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The Origin and History of M Balloon Unit -Propaganda Balloons

It is often quoted that “the pen is mightier than the sword” and “the first casualty of war is truth”. Throughout every human struggle, military, political, personal the competing parties resort to promoting information to change the mindset of the various recipients. Such information may not be true, but the sender hopes the recipients will believe it or at least act on it.

The balloon was certainly the first aerial device used to distribute propaganda from the skies.

Messages from balloons have a long history and Senor Vincent Lunardi was one of the first to do this. In September 1784 he ascended from Moorfields, London and while aloft he casually wrote several letters which he dropped over the side of the basket. Later he had one returned by a gentleman who had found it on Northaw Common.

In 1807 Rudolph Ackerman was concerned over the way Napoleon was stifling the narrative in the French newspapers. In this way Napoleon was keeping information from the French public. To counter this, he invented a balloon that could release 30 leaflets every minute from a load of 3,000. Experiments for a Government commission were held at Woolwich and leaflets scattered by the device were found as far away as Exeter. The Government did not seem to take up the idea.

At the Grand Jubilee on 1st August 1814, Mr Sadler the aeronaut ascended and at some stage dropped leaflets from his balloon.  

n November 1836 the balloon “Royal Vauxhall” passed over Dover bound for the Continent with three passengers. They had decided to drop messages to various towns to record their progress and dropped a letter by parachute addressed to the Mayor of Dover who sent a copy to the Morning Advertiser. “BOUND FOR THE CONTINENT. Mr. Green, Mr. Monck Mason, and Mr. Robt Holland, present their compliments to the Mayor of Dover, and beg to inform him that they left Vauxhall Gardens at half-past one o’clock and were nearly over Canterbury at four o’clock.”. They eventually landed in Germany.

The Military were always interested in anything that might be innovative in war. The concept of a balloon that might be flown in favourable winds over the enemy and drop leaflets was one that caused the Military to set up a proof of concept at Woolwich Barracks. Mr Shephard the inventor had a system that allowed leaflets suspended on a slow burning match to be dropped at various intervals. On 10th January 1850 the military watched as the 4-foot diameter balloon was loaded with leaflets made up of multi-coloured paper. Attached to the balloon was a slow burning match 12 inches in length. From this match were attached 400 pieces of paper. On attempting to let the balloon up it was found that the load was too heavy and so 300 were cut off. The match was lit, and the balloon rose up scattering the leaflets. It was requested that if anyone found the leaflets, they were to report the matter to the superintendent of the dockyard. 

On 7th February 1850 Mr. Shepherd demonstrated his balloons once again to the Admiralty at St. James’s Park. Three balloons were sent up. One caught in a tree and the other two sailed away on the wind. Each balloon had a glass bottle attached inside which was a note telling the finder to return the balloon to the Admiralty and receive a £3 reward. One balloon landed at Rotherhithe and one at Woolwich. 

Shephard had rivals; one was Charles Green who used the principle of a smouldering slow burning match fuse that would release parachutes to which leaflets had been attached. His system had between 18 and 18 parachutes attached to the balloon. He trialled the system at Tuffnel Park on March 11th 1850. His 5 -foot balloon was filled with hydrogen gas with 32 packets consisting of 3,000 leaflets designed to release one packet every 5 minutes. Some of the packets were found at Chichester and the Mayor of St. Denis, Normandy wrote to say that had received some and the balloon finally landed on the Bay of Biscay France.  

A hot air balloon in the sky

Description automatically generated with medium confidence

On 27th April 1850 the Royal  Polytechnic advertised in the Sun (London) that a lecture by J. H. Pepper, Esq., on the Chemistry of Hydrogen, with special reference to its application for conveying by Balloons Pyrotechnic and other Signals to Sir John Franklin was on offer.

In May 1850 the Illustrated London News revealed that despite Charles Green’s demonstrations the Admiralty had been supplied with a ”wagon load of balloons” for use in the search for the Sir John Franklin.

In the Siege of Paris, in 1870, piloted balloons containing mail left Paris and had ballast made up from packs of leaflets, to increase altitude the pilot cut the strings on the packs which then fell onto Prussian troops.

Many of us remember the Lipton grocery stores up and down the land was run by a man, Thomas Johnstone Lipton, who realised that business success was linked to advertising. In 1877 he hatched a plan to use facsimile £1 notes endorsed with Lipton on it as a means of advertising his business. He had these dropped by balloon over Glasgow in March 1877. 

Sadly, a number of people who were illiterate thought they were the real thing, and the press was full of cases where people tried to spend these notes. One case involved a boy who tried to spend one of the Lipton £1 notes and was prosecuted in court. The court requested a representative from Lipton to appear. A Mr Dunn attended and explained that they had been printed as advertising handbills and around 8,000 had been printed and issued. The Magistrate , Mr Genell was furious and stated that “the sooner Mr Lipton stopped issuing them the better”. Dunn told the court that on hearing of the fact that people were trying to spend them they had stopped immediately. The Magistrate said. “You had better put all you have on the fire. What was the idea of printing an advertisement like this?”. Dunn replied that he “had no idea and it was just an advertisement”. Even so the boy as imprisoned for 20 days. It is thought that this “novel” idea of Lipton’s was seen to backfire on his business, and he never tried it again.

