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Harrow District Council versus The Air Ministry and No.3 Balloon Centre

It is interesting to read the responses by various public bodies to the risk of war and the actions taken by the government to defend this country. In July 1938 the war clouds were gathering over Europe once again and the government along with the Air Ministry was keen to ensure that if it came to war Britain would have an air defence in place. It had been agreed that across the country regional sites would be developed to house balloon barrage depots.

Harrow District Council almost had an apoplectic fit when the decision to build a Balloon Barrage Depot at Stanmore Park was made. Stanmore Park was built Andrew Drummond, founder of Drummondís Bank and the old family house built in 1750 had been demolished by the Air Ministry. The decision was one that had been made by the Secretary of State for Air. The Town Planning Committee recommended that the Secretary of State for Air be informed that the Council viewed with regret the entire lack consultation with the Council both before the acquisition and in connection with the lay-out and development of Stanmore Park as balloon barrage station and depot and deplored the demolition of buildings and felling of trees on the site. The Council asked that they should be consulted as to the type and design of buildings which it was proposed to erect on the land. The Council also included their local M.P. in the correspondence.

Stanmore Park had been acquired the Crown for use by the Air Ministry as station and depot for balloon barrage in connection with the defence North London against hostile aircraft. The land  comprised about 56 acres and had until recently been used as a school and had woodland. The property was awaiting residential development of eight houses per acre. Committee observed these facts with considerable regret, for what was once a spot of natural beauty had now been irreparably spoiled. The Council, however had no power to prevent the development. They felt it was lack of courtesy by the government not to have asked their view. Only one councillor explained that the country was facing a national emergency and he felt the other members of the council were being unpatriotic. Various members explained that there were some very valuable houses adjacent to Stanmore Park and the building of a barrage balloon depot would devalue these.

My research reveals that in 1938 many councils across the country were objecting to the actions of the Air Ministry when a balloon barrage depot was being built. The situation was that even if the council objected then the Air Ministry could use compulsory purchase in any case. I have concluded that most councils that objected were unaccepting of the threat of war coupled with their affront at not having power over the decision. Thank goodness the depots were built despite the objections from the councils. If they had delayed the building of the depots the air defence over the country might have been much later in implementation with disastrous consequences.

The Stanmore site went on to serve Squadron Nos. 906 at Hampstead, 907 at Woodberry Down, and 956 at Colnbrook. The first balloon flew over Stanmore on 13th November 1939. On 26th February 1939 a public demonstration was held at Stanmore to show the public the air defence provide by a barrage balloon. It went well until a bolt of lightning struck the balloon and cable causing it to burst into flames. The crowd watched in horror as the balloon descended in flames and landed on the roof of one of the hangars containing gas trailers and other winch vehicles. Quick thinking by the winch driver wound in the flying cable and dragged the burning balloon of the roof and onto the ground where a fire engine was able to douse the fire. Nobody was hurt but it was not a good start for the Centre. 


Since the public did not have a lot of information about the mechanism of balloon defence this exercise caused many people to think that the balloons were designed to explode when an enemy aircraft came near. The authorities did not go out of their way to explain exactly how a balloon was designed to deter enemy aircraft. The Stanmore Balloon Centre realised that Stanmore Common was ideal for carrying out balloon exercises and in March 1939 applied to Harrow Council for permission to use the common, the council refused and referred all other requests to the Open Spaces Committee.  The men who joined the balloon squadrons came under the Reserve and Auxiliary Forces Act and were required to be released from work for a month of training at 3s-9d a day. In June 1939 Deployment of the balloon barrage had begun and one in four of the men in the Stanmore squadrons were called up for the one month of training. It was planned that the rest would be called up over the next three months and this would enable the squadrons to be brought up to full strength of officers and men. As the last batch were being called up for September war was declared causing a number of men to be only partly trained. At that time a balloon cost around £500 and the winch around £1000. The Balloon Command strength in June 1939 was only 20,000 but with war declared those numbers began to swell.


Peter Garwood 2021

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