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How Hydrogen Was Made For The Balloon Barrage.

In late 1944 the British Gas Industry decided it was time to record how it had managed to supply gas to the various balloon barrages  during 1939-45. The gas supplies literally supported the balloon barrage during the war. It was clear that the sight of silver sentinels hovering gave a sense of security and certainly was also uplifting to the morale of the public. In December 1944 the Royal Air Force sent Air-Commodore P. L. Lincoln to a gas-works to pay tribute to the efforts that went on to maintain gas supplies during the war years. In the summer of 1944 the demand for gas for barrage balloons reached a peak and the Gas Industry had to undergo much re-arranging and concentration of effort to maintain these vital supplies.  Hydrogen was compressed and put into cylinders and then transported by road or rail to Balloon Centres. As more balloons were sent skyward in 1940 there was a heavy demand for Hydrogen. Intense enemy attacks caused increased demand as balloons were lost or punctured. In the latter part of 1940 the attacks on Southern England were considerable, this stretched the delivery system from the North and when the transport limit was reached, as an emergency measure some coal gas had to be used in the balloons. This had an impact on the operational efficiency of the balloons as the lift from coal gas was not as good as the lift from pure Hydrogen. To meet the shortage and cover the now rapid expansion of the balloon barrage it was necessary at short notice to a create a new source of supply. This required:- Manufacturing to be dispersed in order to minimise disruption due to enemy attacks. Manufacturing plants to be as close as possible to the main balloon Centres. Flexibility of output to meet the varying changes in demand resulting from enemy action and weather. In September 1940 a Directorate of Hydrogen Production was set up within the Air Ministry to review and reconsider plans for expanding the gas supply to meet the new conditions that had arisen due to the war. It was decided to seek co-operation from the Gas Industry and in addition to the plants already under construction at gas-works, to build many more plants of a smaller type with a greater degree of dispersal and situated with reference to the barrages as then planned. The final planned output after writing off output not available on account of war risk, was 40,000,000 cubic feet of Hydrogen per week, of which approximately 25,000,000 cubic feet would come from gas-works. The Hydrogen at the gas- works was produced by the steam-iron process using water and steam which are normally available. The water gas is passed over a heated chamber containing a special form of iron ore that gets reduced to iron. Steam is then passed through the ore and is in turn reduced to Hydrogen. These operations continue alternatively and the Hydrogen is collected, purified, and compressed into cylinders. The first of these plants at gas-works went into operation in September 1940, and others came in at regular intervals up to the middle of 1942. The quantity supplied by the Gas Industry between 1940 and the end of September 1944 was 1,733,000,000 cubic feet.

Hydrogen supplied to Barrage Balloon Centres 1941 to 1944.  


Gas-works Supply (Cubic Feet)

Other Supply (Cubic Feet)










1944 (9 months)







This table shows the quantity supplied in each year from the Gas Industry and from other sources . including Government establishments. Factories were put into production, or production was suspended, according to the operational requirements. As a result of the decreased enemy action the maximum expansion of the balloon barrage was not reached in the North and West, and it was decided to concentrate it in the South and East. As a result, an increasing proportion of the total load was taken over by the Gas Industry.

Balloon protection on a very heavy scale was provided for D-day operations before and after “D” day. In order to reduce congestion on the roads a maximum output was called for from the two stations on the Sout Coast and reserve supplies were drawn from the factories nearest to the South Coast.

At the same time as preparations for “D” day plans were being made for a limited barrage to be used against the Flying Bomb (V1). The first success scored by the barrage resulted in an immediate withdrawal of balloons from the other parts of the country, and ultimately for the concentration of the whole of the balloon strength into the barrage south of London. The area concerned was one which had not been covered by factory production, firstly on strategic grounds, and secondly because it had not previously required any heavy concentration of balloon barrage strength. It therefore became necessary to call for the maximum output from all factories in the London Area, as the time and distance involved made it impossible to spare cylinders to bring in supplies from the industrial sources in the North. During one week when the demand was at its peak, two factories reached outputs 2 ½ times their normal production. The total consumption of Hydrogen during the ten weeks of deployment of the barrage was 179,000,000 cubic feet, of which 140,000,000 cubic feet was supplied by the Gas Industry.

At an informal in connection with our inspection of gas plant, thanks to the Gas Industry were expressed by Air Commodore P. L. Lincoln., D.S.O., M.C., Deputy A.O.C. Balloon Command.

He said that it had been realised at the beginning of the war that Hydrogen was literally the “life blood”, of a balloon barrage and that a sound working scheme was necessary in order to ensure that gas was always available to meet violently fluctuating demands sometimes at difficult times and in accessible places. Demands for Hydrogen throughout the 4 ½ years of war had been often sudden and awkward, as was exemplified by breakdowns in plants due to enemy action, replacement of heavy balloon casualties which had occurred in particular areas due to gales. Sudden priority commitments, such as balloon protection for the invasion of the Continent, defence against the flying bomb, or the deployment or extension of a barrage around a vulnerable point.

Commencing in 1939 with large scale improvisation, a distribution control system was gradually evolved whereby the limited number of cylinders available at the time were re-compressed and turned over as economically and as quickly as possible. At that time the only Hydrogen supplies available were those which had been used in airship days, and these were quite unable to cope with the alarming and rising demand. Production eventually became the province of the Director of Hydrogen Production, Air Ministry, who by 1941 had successfully mastered the situation by providing a Hydrogen supply for a large number of plants at gas-works to meet any enemy action that could be reasonably envisaged.  