In the Great War the British used  aircraft to drop leaflets onto the enemy. However, in October 1917, two airmen from the Royal Flying Corps were shot down while scattering propaganda leaflets from their aircraft. This caused much consternation by the Germans. They declared these leaflets “inflammatory” and the leaflet dropping practice to be contrary to international law as well as being a practice that was not an act of war. Both airmen were arrested and charged with treason by the German authorities. Their court-martial resulted in a sentence of 10 years  in prison.  

This was seen as an outrage by the British and the two sides communicated their legal opinions on aerial distribution of propaganda to each other through the medium of telegrams. A series of telegrams followed between the British and German Governments arguing the legality of aerial propaganda distribution.

The British immediately decided that they did not want a repeat of this, and Lawrence the Chief of General Staff ordered no more leaflet drops from aircraft.

In August 1917 the War Office was seeking methods other than aeroplanes to scatter “news sheets” onto the military and civilian population of the German enemy at a distance of 5 to 10 miles. Two proposals were made.

a) Use of tethered kites to fly over enemy lines and release the news sheets at a certain point.

b) Use of free balloons such as fire balloons elevated by hot air or hydrogen filled rubber balloons with a device to scatter the balloons automatically.

In November 1917 tethered kite trials were successful and scattered leaflets were picked up 10 miles from a kite tethered at 5000 feet. On this basis the War Office wondered if there were any ways to scatter leaflets onto a target between 100 and 300 miles away. In December 1917 the War Office called for an end to the experimentation using kites as the General Headquarters France were of the opinion that the wire tether that the kite was flown from was a potential danger to aviators in the Flying Corps.  

Much experimentation was done with paper balloons eight feet high filled with hydrogen and carrying a 4 lb load of propaganda leaflets. To reduce the loss of hydrogen the paper balloon was covered with a special varnish. The balloon was equipped with a time-fuse that allowed the leaflets to fall and scatter over a wide area.

In practice they were known to travel between ten to fifty miles over the enemy and release the leaflets en route. In May 1918 the Royal Flying Corps decided to restart leaflet dropping from aircraft.

In February 1939 proposals for the distribution of propaganda leaflets from balloons in the air were discussed. A historical review of the past use of balloons for propaganda distribution was considered along with the options for future use. It was initially suggested that a modern propaganda device would need to reach 10,000 feet and stay afloat for 14 to 16 hours before releasing a leaflet load of between 6 and 12 lb.

The origins of this unit derived from just after the Munich crisis the Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief (Air Chief Marshall Sir Edgar Ludlow Hewitt asked the Deputy Chief of the Airstaff if any actions had been taken to print suitable propaganda leaflets for release over hostile territory.

He stated that in his view “skilfully dropped propaganda, distributed by aircraft might prove a more potent weapon than bombs”.

The Balloon Development Establishment were asked about using balloons to deliver leaflets on the basis that the balloons would stay aloft until over the enemy, burst and drop the propaganda.

 The Committee of Imperial Defence received this letter and Major General Hastings Ismay.  The Foreign Office saw this as a matter of the “most urgency”.

Bomber Command at Mildenhall experimented with leaflet dropping. These were successful but Air Chief Marshall Sir Edgar Ludlow Hewitt was aware that in the Great War pilots who were dropping leaflets suffered reprisals from the enemy. He then postulated that unmanned balloons might be used to send leaflets over enemy territory as had been done in the Great War.

At the end of August 1938 all investigations into the use of airborne propaganda were being done by the Air Ministry under Wing Commander D. L. Blackford. On 10th October 1938 a “Memorandum on the use of the Royal Air Force for dropping pamphlets over enemy territory”, was issued. This contained the concept of a special propaganda balloon unit. The Balloon Development Establishment at Cardington was initially contacted on 17th October 1938 and tasked with designing and producing a balloon capable of being airborne for six or more hours and able to carry 6,000 leaflets.

In May 1939 the Deputy Chiefs of Staff decided that such a balloon unit should be formed and that initially it was to be sent to France for employment with the French balloon companies.

In March 1939 the Balloon Development Establishment at Cardington had successfully designed, built, tested and flown a balloon system that would do the job. In June 1939 they added to this a cleverly release mechanism to release the leaflets. During these experiments the unit went under the title of “P” Balloon Unit which stood for “Propaganda”. In June 1939 it was considered that since the use of meteorological balloons was not uncommon the naming of the new unit as “M” Balloon Unit for “meteorological” would cause less public curiosity.

