To mark the commemoration of VE Day, local historian Keith Beattie be posting a few local stories from that exciting historic period.
Hopefully it will help to give a perspective of how the folks of Ballymoney celebrated the great victory and also contemplated the terrible losses of the previous six years.
To begin, a few stories of the Prisoners of War (PoWs) and their experiences…
By the time of the German capitulation, work had already begun on the difficult process of repatriating thousands of Allied PoWs. By early May, men were arriving back home to their families. They often returned with traumatic stories that shocked the public.
Fusilier Cuthbert Warke, Seacon told the Coleraine Chronicle: “One very cold wintry day we refused to work and they sent for the S.S. men. They turned up with two bags of grenades. That was enough for us.”
Flight Sergeant Ivor Monteith, Ballymoney, and 1,500 other prisoners from Stalag Lufte VII had been forced to march over 500km through sub-zero temperatures to a different camp.
Fusilier Albert Copeland, Coldagh, attempted escape several times. Half starving, he finally succeeded and after 6½ days trekking through the dangerous German lines he swam the River Elbe and found the advancing Americans: “I was never so glad to see a Yankee!”
Royal Marine William Balmer was captured by German infantry at Calais in May 1940 and was imprisoned for the rest of the war. His remarkable experiences were recorded by his biographer Ronnie Gamble in the excellent book “My Service Life”.
William remembered this incident which happened shortly after his camp was liberated by an American reconnaissance unit:
“We saw this big lorry come in with a big bruiser of a German officer in the truck. “What’s in the back of the truck?” we asked….It was full of provisions that he was taking into the camp to feed the Germans who were now going to be our prisoners. Food the like of which we hadn’t seen for years – oranges, apples, bananas, chocolate, sugar – all for the German officers…We just dumped it all out onto the road and gave it to the villagers.”
On their return home, the support of the community helped the PoWs to recover and return to civilian life. A supper and dance was held in the Town Hall, with local PoWs as the special guests. Others were invited back to their old schools to speak to pupils or tell their stories to church groups.
Some stories about the last months of the war in Ballymoney and district, next.