The aim of the organisation was to consider a Hydrogen factory as being analogous to a running tap for which a succession of receptacles (Hydrogen Cylinders)  must always be available  or waste and stoppages would occur. A scheme of daily allocation of trailers to gas-works was inaugurated as essential to the maintenance of even output , economy of transport and essential high reserves of compressed trailers. In spite of the large increase in the number of plants involved in the network of distribution. The scheme with  minor modifications, continued successfully through all phases of the operation. At its peak, nearly 30,000,000  cubic feet of Hydrogen was collected and distributed in a week. At one period early in the war it was realised that, owing to increased consumption and shortage of motor transport and to the risk of danger of enemy action to the gas plants then in production a shortage of Hydrogen was a distinct possibility.

Experiments were therefore performed of inflating a standard barrage balloon with varying percentages of coal gas . These experiments showed that, while operational efficiency was impaired it was possible to  fly a balloon with a admixture of coal gas and Hydrogen. With new Hydrogen plants in production requirements were well covered  and thereafter coal gas was to be used only on an emergency. An RAF detachment was located at each gas works to deal generally with the vehicles and airmen arriving, these detachments carried out a routine job, and in every case the relationships with the Managers of the works and the civilian operators were excellent, and too much emphasis could not be laid upon the cooperation and the many kindnesses extended by the staff of these works to the service detachments.

Throughout the whole life of the Command it could be said that the successful deployment of the barrages, replacement of barrage casualties, or the provision of barrages for special commitments, such as the invasion of the Continent or the Defences against the flying bomb, had never been affected by lack of hydrogen. In fact it might be truthfully said that they were only possible because of the ready availability of the gas. Invariably the problem in emergency had been not to obtain the gas but to devise the most rapid method of collection, which has been essentially a problem of traffic movement control. The opening of a Second Front on the continent involved a very large balloon commitment in the protection of the beaches, captured ports, invasion craft and ports of embarkation, involving inevitably an extremely large Hydrogen commitment. Throughout the whole operation the plants worked faultlessly and, in so far as, Hydrogen supplies was concerned, the whole operation was performed in an almost routine fashion. Coupled with the provision of a Hydrogen plan from Normandy, a plan had to be prepared simultaneously  for the provision of a curtain of some 500 barrage balloons in the event of a flying bomb attack. The fact that the advent of the supply of flying bomb did not coincide with the invasion operation very considerably simplified the problem of the supply of Hydrogen for the curtain barrage operation. In due course due to the success of the balloon curtain, the number of balloons employed in the curtain barrage was increased to 2000. The gas works throughout the country made a splendid response to the large increase in the consumption of Hydrogen which this Barrage entailed. At no time during the curtain operation did the Hydrogen supplies break down. Hydrogen was always there, but it was only made possible by the tremendous zeal shown by all concerned especially the employees of the gas-works from which supplies were drawn. 

The resident director of the works at which the plant was inspected said that they were all extremely gratified when they heard that the Air Ministry had chosen their works for the initial full scale plant. As a pioneer plant they expected a good many teething troubles and they had many. The technical staff of the contracting firm who had had experience with the small pilot plant on which the design of the full-scale plant was based came to the rescue, and their own technical staff under their chief chemist, the initial difficulties were overcome reasonably quickly and they were able to evolve an operational cycle that was efficient. And that in the early days was very important in securing a long life for the iron ore. They liked to think that the results of their work in those early days had been of real assistance to the Air Ministry. It was the result of the work of a splendid team of men and women, chemists, Hydrogen operators, engine drivers, compressor men, cylinder charging attendants and water gas operators all of whom had worked enthusiastically throughout and without whose willing cooperation often under the most difficult conditions, good results and reliable working could not have been attained. They had been proud of their job and they had done it well. There had been times when bombs were falling around, one raid in particular when bombers were overhead  for two hours with flares lighting up the whole area and yet throughout those trying periods the stuck to their instructions minutely, shut down their plant quickly and calmly and were quickly on the job again without any waste of time immediately they were told to resume. As an example of teething troubles the speaker mentioned that in the early days it was not appreciated that the compressed Hydrogen in passing through the loading hoses generated a small amount of static electricity that accumulated in the metal cylinders on the lorry, insulated as it was by their rubber tyres. In  the middle of a night shift a charger attendant hearing the hiss of escaping Hydrogen from one of the cylinders on the loading lorry brought along a spanner to tighten the connection. Unlike the lorry, he had no rubber tyres and was not insulated and the resulting spark from his spanner set the whole Hydrogen ablaze. The whole load of cylinders was at that time charged with Hydrogen at 3000 lb square inch pressure. And the man might have been pardoned for feeling worried. Not a bit. There were fire extinguishers provided for that purpose so they were brought into use but alas without effect. The Hydrogen being under so high a pressure that it just blew the extinguishing liquid aside and continued to burn. So the next step was to sacrifice all the Hydrogen in the cylinders by blowing it to waste through a valve on the charging panel. Then all was well. But it must have been an anxious time for the man and he certainly deserves full marks for calmness and presence of mind.  Reference has been made to the very heavy call upon Hydrogen plants particularly in the south, for the balloon barrage  during the time of the flying bombs. Again he would like to pay tribute to the men of the plant for the way in which they kept going every scrap of plant, every generator, every gas engine, every compressor, 24 hours a day every day in the week for several months on end without a single breakdown. In claiming that they had never ever failed to deliver the goods, the credit went to no one man; it had been good teamwork throughout.  Air Commodore Lincoln had been good enough to thank the gas industry for the help they had given the Air Ministry. The Gas industry had in their turn to thank the am for the very valuable help they were giving them, The Gas Research Board had some most interesting and promising research work in hand on the Hydrogenation of coal. Mr Sylvester said that in times of peace there was a popular slogan in the gas industry and that was “Gas Never Lets You Down”. But they could now add  a new slogan- “ Gas Kept The Balloons Up”.

Peter Garwood 2023



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