Interview with Bill Ballantyne


Interview with Bill Ballantyne


Bill Ballantyne was in his first year at Cambridge University and a member of the Air Squadron when war was declared out in 1939. Upon joining the air force, he was posted to South Africa, where he trained as a pilot on Tiger Moths. He joined 267 Squadron based in Egypt, and completed Transport Command duties by delivering supplies to the front-line, and returning wounded servicemen. He describes how his lack of fulfilment in this role motivated him to volunteer for Bomber Command. Ballantyne trained on Oxfords and Wellingtons at RAF Lossiemouth, before joining 77 Squadron, based at RAF Full Sutton. He recollects the events of an operation to Goch where, after missing the target they turned around and nearly hit a Lancaster head-on. He also describes preferring flying a Halifax to a Lancaster, the basic conditions of his Nissen hut, and visiting his girlfriend in York. He was demobilised in 1946 and resumed a career serving as an international lawyer in the Middle East. Ballantyne notes that in retrospect he is not proud of his role bombing civilians, and also recalls meeting the descendants of his wireless operator at a 77 Squadron Memorial Club meeting, who thanked him for returning their relative home safely.




Temporal Coverage




00:28:02 audio recording


IBCC Digital Archive


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ABallantyneWM190614, PBallantyneWM1901


JS: This interview is being conducted for the International Bomber Command Centre. The interviewer is Jim Sheach. The interviewee is Bill Ballantyne. The interview is taking place at Bill’s home in Edinburgh, Scotland on the 14th of June 2019. Also present is Caroline Urquhart. Bill, thanks for agreeing to be interviewed. Could you first tell me a bit about your life before you joined the RAF?
BB: Before I joined the RAF, immediately I was at Cambridge University and I went there just before, just after the war broke out. Just after the war broke out and I had one year there. I’d always been interested in flying. I took “Flight.” “Flight” magazine regularly before the war so there was no question about which Service I would join if I had to join any. I regarded it then as lunatic that we had another war within twenty years of the one which preceded that one but that’s another story. So I did one year at Cambridge and I was supposed to be studying law but in fact, well you could call it studying law. We all knew we were going into the Forces after a year and it was mostly playtime quite frankly. We didn’t do very much so I got a third class degree at the end of that lot and at the end I went in to the Air Force to do pilot training, which was thorough. My goodness it was thorough. The first international training we went down to Torquay and did marching to get fit. That was the idea of that one. And certain basic aeronautical courses like air speed indicators and all that sort of thing and navigation. Basic navigation. And stop in a moment?
JS: No. You’re fine.
BB: Before that, before the war if you want to go back a bit, I was at Dulwich College, which was a fairly rough school in those days. Superb now. Absolutely superb. But in those days it was a rough public school. In retrospect I look back on that with a certain amount of favour. I was beaten eleven times I remember. Terribly clever. You were really beaten. I mean, it was terribly painful so I probably wasn’t all that good. But the one thing it did teach you at public school was a moral code. If you had, if you were a dirty little liar, you were sent to the prefect’s room and beaten for being a dirty little liar. So the moral code was fairly high. And I think people forget that. People forget that dealing with current day values that people have forgotten. To lie these days seems to be perfectly acceptable and in those days you were thrashed if you did it. It was a different story all together. Then after Dulwich I went to Cambridge as I say. You don’t want to go further back than Dulwich, do you?
JS: No. That’s fine.
BB: Quite.
JS: That’s fine.
BB: So, then I went to Cambridge and then went in to the Air Force and did my pilot training which meant a normal course in Tiger Moths. On to Airspeed Oxfords to get on to multi-engine and then how far are we going forward now? Forward now?
JS: Yeah.
BB: And then in the Air Force after a good deal of training, which was rigorous but extremely good I went [pause] where did I go first?