The problem was that a balloon was needed that could travel between France and Germany while carrying a specific load. The Balloon Development Establishment was asked to begin tests with a paper-based balloon and the rubber meteorological type of balloon. Their brief was that the balloon was to be filled with coal  gas and fly at 10,000 feet for twelve to sixteen hours before releasing the 12 lb of leaflets.

Neither balloon was able to meet the brief. The paper one was only good for travelling ten to fifty miles. The paper was fragile and had to be coated with varnish just prior to inflation. The rubber meteorological balloons were designed to rise to around 20,000 to 35,000 feet and then burst. These balloons provided a similar range of around 50 miles. Neither met the brief.

It was shown that coal gas was not as good as hydrogen as lifting a propaganda balloon.

Concern was expressed in some quarters that the distribution of leaflets falling from a balloon was haphazard and much sampling of leaflet drops eventually showed that leaflets dropped from a balloon gave a reasonably tight area of distribution.

In early 1939, the Balloon Development Establishment (B.D.E). was tasked by the Air Ministry to try and make changes and improvements to the two balloon formats and if not possible to start designing a new balloon with a lighter release mechanism from scratch. It was not until 7th February 1939 that the vague brief was reformatted with more exacting detail. This specified use of hydrogen as the lifting gas, a payload of 10lbs and a destination some 500 miles away. The development work was done on balloons of proofed fabric with all rubber balloons work being a low priority.  

The 10 foot diameter balloon of proofed fabric was designed with tweaks to the fabric, eventually cost dictated the use of anti-gas fabric (Admiralty D).  The fabric was rubber proofed at the rate of 90gm/M2.  The fabric then weighed 175gm/M2 and the balloon weighed 11.5 to 12 lbs. The first trial flight was done at the National Physical Laboratory in March 1939.  Radio tracking devices were added, and these also sent out a varied signal depending on height. This enable height and direction to be monitored.     

The brief was that the balloon should be able to drift in the wind at say 10,000 feet and after 12 hours or so be still sturdy. To keep a balloon at a fixed height is not easy because as the balloon rises so expands the gas inside. It will keep rising until the internal pressure gets high enough to cause it to burst. To prevent this the balloon must have some automatic valve system that releases gas. Eventually a balloon was created from cotton fabric impregnated with rubber with a neck for valving purposes.

The release mechanism was also problematical, and experiments were made with fuses, clockwork mechanisms and aneroid systems that responded to air pressure. There was much work to get the right type of balloon along with a mechanism that would allow the balloons to release their payload at a specific time. Release was possible with aneroid, clockwork or slow burning fuses. The aneroid devices were deemed too costly and were abandoned on June 19th, 1939.The release mechanism was resolved by adapting alarm clock mechanisms and in September 1939 the Air Ministry directly ordered 200 sets for use and conversion into the release mechanism. These were abandoned as too heavy. The slow burning fuse was preferred as its simplicity seemed to overcome all the issues presented by mechanical and aneroid devices.

The destruction system was tested and adopted on 8th September 1939. This resulted in the standard balloon being finally agreed to by the Air Ministry.

 The delivery system was based on a rectangular platform slung underneath the balloon made of wood. On top of the board was a wire sleeve that contained the fuse. Under the platform was a series of strings that passed through the board and contact the fuse on top of the board. The strings were then attached to the leaflet load and ballast bags. The fuse was lit just before the balloon was launched. The fuse had a slow burning speed set at around nine inches per hour. As the fuse burnt it burnt through the string and either caused the ballast or leaflets to drop off at intervals of around an hour. During this time gas would slowly valve out. As each ballast bag or leaflets fell off this caused the balloon to return to the equilibrium height. Eventually the final balloon load was released when the fuse finally burnt through the last string. To protect the fuse and payload from the weather the area below the balloon was shrouded in a weatherproof cape.

The Mark I wire sleeved fuse was modified by placing it on a corrugated cardboard platform instead of a wooden board. This was cheaper and lighter and was known as the Mark II fuse. Lessons were learned with each launch. With seasonal changes it was realised that in the winter the winds were much faster which meant the balloon would reach the target area sooner and so the fuse was shortened to a five-hour duration. The strings were also changed to withstand the stronger winds. Balloons equipped with the five-hour fuse were able to carry less ballast but more leaflets.

In June 1939 the Air Ministry had approved all the design of the balloon and the fusing system and 1,000 balloons were ordered. The fabric used was the same as used in typewriter ribbon and these early balloons were costing £7-10s each. Later cheaper cotton fabric impregnated with rubber was adopted and the balloon was made from the same material that the admiralty had used for meteorological balloons.

There was concern that the balloon would end up in enemy hands and so there was a modification that once the final load had been dropped the fuse set of a small flash charge that burst the balloon.

