Click for Site Directory


If Only They Had Employed a Balloon Barrage

There are two events in military history that I have often wondered how different the outcome would have been had the Commanders in the field used a Balloon Barrage to defend their positions.  

If I can take you back to the dark days of World War Two for a moment and give some thought to 7th December 1941. The American Fleet was based largely at Pearl Harbour, the American Government was watching the Japanese Government make its way across the lands and ocean, yet since they were not at war with them they chose to let them continue with their appalling war and keep them at arms length, a policy of isolationism.

However, all that was to change, the Japanese Government had decided the American forces were a threat to them and a first strike against the United States was chosen.

 The Japanese knew that in Pearl harbour was a huge concentration of the United States Navy. An all-out strike on that could cause enough damage to keep America out of the war as a major threat. Japan was planning to wage war in Southeast Asia against Britain, the Netherlands, and the United States . Japan needed to protect their advance into Malaya and the Dutch East Indies, countries rich in natural resources such as oil and rubber. The attack was intended as a preventive action to keep the U.S. Pacific Fleet from influencing the war. The Japanese knew that once they attacked then the United States would declare war on Japan , hence it made sense militarily to get the first blow in, and damage the United States ability to wage war against the Japanese.

 The attack it consisted of two aerial attack waves totaling 353 aircraft, launched from six Japanese aircraft carriers.

The Japanese had been gathering intelligence for a long time on the build up of arms and the distribution of ships and planes across the island.

They knew the layout of aircraft and stores and munitions and oil supplies.

The attack sank four U.S. Navy battleships (two of which were raised later) and damaged four more. The Japanese also sank or damaged three cruisers, three destroyers, and one minelayer, destroyed 188 aircraft, and caused personnel losses of 2,402 killed and 1,282 wounded. The power station, shipyard, maintenance, and fuel and torpedo storage facilities, as well as the submarine piers and headquarters intelligence building were not hit. Japanese losses were minimal, at 29 aircraft and four midget submarines, with 65 servicemen killed or wounded.

Afterwards it was a clear tactical victory for the Japanese but a grand strategic failure. The result was inevitable:
United States declares war on the Empire of Japan ; Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy declare war on the United States .

 The United States had been deploying intelligence gathering work and knew of the declaration of war in advance. They had managed to break the cipher codes

Camp Tyson in Tennessee was formed to train Barrage Balloon Squadrons. It has never been satisfactorily explained why there were never any deployed on the Island at Pearl Harbour . Claims have been made that the men were not ready and that they had to learn about the balloon handling and deployment from scratch. This is unlikely as they were very interested in our Barrage Balloons and had ample British servicemen available to train and help set up this new form of air defence.

American Intelligence deciphered a message from a Honolulu spy saying:

From: Tokyo

To:   Honolulu

Date: 2 Dec. 41


"   In view of the present situation, the presence in port of

warships, airplane carriers, and cruisers is of utmost

importance.  Hereafter, to the utmost of your ability, let me

know day by day.  Wire me in each case whether or not there are

any observation balloons above Pearl Harbor or if there are any

indications that they will be sent up.  Also advise me whether

or not the warships are provided with anti-mine nets."


A second message was issued on the 6th a day before the attack saying:

From: Honolulu

To:   Tokyo

Date: 6 Dec. 41


"   1. On the American Continent in October the Army began

training barrage balloon troops at Camp Davis , North Carolina . 

Not only have they ordered four of five hundred balloons, but it

is understood that they are considering the use of these

balloons in the defence of Hawaii and Panama .  In so far as

Hawaii is concerned, though investigations have been made in the

neighbourhood of Pearl Harbor , they have not set up mooring

equipment, nor have they selected the troops to man them. 

Furthermore, there is no indication that any training for the

maintenance of balloons is being undertaken.  At present time

there are no signs of barrage balloon equipment. In addition, it

is difficult to imagine that they have actually any.  However,

even though they have actually made preparations, because they

must control the air over the water and land runways of the

airports in the vicinity of Pearl Harbor , Hickham, Ford, and

Ewa, there are limits to the balloon defence of Pearl Harbor . I

imagine that in all probability there is considerable

opportunity left to take advantage for a surprise attack against

these places.

"   2. In my opinion the battleships do not have torpedo



They could have used  barrage balloons at Pearl Harbour to reduce the threat from enemy aircraft, although if deployed, the mentality of the average Japanese pilot was that they would have pressed on with the attack in any case, preferring self-sacrifice to failure. This would have meant that any balloon crews would have needed to be pretty slick to get a fresh balloon inflated, armed and back up quickly. With over 300 enemy aircraft flying over the base, over a 3 hour attack,  it was likely that had balloons been deployed the tactic would have been to press on with the attack and take out the balloons one by one leaving a fairly clean sweep for the remaining bombers.

 However the existence of the two deciphered signals has led to much speculation that failure to fully defend Pearl harbour against an attack was a ruse by Roosevelt to declare war on Japan .  I find this theory hard to follow.

Even if well defended the Japanese would have pressed home with their attack and even an unsuccessful attack would have led to a declaration of war by the United States on Japan . I think that Pearl harbour was not simply a sitting duck that morning, but a base that was not expecting an attack. The United States was clearly expecting expect sabre rattling by the Japanese in the form of them flexing their military might  but an attack on Pearl Harbour was not expected, although it was known to have been well reconnoitred by the Japanese.  However conspiracy theories abound even today.

 The Japanese failed to follow through their final attack on Pearl Harbour which was to attack and destroy all the logistical supplies. The reasons for this are not clear but had they done so the United States would have had great difficulty in waging a serious war against the Japanese as it was the attack on Pearl Harbour clearly delayed the amount of firepower they were able to muster quickly and gave the Japanese a head start as it were in their war against the Allies.



