Force was stood down before it became operational. David briefly flirted with the idea of remaining in the RAF, but decided to resume his academic career. He was demobilised in October 1945, and returned to Cambridge.
In 1948 he was persuaded to become the first Principal of the University College of the Gold Coast, and under his leadership its great success made it a pattern for Universities of other emerging countries to follow. His work resulted in his appointment to CMG [Commander of the Order of St. Michael and St. George] in 1955. When he returned to England in 1957 he took over the appointment of Reader in Classics at Queen Mary College, London University, and became its Professor of Classics in 1964.
His love of the countryside. included an enthusiasm for fox hunting, and he rode with the Quorn until ill-health forced his retirement in 1978. He also found great enjoyment in music and was a gifted pianist.
So at the age of 76 ended the life of this most modest of men, whose family were never told the slightest detail of his legendary career in the Royal Air Force during the war. He attained academic eminence of the highest order; he was a perfectionist in war and peace, a man of great kindness and modesty, of unquenchable courage and above all a man whose superb leadership was truly capable of inspiring all who worked with and under him to strive their utmost to raise their own achievement to approach his. He will always be remembered with affection by all who had the privilege to know him.