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Balloon Operations in World War Two
the early part of the war there was a Department in
In early 1940 Churchill summoned a meeting to discuss the possibility of
firing into the sky a lethal curtain of wires on parachutes that would tangle
around airscrews and bring the aircraft down. He told the meeting that a
minefield in the sky was just the thing to bring down enemy aircraft. He told
the meeting that he wanted a, "square of wire in the sky as big as Horse
Guards Parade with parachutes to hold it in place". On the night of 17-18
September, 1940, a number of British barrage balloons broke loose in a gale they
were whisked across the
Air Ministry initially poured cold water on the idea, as the Ministry of
Aircraft Production felt balloons would be ineffective weapons and would need
much manpower and gas to deploy. However, their rivals in the Admiralty took up
the idea with more enthusiasm. They decided balloons were low cost and were
likely be able to do their job without servicemen being at risk. The rivalry
between the two arms of the service over free balloons continued throughout the
war with some very harsh comments made by both sides.
A certain Commander Fraser, who worked in the Admiralty Boom Defence,
supplying all grades of wire rope for Navy use, came up with an idea to send a
cloud of wire skyward by attaching it to free floating balloons. He knew of a
device that had been invented known as the "long aerial mine", that
would project a network of wire and bombs skyward by release from a bomber
flying some distance ahead of enemy aircraft. Dr F. D. Richardson (who became
Director of the Nuffield Research Group post-war)
was given the task of looking at Fraser's idea. After some weeks
His concept was to produce hundreds of hydrogen filled rubber balloons,
to which was attached a yellow box, like a round biscuit tin, and a wooden spool
with 2000 feet of wire to which a parachute was attached. He envisaged the
balloon being released with its 22lb payload. On the top of the bomb was a
circular slow burning fuse that was ignited at the time of launch. As this
slowly burnt it caused one of seven bags of sand to fall away allowing the
balloon more buoyancy and altitude.
In addition, after a certain time it would reach a specific altitude and
a atmospheric pressure switch on board would activate. This switch would cause
two events: first cause the spool of wire to unravel with the parachute at the
bottom and secondly to arm the bomb on a board underneath the balloon. When an
aircraft struck the cable it caused a shock wave that caused two other events:
the parachute opened and was dragged under the wing and as the aircraft moved
forward the parachute and piano wire ran over the leading edge of the wing and
behind the plane, at the same time the bomb began to descend until it came into
contact with the wing where a small spring rim on the bomb became pressed over
and the bomb exploded.
But like many concepts and ideas, the practical testing of this idea was
fraught with problems. The behaviour of these balloons was quite unpredictable .
After a certain time aloft it was built in to the design that a
"fail-safe" mechanism, a timer, would cause the bomb to explode, also
after one hour the fuse would reach the bomb detonator and ignite the bomb. Thus
destroying it and rendering it from descending to earth in an unsafe
theory and reality were as always not what one expected. The balloon might raise
up to its operating height become armed and then descend to earth in a dangerous
state because the "fail-safe" timer had failed or the fuse had gone
out, the fuses were particularly sensitive to rain and moisture. On contact with
the ground it might or might not explode dependent on what and how it struck the
ground. The balloon might leak hydrogen, the "fail-safe" timer fail
and descend to the ground although unarmed it was still a dangerous unexploded
device. One of the early problems was that the height adjusting mechanism made
up of seven small bags filled with sand failed to work. On the 24th March 1941
at a meeting of the Night Air Defence Committee, Winston Churchill insisted they
continue with trial of the Free Balloon Barrage.
