Man The Barrage

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In World War II if you were between 25 and 50 you could help England by joining one of the barrage balloon squadrons of the auxiliary air force. It said so on the poster.

Barrage balloons were bags of lighter-than-air gas fixed to steel cables that were anchored to the ground. They could be raised or lowered by means of a winch, often attached to a lorry for increased mobility, and their purpose was simple, ingenious, and effective: To fill vulnerable air space with bulk, thus stopping enemy aircraft from entering it at low levels. This meant that enemy aircraft were forced to fly at higher altitudes decreasing bombing accuracy, making the aircraft more easily spotted, and making it simpler for the ground based Bofors anti-aircraft guns and fighter pilots to attack them.

The balloons were huge, generally they were almost as long as a cricket pitch, over 7.5 metres wide, and could be raised to a maximum altitude of 1500 metres on their thick steel cables. These cables presented both a physical and mental hazard to enemy pilots – flying into a cable could slice off a wing without warning.

During the height of the Blitz, 102 enemy aircraft struck balloon cables, resulting in 66 crashes and forced landings.

They weren’t a new idea though. During the last years of World War I, barrage balloons had been used as a response to the attacks by German Gotha bombers on London, and it was their success in the First World War that determined their value in the Second.

In 1936, with the threats of the Luftwaffe looming, the Committee of Imperial Defence authorised an initial barrage of 450 balloons for the protection of London. In 1938 an independent Balloon Command was formed to control the 52 operational barrage balloon squadrons spread across the UK. It was Balloon Command’s remit to create a barrage of huge balloons aimed at protecting British towns, cities, and key targets such as industrial areas, ports, and harbours.

By the middle of 1940, there were 1,400 balloons in our threatened skies, a third of them over the London area. It wasn’t all plain sailing, however. Some balloons were struck by lightning and many were shot down by enemy aircraft.

In late August 1940, the Germans launched an attempt to clear the balloons from Dover and managed to destroy around fifty balloons, losing six aircraft in the process. After their losses the Germans decided that further attacks on the balloons were futile and provided, in the words of Air Marshal Gossage, “a clear indication of their (Germany’s) respect for the British balloon barrage”.

In that same year, on the night of the13th September, the first enemy aircraft was brought down by a barrage balloon. A Heinkel He 111, returning from a raid on Merseyside, was claimed by a mobile unit of 966 Squadron at Belle View Park, Monmouthshire. The plane crashed when it flew into the cable and plunged into a heavily populated area. Unfortunately two children died on the ground and three of the aircraft’s crew were killed, the pilot only just managing to bale out in time.

At around this time Balloon Command was split up into five Groups with headquarters in London, Birmingham, Romsey, Sheffield and Edinburgh with Mobile Squadrons at Cardington. It was suggested to them that balloons could be operated by the women of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force thus releasing more men for active service in other areas. The idea was at first met with disbelief by Balloon Command, so in April 1941 twenty WAAF Balloon Fabric Operators were trained in London and only a few short weeks later the first batch of WAAF volunteers were posted to a ten week training course at one of the balloon centres.

Initially it was expected that ten male balloon operators would need to be replaced by at least twenty female balloon operators. But this expected figure was soon disproved, decreasing to only fourteen as women began to replace men. By December 1942, over 10,000 men had been replaced by 15,700 women balloon operators in the balloon squadrons.

With the coming of the Battle of Britain and the Blitz the importance of the barrage balloons escalated and the total number of balloons above Britain quickly increased to around 2,000. Even after this, the importance of the balloons continued and by 1944, four years later, this number had risen to nearly 3,000.

The balloons or “Floating Belindas”, as they were sometimes called by RAF pilots, provided a very effective counter to increased low level attacks.

When Hitler decided on his desperate V1 flying bomb strategy in the summer of 1944 over 2,000 balloons were deployed in Kent and Surrey to form a long barrier or “balloon curtain” providing defence against the dreaded V1’s or “Doodlebugs” as they were known. Around 230 V1’s were destroyed in collisions with balloons, and although guns and fighters destroyed most of the V-1 bombs in almost equal numbers (around 1,850 by each), some V1’s managed to avoid all of the balloons, guns, and fighters, falling silently to the ground and causing utter devastation.

Even when German activity gradually decreased the balloons remained in place, high over our home cities and ports – and overseas Balloon Command units accompanied troops in North Africa and Italy where they protected troops from low-level attack on the beachheads. Over four thousand balloon personnel took part in the invasion of Normandy, crossing the channel on D-day to protect captured ports, harbours, and the ammunition dumps of the Allies.

The thwarted V1 attack proved to be one of the final successes of both the barrage balloons and Balloon Command and, as the war gradually wound down in 1945, so too were the balloons of Balloon Command.

At the height of the war the Balloon command consisted of 33,000 personnel, and when the Balloon Training Unit closed down in 1943 it had trained over 10,000 balloon operators and some 12,000 operator drivers. Many of these men and women were volunteers who had seen that poster and decided to help England by joining one of the barrage balloon squadrons of the auxiliary air force.

They did a great job.

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