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The Balloon Barrage 1936 to 1938

 In November 1936 Sir Thomas Inskip, the Minister for Co-ordination of Defence reported to the House of Commons on the re-arming progress of the Nation. The report of the Arms Commission on armament manufacture was being considered but was somewhat complicated and needed further time. Defence and not aggression were the main aims. Despite the increase in air power the Royal Navy was still the first line of defence. The Fleet Air Arm was vital but meant more co-operation between the Air Force and the Navy. No aircraft could take over the role of a battleship. The threat from submarine torpedoes and from mines was something the Royal Navy felt it now had under control. New gun making factories were to be built in Nottingham.  The workforce to manufacture armaments was being rapidly increased and had risen from 30,000 to 50,000 in the last year. There was no shortage of military recruits. There would be a force for overseas defence and the Territorials would be formed into two sections to defend the North and the South of the country. He mentioned the 80 Air Squadrons including 16 Auxiliary Air Squadrons. He then either by mistake or design mentioned the provision of an expensive “balloon barrage for London” and referred to other things that were “ingenious and intensive” but did not go into detail.

In November 1936 Lord Swinton speaking about the progress being made in air defence and stated that as regards the balloon barrage for London, “orders have been placed and delivery will begin at the end of this year”. In January 1937 Sir Thomas Inskip stated that adequate provisions for the air defence of London, including the proposed balloon barrage had been made by the Government.

The question of the balloon barrage for London was raised in the House of Commons on 10th February 1937. Sir Hugh Seely wanted to know from the Under Secretary for Air if a balloon barrage was going to be used for the air defence of London and Mr Montague wanted to know if it was to be a permanent setup or would it need  declaration of war before it was used. Questions were asked to determine the exact type of balloon that was to be used. One M.P. wanted to know if it was the same as the French Ariel balloon, avoiding a direct answer the Under Secretary replied that it was not the Ariel type but one that was determined by the Air Staff to be most suitable. Hugh Seely asked if it would fly at 8,000 feet. The Under-Secretary responses were suitably bland to not give any secrets away. On 22nd March 1937, Sir Murray Sueter asked the Minister if the balloon barrage was to be expanded to “other great cities”. In June 1937 Mr Harcourt Johnstone wrote an article about the air peril that south-east England faced and what he felt needed to be done about it. He felt that there needed to be updated anti-aircraft batteries and balloon barrages in very major town.

In August 1937 the Western Morning News ran an article based on a book by a German named Heinz Liepmann entitled “Death from the Skies" which had been translated from the German. This went into detail about the risk of gas and bacteriological warfare by bombs dropped from the skies. Liepman gave a frank opinion on the "balloon barrage" which it was proposed to place over London. " This seems to me a wild-cat scheme. Would not the enemy aircraft have their bombers led by machine-gunners, who would make short work of the captive balloons, so that the huge steel net would fall upon the heads of those it was designed to protect. " Apart from this, the bombers could drop their bombs on to the net, tearing it and destroying it as if it were no thicker than paper. Even if this net should catch a few of the enemy aircraft, and these, consequently, crashed, the gas bombs, after all, would be delivered at the appointed place."

Liepman was basing his forecast on the balloon aprons of the Great War and had no idea of the British plan to replace perimeter siting of balloon strung together around a target with scattered field siting of individual balloons. Even so his ideas reinforced the need in the mind of the public and government on the need for gas masks. However, he was certainly correct about the potential for an enemy to use machine guns to puncture balloons in an effort to clear the skies of threats to German bombers.

  By September 1937 much research had taken place into the design, function and practicality of a balloon barrage with British military and scientists          venturing over to France to see the French balloon barrage in operation. In September 1937 the public could see ten balloons flying over Cardington.

 A torrential storm broke out and three balloons were struck by lightning and came down in flames on the airfield. This brought much scorn and acted as a wakeup call to the scientists advising the Air Ministry on balloon technology. Lightning strikes were always going to be an issue.

In March 1938 Sir Thomas Inskip was talking of the future of the Air Force. As regards the balloon barrage he explained that there were ten London squadrons and four Depots for storage and administration were planned. In terms of manpower it was to be manned by volunteers in the Auxiliary Air Force. No balloon barrages were planned for areas other than London until the London barrage had been evaluated. The government announced that recruiting for the balloon barrage would begin in May 1938. All the balloon winches and 80% of the balloons had been delivered. An information bureau was set up outside the Mansion House and Draper’s Hall in early April 1938 for those who might want to join a London Territorial unit. On one day alone 2,000 people were dealt with and of that number 800 were interested in the new balloon barrage. In the newspapers pictures of the new barrage balloons were on view along with request for more men to join up. It was publicised that on Empire Air Day the public would be able to see the barrage on display. Empire Air day was held on 28th May 1938 on the wettest day of the year. There were 4,000 attendees at Cardington and one or two German spies in all certainty, hoping to be able to report on the level of air defence that Britain was producing! It is interesting and surprising to see the newspapers report in detail on the size, and capacity of the LZ balloon. It was reported that twenty balloons were in regular use for training and that the Cardington store contained between 800 and 900 spare balloons. It also explained that the winch vehicle was a 30 h.p. six-wheel Fordson tractor on which is mounted a Wild winch run by a 20 h.p. Ford V8 engine. The Brockhouse trailer was described along with the 36 red steel pressure cylinders. The units weighed 10 tons and moved at 30 m.p.h. They were crewed by 12 men and an N.C.O.