On 14th June 1939 the director of war organisation was asked by the Air Staff to make suitable arrangements to form on mobilisation a special balloon unit on the lines of the provisional establishment based on the provisional establishment of august 1938. The initial establishment was  fifteen airmen who would make up the unit and would have four lorries and a car. It was arranged that on mobilisation the unit would be sent to Nancy, France without supporting transport on Z +2 Day (Two days after mobilisation). It was to be attached to the French balloon companies until the balloon transport could be sent over.

From 14th to 31st August the Balloon Unit personnel,  were sent to R.A.F. Station Cardington where they were trained in the use of the “M” balloons and associated equipment. Finally, the unit was made up of  one officer trained in meteorological work, one Sergeant, four Corporals and 15 other ranks, made into “bricks” of four men each, with drivers and clerks. If the officer in charge was not familiar with French, then the establishment had to have an additional Corporal interpreter.

The unit could release 36 balloons per hour. With war an almost certain outcome the Balloon Unit was moved on 31st August to R.A.F. Station Abingdon, Oxfordshire in readiness for being sent to France.

French Operations

On 31st August an initial supply of balloons and equipment was despatched to the Officer Commanding Balloon Group, French Army at Epinal. It had been intended to supply enough balloon to last through 3 weeks of activity. But the declaration of war made that impossible.On 2nd December the unit moved by road from Abingdon to Southampton and embarked with the first contingent of the Advanced Air Striking Force. Disembarking at Le Havre they travelled by road to the village of Foug, near Toul, near Nancy. The aerodrome at Toul Crouc de Mets was now Headquarters of the Advanced Air Striking Force and became the main supply source of balloon unit supplies. Due to administrative issues, it was only on the 1st October that the Balloon Unit was able to begin operations properly. They sent sixty balloons containing 180,000 leaflets to targets 100 miles inside Germany. However, that was not without incident. The weather was freezing, and the balloons froze. It was learned from that one launching that the men needed to be provided with hot food and hot drinks to function properly.

The leaflets were given various abbreviated names and the two historic leaflets despatched that night were EH.280 and EH.158.

EH.280 entitled “Achtung!” (“Attention”), was simply a copy of the 3rd September 1939 radio speech made by Chamberlain intended for the German nation. It emphasised that the Britain was not at war with the German people, but they were at war with the Nazi party and Adolf Hitler.

EH.158 entitled “Das sind eure Führer!” (“These are your Leaders!”), was an attempt to convince the German people that Nazi leaders such as Himmler, Goering, Goebbels, had deposited vast amounts of money in foreign banks. The leaflet appears to have been a mixture of news items from America.

The Gestapo were very keen to collect any of these leaflets in an attempt to stop them getting into the hands of the public. One of their records reveals that they found the leaflet EH.280 as far as Nuremberg the following day.

The launching revealed that the quality control on the balloons and equipment was not good. Some balloons had issues with a tiny protruding tag that was designed to attach the destructive flash had not been added to the balloon in manufacture. The flash had to be secured to the balloon using pieces of string. The load-bearing ring that held the payload of leaflets was inadequate in that it was “not strong enough for the load they had to bear”. 

By the middle of October 1939, the weather was very wet. Consequently, the Balloon Unit did not let up any firther “M” balloons through October.

The site at Foug was a quagmire and road transport was impossible.  A move was authorised to a Chateau at Schneckenbusch, near Sarrebourg (mis-spelled in official papers as Schickenbusch!).  A hangar at Buhl aerodrome was provide for operational activities. A launching site was established by clearing some woodland. In November 1939, ten operations were successful to let up 547 “M” balloons. It was calculated that the number of leaflets was as high as one million. Operations continued here until May 1940.

All operations in the war were subject to review. They had to be efficient, effective and value for money. It is clear that the Cabinet Office as early as November 1939 had doubts about the worthiness of the operations of “M” Balloon Unit. When one considers the concept of the “M” Balloon Unit it certainly looked somewhat like a “Heath-Robinson” operation. The concept of sending leaflets on a balloon at the unpredictability of the winds was certainly a weak point when compared to the accuracy provided by aircraft dropping leaflets. However, at that stage in the war it was believed that the balloons could travel considerable distances into the various occupied countries. These “M” balloons were often delivering leaflets further into occupied countries than aircraft could at that time. The Balloon Unit was defended by the Head of the Department of Publicity in Enemy Countries. He considered them to be a great value, despite the limitations on  their accuracy due to them being reliant on the winds. He highlighted that the scattering of propaganda leaflets was causing much embarrassment to the Gestapo and the collection of the leaflets was using up many enemy man-hours.  

Sir Campbell Stuart, who was head of the Department of Publicity in Enemy Countries, (often known as Department E.H.) assured the Cabinet Office, at the end of November, of the value of balloons to

distribute propaganda but conceded that they did have some limitations.

“There is not, of course, the same control of direction; but even though numbers of the leaflets may be scattered over country areas, there is satisfaction in knowing that, in this event, they present a particularly embarrassing problem to the Gestapo. Moreover, there may be strokes of luck. On the 8th November, for instance, a number of balloon-borne leaflets fell over the towns of Chemnitz and

Freiberg at a time when the inhabitants were on their way to work.”