Pearl Harbour being attacked – Japanese Picture

           Pearl Harbour “defended” by barrage balloons –would this have helped reduce the loss of life and damage by enemy aircraft?  Which would you have preferred to have seen?

The Falklands 1982

Another conflict that might have had a different outcome would have been in 1982 when our forces were under attack from low-flying Argentinean bombers. We seemed to have put our faith in defending ships from such attacks by use of rapid fire and radar controlled weaponry.  The list of bombing attacks came out like this:

Saturday 1st May

HMS Alacrity - slightly damaged by bomb near misses

HMS Arrow - slightly damaged by cannon fire

HMS Glamorgan - slightly damaged by bomb near misses, all off Stanley by Daggers of FAA Grupo 6.

Wednesday 12th May

HMS Glasgow - moderately damaged off Stanley by unexploded bomb dropped by A-4B Skyhawks of FAA Grupo 5. Bomb passed through hull but damage took some days to repair and she shortly returned to UK .

Friday 21st May

HMS Antrim - seriously damaged in Falkland Sound outside San Carlos Water by unexploded bomb dropped by Daggers of FAA Grupo 6. The unexploded bomb removed but damage took some days to repair.

HMS Broadsword - slightly damaged outside San Carlos Water by cannon fire from Daggers of Grupo 6.

HMS Argonaut - slightly damaged outside San Carlos Water by rockets and cannon fire from Aermacchi MB.339A of CANA 1 Esc, and then seriously damaged by two unexploded bombs dropped by A-4B Skyhawks of FAA Grupo 5. Removing the unexploded bomb’s and carrying out repairs took a number of days and although declared operational, she soon sailed for the UK .

HMS Brilliant - slightly damaged outside San Carlos Water by cannon fire from Daggers of Grupo 6.

HMS ARDENT - badly damaged in Grantham Sound by bombs - hits, unexploded bombs and near misses - dropped by Daggers of Grupo 6, then mortally damaged by bombs from A-4Q Skyhawks of CANA 3 Esc off North West Island . Sank the following evening.

Sunday 23rd May

HMS ANTELOPE - damaged in San Carlos Water by two unexploded bombs dropped by A-4B Skyhawks of Grupo 5. One of the bombs exploded that evening while being defused and she caught fire and sank next day.

Monday 24th May

RFA Sir Galahad - damaged by unexploded bomb and out of action for some days,

RFA Sir Lancelot - damaged by unexploded bomb and not fully operational for almost three weeks,

RFA Sir Bedivere - slightly damaged by glancing bomb, all in San Carlos Water probably by A-4C Skyhawks of FAA Grupo 4.  

Tuesday 25th May

HMS Broadsword - damaged north of Pebble Island by bomb from A-4B Skyhawk of Grupo 5 bouncing up through her stern and out again to land in the sea.

HMS COVENTRY - sunk north of Pebble Island in same attack by three bombs.

Saturday 29th May

British Wye - hit north of South Georgia by bomb dropped by C-130 Hercules of FAA Grupo 1 which bounced into the sea without exploding

Tuesday 8th June

HMS Plymouth - damaged in Falkland Sound off San Carlos Water by four unexploded bombs  from Daggers of FAA Grupo 6.

RFA SIR GALAHAD - mortally damaged off Fitzroy by bombs from A-4B Skyhawks of Grupo 5 and burnt out. Later in June towed out to sea and sunk as a war grave.

RFA Sir Tristram - badly damaged off Fitzroy in same attack and abandoned, but later returned to UK and repaired.

LCU F4, HMS Fearless - sunk in Choiseul Sound by bomb from A-4B Skyhawk of Grupo 5.


When one considers the amount of bombing hits above , it does make you realize that these pilots were very well trained at such low level attacks.

During  WWII we gave enormous support to our convoys with barrage balloon vessels. In addition inlets, bays, harbours and mooring sites for large ships were given extra protection of a series of barrage balloons.


I contend that the use of barrage balloons as a form of air defence at the Falkland Islands would have been a low cost, low technology weapon that would have made the Argentinean pilots realise that they now stood a chance of striking a balloon cable and being killed. The technique employed by these pilots was to try and fly as low and as fast as possible to avoid radar detection and then “pop up” to bombing height and release their bombs on target. It goes without saying that they showed exceptional skill when one considers the accuracy of their bombing but if they had to contend with a balloon barrage they might well have not been so lucky.


The terrain around the Falklands would have made an ideal series of balloon barrage sites to protect the ships and men who were coming ashore.


The lower shore areas and hills would have given the attacking enemy aircraft an ideal low level run in and by keeping low and fast they would reduce the risk of gunfire attacks to some degree. A logically placed balloon barrage along the shore and in the inlets where anchored ships could be protected by floating barrage balloon barges would have in my humble opinion changed the outcome to one of less loss in terms of ships, and men. Helicopters were in considerable use during the Falklands and as these were much more manouverable than fixed wing aircraft and generally slower they could have probably carried on their work with no great fear of colliding with a balloon cable.

Perhaps some Mandarin in Whitehall will one day evaluate the cost of a modern radar controlled, satellite linked, air defence system against the cost of a humble bag of gas with a cable attached that is quite capable of bringing down an enemy aircraft at much lower cost.  Air superiority has become the ultimate factor in warfare. I for one was surprised that countries like Iraq did not consider using these to defend their skies from allied bombers and fighters.

Who knows, one day, Balloon Command might be “ Let Up! ” from the ashes once again in a new form!!