interesting and secret memo dated 1st June 1941 shows the dismissive attitude to
the free balloon barrage adopted by J. Whitworth Jones Director of Flying
Operations. He states "When the Free Balloon Barrage was first inflicted by
an enthusiastic Admiralty on a reluctant Air Ministry with the connivance of a
cigar smoking Prime Minister, the latter said that great care was to be taken
that this brilliant weapon did not fall into the hands of the enemy.", he
goes on to complain about the consistent failures of the balloons but that
"a suspicious Air Ministry felt that the spirit of the Prime Ministers
original instructions must be observed." He then points out that following
a small scale trial of 220 balloons at Liverpool, with fuses set to self destroy
after one hour, " The Germans were kind enough to inform us in their
communiqué that some of these units had been picked up in Sweden." ! The
Air Ministry and The Admiralty were never going to agree over the Free Balloon
Barrage, a number of prominent Air
Force officers wanted it abandoned but seemed to feel that the Admiralty was
pushing on with it as they were wanting to please Churchill.
The piano wire was as much of a problem as the bomb. It was able to trail
over electric railway lines , overhead power cables and seemed to delight in
short circuiting the countryside for miles around. The wire might drape over
30,000 volt overhead lines and cause the power to leak to earth giving risk of
electrocution. The cable might just hang tantalisingly down from the overhead
lines attracting curious people to reach up and grab it, with fatal results.
The name "Albino" stemmed from the use of a large white rabbit
that would be pinned up on the notice board at D.M.W.D. offices by a civil
servant called Jamieson. The one individual who seemed to lead the Free Balloon
Trials was a tall South African, R.N.V.R. Lieutenant T.F.W. Harris. On nights
when the Free Barrage Balloon trials were "on", Harris would recruit
volunteers from the D.M.W.D. to help out at the launch sites. As the trials went
on a series of comical and tragic events took place.
The whole project was classically "Top Secret" and as a result
the public and indeed vast numbers of the military were kept in the dark. It was
decided to let ARP wardens into the secret to some degree. They were vaguely
warned that a new form of night defence might be used and advised not to touch
them if they came down in the hours of darkness. The mechanical failures of
these new balloon weapons were many. In addition the paths these balloons took
on release was unpredictable despite the meteorologists giving confident
forecasts about the wind and weather.
The balloons were supposed to go up and saturate a limited area of sky.
However once launched they were fortune to the elements and the wind could
change resulting in balloons being launched in
They were called to a farm in Hampshire by a farmer who had found one of
the yellow bombs. On asking where it was to be found on the farm, he told them
that it was now on his kitchen table, but it was quite safe as he had taken it
to pieces! He had dismantled it more by luck than judgement.
On 29th December 1940 this entire trial was fraught with technical
difficulties but Churchill thought it could be made a winner. He ordered a full
scale test against the enemy. D.M.W.D. were unhappy but they went ahead. That
night the Germans launched a massive fire raid on
They launched some 2000 free balloon units at the height of the German
raid. The statistics did not make for happy reading.
three zones where the balloons were released some 30% failed near the launch
site due to problems with the wire spool, some 15% landed in
The following dawn a massive retrieval operation began at first light.
Anyone who could walk and look for the bright yellow bombs was commandeered, Boy
Scouts, Fireman, Policemen, and any spare service personnel the military could
bombs were clearly marked in large lettering: "DANGER - DO NOT TOUCH",
however this seemed to make the desire to pick them up almost impossible to
ignore. One shop keeper was found cycling up the road with four of the armed
bombs tied by their wire to his handlebars! A number of bombs were hung up in
trees and some had hit houses.
One farmer had fourteen land on his farm and he had dragged all of them
to a corner of one field, where he had then laboriously covered the units in cow
dung because he thought that would stop them blowing up!
Later even though the results were not good it was decided to carry out a
small scale test in Bedfordshire, using 200 balloons. Despite having some 50
sailors to help with recover it was impossible to see these devices easily on
foot. In desperation they hired fourteen horses and carried out the search more
rapidly and successfully on horseback. This small scale trail showed that the
problems with the device centered
around, the wire on the spool not unreeling smoothly when the unit got to its
operating height. This was found to be due to the hole in the bomb board not
being smooth enough and making the springy wire kink. The other problem was the
safety valve that prevented the balloon raising above the operating height of
14,000 to 18,000 feet was jamming and the balloon would rise too high and burst
sending it lethal payload down to earth.
