War diaries: the pain of loneliness and the joy of reunion

Ian and his brother Bill, who spent the war in Canada.
Ian and his brother Bill, who spent the war in Canada.
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SEPARATION was part of many people’s experience during the Second World War. Edinburgh solicitor Francis Balfour sent his wife and two boys off to stay with relatives in Canada and his wartime diaries reflect his loneliness and his excitement when finally they headed home after four years.

His son, Ian, who has now published the diaries online, has clear memories of going off to Canada and their time in Ontario, but says he and brother Bill just accepted it.

Ian Balfour with his father's war diaries. Picture: Lisa Ferguson

Ian Balfour with his father's war diaries. Picture: Lisa Ferguson

“I was eight when we were evacuated. We sailed from the Clyde. I remember arriving in Halifax and getting a train across to our relatives in Hamilton,” he says.

“They had a large estate – they were wealthy people. They had a cottage where only a maiden aunt was living and we stayed for four years in Stone Cottage with the maiden aunt and went to the local school.

“I took it for granted at the age of eight – you knew you were there, you made friends at school and lived life as you found it.

“We had a normal life – had holidays, went to camp and so on. I don’t think we particularly missed Scotland.”

When the train came in, there they were; my darling looking as lovely and youthful as ever; and the boys, such fine handsome tall fellows, and with such charming ways and manners.

Francis Balfour

He doesn’t remember any particularly strong emotions when it came time to return home.

“I don’t recollect any feelings positive or negative,” he adds.

“After Dunkirk it was obvious Britain was not going to be invaded. We knew mother was applying to return, but there was a long queue to go back.

“We sailed from New York to Liverpool, then travelled back up to Scotland on the old LMS line.

Underground air raid shelters in East Princes Street Gardens, Edinburgh.

Underground air raid shelters in East Princes Street Gardens, Edinburgh.

“Although the war was well 
advanced there were still torpedoes and the security on the boat was quite strict. There was an absolute blackout at night.

“And we detoured via the Azores to keep away from the submarine lanes. We were very much amid the hostilities. If you showed a light you could be torpedoed.

“It was drilled into us there were submarines out there and we mustn’t throw rubbish overboard or it could 
attract the submarines.”

Meanwhile, at home in Edinburgh, Francis had been volunteering at the Air Raid Precaution war room in Palmerston Place, taking his turn fire-watching at Bellevue Chapel and taking part in exercises with the Home Guard. He continued his legal work and spent much of his spare time walking, especially in the Pentlands, and looking forward to his family’s return.

Francis Balfour during the war.

Francis Balfour during the war.

PART ONE: ‘Princes St station gave the first real impression of war; pitch dark, sand-bagged everywhere

PART TWO: ‘It’s funny to see learned seniors rush about with tin hats on

Saturday, January 2, 1943: Snow arrived. On Caerketton in afternoon; very deep up there, and heavy going, but enjoyed it.

Tuesday, January 5, 1943: Xmas parcel from my dear loves came today; with hot chocolate, peanut-butter, toffee, cheese, bovril, mints, and Jaeger underwear; all most welcome. Bitterly cold here now. Russians making great progress in Caucasus. Our 17-year-olds have to register now

Thursday, March 4, 1943: The R.A.F. have made a tremendous raid on Berlin. The Nazis came back to London last night, in small force, but there was a horrible accident in a tube shelter, when nearly 200 people were suffocated thro’ overcrowding. Strange accident at our zoo yesterday; the she-elephant was to be shot, being incurably ill; but a vet student who got on the roof to get a view was killed by the rifle going off prematurely.

Wednesday, March 24, 1943: Have had nasty cold for several days, but not kept in. One plane was shot down into the Forth, just opposite Dalmeny House. Another one crashed on the side of Hare Hill, just at Bavelaw Castle, Balerno.

1944:  Construction of a Mulberry Harbour, and the unloading of supplies for the Allies at Colleville, France.  (Picture: Three Lions/Getty Images)

1944: Construction of a Mulberry Harbour, and the unloading of supplies for the Allies at Colleville, France. (Picture: Three Lions/Getty Images)

Monday, May 3, 1943: At War Room at 5.30 for Home Guard exercise – attacking the building. Some of us stalked it along Eglinton Crescent, and were credited with having got in unspotted . . . Walked round Blackford Hill at night.

Monday, May 17, 1943: At office all day with staff, tho’ Empire Day. Wings for Victory week has begun in Edinburgh, to raise 10 millions. There is a huge Lancaster bomber stationed in Bruntsfield Links.

