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SCAPA BALLOON BARRAGE
(I am indebted to Ginny Schroder from Orkney who has written a most interesting book on the history of the The Orkneys during the war and in particular a detailed chapter on the Scapa Balloon Barrage.
According to the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland:
She has done some fascinating research on the whole period. Ginny has kindly agreed to me hosting this chapter for the BBRC. As of the 15th May 2006 Ginny tells me that it is now available. It is called Bloody Orkney? and can be obtained from:
In addition it would not be surprising to find a number of ex BB operators who remember their time on the Orkneys / Scapa stations, so if you do contact me and I will be pleased to hear of your stories..
SCAPA BALLOON BARRAGE
In July 1939 a barrage balloon snapped its mooring in Bedfordshire. With its steel cable trailing, it drifted northwards, fouling power lines and causing electricity blackouts across the country. The Orkney Herald reported that it was last spotted off the west of Eday, prompting the following cartoon. [Insert cartoon and caption.]
It was to be several months later that Orkney would receive its own, more permanent, consignment of barrage balloons. In December 1939 the decision was taken to establish a Balloon Barrage in Orkney in order to defend the Naval Base, Lyness and the Home Fleet Anchorage in Scapa Flow. No. 950 Squadron was formed, mostly of volunteers from three Glasgow Auxiliary Squadrons and some English units.
In early January 1940 the advance party of about 20 men arrived in Orkney to reconnoitre and establish Headquarters Camp at Ore Hill, Lyness. This was known as RAF Lyness. The plan was for 12 Balloon sites along the east coast of Hoy, 4 sites on the north coast of Flotta, 4 on Fara and 8 waterborne on the east side of the Fleet anchorage. Waterborne balloons were flown from trawlers manned by naval personnel with balloon crews of 4 airmen. A camp of wooden huts was constructed hastily in preparation for the arrival of the rest of the squadron which followed on 2nd February.
The official account of the Squadron’s development relates that on arrival ‘All ranks set to to erect hutments, layout balloon beds, land stores and prepared for deployment.’ They were assisted by the Navy and Royal Marines. The account continues - ‘The chief impressions of the first few months at Scapa, were mud, deep clinging mud, and wind, wind beyond the dreams of any Balloon Operator; and many and various were the “jury rigs” devised to protect the feeble fabric of the billowing balloons from the raging storms.’ These included portable wind screens made by stretching canvas over a tubular steel frame. According to the account ‘Morale, however, was high, the spirit of adventure was abroad and all ranks were conscious of the honour and responsibility of sharing in the task of guarding the fleet, without which Britain’s lifeline to the West would be severed.’
Jim MacDonald who, as a child in Orkney at the time, observed all these development around him, made these observations in later life:
During the early days, and in fact for most of 1940, the sites were very primitive. A hut with a bogey stove was provided, but actual beds were in short supply, the men sleeping on planks a few inches off the floor. As usual, there was mud everywhere, with no water, sewerage or electricity. Oil lamps and storm lanterns being the only illumination.
The deflated balloons, when they arrived, were of two types:
One, full-size, had an inflated and self-supporting tail. The other, smaller, had only a fin-type tail, held rigid by bamboo canes.... They had an expanding panel underneath, normally held taut by thick strong rubber elastic cords, which allowed them to expand as they went up, and took up the slack as they were wound down to sea-level air pressure, or lost pressure for any reason.
Whilst a balloon on a normal site was always attached to a winch on a motor lorry, the sites chosen at Scapa were laid out with concrete anchoring rings, corresponding with the outline of the balloon and the ties which were dangling from it, from many anchoring points. Even a gentle breeze made catching hold of the ties a difficult task, and tying them to the appropriate ring, on a site squelching with mud, was a formidable task indeed. Fortunately this had only to be done when a gale was imminent, or when repairs had to be carried out.
