Sue Balmer's role in history lives on

Port Fairy resident Sue Balmer, 89, reflects on her time as a 19-year-old clerk in London during World War II.  Picture: LEANNE PICKETT

Port Fairy resident Sue Balmer, 89, reflects on her time as a 19-year-old clerk in London during World War II.  Picture: LEANNE PICKETT

AS a teenager, Sue Balmer never thought her job shuffling papers in a British government department was anything out of the ordinary.

But they were not ordinary times. Britain was at war and as part of Mrs Balmer’s work with the Royal Navy department of the Ministry of War Transport, some of those papers she handled just happened to be marked ‘Operation Overlord’.

Little did she know, but Overlord was the codename for the Battle of Normandy, the largest seaborne invasion in history, launched by the D-Day landings of June 6, 1944.

“We knew something was happening. We knew it was big and we knew it was going to be down on the coast,” recalled Mrs Balmer of those events so far removed from her life today at Port Fairy.

It was only when the reports hit the newspapers did the enormity of the operation hit home.

Friday marks the 70th anniversary of the landings which began the successful reclamation of German-occupied western Europe, a pivotal point in the eventual Allied victory of World War II. More than 160,000 troops crossed the English Channel that day following a 1200-plane airborne assault and an amphibious assault of more than 5000 ships.

Now just a few months short of her 90th birthday, Mrs Balmer said the successful campaign provided an important tonic for a war-weary British public. 

“It was very exciting. We felt at last the tide (of war) had turned,” she said.

“When the war first started you expected things would happen straight away, but bombing was spasmodic — that was the Phoney War — until May 1940.

“And then of course the bombing really started with the Blitz. The raids on London did some terrible damage and it always seemed to be the poor areas that were hit worst. The people who had nothing lost everything.

“With D-Day everybody’s spirits went up and we felt at last we were getting somewhere.”

Mrs Balmer had been a 15-year-old boarding school student in Kent until the outbreak of war brought an abrupt end to her education. Sent home to her mother in London, she was then directed by the government into essential war work.

First came a clerical position in the personnel department of an aircraft components factory which produced what Mrs Balmer understands was a tracking device for the Allied planes — an early version of today’s ‘black box’.

Then in April 1944 after the death of her mother from pneumonia, she was directed into another administrative position with a navy department attached to the British Ministry of War Transport offices in Berkeley Square in the heart of London. The department was responsible for the provision of all stores and equipment for the Allied military operations.

“Our officers would supervise the loading and unloading of the stores down at the wharves — all the things that an army needs like food, clothing and equipment — and we did the paperwork in London.”

Mrs Balmer, then 19, was one of two clerks in the office, recording ingoing and outgoing documents associated with equipping the troops. 

“I was a little cog in a very big operation,” she reflected. “We knew this particular one (Overlord) was top secret. Normally all documents had to be filed in a central registry but because this one marked Overlord was top secret, there was a special registry for it. Everything was kept close to the chest.”

Spasmodic bombing raids created their own difficulties for Mrs Balmer and her War Transport colleagues working on the top floor of the eight-storey ministry building overlooking Bond Street.

“When the raids started the lifts would stop and you had to use the stairs up or down the eight floors,” Mrs Balmer recalls.

While bombing raids, rationing and blackouts at times made for a life of austerity and uncertainty, it was tackled in typical British-style.

“We were all very matter of fact about it. You had to do a job and you did it,” Mrs Balmer reflected. “Life was real and life was earnest and that was the way things were. You just got on with it. 

“I was very proud of what people did there and the way they stood up. English people were very stoic.”

Mrs Balmer left England in 1949, aged 25, for Australia with her father, a former Australian soldier who had been repatriated to England after serving in the Boer War and then with the Canadians in World War I.

In 1954, she and her late husband Viv moved to Warrnambool, where he ran a dental practice.

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