CU: Is it not —
BB: No. Not in there yet. I went to initial training at Torquay and then went, I can’t remember I’m sorry where my next training was after Torquay. Anyway, I was then sent for basic training to get my wings to South Africa. We were the first course to go to South Africa and I was posted there to Durban in the beginning, and then at Durban we did Tiger Moth training which was the usual start. It was like flying a birdcage I’m afraid. Very rough stuff. And Tiger Moth training, I was very lucky with Tiger Moths training because I went on to Hawker Harts, Audaxes and these were forerunners of the Hurricane which was great. Marvellous training. To be sent up in South Africa with the beautiful weather, just enough cumulus cloud to make it interesting and say, ‘Would you mind going up Ballantyne?’ And you did two hours aerobatics. Bliss [laughs] Absolute. The really, the only part of flying as such, real flying I really enjoyed. That was absolutely marvellous. Then from that, passed out with that, with my wings, and then went up to Pietersburg on the Rhodesian border to train on to Tiger Moths, and after doing Tiger Moths I was sent up to [unclear] Kenya for a little while, to spend at a place called [unclear] and from that I was posted to a squadron, a flight base place in, in Egypt in LG, LG 227 it was. LG227 in Egypt, waiting for posting and some of the people were posted from there, from my course were posted. No, on to Wellingtons bombing aircraft. Very nasty job indeed. Suicide [laughs] absolute suicide. Shipping strikes in Wellingtons not anybody’s idea of a joke at all. Not at all. And then I was waiting and then I was suddenly posted to 267 Squadron which was in Transport Command which wasn’t what I was expecting at all. So I spent quite a lot of time flying. In retrospect very worthwhile stuff what we were taking. Supplies up to the front line and obviously flying back wounded people and it was a worthwhile job actually. Quite a good job. But it didn’t suit me because I wanted really an operational job where I could be shot at and by some extraordinary [laughs] extraordinarily, we were like that. I was twenty two then. I think that’s the way we used to think. And anyway [pause] eventually the CO of 267 Squadron came to me and he said, ‘Ballantyne, you’re not going to make a transport pilot are you?’ And I said, ‘No, sir. Preferably not.’ He said, ‘Right.’ He posted me down to another squadron down in the south in, in Cairo in fact, and I ended up flying Beauforts. An extremely difficult aeroplane to fly. Extremely difficult. I remember the logbook said, “If one engine fails make no attempt whatsoever to keep this aircraft in the air.” [laughs] Which struck me as ominous at the least of it. Anyway, finally the, do you want all this? Are you sure? The CO of that squadron said to me, ‘Look, will you go to London and fly a Beaufort out to us?’ And I said, ‘Ok, sir.’ But I said, ‘I’ll tell you this, sir. If I do go to London I probably won’t come back.’ He said, ‘What the hell do you mean?’ I said, ‘Well, I want to get on an operational squadron. I don’t want to fly Beauforts.’ I mean to fly Beauforts in operations against shipping would have been the absolute kiss of death. I mean, dreadful. So, he said, ‘Well, don’t talk to me like that,’ he said ‘Go back and bring the aircraft back.’ I got back to London and luckily my father had introductions in various high places. He introduced me to get me an interview at the Air Ministry where I went and saw a wing commander and I explained the situation to him. I said, ‘I’ve been doing all this stuff I don’t really enjoy. I want to get in to the, a real squadron.’ I said, ‘A fighter squadron if possible.’ He said, ‘We haven’t got anything in fighter. I’ll put you in Bomber Command if you like straightaway. We’re very short of pilots in bomber.’ I said, ‘Right. Put me in Bomber Command.’ So, that’s how I got into Bomber Command. Then I did the Bomber Command training which was superb. The training was absolutely superb. I had to start on Oxfords again because I had never flown in the UK. It’s a very different story. Flying in the UK is a different story from flying in Egypt. You know, you’ve got, you’ve got no landmarks. You’ve got to be able to read maps and in fact this is a different story altogether. So I did that. I got [pause] the interesting point of that was in my initial flying on Oxfords again in in in this country, the UK my flight commander was my old captain of fencing at Dulwich College. I just touched lightly on the fencing, you see. We were extremely good fencers with a sabre. We, we formed a team called the Gladiators. Three of us, and we toured the country and we beat everybody. Absolutely everybody. We were very very good. Anyway, that’s, that was that. So, where have I got to?
