Balloon Command

by Air Marshal Sir Leslie Gossage
Air Marshal Sir Leslie Gossage, KCB, CVO, DSO, MC, Air Officer Commanding. Balloon Command. was commissioned in the Royal Field Artillery in 1910. and was first assigned to service with the RFC in May. 1915. He was awarded the MC in 1916 for "consistent good and zealous work under bad weather conditions." and subsequently he was awarded the DSO for distinguished services in operations. Air Marshal Gossage has served as Air attache in Berlin. He is known as a keen student of air tactics and at one period was a Fighter Group commander.
British cities and convoys are protected from enemy dive bombers by these ugly, invaluable "rubber cows."

At 10 minutes to nine on the fine morning of the last day of August, 1940, the Germans gave a clear indication of their respect for the British balloon barrage — in their own language. They came across to Dover, and in six minutes shot down every one of the 23 balloons flying there.

The Battle of Britain had been joined; and the Dover balloons represented the first line of our passive defence. The barrage had been deployed during July as a protection against dive bombing. The fact that it still flies in full view of the enemy is proof that the attack was not successful in the long run. The part of balloons in the Battle of Britain may seem comparatively slight, but this incident at least confirmed the value of barrage protection, first by the enemy's interest in attacking it, secondly by the failure of that attack to prevent a balloon barrage being flown at Dover.

The attack began when two waves of about 50 enemy aircraft approached Dover flying at heights ranging from 15,000 to 20,000 feet. Six Messerschmitt Me-109s broke away from these formations and flew at the balloons. The fighters appeared to have discovered lanes in the antiaircraft barrage, which had been caused by the removal of a certain number of guns for use elsewhere. Their attack was more successful than any subsequent attack made, but they lost half their force.

Of the six, two were destroyed by antiaircraft fire, and a third by rifle fire from balloon crews.

There were no casualties among the balloon operators and replacements were immediately put in hand. One balloon site raised a new balloon with 40 minutes of the attack. At 11:30 that same morning 11 balloons were again flying over Dover and by the same afternoon their number was increased to 18.

At 7:30 in the evening the Germans tried again and succeeded in shooting 15 balloons down. Despite these losses however, there were 16 balloons flying over Dover on the following morning.

When these were attacked three enemy aircraft were shot down at a cost of only two balloons. The crew of a site in the centre of the town lost their balloon but reported as follows:

"The enemy aircraft attacked a balloon which was rising just inflated in the harbour. A 50-round burst of controlled rifle fire staggered the machine which banked up, clearly disclosing underpart and markings. A second burst of 20 rounds was fired and black smoke was seen coming from the engine and the machine dived into the sea beyond the breakwater."

The protective balloons still fly over Dover. The attack on the barrage has proved too costly. Subsequent attacks appear to represent individual acts of daring by members of the Luftwaffe and are said to be frowned upon by the German authorities.

In general, major attacks on balloon barrages have ceased. the enemy having realized that the game is not worth the candle.

The fact, however, that he hoped to destroy our balloons is in itself proof of the utility of the barrage.

Balloons are deployed to drive the enemy to a height from which accurate bombing is difficult, rather than to net him. That they succeed in doing so is noted by William Shirer, who in Berlin Diary states the attitude of German pilots toward the London barrage:

"He (one of the German pilots) relates that they approached London at a height of from 15/16,000 feet, dived to about 10,000 feet and released their bombs at this height — too high for accurate night bombing. They did not dare to go below 7,000 feet, he says, on account of the barrage balloons."

Apart from attempts at shooting down barrages, the Germans have shown their balloon wariness in a more positive form. Balloon fenders have been found upon enemy aircraft brought down in this country. These are guards stretching from each wing tip to the nose and consist of a streamlined shell of light alloy reinforced with a strip of steel along the leading edge. They are held in position by five outrigger struts, one projecting in front of the nose and two projecting from each outer wing, thus forming a sort of flattened V in front of the aircraft.