The average number of balloons issued was 60 balloons at each launching and they sent 4,516,000 leaflets from the site. New balloons, leaflets and equipment were flown in, and hydrogen was provided by the French as Epinal using a mixture of French cylinders and British low pressure cylinders.

In December 1939 only four operations were successfully launched and the atrocious winter weather, with the winds being unfavourable, meant that in January 1940 it was freezing and only two successful launches were made.  

The Unit continued operating in France whenever the right meteorological conditions prevailed. Sometimes only a few releases a month could be made because the wind was blowing in the wrong direction or not at a constant speed.

For instance, in January 1940 on only two occasions was the wind favourable for sending off balloons and was intensely cold, the temperature falling to -8° F.

 As the Balloon Unit had considerable down time. When not getting balloon operations ready they were “loaned out” to the local people to help with the construction of air raid defences. They also spent time checking the quality of the balloons to weed out any defective balloons and arrange repairs as necessary.

When the Unit could not operate, the men were given other duties, like digging A.R.P. trenches and checking the seams of balloons and other equipment. With the rapid advance of Wehrmacht forces across Europe and into France, the Unit began to retreat, moving to Nantes in mid-May 1940. By the 1st June, they escaped from the Continent and returned to Cardington in England, where they reformed under the command of Flight-Lieutenant H.S. Elton, M.C. The advances of the German army into France raised concerns. They were despatched to Nantes as a precautionary measure. On 17th May 1940 the military situation was critical, and it was evident that German forces were in some cases a day or two away. The unit was in danger of being overrun. They embarked at Cherbourg and disembarked at Dover and then to R.A.F. Station, Uxbridge. From there the Balloon Unit was sent to R.A.F. Station Cardington where it was transferred to Balloon Command and commanded by Flight-Lieutenant H.S. Elton, M.C.. 

In the summer of 1940 Western Europe was by and large occupied by the Nazis. It was realised that these people needed a vast amount of support from Britain in terms of information and news. It was planned to utilise the European Radio Service of the BBC supported by the information provided by the Department of Publicity in Enemy Countries.

To bolster this, it was decided that aircraft and balloons would need to drop leaflets and propaganda newspapers. The content of these was often replicated by the resistance for distribution by the resistance groups in each country.

Because most of Western Europe had been occupied, the Department of Publicity in Enemy Countries workload greatly increased, as they now had to sustain the morale of the populations in the various occupied countries. This was mainly achieved by sending them fast, reliable news through the European

Service of the B.B.C. and was supplemented by newspapers, and other leaflets, distributed by aircraft and balloon. The leaflets were often used for the production of underground newspapers by resistance movements within the occupied territories. Each country had their own editions of newspapers, airdropped from Britain; the main one for France was titled “Le Courrier de l’air” and was regularly issued from December 1940 until the Liberation.

Holland received its first leaflets dropped by propaganda balloons in October 1940, Belgium in November and France in December. When the Luftwaffe turned their attentions towards Britain, the Unit did not escape its bombing.

It was decided that for best operational reasons R.A.F. Station Manston, near Ramsgate, Kent was ideal for future work by “M” Balloon Unit. The prevailing winds here were west and north-west which were ideal for propaganda balloons. They arrived on 5th July 1940 and began to set up operational systems in readiness. They were signalled to begin leaflet ballooning from 2000 hours on 14th July 1940.

The occupation of much of Europe by the Germans meant that balloon operations could be sent over a wider geographical area than had been when the Balloon Unit was in France.

The people in the occupied countries were subjected to severe rules, radios were confiscated, listening to any foreign broadcasts was prohibited, newspapers were tightly censored. The British government realised that in order to raise morale and negate the fabricated Nazi version of news these people needed to be informed by other means of the reality of events in other parts of the world.

The Political Intelligence Department of the Foreign Office were responsible for all the propaganda the was to be sent to both enemy and countries occupied by the enemy. It was busy producing newspapers for distribution in Belgium and France and any enemy occupied country. There were not enough aircraft spare to make dedicated leaflet drops. Leaflet dropping was low priority compared to bombing operations.

This was where “M” Balloon Unit was seen as having a great advantage as with the right winds it could send newspapers and leaflets to France, Germany, Belgium and Holland and other areas that needed help with information on what was happening elsewhere in the world.

On the night of 16th to 17th July 1940 the first balloons were let up at Manston for targets north-west of Paris this continued until 14th August 1940. At this date there was considerable attacks on airfields by the Luftwaffe and Manston was singled out for an attack at the start of the Battle of Britain.