JS: You were talking about Bomber Command training.
BB: Bomber command training. Superb. From Oxfords went on to Wellingtons. Did more flying training on Wellingtons and then eventually got to a Conversion Unit to fly on the four engine stuff which was a different story altogether.
CU: Where, where was this training?
BB: This training on Wellingtons was at Lossiemouth. And after that we went down to Yorkshire to train on [unclear], and stuff at [pause] I’ve forgotten where it was. I must have it in here somewhere [pause] Record end. Here we are. Sorry. Do these gaps matter?
JS: That’s fine. No.
BB: I was in the Cambridge University Air Squadron as well. I’ve forgotten to mention that. And then Regent’s Park, Torquay, West Kirby, Heaton Park, Arundel Castle, Clairwood. We went to South Africa in a convoy which was very interesting with a lot of other boats. That’s Lyttelton, Wonderboom, [unclear] Pietersburg. They were the places I did night flying training in South Africa. So then SS Lancaster. RAF Gilgil [unclear] [Castries,] then up to 267 Squadron at Cairo West. And then, well then I did quite a long period on Bomber Command. We recorded all sorts of strange places. Do you want all the name of the airports? I can give you the list.
JS: No. We’ll scan the —
BB: Do you want to have a look at my logbook? It’s got them all in. And then I was on 77 Squadron until the end of the war in, of course in 1945. So I went to, I went to 77, 77 Squadron in, just before Christmas in ’47 so I was quite late. That was lucky because the losses were less. I think the Germans were running out of petrol I think and hadn’t got too, hadn’t got as many fighters as there used to be. So it wasn’t so, it wasn’t quite as dangerous I don’t think. Anyway, and we were in retrospect I’m not proud of what we were doing. We were bombing civilians. I mean you can see from the targets here it’s mostly cities. Names of cities. And I think in retrospect we were actually bombing civilians at Harris’ idea in order to frighten the German into surrender, which you didn’t do. Germans didn’t do. Didn’t find they were that sort of people so that didn’t work. Anyway, in 1945 it finally did work and that was the end of that lot, and then that was it really. I can’t think about, nothing else in the Air Force except that now I’m a member of the 77 Squadron Memorial Club which holds meetings in York. I don’t know whether you know about this. I’ll give, give you a lot of details about what we do in York. And they elected me. Last year they elected me president. So I said, ‘Well, I don’t mind being president. What do I have to do?’ And she made the arrangements, ‘Nothing at all. Just lend us your name.’ I said, ‘Well, that’s easy. I’m not too worried about that so long as I don’t have to do any work.’ And I haven’t done a damned thing. I go up there, have a couple of years as president and give them a talk. I’ve given them a couple of talks which they seem to enjoy and that was that. So that’s, that’s, that’s my career really. I think that’s about it.
JS: Good. Good.
BB: I’ll tell you all, now in between of course you can see from my brief survey which is I think with my photograph, RAF photograph I’ve been an international lawyer in the Middle East with Arabic dealing with most of my stuff in Arabic with Arabs. Bliss. Marvellous. I had a wonderful, I had a wonderful time. Absolutely wonderful time because I used to deal with the Arabs when they were really Arabs. They’re not Arabs now. They’re completely messed up. I don’t go there anymore, but when they were Arabs, it was a great life. I had a marvellous time and that’s another story. I’ve a story to tell you all about that if you like.
JS: Good.
BB: All sorts of stuff happened. Has happened in that lot but I mean that’s another story altogether. So here we are.
JS: Good.
BB: That’s where we are now.
JS: Looking back at your, at your time with 77 Squadron what, what, what I’ve read it was quite an international mix of aircrew.
BB: Oh yeah.
JS: That were on 77 Squadron.
