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Roof Over Britain

This refers to the anti-aircraft defences spread over the United Kingdom during the Second World War. They were a combination of radiolocation units and Observer Corps alerting fighter group HQ that in turn relayed the information to the Anti-aircraft Operations Room and Balloon Command. In this article I am going to cover the work of the Balloon Barrage based on the famous book “Roof Over Britain”, published in 1943 as a public information booklet. The Air Ministry and The War Office prepared it for The Ministry of Information. As such the information does not cover the years 1944-1945.


Looking at newspaper reports of the last few days of August in 1940 there are disturbing accounts of how the Lufftwafe came over the coast and shot down with impunity barrage balloons. On the 30th of August a total of four balloons were shot down by a single Messerschmitt109 over the south-east area of England, and escaped back over the channel. On the last day of August German aircraft came over Dover and shot down a total of twenty-three balloons in six minutes


These balloons had commenced flying at Dover in July to prevent dive-bombing and represented the first line of our passive defence.

The attack began when two waves of about 50 enemy aircraft approached Dover at heights of between 15,000 and 20,000 feet. Six Messerschmitt 109s broke away and attacked the balloons. The first German attack was the most successful of the sortie. But for the Germans it had its cost: two aircraft were brought down by anti-aircraft fire and one by heroic rifle fire from balloon operator crews. Only three German aircraft were able to escape from that attack.


No Balloon Crews suffered casualties and by 11.30 a.m. eleven new balloons were in flight over Dover. One crew was able to have a replacement up and flying within 40 minutes of their original balloon coming down in flames. In the afternoon a total of eighteen were back up in the sky. By 7.30 pm the Germans returned and shot down a total of fifteen balloons. Undaunted by this, on the morning of September 1st there was to be seen sixteen balloons flying over Dover. The British were ready for the return of the Germans and when they attacked three German aircraft were shot down at a cost of two balloons.


The crew of a site in the centre of the town lost their balloon but reported the following: “ The enemy aircraft attacked a balloon which was rising just inflated in the harbour. A 50-round burst of controlled rifle fire staggered the machine, which banked up, clearly disclosing underparts and markings. A second burst of 20 rounds was fired and black smoke was seen coming from the engine and the machine dived into the sea just beyond the breakwater. “ Another crew member reported “ On this particular Saturday we were clearing up in the billet when the crackle of machine guns and cannons was heard. Everyone grabbed his rifle and dashed on to the site. The sky was full of A.A. shell bursts while machine guns were going off everywhere. Several balloons were coming down in flames, ours included. He next balloon to us was being hauled down as fast as the winch could pull it. It was about 800 feet of the ground when one of the Me. 109s decided that he would try and get it. He swept over our heads and got it all right. But as he turned and banked away to sea again he seemed to be standing still in the air for a few seconds. The range then was about 700 feet. The N.C.O. in charge yelled “Fire!”


 Everyone pumped as many rounds as he could into it. The Me.109 kept straight on with his dive out to sea, while a thin trail of smoke poured out from behind. When we last saw it, it was going down behind the breakwater out to sea. We did not have time to stand around wondering if we had got it, as we had a new balloon to inflate and fly. This was accomplished in a very short space of time. It was when we had finished this and had the barrage up again that we learnt we had been given the credit for shooting down a Me.109.”


An article by a special correspondent of the Giornale d’ Italia, Carlo d’Ongaro, shows that the German Luftwaffe had a healthy respect for the Balloon Barrage.

He interviewed Ober-Leutnant Hollinde who had carried out a raid on Filton in England.  He stated: “ This was one of the most difficult raids carried out by the Luftwaffe in England, on account of the exceptional defences at the Filton Works designed to keep off dive-bombers. Two rows of balloons were placed around the installations like two concentric circles and each balloon was very close to the next. They were flying at a height of 1200 metres and their diameter was such that they formed a sort of well into which no pilot in his right senses would think of going. Ober-Leutnant Hollinde was aware of the difficulties and for several days he practised aerobatics and worked out the best method of attack. Finally he selected a suitable day with clouds moving across the sky. The buildings at Filton are camouflaged and not easily identified, but the balloons barrage was clearly visible and was used for locating the target.”


Carlo d’Ongaro continued: “ Hollinde dived down vertically from 3,000 metres and released all the bombs that he was carrying: but, although the entry into the balloon well was a practically normal manoeuvre for a pilot of his class, entailing only courage and skill, to get out again was a another matter. In view of the speed of his aircraft he could not keep on a straight course inside the balloons, and circling around, he tried to gain height. He was flying so low that he could see the faces of the A.A. gunners, and his gunner fired on the gun crews and on the balloons in turn, but his fire was not sufficient to either to silence the guns or to open a way through the balloons. Hollinde then decided to try a dangerous manoeuvre and he went into a sideslip and slipped between the balloon cables.

Even then he was only inside the second circle where the balloons were still closer, but he had no time to waste as the daylight was going and he would not have been able to see the cables of the balloons. Fortunately for him his manoeuvre again succeeded and he returned safely to base.”


A journalist William Shirer wrote in the “Berlin Diary” about the attitude of German pilots to the London Barrage. “ He (one of the German Pilots) relates that they approached London at a height of 15-16,000 feet, dived to a height of 10,000 feet and released their bombs at this height – too high for accurate night bombing. They did not dare go below 7,000 feet, he says on account of the barrage balloons.”

These two examples of the German’s opinion of the balloon barrages illustrate that it achieves its objective of driving the enemy to a height from which accurate bombing is difficult rather than to “net” him. They also show that the balloon barrage is successful in driving them up and /or altering course and disturbing his aim. A report from the Commanding Officer of a naval vessel written in January 1941 stresses the value of balloons in upsetting the aim of attacking bombers.

“At 10.45 hours on December 27th 1940 whilst steaming northwards of the North-East Spit buoy, my ship was attacked by two enemy aircraft. The first bombing attack was turned, apparently by a rather late appreciation of the presence of the balloon barrage, necessitating a sudden swerve on the part of the airmen; no bombs were dropped. Repeating the attack again from the stern, two bombs were dropped about half a cable off my port quarter and it is considered that the balloon prevented closer attack. “


Apart from attempts at shooting them down the Germans had shown their respect for the balloon barrage in another way. Balloon fenders have been found on enemy aircraft brought down in this country. The fender is a guard stretching from the wingtip to the nose, and consists of a streamlined shell of light alloy reinforced with a strip of steel along the leading edge, forming a sort of flattened “v” in front off the aircraft, held in position by five outrigger struts. It is intended that this fender should be strong enough to break the balloon cables by impact or alternatively to thrust them aside; but it weighs about 800 lbs, and reduces the aircraft performance considerably.

Moreover, the fact that enemy bombers are forced to fly high over their targets reduces their chances of avoiding our own fighters and makes them a better target for our own anti-aircraft guns. In all these ways therefore the balloon barrage – flying night and day through the most severe aerial bombardments – has made a positive contribution to the safety of our cities, ports, dockyards and factories, and the fact that our industrial effort has remained so largely unimpaired is in no small measure due to the dogged maintenance of this form of passive defence.