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Development of Balloon Command

The origin of Balloon Barrages dates from about 1917 when a barrage was flown in London to try and frustrate the German night raiders. The barrage was only 30 barrage balloons and many lengths of wire cable. It was struck by one plane and the whole structure collapsed. The Germans had tried a form of kite or balloon barrage as early as winter of 1914/15. In 1917 the Germans had formed Balloon Barrage detachments to protect important industrial targets. In January 1918 a British F.E.2b of No.100 Squadron piloted by Second-Lieutenant L.G Taylor and his observer Second-Lieutenant F.E.Le Fevre were caught in a German Balloon net and captured. After the war he was debriefed and was able to emphasise the damage the balloon cable had made to his machine. One of the earliest WWI Allied Balloon Barrages was in Venice, where there were seven balloon Stations and each one flew ten balloons. They were inflated during each moonlight period and flown from rafts at 200 feet seperation. The Balloons were flown at a height of 10,000 feet.A Royal flying Corps officer was sent to Venice to report on the scheme. On September the 5th 1917 Major-General E.B.Ashmore, who commanded the London Air Defence Areas put forward his scheme for a London Balloon Barrage system.  

He suggested an apron consisting of a row of  balloons connected by cross wires and carrying weighted wire streamers. It got Government approval and he arranged to install two balloon aprons on the easterly borders of London, each consisting of five Caquot balloons disposed in a straight line 2,000 yards in length, with the balloons anchored to the ground at three seperate points and linked together by cable from which wire streamers 1,000 feet long were suspended.

In October 1917 the Commander-in Chief of Home Forces, agreed to the establishing of five Balloon Squadrons with a total personnel of 3,587 to run them. He also agreed to the further installation of a cordon of 20 balloon aprons that ran approximately on the line, Tottenham - Ilford - Barking - Woolwich and Lewisham. By April 1918 seven of these aprons were in operation and the eighth was almost ready. The balloon aprons were heavy and inflexible. Operating them turned out to be difficult and the weight when airborne was a potential menace to the people below. The presence of balloons did give reassurance to the civilians in wartime. Major-General Ashmore reported on May 27th about the Barrage balloons as follows:

" In my opinion, the balloon aprons are an essential part of the defence; to do away with them would have the worst possible effect. Our aircraft patrols would have to cover all heights instead of a comparatively narrow zone as at present. London would certainly be bombed from low heights at which considerable accuracy is attainable."

German records also show that the balloon aprons were successful in deterring pilots. A report made in March 1918 to General von Hoeppner stated that:

" the aprons had increased enormously and that they added greatly to the difficulties of the attack. If they were increased much more they would make raid on London almost impossible."

A captured German prisoner in the same month told his interrogators that:

"the aprons were sufficient to keep all machines at their maximum height."

 

With the war at an end the work on defensive balloons collapsed. A research establishment was maintained. Between 1928 and 1938 the Air Defence Command kept representing the fact that it was necessary to be able to organise and maintain a barrage in any future war. Air staff decided in 1936 to establish a London barrage, with the provinces left unprotected until more experience was gained.

In 1936 the Committee of Imperial Defence approved the idea of 450 barrage balloons being set up to defend London. This initiated an eventual national balloon defence organisation. It was to be set up by The Auxiliary Air Force i.e. manned by non-regular volunteer staff. No1 Balloon Training Unit was formed at RAF Cardington on January 9th 1937. On 17th March 1937 the first Balloon Barrage  Group No30 was formed.  It was commanded by a retired RAF officer Air Commodore J.G Hearon CB,CBE,DS

