Today’s veteran remembered is Alex Ballentine, RAF aircrew, from Ballymena who was a prisoner of war at Stalag Luft III, the scene depicted in the film “The Great Escape”. Photo – At the time of the WW1 Armistice, Artillery Wood Cemetery in Belgium contained 141 graves (of which 42 were of Royal Artillery personnel), but it was then greatly enlarged when graves were brought in from the battlefields and small burial grounds around Boezinge. Total burials 1,307 of which 504 are unidentified.
Representing their comrades who died on this day
+GLENN, Cecil William
Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, 1st Btn. Lieutenant. Died 28/01/1917 during an attack in which the 1st Inniskillings and 1st Border Regiment assaulted strong German-held positions south of Le Transloy. Cecil Glenn came from Cookstown. Thiepval Memorial, France. Cookstown War Dead Book
Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, 1st Btn. Private. 28205. Died 28/01/1917. Taking part in a night patrol lead by Lieutenant Cecil W Glenn (above) when the 1st Battalion attacked enemy positions on 28/01/1917, south Le Transloy. Even though the mission was a success, the battalion lost eighteen men. Hugh McKeown enlisted in Cookstown. Thiepval Memorial, Somme, France.
Royal Irish Rifles, 2nd Btn. Rifleman. 9500. Died 28/01/1917. Born Dungannon. Enlisted Newtownards. Berks Cemetery Extension, Hainaut, Belgium
+McGRATH, Liam Henry
RAFVR. Wing Commander. 63389. Died 28/01/1947. Omagh, (Dublin Road), Cemetery. QUB WM
Alexander, a Ballymena man who served in the RAF from 1940 – 17, was held captive for three years at the famous German Air Force prisoner-of-war camp (Stalag Luft III) on which the Great Escape film was based during the Second World War.
Although Alex as he was known, was not involved in the escape bid, he was forced to walk 800 miles to his eventual freedom from Poland back into Germany.
On 11/06/1942, Alex’s plane was shot down in the Frisian Islands off the coast of Holland and he was captured by the Germans.
He was held as a POW at Stalag Luft III for three years near Sagan – now Zagan in Poland – 100 miles south-east of Berlin.
His eldest son Paul Ballentine said that during his father’s life he rarely spoke of his experiences during this time but a diary he kept when he was eventually freed sheds some light on it.
Alex was liberated on 02/05/1945, by the British 6th Airborne Division and arrived back in Ballymena May 14/05/945. But, explained Paul, it was a long walk to freedom.
“At the end of the Second World War, he eventually had to walk about 800 miles from Poland back into Germany because the Russians were advancing on the Germans.”
The father of three, who lived just off the Holywood Road in Belfast, was the seventh of eight children born to Alexander and Margaret Ballentine on 11/08/1922, in Ballymena.
After joining the RAF as a teenager, Alex was deployed to Bomber Command where he operated as a rear gunner in a Short Stirling aircraft.
Paul Ballentine, who lives in Coleraine said that his father’s role was to defend the rear of the aircraft against attack from German fighter planes.
“My father was based in England and the plane he was in bombed Germany and wherever the Germans were,” he said.
“The mission that he was on was known as ‘mine-laying’, whereby the RAF dropped mines into the sea.
Alex left the RAF in 1947 and joined the civil service where he met his wife Audrey.
Married for 54 years, the couple had three sons – Paul, Ashley, and Mark, – who together produced seven grandchildren.
After working for the Department of Agriculture in Northern Ireland from 1947 to 1982, Alex became chief executive of Seed Potato Promotions NI where he worked until he was 79 years old.
In his youth, he was a founder member of the Wellington Street, Ballymena Boys’ Brigade.
He was survived by his wife Audrey and one of his six sisters, Florrie Madden, who was 90 years old..
Alex died on 28/01/2008. His remains were laid to rest in Ballymoney Cemetery.
On Friday, 24/03/1944 the Great Escape attempt from Alexander Ballentine’s Stalag Luft III camp began. Unfortunately for the prisoners, the tunnel had come up short.
It had been planned that the tunnel would reach into a nearby forest, but the first man out emerged just short of the tree line. Despite this, 76 men crawled through the tunnel to initial freedom, even though an air raid during which the camp’s (and the tunnel’s) electric lights were shut off. Out of the 76 men only 3 escaped. 50 men were killed and the rest were captured and sent back.
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