On Tuesday 31st May 1938 the first 12 balloons were let up over London. By day they were to be flown at 4,500 feet and by night at 1,000 feet illuminated by a searchlight. It was planned to keep them aloft for a week. The weather was seasonally good, and no major issues arose.

On 5th ,6th and 7th August 1938 the largest ever air exercises to test the defensive capability of England were begun. At 10 o’clock on 5th August 1938 some 2,000 men lay in wait across England attempting to detect 1,500 airmen. They were all volunteers and were taking part in the largest test of defences ever. An imaginary attacking force known as Eastland was to attack 24 English counties with 900 aeroplanes worth £15 million pounds. The weather on the 7th August was appalling and the exercise was terminated at 2.15 p.m. It was claimed that a balloon barrage was predicted to have caused losses to at least 25% of the enemy but quite how this figure was established is unknown. I suspect they were clutching at figures in the air!.

On 1st September 1938 the King made a proclamation for calling up the Air Force Reserve and embodying the Auxiliary Air Force.  “Whereas by the Reserve Forces Act,1882, as applied to the Air Force Reserve and to the officers and men thereof by the Air Force Reserve Order,          1924, it is, amongst other things, enacted that in case of imminent national danger or of great emergency it shall be lawful for Us by Proclamation, the occasion being declared in Council and notified by the Proclamation if Parliament be not then sitting, to order that the Air Force Reserve shall be called out on permanent service; and by any such Proclamation to order a Secretary of State from time to time to give and, when given, to revoke or vary such directions as may seem necessary or proper for calling out the said force or all or any of the men belonging thereto.”

On 6th September 1938 Sir Kingsley Wood, Minister for Air took up an opportunity to see the balloon barrage for the defence of London at Kidbrooke R.A.F. Depot. He was able to see a revelation of the defensive measures which were being taken against possible air attack by enemy bombers. He paid a visit to the aerodrome to inspect the work of No. 1 Balloon Centre, covering the south-east London area, during the afternoon he made a speech of encouragement to the officers and men.

He told the gathered throng that the building and equipment programme for the balloon barrage of London was making good progress, and he hoped that in a short while eight balloon squadrons would be in training. He appealed for 5,000 recruits. Clad in an aircraftman's blue Service overalls and rubber shoes, the Air Minister crawled on his hands and knees into the gas bag of a kite balloon. The balloon was inflated, the neck tied up, and he remained inside the gas bag for several minutes examining the fabric for pin holes. He watched a demonstration of a balloon being brought from its hangar, fitted to a winch lorry, and let up. Sir Kingsley was met by Air-Commodore J. B. Bowen, commanding the centre, and Sir Donald Banks, Permanent Under-Secretary for Air. At No. 901 Squadron he saw auxiliary airmen under instruction in knots, splices, and fabric work. At No. 902 Squadron he saw mechanical transport sheds, where the airmen were under winch instruction, and at No. 903 Squadron he saw men under instruction in inflation of the L.Z. balloon, with which the centre is equipped. Walking to the flying-ground, he saw a balloon " walked" from a hangar, transferred to a winch, and paid out to its maximum height. This duty was performed by men No. 901 Squadron, men of No. 903 Squadron being responsible for the altitude test.

The balloon centre at Kidbrooke in May 1938 was 1,500 men under strength. Similarly, some 3,500 men are required to complete Nos. 904 and 905 Squadrons at Hook and Surbiton, Surrey, Nos. 908, 909, and 910 Squadrons at Chigwell, Essex, and Nos. 906 and 907 Squadrons at Stanmore, Middlesex.  Eight balloons were flying at a low altitude over the aerodrome when Sir Kingsley Wood arrived. Owing to official secrecy the method of making the balloons lethal was not revealed. The press of the day seemed to be of the opinion that the eight balloons on display would be linked to each other and a net of wires would be hanging down which was the original balloon barrage idea used in the Great War. Sir Kingsley said that the balloon barrage will play an important part by forcing enemy aircraft to a height at which they can be effectively attacked by fighters and guns," "In time of emergency the balloons would be disposed of round London and flown at various points in the Metropolis. The balloon barrage squadrons need some 5.000 recruits, and 1.500 of them are required at Kidbrooke." Regular N.C.O.’s and airmen of the R.A.F. had special training in order to act as instructors to the new balloon squadrons.

The London barrage was initially disorganised, to say the least, and within the air force it was often referred to as “nobody’s child” as it seemed that no one in the Air Ministry wanted to or knew how to get it made into a proper functioning unit. The problem was that there were “too many cooks” involved in the running of balloon command:

The Balloon Development Establishment for recruit training at Cardington had been under direct administration the Air Ministry.