The wind was so unpredictable that the balloons could travel miles across
the sea, ending up in
the wooden board was glued a paper with the following text:
No. 24 D 53
board No. A 4450
parachute No. 411592
Parachute No. 427382
of assembly L H 9/6/41
M D no. 34234.
On the centre of the board was mounted a 12 cm high cartridge with 4
small cylinders around it. One of these small cylinders had a lever on it and
was marked with a label with the text "DANGER". A fifth cylinder was
filled with a small parachute made of white silk." The yellow parachute
", was not a parachute, it was in fact a canopy that covered the delicate
surface of the bomb board to prevent damp and rain affecting the slow burning
fuses from the weather.
The Germans were fully aware of the potential use and dangers from this
device and by the British stupidly ensuring that every one sent out had an
explanatory label stuck to it, including the name of the assembly worker,
certainly did not help matters.
British public and most of the military did not know about the FBB but it is
certain that Germans knew everything. It is interesting to see that as far as I
am aware the Germans never redesigned this to attack the British raids later in
The D.M.W.D. team set up experiments to see what happened to the safety
valve and the buoyancy when the balloon was subjected to colder and colder
temperatures. This they did by using a massive walk-in refrigerator on a fruit
to the nature of the design it is not surprising that there were
several casualties from the free balloon units
The results of the work was that they felt that by making refinements to
the mechanical aspects of the balloon they could make it work.
The next operational launching was to take place at
Just as the Barrage Balloon personnel were getting to grips with this new
weapon the Luftwaffe turned their attention to other fronts of war and mass
bombing raids more or less ceased.
weapon was never given a chance to show what it could do.
has always puzzled me that the Germans never seemed to use this idea against our
mass bombing raids, the prevailing winds in
struck by a plane the drogue parachute would open and the bomb would release
from the balloon. As the plane flew on the bomb would be drawn over the top of
the wing and detonate.
Outward was the name given to a similar program of free balloon weapons. In
1937, the British determined that the damage that may be caused by a
balloon-carried wire hitting power lines was not inconsiderable. In the winter
of 1939-1940 the idea of using balloons as floating weapons was proposed. The
concept was that balloons, launched from
word "Petard" is used in the phrase "hoist with one's own
petard", which means "to be harmed by one's own plan to harm someone
else" or "to fall into one's own trap," literally implying in the
warfare of medieval times that one could be lifted up (hoist, or blown upward)
by one's own bomb. It was this aptly named operation that was used to try and
bring down enemy bombers by use of a series of balloons each with an aerial mine
attached to them. The concept was that when a German raid was taking place, a
vast number of these balloons would be released from the ground into the path of
the bombers. It depended on the wind as the balloons had to drift up and towards
the incoming bombers. The first trial took place by 30 Balloon Group in the
balloons were to be released providing the wind was from the
South South East, from "Fronts" or land sites on the coast
were two Squadron fronts, "North Squadron", based to the North of the
Thames and "South Squadron", ", based to the South of the
Control Interception (GCI) and Chain Home Low (CHL) (an early form of radar),
were expected to monitor the Petard units for both height and direction.