BB: Yes. I think it was quite. Yes. Let me think now. My crew were mostly Scottish I think. I had an interesting point in 77 at one of our meetings that the descendents of one of my air gunners wrote to me and said, ‘Look, firstly thank you so much for getting our grandfather back safely.’ And I said, ‘That’s all right.’ [laughs]
CU: Her father.
BB: Her father. For getting her father. I said, ‘Well, it was me as well [laughs] Don’t worry about that.’ Anyway, here we are and they said, ‘Can we meet you?’ So I met them. These people up at one of the dinners we have. You know, the dinners we had. I told them about, I told them about certainly about one, I mean I can tell you all sorts of things about the episodes in the flying if you want.
JS: If you would do. Yes.
BB: I mean they said, I said, ‘You’re lucky to be here. I’m lucky to be here and so is your father,’ because I had the one episode. I don’t actually frighten. I don’t get scared. I’m lucky actually. But I had one episode in my life, which is the nearest I’ve ever been to death. We were bombing a place called Goch. I think it was Goch. Anyway, it’s in here and when we went there we missed the target and we firstly we were fired, fired by anti-aircraft battery from a Canadian. They should have known better but they got it wrong so they advised us to stay up. And then we went, missed the target on the way through. I think when you missed the target unfortunately you had to turn around and face everything coming the other way, and it was, you had to keep a sharp lookout you know otherwise and fair enough I was watching very carefully obviously flying back and suddenly a Lancaster came at me absolutely head on. I mean absolutely head on so I plunged the stick forward and thank God he must have been concentrating on the target. Normally, in that emergency he would have done exactly the same.
JS: The same.
BB: And then we would have blown up. No question. And luckily he didn’t see me. So I just, just missed him underneath. I mean absolutely head to head. So the crew hit the roof. It was [laughs] the language of the crew was very marked. I won’t repeat it but it’s very local stuff and I said, ‘Don’t worry chaps. We’re ok. Thank you very much.’ But that’s the one episode. And when I got to York and met them I told them about this. I said, ‘The luckiest thing you’ve ever had because you wouldn’t be here at all. Your father wouldn’t have been here at all.’ I remember him. Nice chap. Air gunner.
CU: I think he was your wireless operator.
BB: Sorry?
CU: He was your wireless operator.
BB: Was he? Was he not an air [pause] Yes. He was a wireless operator. You’re quite right. He wasn’t a gunner.
CU: But you had a story about him taking out the earphones or something.
BB: He used to do that as soon as he heard the flak. He used to hear, ‘I can hear the flak,’ and he would take his earphones out so he couldn’t hear it. Very sensible [laughs] There was no harm in flak. Flak never did any harm. A few holes in the aircraft but nothing to worry about. Flak was alright unless it was predicted. If it was predicted you were dead. But you didn’t get, you didn’t out of the flow. If you got out of the flow alone you would get predicted, radar predicted. Then you were dead. But luckily that didn’t happen to me. But anyway, yes that’s the one episode I still think about before I go to bed at night. It really was. It really was. That was a close call. That was a close call. Now, where are we getting to now?
JS: How, how, how did you get on with the rest of your crew?
BB: Oh, terrific. Splendid. I wasn’t as matey as I should have been I don’t think, in retrospect and I haven’t met any of them since. Just at the end of the war Halifaxes stopped of course but we were still fighting the Japanese so they, and then we converted as a squadron on to Dakotas. I haven’t mentioned this yet. I’ve been flying Dakotas in Transport Command so for me it was easy and I got on to that. And then I got diarrhoea, bad diarrhoea and luckily, luckily I escaped the posting to India. I’d had two and a half years in the Middle East anyway. I didn’t really need to go to India and again I think my father had a quiet word somewhere because I was [laughs] I was demobbed very early. So in 1946 right at the beginning I was let off. Got out. I resumed a very different career as you will see from my CV. Very different. So, there we are. That’s where we got too really. That’s about all the flying bit, I think. I now hate flying. I won’t go anywhere near it. If I [laughs] if I can keep away from an aeroplane I’ll keep away. I don’t like them. They’re not natural at all. They’re not, nothing like a bird. They are just nasty, mechanical devices. Anyway, that’s another matter. Shall we look at this and see what I’ve missed? [pause] Right [pause] Seems to cover it, I think.