Due to the lie of the land, shore-based balloons could only be effective at deterring raids from the west and the south. Balloons deployed on trawlers were therefore used to prevent air attacks from the east or north. A Balloon Trawler base was established at St. Mary’s, Holm, 8 sea miles from Lyness. A Balloon trawler would be in position for six weeks at a time. They would then hand over to a relief trawler and return to their Holm base for maintenance. A Flight HQ camp was built there and another on the island of Fara. Later a Flight HQ was established at Muckle Rysa, Hoy, to control operations on balloon sites in the northern part of Hoy.
The Balloon Barrage’s effectiveness was tested in the Luftwaffe attacks on the Fleet Anchorage some months later. The Hoxa and Switha Booms were targeted but only slightly damaged. Before the balloons had been in place planes had attacked from a height of only a few hundred feet. The presence of the balloons forced the raiders much higher at between 7,000 and 20,000 feet. In the words of the official report - ‘The Scapa Balloons achieved their aim - namely to keep the enemy at such a height that accurate bombing was impossible and all subsequent raids proved this to be the case.’
By the summer of 1940 the threat of air attack became more serious and it was decided to increase the Balloon Barrage. No. 960 squadron was formed from the waterborne sites along with Fara and Cava. HQ camp, Lyness became No. 20 Balloon Centre, controlling both 950 and 960 squadrons. 56 balloon sites were planned, with a maximum of 40 balloons flying at any one time. King George VI visited on 11 May 1940 and inspected personnel and the Barrage Control Operations Room. The hut building programme progressed well in the drier weather of the early summer and living conditions improved though they were still quite basic - paraffin lamps, for example, still provided the only source of lighting.
... Huts were decorated - green and cream of course. Spring beds were provided; better cooking facilities - and cooks, proper paths were constructed to combat mud, and a radio for the mess.
The War Diary of No 20 Balloon Centre recorded daily life on the base . On 31 August 1940 a balloon broke free and drifted away. It was shot down 50 miles east of Orkney by a Hurricane aircraft. At eleven o’clock on the night of 7 September an emergency order was received announcing that invasion was imminent. All personnel manned defence positions. In the early hours of the next morning the Security Officer telephoned to report that an unknown party of men seem to be on Wee Fea and lights were flashing. It was explained to him that the RAF were required to send fifty men and 2 officers to man the Wee Fea defence post. The Security Office had forgotten that the emergency order was in force. At around the same time, a group of Marines were unable to find their way in the dark back to their camp and the RAF help was requested to lead them back. By 0700 the order to ‘Stand down’ was given and the emergency was over.
Later that month Rear Admiral MacNamara visited Headquarters Camp and inspected a balloon site. He praised the tidiness of the living quarters and the efforts of the balloon crew, but was appalled at the depth of the mud in and around the camp and the conditions under which they had to work.
All ranks were informed, in October, that arrangements would be made to ensure that all personnel with over six months service at Scapa, would be eligible for a posting out of Orkney. The end of that month brought weather of ‘venomous force, a recurrent climatic assault with which we will have to contend - we know - in the winter months to come.’ This weather accounted for the entry that sadly relates ‘It is regretted exceedingly that, just when the Barrage had attained the largest number of balloons yet flown at Scapa almost 100% casualties should be incurred.’ By November the average effective strength of the unit was recorded as 38 officers and 1065 airmen. When their Commanding Officer made a Camp inspection in early December he founds the huts to be satisfactory but the roads and paths still in an appalling condition, with liquid mud up to 2 ft in depth .... ‘The continual wearing of gumboots and the lengthy periods necessary for them are providing most detrimental to the feet.’ Four days later the mud leading to the Barrack Huts was described as knee deep. Ten days later it was reported that it was impossible for mechanics to get underneath vehicles to effect repairs, due to mud and lack of inspection pits. Heavy rain led to leaking roofs, the sergeant’s mess was flooded with 2 inches of water and the drains were unable to cope.
