Click for Site Directory
Memories of a Balloonatic by David Wintle
As a young lad I lived at Hillfields, right on the Eastern boundary of Bristol and at the bottom of the street where I lived there was a lane that led down to Staple Hill railway station. A popular past-time for boys of my age at that time was collecting Cigarette Cards. As the trains drew in about 5.30. in the evening, we used to wait in the lane and as the workers came by we used to say “Any cigarette cards please mister” and build up collections that were issued by the various cigarette manufacturers. I then bought the appropriate album and stuck the cards in. Only a couple of weeks ago, while turning out some drawers from under the bed I came across these old albums from over sixty years ago. One was of the uniforms that would be worn at the forthcoming Coronation of King George 6th. and the late Queen Mother. Another was of famous Footballers of the day while another album was titled Air Raid Precautions. On the last page there was an artist’s impression of a balloon barrage around London. Being interested in anything that defied gravity, whether it was aeroplanes, gliders, autogiros or airships, my interest was immediately aroused. This was my introduction to barrage balloons. The wording on the back of the card went on to say that the purpose of the barrage balloon was to carry a steel cable high into the air to deter aircraft from flying below them or to risk destruction and to protect cities from low level air attack. It also went on to say that the balloons were organised into Flights and Squadrons manned by volunteers with a small nucleus of trained personnel.
Bristol was one of the first ten cities to be selected for a balloon barrage and the first balloons to be flown here was from a large green area called the Downs alongside the Avon Gorge bridged by Brunel’s famous Suspension Bridge. The Downs are on Bristol’s Western boundary, good five or six miles from where I lived. Hillfields was one of the highest areas of the City so that if the balloons were flying high enough they were visible as silver or black dots in the air. I would dearly have loved to have gone and had a look at one but being only ten years of age, I had little idea which tram to catch had I gone into the Centre of Bristol even if my mother would have let me. Then there was the problem of the tram fare. I only got a penny or tuppence pocket money each week if I was lucky, and the total fare would have been at least four pence! Things moved on a little when one Saturday afternoon looking to the North, I saw about 24 black dots in the sky which I was told were balloons over Avonmouth Docks, but alas I had even less idea how to get there. However, one Friday evening only a few weeks later, I had to go down to one of my two grand-mother’s house at Eastville one fine summers evening and from the top of the tram as it neared Eastville, I could see about half a dozen balloons flying over the centre of the City. I think it must have been during the summer of 1938. Now these balloons were within the limits of my knowledge, it was just a question of finding out where the sites were.
When I went back to school the following week I started asking around if anyone knew where any of the sites were. I soon ascertained that one balloon was on Packers Sports Field on Whitehall Road and another was on the Bristol Rover’s car park at Eastville, (the Rover’s old ground). It meant catching a bus down to Whitehall Road but the fare would only be a penny each way (I was still young enough to travel half fare) which I thought would be worth paying to get a close up view of a balloon and find out just where the site was. Friday evening came and as the weather was good I decided this was the opportunity I had been long waiting for. After having had my tea I told my mother of my intentions and set off to the bus stop As the bus went down Speedwell Road I could see the balloon flying in the evening sunshine and the cable running down to the ground. I rang the bell and got off the bus, looking up I was rather surprised to see how big it looked even at 500 feet. I crossed the road, walked down a lane beside a public house (I forget what it was called) and carried on down to the sports field which was bounded by a high wooden fence but a little way down there was a large pair of gates which were open and looking slightly to the right was a Sussex winch and also a wooden crew hut. The balloon bed had quite a large number of green canvas ballast bags on it together with a tarpaulin sheet laid out. I had found my first balloon site at last!. There was an airman on guard with shiny buttons on his tunic and a gleaming RAF badge on his cap. I think this was the first time I had seen anyone close up in RAF uniform and I wondered what the ‘A’ below the eagle shoulder flashes stood for but it didn’t take me long to find out that it meant Auxiliary. I hung around for quite a while in the hope that perhaps they might haul the balloon down but all seemed quiet so I made my way home.
My next visit was to the site on the Bristol Rovers Ground car park at Eastville on one Saturday morning when I could see no balloons up across the City. It was about this time during the summer of 1939 that the trams were being replaced by double deck buses and as far as I can remember it was one of these I caught down to Eastville. Having walked up the road to the football ground I could see the balloon bedded down with the fins rolled in to the side of it. Again there was a guard standing beside it and I could then appreciate it’s true size. I waited around to see if anything was likely to happen but as nothing did, I once more made my way home.
