War diaries: Edinburgh reels as German bombs fall

Devastation in Loaning Road, Craigentinny, after the raid in August 1942. Picture: TSPL
Devastation in Loaning Road, Craigentinny, after the raid in August 1942. Picture: TSPL
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A WAR room at the West End, lawyers donning tin hats at the High Court and bombs dropped on the Capital – a vivid picture of wartime Edinburgh emerges from the Second World War diary kept by solicitor Francis Balfour. Entries describe regular stints at the Palmerston Place Air Raid Precaution centre, as well as fire-watching at Bellevue School. And details of the places hit by German attacks.

Mr Balfour, of Edinburgh law firm Balfour Manson, had sent his wife and family off to stay with relatives in Canada.

Bellevue Chapel, where Francis Balfour took his turn at fire-watching.

Bellevue Chapel, where Francis Balfour took his turn at fire-watching.

“I get the impression he found life quite lonely,” says his son, Ian, 83, who has published the diaries online.

“He was greatly missing my mother.”

He waited eagerly for the carefully numbered letters to arrive from Canada.

“He and my mother wrote to each other once a week,” recalls Ian. “With the convoy casualties, he made three copies of each one – he sent one on the day he had written it, enclosing a copy of the previous week’s and he kept one at home in case it never arrived.”

It’s funny to see learned seniors rush about with tin hats on.

Francis Balfour

After work and at weekends, Francis would go for long walks, often in the Pentlands. But he also passed time volunteering at the war room.

Ian says: “The idea was to match up the fighter aircraft in Scotland with the incoming raiders. There were people watching at Berwick Law and other places for enemy aircraft and they phoned in the direction, speed and identification of the plane. Then the war room alerted Turnhouse about when to send a place up to intercept it.

“It was quite a responsible job. They were advising the fighter squadron when to go in and attack. He was a volunteer. There were permanent, military officials. They were just doing the donkey work.”

Then there was fire-watching. “Every public building had a duty to have firewatchers,” says Ian.

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

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

Francis attended Bellevue Chapel, Rodney Street, so he took his turn there.

Ian says: “They would sit up on the roof of Bellevue school with stirrup pumps and sand. If incendiary bombs fell, they had to quench these bombs before they took hold.”

READ PART 1 HERE: ‘Princes St station gave first real impression of war; pitch dark, sand-bagged everywhere

Monday, January 27, 1941: Party tonight in the Walpole Hall, for the Regional Commissioner’s staff; I kept clear! This is Edinburgh Fire Week; demonstrations in the street of putting out bombs, etc.

Devastation in Haddington

Devastation in Haddington

Friday, February 7, 1941: Actually got a pound pot of marmalade today from Wm. Shearer. A treat, after long absence.

Tuesday, February 18, 1941: Deep snow again. Sirens busy these last few days . . . Went off in Parliament House. Funny to see learned seniors rushing about with their tin bowlers on, as wardens and fire-fighters...

Thursday, February 27, 1941: Keeping up my walking; on Tues. walked 4 times to office & back, to Court and back, and to Bellevue and back; about 12 miles in all. Nearly as much yesterday. Snow slowly clearing away. It has been the worst fall in Edinburgh for 100 years.

Tuesday, March 4, 1941: Bombing last night at Haddington & East Linton Some casualties in Haddington. We had sirens for over an hour.

Saturday, March 8, 1941: Got my darling’s letter 29 yesterday, and 23 today. Also one each from Ian & Bill. I had a quiet night at the War Room. Played Call Wilson at chess.

Saturday, March 15, 1941: Very busy night. Enemy at Clydeside again all night. 70 incendiaries on Edinburgh. I was glad of my exercises and practice to be ready for the real thing.

The Balfours - Francis, Isobel, Bill and Ian.

The Balfours - Francis, Isobel, Bill and Ian.

Sunday, March 16, 1941: Slept yesterday till 5 p.m. Sirens in afternoon. Went to Bellevue at 8 for fire-watching in the School. Roosevelt has made a great speech. U.S.A. will give every help to us. We were all warned on the radio today what to do if Invasion comes. 14 commandments issued.

Wednesday, March 19, 1941: At Sheriff Court for Blanche & Co., grocers, re selling walnuts above maximum price. At War Room at 4.30 - 7. Got first part of my uniform: Greatcoat, boots and gloves. Carried them home, the boots slung round my neck.

Monday, April 7, 1941: Budget out; income tax 10/- per £. Not worth working now. Went to War Room at 9- Raiding followed; I stayed till midnight with Macnair, and we then walked home.Very bright flares all the way. Raiders at 5.30 a.m. Leith got it mostly; Town Hall, J.R.S. Wilson’s church. Junction Bridge, David Kilpatrick’s School.