Ninety airmen left in mid December to join various squadrons in Scotland. ‘The airmen are Balloon Operators who have been here since January and February, and it is their turn for a breather in civilisation. Many of them stated when saying Goodbye that although pleased to get away they felt the wrench very much and some hoped to return after a spell away from the mud and the wind.’ In an attempt to prevent the further spread of sore throats and colds spreading around the camp the CO ordered gargling each morning before breakfast. Two barrels of beer were stolen from the NAAFI and traced to a civilian workmen’s hut. Two workmen were arrested by the civilian police.
On Christmas Eve the weather was perfect with no signs of rain or wind ‘far less a festive covering of seasonable snow - and preparations are in full swing for Xmas day.’ However on the day itself it was very wet. A Christmas Day celebration of Holy Communion held in camp. At 13.30 the following message was transmitted to all flights. “A Christmas present. One enemy aircraft brought down over Orkney mainland” For Christmas dinner the airmens dining hall was decorated and officers and NCOs served at table while the station band played on stage. That evening there was a performance of the pantomime Cinderella. ‘It was thoroughly enjoyed by all.’ On Boxing Day it was work and duty as usual. One coal ship, one Hydrogen ship, was providing gas for the balloons, and two equipment ships awaited unloading. The Lord Provost of Glasgow wrote to the CO promising £100 to be used at COs discretion. On New Years Day 1941 an ENSA show took place in the camp theatre.
Throughout 1941 a number of ENSA film shows and concert parties visted the base and a recreation centre was built. Tea times in the airmens dining hall were sometimes enhanced with the broadcast of a ‘selection of gramophone records’.
On 16 January Winston Churchill was on Hoy and expected to visit 20 Balloon Centre, though he had to cancel his speech in Lyness, on account of a sore throat. Miss Francis Day and her concert party gave two shows that same day in the camp theatre. They were, according to the War Diary, ‘the kind of girls it does one good to see, after looking at mud and huts and uniforms for so many months.’ Two days later Miss Day called to say goodbye before leaving Hoy. Later that month severe gales cut off telephone lines. Trains in Scotland couldn’t move due to snow. All leave was cancelled. The Unit average effective strength was recorded as 25 officers and 246 men, a sharp decrease from the November figures. A crisis developed on 21 January when RA Scapa Security informed the RAF that an important document had been lost on Hoy and until it was found no leave was to be granted and there was to be no waterborne craft movement between islands. The next day the lost document crisis was over and movement was resumed. In February unit numbers increased by 49. The mud situation had not improved. By early March the entrance to the camp had become so bad that a ‘cat walk’ of railway sleepers had to be laid for the sentry to march up and down. April saw officers anxiously awaited the instillation of a new boiler in their quarters. ‘It is now 5 days since any of them had a bath, and things are not too good.’
The main road to the camp was completed in May, a month when large heath fires raged throughout Hoy. At the end of the month 960 Squadron HQ transferred to St Marys, Holm. Unit strength had risen to 45 officers and 1150 men. June brought the opening of a railway office on the little island of Fara where five balloons were based. In July George Formby, his wife and ENSA party ‘Swingtime Follies’ gave two performances at the Balloon Base and received with tumultuous enthusiasm. The next months’ VIP visitor was the King ... ‘[who] showed a keen interest in the layout of the Barrage, and asked numerous questions.’ A week later No 20 Balloon Centre was visited by Rear Admiral Khalamov and several other officers of the Russian Navy. An unexpected arrival was the first WAAF ever to be posted to No 20 Balloon Centre, ‘arrangements were made for her attachment to HQ 34 group, whence she will proceed tomorrow.’
The last entry in the War Diary was made on 26 December 1941. ‘Last day of No 20 Balloon Centre as such. 950/960 squadrons and No 20 Centre joined into 950 Squadron to effect economies in time, paper, man power and material equipment of all kind.’