Whether it was just before the outbreak of the war or just afterwards I cannot be sure but I was told that a balloon site was being prepared at St.George’s Park which was only about ten minutes walk from the Packer’s ground site . So again, one Saturday morning I set off to have a look. When I arrived at the site there was already a trailer type winch in position and several airmen manhandling a large white canvas bag from off the back of a lorry. This they undone and proceeded to pull out yards and yards of silver fabric. I didn’t need telling what it was but they set to work pulling it all about but I couldn’t really see just what they were doing but I did see several airman unwinding pieces of material from coils of wire. There were labels on the coils, one of which blew in my direction. It was green in colour and had PORT printed in black on it. I came to the conclusion it was from one of the Flying Wires so I put it in my pocket and I still have it to this day. This work seemed to go on for ages, and then they laid out a large white hose which had ten or twelve small lines at the end of it. These they started to connect to a trailer load of gas cylinders. Eventually they started to release the gas and the silver fabric started to come up like a great big bubble. When they had finished it looked most ungainly with the fins and the tail end of the balloon looking like a load of wet washing. By now the time had moved on to a quarter to twelve so I had to leave before the balloon was raised from off the ground as I knew I would get a good ‘telling off’ if I was late home for dinner.
I paid several visits to the sites at Packers and St.George’s Park over the next few
months but was never lucky enough to see much activity going on except to look at the balloons and take in more detail and wonder what the various bits and pieces were for. On the 2nd September 1940, my father became the first Bristol AFS (Auxiliary Fire Service) casualty when he was seriously injured during a bombing raid while fighting a large oil fire at Pembroke Dock in South Wales where the Germans had set fire to quite a number of oil tanks. The plume of smoke stretched for miles and the German aircraft used this as cover for further machine gun and bombing attacks. My father was in hospital at Pembroke Dock for six weeks before being sent back to Winford Hospital which was about 6 miles to the South West of Bristol just off the A38 and not far from what is now Bristol Airport. The Fire Service was very supportive and laid on a car so we could visit him on Sunday afternoons until my father was well enough to come home. As we had to cross the City I saw parts I had never seen before and it also gave me a great opportunity to spot quite a number of balloon sites which I otherwise would not have known about.
In April 1941 my father was discharged medically unfit for further service but through the good offices of the AFS he was successful in obtaining the post of Caretaker of a large house on the Promenade at Clifton which had been requisitioned as offices for the City Treasurers Department whose offices in the City had been badly damaged during the Blitz on Bristol. My family moved from Hillfields to Clifton where much to my delight there were balloon sites at each end of the Promenade. Balloon watching became almost routine as I had to pass the site at the top of the Promenade four times a day going back and forth to school. Consequently I was then able to watch many of the activities that went on. One night in May the balloon was blown into trees on the side of the site and the following morning on the way to school I spent quite some time taking in the scene. Coming home at the end of the morning I could see the balloon had been removed but two remnants had been left behind as probably they were not worth salvaging and these I also still have as a reminder of those fascinating times. This particular balloon was unusual as instead of being the normal silver, the body of the balloon containing the hydrogen had been over-sprayed a golden colour. Just what the purpose was I can only think was either that it had been used as some sort of experiment in camouflage or perhaps the fabric had become porous and had been over coated to seal it, but why this particular colour?
The site at the bottom of the Promenade was at the top of Bridge Valley Road in a lovely clearing surrounded by trees and once more on this site I watched a balloon being inflated, again on a Saturday morning when I did not have to go to school. This time though, I was able to watch the whole process and see it change from being a big limp sort of bubble into a shapely balloon as it rose into the wind and the fins fill with air. There were two other sites on the Downs which I used to visit from time to time, one of these being on a very exposed site right on the edge of the Avon Gorge at a spot known as ‘the Sea Walls’. There was absolutely no shelter from the wind from whatever direction it blew from but I am not aware that any balloons were lost from there. The next site round the barrage was at the top of Blackboy Hill with the junction of Westbury Road behind a copse of trees giving some shelter from Southerly winds. Both these sites had Fordson Sussex winches unlike the other two sites which had trailer type winches. I will not bore you with the other sites I gradually became aware of except to mention that in February of 1942 I was recommended for the newly opened Technical School at Bedminster Bridge and three afternoons a week I had to go to the workshops at what was previously Temple Technical School which was situated just off a major road called Temple Way. Here another balloon had been sited on a small vacant plot of land only just large enough to take a balloon. When it was bedded down you could almost touch it but when it was hauled up and down on a windy day it sometimes scraped the side of the adjoining furniture warehouse due to being in such a confined space.