The fledgling Balloon Command was formed in 1937 as war clouds gathered over Europe. The official Balloon Command was formed on November 1st 1938 under the control of fighter Command. At its head was AVM O.T Boyd  CB, OBE, MC with the title of Air Officer Commanding. In 1939 we had 47 Barrage Balloon squadrons set up. They were given the numbers 901-947 inclusively based on a county wide affiliation. At the outbreak of war in September 1939 we had approved the idea of a total of 1450 balloons but had only 624 in existence. Balloon production was 212 in September 1939 and fell to 148 in October. Production figures trebled as the months went by and by May 1940 we had at last achieved our pre-war target only to be faced with an imminent German invasion of France with Britain potentially next. It was at this time that waterborne balloons became to be used at ports and harbours. They were tethered to floating barges.  By 1939 we had improved the designs and method of flying balloons so that dive bombing by German planes was frustrated and this  reduced their capacity to bomb accurately. At the same time it kept the enemy at heights that kept them in the range of anti-aircraft fire. Balloon Command divided Britain on a geographical basis into Balloon Groups and each one of those was in turn subdivided into Balloon Centres staffed by squadrons of balloon operators who were responsible for the flying of the balloons. Each Centre was a depot for the supply and repair of  equipment along with balloon maintenance. The balloons were not always flown from fixed static sites; Balloons were flown from barges, drifters and even mobile lorries. This meant that the barrage could be placed where it was most needed and ensured that land and sea areas were well protected. These seaborne balloons were designed to prevent enemy aircraft from dropping mines into the ports and harbours. At sea balloons were flown by the convoys using a mixture of naval and merchant seamen with the balloons being serviced by RAF personnel. Balloons flown at sea were a slightly smaller size than those flown on land.

In 1940 balloon production was around 1200 balloons per month. By August the 1st there were only 1,466 balloons spread across 52 operational squadrons, still nearly 400 below the expected figure.. At this time 2 mobile squadrons were being formed.

Balloon Command was organised intro 5 Groups:

No 30 Group: LONDON

No 31 Group: BIRMINGHAM

No 32 Group: ROMSEY

No 33 Group: SHEFFIELD

No 34 Group EDINBURGH

 The life of Balloon Command was relatively short as The Balloon Training Unit closed down in 1943. By then it had trained over 10,000 RAF and WAAF balloon operators and some 12,000 operator drivers.

It was decided to train WAAF personnel instead of male operators to relieve more men for active duty. There were those who scorned the idea but the WAAF's set to and showed they were more than ready to meet the challenge.

The Balloons were flown by two corporals and ten airmen on a round the clock shift basis. In 1940 the idea was floated that balloons could be operated by WAAF's thus releasing men for active service in other areas. This idea was hotly contested by AOC Balloon Command and his WAAF Staff Officer. In April 1941 20 WAAF Balloon Fabric Operators were trained in London. In May 1941 the first batch of WAAF volunteers were posted to a 10 week training course at a balloon centre. Initially, the powers that be, working on the basis that 10 male balloon operators could only be replaced by at least 20 female balloon operators, began to substitute women for men in the squadrons. The women rose to the challenge and showed that 14 women were quite capable of replacing 10 men and this was eventually settled as the correct figure. By December 1942 10,000 men had been replaced by some 15,700 WAAF balloon operators. For those squadrons who went abroad to defend vital installations the operators were male.

The balloon barrage was always a very risky area to fly aircraft of any sort in. Friday, 24th May 1940 was the day on which the balloon barrage was to claim its first victim, unfortunately one of our own RAF planes! This  first aircraft downed by the balloon barrage was an RAF Hampden bomber, which hit the barrage over Coventry in the daytime and landed in the cricket ground. Another Hampden collided with the barrage on 4th June 1940, at Shotley, 2 miles NW of Harwich - this is the first balloon casualty to be recorded by Home Security. On 13th June, a third Hampden hit the barrage at Harwich and crashed in the dock area at Felixstowe. Only one man survived these 3 crashes. The first enemy aircraft brought down by the balloon barrage was on 13th September, 1940. This was a night time incident and this first German loss reliably attributed to the Balloon Barrage, was the loss of a Heinkel He 111, claimed by a mobile unit of 966 Squadron on station at Belle View Park, Monmouthshire. The plane was returning from a raid on Merseyside, when it struck the cable and plunged into a built-up area of the above district. On the ground two children were killed. Three of the aircraft's crew were killed, the pilot managed to bale out in time. The aircraft was destroyed.

 The flying of balloon barrages was finished in the United Kingdom in Autumn 1944. This led to the disbanding of Balloon Command in February 1945.

This site is dedicated to the men and women of Balloon Command who served in WWII defending this country and vital areas abroad. It is hoped to cover the development, training, and history of Balloon Command. This site will be an ongoing project. It is hoped that those who served will come forward and tell their story for others to read and learn about the activities of the balloon crews.

 

This site was last updated 11/17/10