Wednesday, June 16, 1943: Dear Ian’s 11th birthday. I hope he will be back for his next one. At Carricknowe tonight with Arthur Clark, throwing grenades.

Wednesday, July 23, 1943: War news keeps good; great progress made in Sicily and Russia. Terrible bombing by the Allies; Germany being raided nightly. Hamburg has been bombed five nights in succession, with fearful results. The city is reported to be almost wiped out of existence. I did the War Room all night for Duke whose wife wasn’t well.

Friday, September 5, 1943: The 4th anniversary of the outbreak of the war. The King called for a national day of prayer & thanksgiving, which was well observed. Great news today of our troops landing in Italy, with very little opposition. There had been tremendous preparation by our Forces. The Eighth Army formed the main attacking force. Things are moving!

Saturday, October 2, 1943: Got Fiscal at Peebles to drop a charge against young Charlie Spence for using petrol unlawfully when going to Harehope to a wedding. As he is being married next week, 2 days before the trial, he will be very glad.

Saturday, October 30, 1943: The last train ran today on the Balerno line; it is quite sad to think of the old Balerno express never running again. I don’t know how I am going to get my bike out there in future.

Friday, November 5, 1943: I wrote my darling an airgraph today, suggesting she sees about return passages. What a thrill if it should be feasible. Quiet night at War Room.

Thursday, November 18, 1943: There was a record raid on Berlin last night; the R.A.F. dropped 350 blockbusters (4000 lb. bombs) on the city in 20 minutes. The destruction must be frightful. One of these missiles alone is enough to wipe out the square made up by the boundaries of George Street, Hanover Street, Frederick Street and Princes Street.

Thursday, January 6, 1944: Got an airgraph from my dear love that she has applied now for passages. How grand to think that the first step at least has been taken.

Saturday, February 5, 1944: A lovely day; blue sky, warm sun, no wind, walked from Flotterstone via 
Loganlee and Black Hill to Currie; just a perfect walk.

Monday, April 17, 1944: The Edinburgh Spring Holiday. A day of drizzle; I spent all day in the office.

Monday, April 24, 1944: At Home Guard tonight, throwing grenades in the back garden, E.J. Keith, who always throws things at right angles to the true line of flight, hurled one against the wall, and dashed it into fragments.

Wednesday, April 26, 1944: Home Guard drill tonight; sten-gun, in Queen Street Gardens.

Friday, May 5, 1944: Had a busy time at the War Room; reds on Berwick, Gala, Edinburgh, all the way up the East Coast. They seemed to be reconnaissance planes; no incidents. We have not had sirens for 14 months now, till tonight.

Tuesday, June 6, 1944: A memorable day. This morning the Allies attacked Europe. The first news came on the morning broadcast; by noon the newspaper sellers were besieged. The landings seem to have been a success so far, Normandy and the coast around Cherbourg were the parts invaded.

Saturday, June 10, 1944: The invasion goes well; the Allies are firmly established in Normandy; although Hitler had boasted that the British ‘lunatics and drunkards’ would be lucky to stay 9 hours on the beaches. Had a grand solitary walk today; train to Midcalder, and over the Cauldstaneslap, to Baddingsgill; thence by high road to Carlops.

Monday, July 10, 1944: Delighted to get a cable from my dear one this morning, to “stop writing”. Evidently they are to get away soon. At Home-Guard at Palmerston Place later; we were issued with our service chevrons.

Thursday, July 20, 1944: News tonight of attempt on Hitler’s life; a clique of his generals have revolted; one of them threw a bomb, injuring many of Hitler’s staff, but he was only burned and injured, and was able to broadcast afterwards. Still, it looks like the end now.

Thursday, July 27, 1944: Was overjoyed today to get the cable from Tookie, which is in the code we arranged, and means that the family has actually sailed. Tremendous thunderstorm this afternoon; road at Marchmont was flooded to fully a foot in depth.

Tuesday, August 8, 1944: On this, one of the most wonderful days of my life, my dearest darling Tookie and the dear boys came home again. It began with a telegram from Liverpool that they would arrive at Edinburgh at 3.25. It was very difficult for me to do much work after that. I was at the station punctually. The train was 30 minutes late, but it was worth waiting. When the train came in, there they were; my darling looking as lovely and youthful as ever; and the boys, such fine handsome tall fellows, and with such charming ways and manners; and a well-defined Canadian accent! It was difficult to believe that we were really re-united at last; four years tomorrow since we were separated.

• The diaries are online at www.ianbalfour.co.uk

ian.swanson@edinburghnews.com

Bomb damage in Berlin.  (Picture: Keystone/Getty Images)

Bomb damage in Berlin. (Picture: Keystone/Getty Images)