Thursday, April 1, 1941: Had a visit from Mr. Herbert Morrison, the Minister for Home Security, at the War Room. Made-up the office books for the year. Net profit about £1600. Used to be over £3000! Never mind; we have much to be thankful for.

Monday, April 21, 1941: A Grand Day. Spring Holiday. At Palmerston Place till 12.30. Then I took bus to Carfraemill and walked over Lammermoors to Gifford, going over more of the hills. A fine warm clear day. Had a fine supper at the Goblin Ha’ Hotel in Gifford.

Wednesday, April 30, 1941: Bought a byke today; from Alexanders, Lothian Rd; A Royal Enfield, 3-speed gear. At War Room, with Anderson. Sirens from 10 p.m. to 11 p.m. Busy all day explaining War Damage Act to clients.

Monday, May 5, 1941: Sirens again thro’ the night. Out on byke at night; got a puncture in Queensferry, and mended it on the shore. Enjoying hot bath at 11.45 when sirens went, and continued till 4 a.m. next morning. A most extensive and noisy raid; H.E. and incendiaries and mines in Edinburgh (Milton Road and Niddrie Road, with casualties); Gullane, Dlrleton, Duns, Cockburnspath.

Monday, May 12, 1941: New girl Catherine Penman began at office, as message-girl, Great sensation about Rudolf Hess, Hitler’s No. 2 man, who has flown in a Messerschmidt alone to Scotland. Philip was on duty when the message came through; great speculation as to the meaning – is he a fugitive, or crazy, or is it all a faked affair?

Saturday, May 31, 1941: Last night was a big war exercise. In afternoon, cycled along the Canal to opposite Broxburn; back by main road. Clothes are to be rationed now,

Sunday, June 1, 1941: News depressing; evacuation of Crete, with heavy losses. Everything seems to go wrong with Britain.. The French in Syria are openly helping the Nazis now.

Sunday, June 22, 1941: Nazis marched into Russia this morning. So much for all their treaties and pledges. It may shorten the war.

Tuesday, July 8, 1941: Spent morning before Sheriff Robertson, defending 8 grocers for failing to exhibit price tickets for sardines. They all got off,

Saturday, September 27, 1941: At War Room from 7.30 till this morning. Went up Arthur Seat via Hunters’ Bog this afternoon, then to War Room till 7-30 and then to Bellevue fire-watching . . . A.T.S. having great recruiting drive. They give A.A. gun-drill exhibitions at the Mound.

Sunday, October 12, 1941: Quiet night. Very frosty morning. No Canadian letter since 25th Septr., my birthday. I miss them dreadfully when they are so delayed.

Saturday, October 18, 1941: Lovely afternoon on Pentlands, by myself: climbed Caerketton & Allermuir, 
then on to Castlelaw, and by Woodhouselee & in to tram terminus.

Tuesday, November 11, 1941: Will Y. Darling is the new Lord Provost. We’ll see him no more at the War Room. He has a flair for everything, and has now added Grants’ Bookshop to his own business next door. 23 years today the Armistice was signed . . . I was in Belgium, felt that Paradise had come.

Wednesday, December 3, 1941: Got letters 67 & 68 today; 66 on Monday last; great week. Some fine snaps of the boys. Served an action, on Hope-Gill today, by Dr. Walker, Marchhall Rd . . . to make the former cut down his overhanging trees. Government now calling up men to 50 years old. Looks as if It’s ‘Back to the Army again, Sergeant’.

Wednesday, December 31, 1941: Very serious position in East, with Hong-Kong captured by Japs, Reds winning all along the line in Russia . . . Lord Woolton has sanctioned extra milk for Victory cats – those hunting mice in food stores. It is damaged milk powder, but the cats are not to know that, I suppose . . . Spending Hogmanay at home by the fire.

Thursday, January 8, 1942: All the railings in the Meadows removed. It is a great improvement; looks like a park now.

Sunday, April 5, 1942: Day of strange contrasts. I spent morning at Hunter’s Bog, doing musketry; and preached the gospel of peace at Bellevue at night. Good number in.

Monday, April 13, 1942: I own a house! I have bought 27 Howard Place for £1000. I think it quite nice; it will be a temporary home at least for the home-coming.

Saturday, May 2, 1942: Up Arthur’s Seat in my Home Guard boots, to get used to them. Another perfect day. Have fixed to go to Borrowdale for a week in June, to get some climbing, and also see Aunty.

Monday, August 10, 1942: Poor news from India; Gandhi has been threatening a nation-wide disobedience campaign. He and 50 others have been arrested, and there will be much rioting . . . Russians being driven back in the Caucausus. We have been quieter here, except a raid on Craigentinny on Thursday night, with some casualties.

Monday, October 12, 1942: Mr. Churchill got the Freedom of Edinburgh today.

Wednesday, December 2, 1942: Mussolini made such a funny speech today, abusing the English in all their ways. He talked of them in their dinner-jackets at their five o’clock tea.

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