JS: Ok. So the squadron was at Elvington. Is that correct?
BB: Yes it was. And we were at Full Sutton. We moved from Elvington. At Elvington I think it was the [pause], no. The French. The French followed on at Elvington. The French took it over and we then went to Full Sutton. It was at Full Sutton when I joined it. The French. Not my favourite characters. In bombing we were always briefed of course to fly at a certain height and if you were in a top height you were nice and easy. You were not going to get bombed on. If you were in the bottom of the line you could get bombed on, and I remember going over one, one raid and I said all right to [unclear] in the top lane. No problem. I looked up. Just before we got to the target bomb doors opened. I looked. There was a bloody French squadron all up above. They believe in it you see. The French don’t queue up [laughs] They said, ‘No. We can’t be, can’t be down there. We have to be — ’ [laughs] the bombs whistled down, went literally between my main plane and my tail plane. They always used to turn over on the way down. I never knew that until I saw them. But anyway that was a lucky business. The French haven’t been my favourite citizens ever since I must confess [laughs] Not, not cricket. Definitely not cricket. So, anyway that’s what happened. The French took over at Elvington and we went. We had Full Sutton. A nice place to be.
JS: What was Full Sutton like as a base?
BB: Very nice. Pleasant. Basic but, we were in Nissen huts of course. We were sleeping in Nissen huts. Nothing fancy about it but —
CU: You had your girlfriend’s in York.
BB: Yes. I had a girlfriend in York which took up most of my time when I wasn’t flying. Nice woman. She must have been, must have died years ago actually. Most people have [laughs] Oh dear. There’s not many left of my confabs as it were. Anyway.
JS: So, how did you get to and from York from Elvington?
BB: Well, I was never at Elvington.
JS: Oh, sorry. I mean, sorry at Full Sutton.
BB: No. I was at, I went straight to Full Sutton. Yeah.
CU: I thought you had a bicycle?
BB: Sorry?
CU: Did you not use a bicycle?
BB: No. I had a car. I had a car on the squadron. That brought back something. No. I don’t know what that was, something flashed by [pause] No. That’s about it I think.
JS: Thank you.
BB: Anything else?
JS: No. Thank you very much for that. That’s been, that’s been a really interesting history.
BB: I hope so.
JS: And some, some interesting thoughts in that. Thank you very much.
BB: Well, I don’t know, fairly explosive normally, most of them. Can I have the rest that we’ve got? The photographs.
JS: That’s great. So you certainly had a a variety of locations and aircraft.
BB: Yes. Absolutely.
JS: To go in effect from Transport Command to Bomber Command and then back to Dakotas again at the end.
BB: Oh, absolutely. Quite a lot. Yes. The Dakota is a marvellous aeroplane. Absolutely fantastic. They’re still flying. The same aircraft. They haven’t varied it at all. Used to fly through sandstorms and never had an engine problem. Nothing. Marvellous. Marvellous aeroplane.
CU: You think Halifaxes are better than Lancaster as well.
BB: Oh yes, if you want to compare the two. The Halifax was a far better. A far better aeroplane from the crew’s point of view. Faster rate of climb. Much better aeroplane.
JS: I think, I think I’ve heard that from a number of —
BB: Really?
JS: Halifax crews, yes
BB: They preferred them. No question about that. There’s nothing. Anyway. Now, this was a thing they asked Association. Nickels. This was the latest one. Nickels, Nickels we used to drop on Berlin. On Germany you know.
JS: I looked.
BB: Yeah.
JS: I had a look at the website.
BB: Yeah, very good, very good.
JS: The Association website.
BB: Some very good stuff. Yeah.
JS: Quite, quite extensive. Great. Well, thank you very much.
BB: It’s very good actually.
JS: And I will just stop the recording.
BB: That’s a spare. You can take that one.



James Sheach, “Interview with Bill Ballantyne,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed September 18, 2021,

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