I noted many improvements both to the sites and the balloons during my many visits to the different sites. One of the most notable was when on moving to Clifton, balloons were no longer flown straight off the back of the winch but the cable instead of going vertically up to the balloon, was paid out horizontally and round a pulley wheel concreted securely into the ground and then up to the balloon with the winch itself moved well away from the actual bed. The next so say improvement was that ash was laid all over the bed, covering the grass, no doubt to avoid working in mud in very wet weather and also to avoid vehicles getting bogged down. Another surprise that I had when visiting the two sites at each end of the Promenade was to find the trailer type winches had been lifted off the actual trailer and mounted on two strips of solid concrete about 18 to 24 inches high with a reduction in the height of the winch from the ground, no doubt making it considerably easier to jump onto the winch. The purpose of this I never found out and can only assume that perhaps the trailers were put to another use. If anyone can enlighten me I would be very grateful and also if the winches were lifted by crane or by means of some form of jacks. The next obvious improvement was that the handling lines of the balloon, instead of being left hanging free when it was flown, were coiled up and gathered together just behind where the flying wires were attached to the cable and placed in a canvas holder similar to the bags that held ballast but now replaced by concrete breeze blocks. A tail line was also fitted from the three attachment points between the fins with a loop in the line which went over a wooden peg attached to another line joined to a pulley which could run along a mooring cable that went round the whole bed and held a foot or so above the ground on short wooden posts, the balloon being left free to face into the prevailing wind. When the balloon was at ‘stand by’ it was held by several short cables called a ‘cradle’ and the main cable allowed to go slack. When the balloon had to be flown, the main cable just had to be wound in a little so that the balloon could be released from the cradle, the tail line released from over the peg and the balloon sent up almost in a matter of seconds. Another major improvement made was that bricks were laid in a circle around and outwards from the main anchorage to form a paved bed which provided a first class surface to work on which was also free draining.
Lightning was the worst enemy the balloons faced even more so than the Germans. It only took a few flashes of lightning to decimate a barrage as well as the cost of replacement. To overcome this a lightning conductor was held in a wooden frame mounted on the top of the nose with a wire running round the balloon covered by a strip of fabric which I presume was connected to the cable via the flying wires. It was a sad sight to see balloons go up in a mass of flames and be gone in a matter of seconds leaving a trail of black smoke marking the descent of the remnants and the cable towards the ground. When it happened at night however, was quite spectacular.
The one area where improvements did not seem to occur to me were in the domestic arrangements. When I compare the conditions in which I lived while in the RAF to those on the balloon sites, it makes me wonder just how they managed. All the sites that I remember in Bristol just had the one standard wooden hut with no special washing, cooking or toilet facilities, which I can only assume must have been carried out within the confines of the hut. If anyone can enlighten me further on this angle I would be most pleased to hear from them. I guess that water and electricity must have been laid on.
Before I end, I have one other happy memory which I will relate. The Balloon Squadron, No.927 which was the main Bristol squadron, had a Flight or Squadron office in Caledonia Place in Clifton. I happened to be passing by it one evening when a Fordson Sussex winch happened to be parked unattended on the opposite side of the road. It was most unusual to see a winch parked in the street rather than on a site so I took the opportunity to take a good close up look at it. There was no wire mesh door on the side of the cage. Sometimes these were left on and tied up when on site so as to avoid the trouble of holding them up while at the same time climbing into the cage but quite a lot of winches seemed to have had them removed. Fortunately for me this one was missing, so having spent a few minutes seeing just what was inside the cage I wondered whether to take a chance and climb in and sit in the winch operator’s seat.
As I could see no one about in the Flight Office, I thought I might be able to get away with it. After all, I was never likely to get such an opportunity again and probably the worse that could happen was someone shouting out “Get down out of there” or words to that effect. Having decided that it was worth taking the risk, I climbed up in and sat down. No one saw me as nothing happened and I spent a happy ten minutes or so pretending I was a winch operator! Now when I see photographs of a Fordson Sussex I have the satisfaction of knowing that I have actually sat in one.
The end of the Bristol barrage came very quickly. D-day was on Tuesday June 6, 1944 and eleven days later on the 17th the Flying Bombs started. That morning the sirens went and I thought that very unusual as it had been many months since they were last sounded. About half an hour later the All-clear went and I didn’t think much more about it until later in the day when I heard on the radio that unmanned German aircraft had been falling on the South East part of the country. Later we were told what they were and that they cut out, fell and exploded with considerable force. To counteract this new development in aerial warfare, the balloons were deflated, packed up, and everything moved off to the South East of the country. Several dates have been given on just which date the balloons were last flown over Bristol but from what I remember it was just about a fortnight after D-day. The Public Records Office at Kew give the date that the Weston-Super-Mare barrage deflated their balloons as June 21st 1944. As the Bristol barrage and the two other barrages on Bristol’s outskirts, Filton which protected the Bristol Aeroplane Company’s works, and Avonmouth protecting the docks and the industrial complex there, as well as the Weston-Super -Mare barrage, came under the control of No.11 Balloon Centre at Pucklechurch (which was three miles out from the North-eastern boundary of Bristol), I think it likely that all these four barrages closed down on the same date.
I was sad to see them go but as the allied troops pushed further and further into France, it was plain to see that it was only a matter of time before the war would end and that the need of the balloons would no longer be required, even had the flying bombs not existed.
Virtually nothing exists in Bristol now to show where the balloon sites were, but until a few years ago, an almost complete bed remained on the golf course at Ashton Court but I think it is now probably grassed over. Two balloon sheds still remain at Pucklechurch which have been reclad and are now used as warehouses.
Like the ‘forgotten Army’ out in Burma I often think that Balloon Command was the ‘forgotten Air Force’ whose motto could well have been ‘Much Hardship Little Glory’ and now all I have left are memories and a couple of souvenirs of those very happy days.
BBRC. Mem.No. 348