Weather reports feature prominently in the War Diary, not surprisingly, as the frequency and strength of Orkney gales were challenges with which Balloon Barrages elsewhere did not have to contend. ‘On the day that the target figure of 40 balloons was attained there was a sudden gale and 39 of the balloons were blown away.’ So states the official account, which continues ‘Within a few hours 15 balloons were inflated and flying, and soon the full 40 were again silhouetted against the sky.’ Such losses did provide windfalls for others, however. The Orcadian gave an account of a court case, in 1941, under the following headline - ‘Island Farmers Cut Up and Shared A Barrage Balloon - Authorities Found Material in Use As Covers for Stacks.’ Other, more elaborate uses of barrage balloon fabric was witnessed by Fred Mansfield, a gunner, stationed in South Ronaldsay from 1941-1944. He recalls being on duty one morning at his site at Widewall.
The school was next to us. Looking towards St. Margaret’s Hope there was a small crowd of children coming up the hill. In the distance some of them appeared to be dressed in silver clothing. I found that some of the children were wearing coats and trousers made of barrage balloons that had been brought down.
Supplies of hydrogen gas to inflate the balloons were a problem. All gas had to be shipped in cylinders from railheads at Leith or Aberdeen. A vast quantity was used and took up a great deal the shipping space. In case of shortages, especially if winter gales delayed shipping, work was started on a hydrogen production plant at Rinigill, with deep water pier for the balloon trawlers and servicing vessels. However this took so long to complete that it was late in the war before it went into production. Meanwhile, a portable hydrogen production plant was operated from Mill Bay and produced ‘small quantities of gas, large quantities of steam, and unending amusement for sailors ashore.’
‘Balloons’ were well established in recreational and social life of the base and took part in activities such as football, boxing and small boat sailing. An RAF 5 piece band toured around the scattered balloon flights and played at dances when ENSA parties came to the islands. In February 1941 the Officers Mess was opened and a cocktail party was given to celebrate its opening. It was the first brick-built building on the camp and generally agreed to be a vast improvement on the wooden huts, as the roof didn’t leak nor did the wind penetrate the walls.
Life at the remote postings could be bleak:
...the sites on the islands of Fara and Cava were poor postings indeed, with amenities non- existent and no-one else on the island. Not for them, the ENSA shows and the screening of the very latest film releases from Hollywood, which, unbelievably, were showing not more than a mile away at the Lyness Cinema. Naught but a ferry boat twice a day. 
1942 brought operational changes with No. 20 Balloon Centre and 960 Squadron absorbed into 950 Squadron and the whole barrage becoming known once again as No. 950 Squadron.
In the summer of 1943 there was a major event - the arrival of the WAAF barrage personnel. Alan Pitcher worked at Royal Naval Sick Quarters, North Ness. He recalls that ... ‘There was an air force base on high ground just east of Lyness where my wife (-to be) was stationed. Most of the girls were heavily built with strapping muscles, handpicked for the very heavy work of hauling in the barrage balloons.’ Approximately 150 women, all volunteers, came to Scapa to take up posts as cooks, clerks, batwomen and balloon repair crews. They were accommodated in newly built huts at Lyness and St Mary’s, Holm. The dance band now worked overtime and, with the Autumn gales blowing, so did the WAAF Balloon Repair Section.
The number of balloons was increased - Hoy 19, Flotta 19, Cava 2, Waterbourne 26, South Walls 6 Fara 6, Rysa Little 1. This made it the biggest Balloon Barrage in Britain. The increased number and the consequent increase in casualties through weather damage by wind and lightening meant that a large hangar had to be built at Lyness for the repair of balloons. The winter of 43/44 was severe and, in a period of just three months, over 350 balloons were lost or badly damaged.
The lifting power of the hydrogen was greatly increased by the wind, and the steel winch- wire had to withstand the worst that a balloon could do. Despite this, the wire was only about a quarter inch diameter... The winchman sat in a steel cage behind the winch in case the wire snapped - and snap they did. ... the site crews would dread he snap and whiplash of a broken wire, and view with dismay, the quite beautiful gyrations of the free balloon, the sun glinting on its silvery bulk as it tumbled head over heels into the great beyond.