On 24th August 1940 a heavy dive-bombing attack took place in the late morning. Two bombs made direct hits on the hangar and stores used by the Balloon Unit and was set on fire. The only items that survived the attack was one 3-ton lorry, one 15-cwt van, a number of loaded hydrogen trailers and a pair of scissors. All of the stores of leaflets were burnt. Four airmen bravely entered the hangar during a Luftwaffe machine gun strafing to remove the hydrogen cylinders to a place of relative safety. These were Flight-Sergeant Price, Sergeant Topps, Corporal McNeill and Leading Aircraftman Quayle who were commended for their actions by Area Officer Commanding Balloon Command.

It was evident that Manston was no longer safe for the Balloon Unit, and  it temporarily moved to the village of Birchington about 3 miles from Manston. It later moved to No.1 Balloon Centre Kidbrooke where it was re-equipped and then on 19th September moved back to Birchington and occupied Grenham House School. The school grounds gave a superb launching site. The Unit was ready b to begin operations on 11th October 1940. However bad weather delayed operations until  the late hours of the 31st October 1940.  Extra personnel combined with an excellent launching site meant that the monthly leaflet drops averaged 1,500,000 leaflets.

The Balloon Unit sent their first propaganda balloons to Holland in October 1940, Belgium in November 1940 and France in December 1940.

Between 31st January 1941 and 9th April 1941 a series of test flights with cards were carried out by the Balloon Unit. Each test from Manston was undertaken when the winds were from the East. At each test 5 balloons were released with cards requesting returning to the Air Ministry.

 This was to test.

a) the accuracy and thus reliability of the predicted weather forecast for the winds

it was found that it was not unusual for the winds to have a variance of 90 degrees from that forecast and the distances travelled could be 33% less than predicted.

b) working of fuse releases and fuses for flash destructive devices

   the fuses worked very well in  80% of the cases

c) efficient carrying of loads

   the loads were carried efficiently

d) area covered by ballast releases

   a distribution of leaflets was excellent within a circular area 8 miles in diameter

e) proportion of leaflets likely to be found

   19 to 26% of the cards dropped were returned. This was good considering that the majority of drops were in rural areas. In April1941 cards were still being found from the tests in January 1941.

In February 1941 a new record was reached with 1,407 balloons released carrying 3,062,000 leaflets.

Throughout 1941 they continued successfully to distribute leaflets but did have a few problems with faulty and wayward balloons. On several occasions, balloons with their leaflet cargo still attached were washed ashore along the east coast of England, after crashing into the North Sea. The suggested reason for these accidents was the string suspending a ballast load only being charred and not totally burnt through by the fuse. As the ballast had not been dropped, the balloon descended into the sea. On the whole, it was considered, by Flight Lieutenant J.M. Woodcock, who took command of the Unit in July, that the “M” balloon equipment gave about 80% effective functioning, which was thought to be satisfactory.

Through 1941 the Balloon Unit continued operations. Quality control was again found to have been poor. A number of balloons were washed up where the ballasting had failed to separate from the balloon. This was blamed on faulty fuse burning. Even so, Flying Officer J. M. Woodcock was of the optimistic opinion that only 1 in 5 balloons failed to deliver as intended.

Using balloons as a means of delivering propaganda was always an inaccurate, unpredictable method. On occasions, the extent to which they missed their intended targets was unacceptable. For instance, in March 1941, several balloons were released, their target being Belfort in eastern France. Some actually dropped their leaflets in Switzerland, Italy and Navarre in Spain, about 650 miles away! An independent report commissioned highlighted their inaccuracy;  only 60% of the balloons released reached Germany, 65% reaching France, 25% Belgium and none making it to Holland. This poor accuracy was blamed on inadequate meteorological reports. As a result, a new type of weather forecast, called a “Papyrus” report, was issued which helped to improve the prediction

Further Development

Flying Officer J. M. Woodcock was responsible to the Air Ministry for the work the Balloon Unit did.

The Air Ministry Branches were “Plans 5”, Later renamed P.R. 7 and later Deputy Directorate of Propaganda. It was declared that each operation had to be a minimum of 200 balloons to be let up.

The skill and experience showed that three crews of seven men were able to inflate, load and release a balloon every 40 seconds. Seven of the airmen involved were extremely keen on the work and began experimenting and tweaking the existing system to achieve different results.

The release mechanism in use was a Mark II version and these tweaks produced the excellent Mark III version that enabled balloons to travel along with the wind for 5 hours before releasing their maximum load. The Balloon Development Establishment at Cardington approved the new design in November 1941, and it was brought into use and was used until the Balloon Unit was disbanded. Using balloons as a means of delivering propaganda was always an inaccurate, unpredictable method. On occasions, the extent to which they missed their intended targets was unacceptable. For instance, in March 1941, several balloons were released, their target being Belfort in eastern France. Some actually dropped their leaflets in Switzerland, Italy and Navarre in Spain, about 650 miles away! An independent report commissioned highlighted their inaccuracy.

only 60% of the balloons released reached Germany, 65% reaching France, 25% Belgium and none making it to Holland. This poor accuracy was blamed on inadequate meteorological reports. As a result, a new type of weather forecast, called a “Papyrus” report, was issued which helped to improve the predication of a balloons flight.