"Petard" Balloons were first used against enemy aircraft on the night
of the 18th/19th March1942. South Squadron at Swalecliffe, Herne Bay was ready
at 1836 hours, the first enemy plots were spotted by Fighter Command HQ at 1956
and was some 45 miles off the
further release took place on the 31st March 1942, the weather was ideal for a
release, no enemy aircraft were plotted in the
the night in question some 1700 balloons were released, the Balloon Squadron
used was No.2 Mobile Squadron of
the balloons were launched, the wind direction was fine but it seemed that many
of the balloons failed to float high enough and began to descend back onto the
mainland. Despite the fact that there had been previous launches of
"Petard", an army group nearby were totally unaware of this weapon and
on seeing these five foot diameter cream coloured balloons in the moonlight,
they presumed it was an enemy weapon and opened fire, in many cases using
tracer. Those balloons that did not catch fire, leaked, and came down to earth
over a wide area of Minster. The leaking balloons failed to gain any great
height and as the quick match fuse was burning the spool of wire began to
unravel at a much lower height than anticipated. Many of them fouled on the high
ground around the village, shorting out high tension cables and snagging on
trees and hedges. It was thought that some 200 came down in the area. An A.R.P
Warden driving around in his car on duty ran into one of the wires and got out
to remove it, this caused the bomb to go off, and he died from his injuries the
following day. At Eastchurch Station four balloons had landed, not knowing what
they were, the personnel on the base decided to gather them up as they were
probably weather balloons and four of them were placed in a heap in the
guardroom. The making safe of these bombs was a very difficult task as the Bomb
Disposal people, led by Squadron Leader Dinwoodie could see that they were in a
very sensitive and dangerous state. The making safe took several hours. One
civilian who found a Free Barrage Balloon and bomb in a field decided for mind
boggling reasons to move it to a "safe place", It was duly placed on
the ground adjacent to the main railway line and covered with a sack! Bomb
Disposal had a very tricky job dealing with it as the self destroying device was
almost on the point of functioning. One police man from Eastchurch awoke and on
leaving for work on the 1st May a 5.a.m., and could see around 50 devices strung
up in trees, over hedges and telephone lines. As he went to work he saw many
more lying about the area.
event caused were several Courts of Enquiry:
death of 6030268 Private J Pullen, C.M.P. (Corps of Military Police), age 56,
Son of David and
addition to the above death, two very brave men also died, 120146 Lieutenant
John Percy Walton G.M. Royal Engineers and 1300551 Lance Serjeant Charles
Frederick Bristow G.M. ,22nd Bomb Disposal Company, Royal Engineers, age 43, son
of Fred and Rose Bristow; husband of Elsie Bristow, of Cranwell Village, were
all killed. Sergeant Auten Royal Engineers was injured while working on Bomb
Disposal on the Free Barrage Balloon units..
dangerous legacy continued, on 5th May, at Scapsgate, a Petard device was washed
ashore, one boy was killed, and one, Harry Kennett, seriously injured when they
tried to remove the sand bags used for altitude control, as one lad thought they
would be great for his budgerigar at home. How many more people were not killed
or injured is a minor miracle.
a result it was finally agreed to produce leaflets explaining the description
and dangers of these devices and ensure that greater public awareness was made.
not a balloon borne device, this was similar in that it involved the release of
"Long Aerial Mines" also known as "Pandoras", into the path
of oncoming German bombers by British aircraft. The concept here was to break up
a formation of enemy bombers so that they flew in a much more random way making
them more vulnerable to our fighters. This began in September 1940. Following
much experimentation, the optimum configuration for the mine was determined.
resulting weapon fitted into a cylindrical container 14in long and 7in in
diameter, and weighed 141b. After
release from the aircraft the obstacle deployed.
comprised, from top to bottom: a supporting parachute, a length of
shock-absorber cord, the cylindrical container, an AAD
bomb, 2,000ft of piano wire and, at the bottom, a second furled parachute.
an aircraft struck the piano wire the shock wave ran up the wire, causing a weak
to break, releasing the main supporting parachute and the cylindrical container.
As the container fell away the bomb was armed and a small stabilising parachute
connected to the weapon was released. Simultaneously, the shockwave travelled
piano wire and caused the lower parachute to open. This took up a position
behind the aircraft and pulled the bomb smartly down on the aircraft.
in autumn 1940 Fighter Command's most difficult
became how to counter the night raider.
The long-term answer was the
obsolete Handley Page