Jim MacDonald recalls one balloon incident in which he was nearly a casualty:
I was the only passenger [on the last ferry of the day into Holm pier] that threatening night, there was no-one to be seen on the pier or on the two trawlers tied up alongside. A large balloon flapped noisily above, the wind singing across its steel cable. With no-one to pick up the ferry scurried off back to the shelter of St Margaret’s Bay and I made my way along the deserted pier... Suddenly there was an almighty crash and a roar, the sky lit up and I looked back to see a huge flaming mass hurtling towards me. I threw myself flat, not thinking about anything else to do. It soared over my head, crashing to the ground about twenty yards ahead on the beach at the other side of the pier. I lay where I was, conscious of the steel cable whipping the pier beside me. and then it was over. I arose to look at the few bits of burning rubber and bamboo. The balloon was gone, struck by lightning.
By June 1944 the focus of the war had shifted and it was necessary to concentrate balloon defences around London. Preparations were made for withdrawal from Scapa. Tank landing craft plied back and forth between Lyness and the islands bringing in gear. Royal Marine Stevedores worked for two days and nights loading two ships at Lyness ‘Golden Wharf’ with winches, vehicles and balloons. One hundred personnel were left to maintain the camps in case of a return but after a few weeks it was decided to close down completely and evacuate. Huts and camps were handed over to the Navy and Army and the last of the balloon personnel ‘regretfully left Lyness for good on 1 November 1944.’
During their stay on Orkney the Balloon Barrage recorded several unusual incidents. During a 90 mph gale a balloon uprooted its winch and dragged it 600 yards along the moor of Cava, over the cliffs and into the sea. The balloon then broke away and the winch sank. On another occasion a crashed aircraft was rescued from a bog in South Walls by means of attaching a balloon to the wreck and ‘flying’ it to firm ground on a balloon cable. Most resourcefully, two balloon winches were used to form a kind of aerial railway to carry drums of oil and other stores up the steep hill to the waterworks at Heldale on Hoy, a job that previously had to be done by gangs of men carrying equipment on their shoulders. In the words of the official report, ‘All the above and more helped to keep “Ballooning” at Scapa from becoming routine and dull.’
1 What Happened to That Balloon Anyway? cartoon The Orkney Herald, July 1939
2 ADM116/5790 Inception and development of the main Fleet Base in Orkney 1937-1946 pp.412-
3 MacDonald, J unpublished notes on The Balloon Barrage Scapa 1940, p3 The Orkney Wireless Museum
4 ibid pp1-2
5ADM116/5790 Inception and development of the main Fleet Base in Orkney 1937-1946
6 MacDonald p4
7 AIR29/71 Operational Record Book
9 11/12/41 The Orcadian,
10 Mansfield, F Personal communication to author
11 MacDonald, J notes on The Balloon Barrage Scapa 1940, The Orkney Wireless Museum p8
12 Pitcher, A Personal communication to author
13 MacDonald p 9
14 ibid p10
15 ADM 116/5790 Inception and development of the main Fleet Base in Orkney 1937-1946
 What Happened to That Balloon Anyway? cartoon The Orkney Herald, July 1939
 ADM116/5790 Inception and development of the main Fleet Base in Orkney 1937-1946 pp.412-
 MacDonald, J notes on The Balloon Barrage Scapa 1940, THe Orkney Wireless Museum p3
 ibid pp1-2
 ADM116/5790 Inception and development of the main Fleet Base in Orkney 1937-1946
 ibid p4
 AIR29/71 Operational Record Book
 ADM 116/5790
 11 /12/41 The Orcadian,
 Mansfield, F Personal communication to author
 MacDonald, J notes on The Balloon Barrage Scapa 1940, The Orkney Wireless Museum p8
 Pitcher, A Personal communication to author
 ibid p 9
 ibid p10