The balloon destination was always dependant on the winds being consistent for the period during which the balloons were aloft. The meteorological reports were relied on to make the decision when to let up the balloons and what destination they would be sent to. In March 1941 there was much embarrassment when balloons intended for Belfort in the eastern area of France ended up in Spain, Italy and even Switzerland.

Much careful research went into the accuracy of the destination the balloons let up by the Balloon Unit.  

A special report revealed that the accuracy was not good.













In July 1941 Dr H.A. Thomas reviewed the weather forecasts used by the Balloon Unit and he declared the wind directions forecast were incorrect. This resulted in the Meteorological Office reporting directly to the Balloon Unit with a special report on all weather and wind forecasts for up to two hours before balloon release. This weather report was known as the “Papyrus” report was commenced on 24th November 1941.

The direction of the wind governed where the balloons would end up. The leaflets were stored printed in various languages. Only when the wind was known would the order be given to load leaflets of a particular language so that for instance German language leaflets were loaded when the predicted winds were bound for Germany, French language leaflets when the predicted winds were bound for France. On occasions the winds would come down on the border area between two countries.

In July 1941 there was the classic inter-service rivalry, when the Admiralty put an oar into the Balloon Unit program, as they began working on a rival balloon. It seems the Navy could never shake off the heritage they had from the days of Royal Naval Air Service. They had developed a latex balloon that used a liquid ballast system instead of the sand in the “M” balloon. In addition, the National Physical Laboratory had also developed a balloon that was ballasted using gas pressure in the balloon.  

It came to a head in September 1941 when the Ministry of Aircraft Production began trials to determine which were the most efficient design. Initial trial flights began but the decision was made that the existing “M” balloon could not be improved on, and the trials were halted. In April 1942 there was a shortage of rubber, and the Balloon Development Establishment at Cardington was tasked with developing a different material. These new balloons were developed but all work was halted when the Air Ministry began to consider the future of the Balloon Unit.

The wartime shortages of both rubber and cotton began to hamper the role of the Balloon Unit. The Ministry of Aircraft Production ordered that from 1s April 1942 all such supplies used in the manufacture of the balloons were stopped and diverted to other projects.

The efficiency, accuracy, success and future of the Balloon Unit was now being discussed in many varied areas of the Air Ministry with one side arguing for continuing and the other side wanting to disband the entire exercise. The outcome was a rationalisation of their work. To carry on severe restrictions were placed on the Balloon Unit. Each launch was limited to a maximum of 200 balloons, from a limited stock of around 21,000 and all of these could only be sent to France or Germany.

There was a drop in output in 1942 due to restrictions placed on how many balloons could be released per operation. In mid-1942, because of a shortage of cotton fabric and rubber, the Ministry of Aircraft Production reconsidered its allocation of these materials. The “M” Balloon Units use of rubber and cotton was high and considered unnecessary. As a result, they were not allocated anymore material for balloon production from the 1st April. At this time there was enough rubber-proofed fabric already available to produce a further 21,200 balloons. The Units future existence was now under debate. They were restricted to releasing only 200 balloons per opportunity until all remaining supplies of balloons were exhausted - their targets being France and Germany only.

Due to the possibility of a collision between night-time allied aircraft and “M” balloons in the Manston area it was decided to relocate the Balloon Unit to the coast. From 11th June 1942 the Balloon Unit was operating from Walmer, Dover, Kent. A large country house, General’s Meadow was taken over as an operating base.

In early 1942 the number of balloons to be let up was set at 350 balloons per launch. However, this began to deplete supplies and the balloon production could not meet demand due to shortages.

In the months from 1st December 1942 and 31st July 1943 the number of balloons released was 11,000 and 25,000,000 leaflets were delivered from the skies over France and Germany.

Development was undertaken to find a new cheaper balloon which used less of these materials in its production. If this could be done, the Unit would continue to operate with the new balloons, which was what the Political Warfare Executive (the new British propaganda department) wanted considering the possibility of a second front in Europe beginning shortly. A balloon was finally manufactured using Nitro-cellulose material, but it was not until January 1944 that the Unit received its first supply. In the meantime, the existing stocks of rubber-proofed balloons were used. There was a shortage of balloons due to rubber shortage throughout 1943. In June 1943 new balloons were delivered. For various reasons the new balloons were not as gas tight as others and were deflating after just a few hours. This resulted in the balloons used being put through a extra quality control after inflation to eliminate leaking balloons. The outcome was that this impacted how many balloons could be safely let up at each launching. There was a huge change in the nature of the propaganda despatched from late August 1943. The classic material sent was termed “White” propaganda and was a mixture of news and information to inform the finder of what was going on elsewhere in the world. The new propaganda was termed “Black” as it was subversive in nature. Within the  Political Warfare Executive was a group who were tasked with producing propaganda that would appear to be of genuine German origin, including altered Nazi posters, counterfeit documents, bogus newspapers. It was aimed at German nationals and German soldiers.