The two balloon centres, at Kidbrooke. and Chigwell, were then grouped under No. 30 Balloon Barrage Group, which was administered in turn by the R.A.F. Fighter Command.

 The ten balloon squadrons were units of the Auxiliary Air Force.

None of these organisations seemed to have total responsibility or total control over the balloon barrage and it was indeed an organisation that had been more or less made up as it went along and a hotch-potch had evolved. Sir Kingsley Wood told Parliament that the balloon defence system would be extended to 12 provincial centres. To meet this expansion and to unify its administration, the Air Ministry announced the creation of a separate Balloon Command and the appointment of Air Vice-Marshal Owen Tudor Boyd an Air Force officer commanding all balloon organisations.

Boyd was to bring in uniformity to officers in the ten balloon squadrons in London not only in numbers but in relative ranks. Their disparity was illustrated with the three County of London squadrons stationed Kidbrooke, each with seven officers but in varying ranks.

No. 901 Squadron had a squadron leader, a flight lieutenant and five flying officers.

No. 902 had a squadron leader, flight lieutenant, four flying officers, and an acting pilot officer.

No. 903 had a squadron leader, two flight lieutenants, two flying officers and two acting pilot officers.

On 6th October 1938 Londoners saw the balloon barrage over London and the balloons were left flying until 6 p.m. as a peace-time exercise. From Tower Hill some twenty balloons could be seen flying over the city.

The Daily Mirror front page read:


Balloon over Welington Arch 1938


These headlines along with the ability to see these silver sentinels floating over London reassured many Londoners about the ability of these devices to reduce air attack on the city. They were flown

from Hyde Park Corner, Regent’s Park, the Tower of London, Grosvenor Square, Temple lawn and Canning Town recreation ground.

On the morning of 9th October, a daylight rehearsal of the balloon defence took place. There were between forty and fifty balloons in the city but on the day of the exercise only a small number of balloons were let up as an exercise. Things went wrong, three balloons broke away and caused chaos due to their trailing cables. The balloons broke away from Albert Docks, Belvedere and Clapham Common. The Belvedere balloon managed to break windows and pull slates off roofs and finally to trail the cable over the electric railway line and caused a major power outage. This caused considerable train delays. Another balloon broke free from the winch at London Road, Southwark and finally became entangled in a nearby factory roof. The police made a safety cordon around the factory until men from the barrage balloon squadron arrived to recover it. The balloon from Clapham common was rescued by an army lorry that was able to tie the balloon cable to the lorry bed and tow the inflated balloon back to the Common. At 4 p.m. all balloons were grounded. The chaos was out down to loss of light from cloud cover and unexpected high winds along with lack of experience by the crews in handling balloons in built up areas. Up that point it was stated that the men of the Auxiliary Air Force manning the London balloons had only chalked up a total of six hours flying experience in the city of London. Later in the evening a fifth balloon broke away and was later reported to be drifting near Esberg in Denmark!

  The balloon crews learnt that having learnt to fly barrage balloons on the wide-open airfield at Cardington was much easier than central London. The Air   Ministry stated that the exercise had been very useful, and they thought it would be simple to rectify the cause of the accidents that resulted in balloons   breaking loose.

There was much interest in an announcement by Sir Kingsley Wood, Secretary for Air announce that a balloon barrage was to be provided for Birmingham with Balloon Centres to be set up at Bristol, Manchester, Liverpool, Hull, Newcastle, Plymouth, Southampton, Glasgow and Cardiff. A new £1,000,000 factory for at Gloucester and would employ 3,000 people. It was revealed that part of the local Golf Club course would need to be sacrificed to make way for the new factory.  With hindsight it is surprising that the government never considered that it might not be prudent to reveal the exact location of this new factory to the world. It may just be that they were signalling to potential enemies that they were preparing the defend the country by whatever means necessary.

The London balloon defence exercise came in for much criticism from the public and by the Air Correspondent of the Daily Telegraph and Morning Post. The description “fiasco” was to be found in most of the newspapers causing much embarrassment to those in the London squadrons. Much public concern was expressed over what height the balloons would be flown at, but the government was remaining somewhat tight-lipped about that.

On the 11th November 1938 Squadron Leader E. Davis of the Hook Balloon Barrage scheme in Surrey reported that one Squadron had 360 recruits out of the 524 required with a waiting list of 82 and the other had 200 recruits with a very large waiting list. Those intending to join the Balloon Barrage scheme were advised to not delay as the various Squadrons would soon be completed in numbers. The initial age limit was set at 25 years of age but had been put up to 32 years of age because it was felt the young people should be working in other useful areas.

With Christmas 1938 not far away, it was interesting to see adverts appearing for military toys including, searchlights that ran on batteries, a miniature rubber barrage balloon and a matching balloon barrage lorry. The barrage balloon had truly arrived and was to remain a classic symbol of air defence well into 1945.                                

Peter Garwood December 2020


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