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John Raeburn Balmer (1910–1944)

by John McCarthy

This article was published:

John Raeburn Balmer (1910-1944), by Thomas Fisher

John Raeburn Balmer (1910-1944), by Thomas Fisher

Australian War Memorial, 026590

John Raeburn Balmer (1910-1944), air force officer, was born on 3 July 1910 at Bendigo, Victoria, son of Sydney Raeburn Balmer, lawyer, and his wife Catherine Haswell, née Macdonald, both Victorian born. Educated at Scotch College and the University of Melbourne, John joined the Royal Australian Air Force as an air cadet on 19 December 1932. He completed two flying courses, was commissioned on 1 April 1933 and transferred to the Permanent Air Force in November. His most important pre-war posting (July 1935-November 1937) was with No.1 Flying Training School, Point Cook, Victoria, where he won repute as an exacting but imaginative instructor: he once parachuted from a training aircraft, leaving his reluctant but capable pupil to make the landing alone. Keenly interested in long-distance motoring, with another R.A.A.F. officer Balmer drove from Perth to Melbourne in December 1936, taking 65 hours 10 minutes to complete the journey and breaking the record by some 17 hours. In October-November 1938 he and a co-driver cut the round-Australia record from 45 to 23½ days.

From June 1940 Balmer commanded No.13 Squadron, a general reconnaissance unit based in Darwin; on 1 April 1941 he was promoted temporary wing commander. After a series of short postings, on 18 March 1942 he assumed command of No.100 Squadron which was equipped with Australian-built Beauforts. He was appointed O.B.E. in June. Balmer's exploits in the South-West Pacific Area established him as a leader. On the night of 25-26 June he took charge of a strike against a Japanese steamer in New Guinea's Huon Gulf. The assault was carried out at low altitude and pressed with great determination, but a later analysis failed to confirm the vessel's sinking. In October he led the squadron's torpedo-bombers from Milne Bay, Papua, on an ambitious 950-nautical-mile-flight (1759 km) to attack enemy ships sheltering off the Shortland Islands, near Bougainville.

Arriving in England in June 1943, he became commanding officer of No.467 Squadron, R.A.A.F., on 18 August. It was a bad time for the squadron: seven of its twenty-one Lancasters were lost that month. Balmer flew his first operation on the night of 27-28 August in a raid against Nuremberg which cost Bomber Command 4.9 per cent of the attacking force. He led his unit against Hanover on 22-23 September and 18-19 October, and against Berlin on 18-19 November and 15-16 February 1944. His next German target was Frankfurt on 18-19 March. Thereafter, the Royal Air Force concentrated on pre-invasion objectives in occupied France; Balmer took part in four such strikes in March-April. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross in April for his skill, efficiency and devotion to duty; his promotion to temporary group captain was gazetted on 4 May.

'Sam' Balmer was known as a sardonic man who was intolerant of fools and of over-conservative authority; his subordinates regarded him as a 'dynamic' commanding officer. Having logged some 5000 flying-hours, on the night of 11-12 May 1944 he attacked a military camp at Bourg-Léopold (Leopoldsburg), Belgium. His aircraft did not return and his death shook the squadron. Unmarried, Balmer was a Presbyterian. His remains were later interred in the Heverlee war cemetery, near Leuven, Belgium.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Herington, Air War Against Germany and Italy 1939-1943 (Canb, 1954)
  • D. N. Gillison, Royal Australian Air Force 1939-1942 (Canb, 1962)
  • J. Herington, Air Power Over Europe 1944-1945 (Canb, 1963)
  • J. D. Balfe, War Without Glory (Melb, 1984)
  • M. Middlebrook and C. Everitt, The Bomber Command War Diaries (Lond?, 1985)
  • A. Powell, The Shadow's Edge (Melb, 1988)
  • C. D. Coulthard-Clark, The Third Brother (Syd, 1991)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 6 July, 22 Dec 1936, 26 July 1937, 21 Oct, 3 Nov 1938
  • Australian War Memorial records.

Citation details

John McCarthy, 'Balmer, John Raeburn (1910–1944)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 4 March 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (Melbourne University Press), 1993

View the front pages for Volume 13

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

John Raeburn Balmer (1910-1944), by Thomas Fisher

John Raeburn Balmer (1910-1944), by Thomas Fisher

Australian War Memorial, 026590

Life Summary [details]


3 July, 1910
Bendigo, Victoria, Australia


May, 1944 (aged 33)
Bourg-Leopold (Leopoldsburg), Belgium

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.