The Executive stated that the “Black” propaganda was designed  “to assist military operations by softening the spirit of resistance, by encouraging motives of local and individual self-interest at the expense of national and Party loyalties, and by stimulating action in conflict with German military interests.”

The majority of the “Black” propaganda was distributed through special secret channels via organisations like the Special Operations Executive. The Balloon Unit was given propaganda that was subversive but not to the same extent as that issued by other channels.

These new propaganda leaflets and newspapers began to be distributed from 20th September 1943. Two different leaflets were dispatched in a total of 144,000 leaflets.

A new balloon arrived in January 1944 made from nitro-cellulose. 

There was a classic own goal carried out by the Navy when sailors at Littlestone saw balloons drifting over and decided they must be some new form of German parachute mine being delivered by balloon. The Navy decided to attack these new weapons and the Navy shot down a number before their error was pointed out!

Embarrassed by their error the Navy complained to the Air Ministry that they had not been told that balloon launchings were taking place. It was explained in no uncertain manner that the Balloon Unit had been launching balloons from the same site for the last 3 years.

In 1940 the Admiralty was quite dismissive of the War Office idea of using their ships to launch balloons and actually suggested that an alternative method from ships might be sealed bottles with messages inside!

When the Navy realised their mistake, the Admiralty complained to the Air Ministry about not being informed about their activities. The Air Ministry pointed out that the “M” Balloon Unit had been launching balloons from Kent for at least the last three years. The Admiralty never seemed to show much enthusiasm for the use of the propaganda balloon. When they were approached

by Sir Stephen Tallents, who was organising the proposed Ministry of Information prior to the start of the war and asked if Naval ships could be utilised as a base to launch balloons, the Admiralty declined on the grounds that it was not worth the risk to their ships considering the likely results to be obtained. They suggested, as an alternative carrier, the releasing of bottles containing leaflets!

Over 17 nights in June 1944 the Balloon Unit let up 1,327 balloons carrying in 3,041,290 leaflets.

Back to France. Following D-Day the Balloon Unit was having problems working as the area they could send balloons to was reduced by the presence of Allied forces. By September 1944 it was decided to send the unit to the Continent. UK based operations ceased on 29th September 1944 and the Balloon Unit crossed back across the channel.

Following careful consideration, the “M” Balloon Unit was sent to Bunsbeek, near Tirlemont, Belgium. The Balloon Unit took over part of a Catholic Girls school for accommodation. The Balloon Unit took over the local village hall for storage of stores, workshops, dining and cookhouse.

On 15th November 1944 the Balloon Unit was transferred from Balloon Command to the 2nd Tactical Air Force.  An Advance Party of one Sergeant and five airmen was sent to Bunsbeek , near Tiermont on 13th November to get the site ready for operations. All the stores and equipment were shipped by road from Walmer at 0300 hours on New Year’s Eve 1944. They halted at Hornchurch overnight and then onto the Continent. When at Bunsbeek they had poor weather for four weeks and from 1st February 1945 operations recommenced. The German border was close and at Schneckenbusch and the ballast system was modified from small sandbags to leaflets but all of these had to punched with a mounting hole by hand.

The weather allowed some eight balloon operations to proceed. 33

The Balloon Unit’s target areas were reduced daily by the advance of the Allied forces.

In March 1945 only four operations were possible and in April only three were carried out. With the war almost won it was considered that the spreading of the type of propaganda they had been doing in Germany was now somewhat counterproductive.

The Balloon Unit was ordered to cease operations on 27th April 1945. It was then withdrawn to the parent unit, No. 159 Balloon Wing at St. Nicholas for disbanding.

Summary of the Activities of “M” Balloon Unit.

No.1 Balloon Unit existed for five years and ten months. It let up 57,863 balloons and distributed 94, 935,830 leaflets to Germany, France, Belgium and Holland.

This number of leaflets made up just under 7% of all the propaganda distributed by the Royal Air Force during the period in of hostilities in Europe. 130,323,635 “special type leaflets” and booklets were also dropped.

The Deputy Director of the Political Intelligence Department of the Foreign Office, Major-General Bishop stated:  “I see that upon the occasion of the Balloon Unit’s transfer to the Continent Major-General Brooks took the opportunity of placing on record our high appreciation of this Unit’s magnificent contribution to political warfare and I should like to add my personal thanks for their continued efforts in difficult and trying circumstances. In the view of the Political Warfare Executive the Commanding Officer an all ranks have every reason to be proud of their achievement.


Number of Balloons Released During 1939-1945.


























































































































TOTAL 57,863

                                                                         Number of Operations Carried Out During 1939-1945.  

                                                                                                                TOTAL 478  



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                                                                                        “M” Balloon Unit letting up balloons with leaflets in France  



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