It is intended that these fenders shall be strong enough to break the balloon cables by impact or to thrust them aside; but they weigh about 800 pounds and reduce the performance of the aircraft very considerably.

A balloon barrage is deployed to protect a vulnerable point or a vulnerable area. This may be a harbour such as Dover, a city such as London, dockyard installations such as those at Liverpool, or individual factories doing work of vital importance — for instance, the manufacture of aircraft. Whatever they protect, however, balloons are never intended as a complete and independent form of air protection. In keeping the attackers up, in restricting their area of attack and in placing them at a level favorable to antiaircraft guns they are playing an essential part in the general scheme of defence, enabling fighter aircraft, antiaircraft guns and the observer system to cooperate effectively.

Since September, 1939, the citizens of London have enjoyed the visible security of the silver barrage studding the threatening blue skies. The balloons flew night and day throughout the most severe aerial bombardments. The fact that our industrial effort has never collapsed and that the vital ports of this country are still open, is partly due to this passive defence so doggedly maintained.

The conception of balloons as a weapon of air defence originated before the last war. The idea was to build a stockade of nets in the skies and to enmesh hostile aircraft on their way to a defended area. The Germans tried a form of balloon or kite barrage as early as the winter of 1914-15. By March, 1917, they were forming balloon barrage detachments to protect important industrial establishments.

An early deployment of balloons by the Allies was in Venice, where there were seven balloon stations each provided with 10 balloons. These were inflated during each moonlight period and flown at the height of about 10,000 feet from rafts moored about 200 feet apart round the outskirts of Venice. In June, 1917, a Royal Flying Corps officer was sent to Italy to report on the scheme. On September 5th of that year Maj Gen E B Ashmore, who commanded the London Air Defence Area, put forward his scheme for a London balloon barrage. His suggestion was for an apron consisting of a row of balloons connected by a cross cable carrying weighted wire streamers. His scheme was approved by the Government and on September 19th he announced that he was arranging to install two balloon aprons on the easterly borders of London.

In October, the Commander-in-Chief, Home Forces, agreed to the establishment of a Home Wing of five balloon squadrons requiring a total personnel of 3,587, at the same time giving his approval for "the installation of a cordon of 20 balloon aprons, approximately on the line — Tottenham, Ilford, Barking, Woolwich and Lewisham, subject to such modifications as experience may suggest." By April, 1918, seven of the aprons were in operation and an eighth was nearly ready.

The balloon aprons acted as a kind of stockade against enemy aircraft. The position was carefully checked by our own fighter patrols, and the beginning of the present strategy in air defence may be seen in the close cooperation between fighters, antiaircraft, lights and balloons. The stockade of balloons, however, had the disadvantage of being heavy and inflexible. It was difficult to operate and its weight was a potential menace to the population it was designed to protect. But the success of the balloon aprons as a scarecrow is borne out by the records of the enemy. In March, 1918, a report was made to General von Hoeppner to the effect that the aprons had increased enormously, and added greatly to the difficulties of the attack. If they were increased and improved much more (the report stated), they would make a raid on London almost impossible.

When the barrage was hauled down at the end of the war, work on defensive balloons lapsed, though their squadron establishment was always maintained for experimental work. The conception of a balloon barrage never died out. The almost certain necessity of having to organize and maintain a barrage in any future war was noted by the Air Defence of Great Britain Command at various times between 1928 and 1935. An Air Staff decision was taken in 1936, to establish a barrage in London, the possibilities of barrages in provincial districts being left open until some experience had been gained on the working of the barrage in the metropolis.

Early in 1938, after considerable research and planning, the recruiting of the first balloon squadrons was put in hand. A balloon training school was opened and the nucleus of regular personnel was given an intensive course of training before being distributed to the various centers in the formation.

Shortly after the international crisis in September, 1938, it was decided to proceed with the establishment of barrages in many of the important provincial cities. At the same time it was decided to establish an individual Balloon Command Headquarters. Early in 1939, the provincial groups were established on a skeleton basis and sufficient progress had been made in their organization and equipment to enable the whole barrage for the country to be mobilized on the outbreak of war.

The Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Fighter Command is responsible in the first place for the control of the balloon barrage. The chain of Command is derived from him as follows:

The Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Fighter Command.
The Air Officer Commanding, Balloon Command
Balloon Groups
Barrage Control
Squadrons
Flights
Sites

In addition to the general operational control and to the exigencies of the weather, barrages are naturally subject to some local control. Those operating in the neighborhood of an aircraft base, for instance, will be subject to those in charge of aircraft control; those guarding aircraft factories must often provide controllable lanes through which aircraft may be admitted to the factory landing ground.

Though their main function is to "position the pheasant," our balloons have been directly responsible for bringing down a number of enemy aircraft. The first hostile aircraft to be claimed by a British balloon in this war was brought down in June, 1940, by the barrage flown by Balloon Command at Le Havre.

During January, 1942, a new type of German bomber was destroyed in a barrage in the northeast of England. The balloon crew heard the aircraft approaching their site very fast and low; then they heard their balloon cable struck, but it was too dark to see the aircraft. The bomber crashed between one and two miles farther on and the balloon cable was recovered intact. A portion of the starboard wing of the enemy plane had been clearly cut by the impact, and was subsequently recovered from a neighboring site.

In the small hours of the morning of September 13th, 1940, a Heinkel hit the cable of a balloon flying in Newport, South Wales. The aircraft swung round pulling the cable off the storage drum and then flew on towards another site with the cable clinging to it. The trailing wire fouled the cable of a second site and the aircraft crashed and burst into flames.

Operations in general, however, must be regarded as static, and it is comparatively rare for the crews to have the great satisfaction of catching the enemy in their cables. This form of static defence — keeping the balloon aloft whatever the weather and whatever the aerial bombardment in progress — was never better tested than on the night of November 14, 1940, at Coventry. Here are brief extracts from the report afterwards written by the squadron commander on the spot: —

"The warning was received at 19:11 hours. In spite of the weather risk the barrage commander ordered that the balloons should be flown at operational height.

"The enemy attack commenced at 19:30 and continued with terrific intensity until about 06:30 hours next morning.

"The first raiders dropped showers of incendiary bombs which started fires in the city. Guided by this 'beacon,' waves of enemy aircraft flew over the city, dropping large quantities of high explosives.

"At 20:30 hours telephonic communication broke down completely and squadron headquarters were out of touch with flights and sites. Despatch riders were rapidly brought into service and, under conditions of the greatest difficulty and danger, they worked for the remainder of the night.

"Then came another catastrophe — all lighting failed. Emergency lighting was brought into use at once."

Throughout the night Flight Headquarters and sites were experiencing trouble. The following are extracts from reports:—

"A near miss blew in the windows of flight headquarters and brought down the roof. We had to evacuate."

A pilot officer from "B" Flight Headquarters says:—

"I was making a round of sites; as I left site 17 a bomb dropped about 100 yards ahead bring down two houses. I took the ambulance and picked up a number of people who had been hurt….

"The flight commander went out to where a delayed action bomb had fallen 70 yards from headquarters. He would not allow anyone else to go near it and took care of the boarding-up himself."

An officer at "B" Flight makes the following observations:

"All windows of our headquarters were blown in and several D/A bombs fell within a few yards.

"Huts on Sites 18 and 40 were destroyed.

"When a delayed action bomb fell about 10 yards from the bed of Site 8, the men were in their shelter, but on hearing the balloon cable was falling, they turned out, hauled down the balloon and bedded it.

"In spite of the many casualties and obvious difficulties encountered, the balloon barrage was up to strength and flying by 12:00 hours on 16.11.40."

To complete the protective circles of harbors and estuaries, balloons are sometimes flown from surface craft moored on the water. Water-borne barrages afford not only protection to vulnerable areas and to shipping but also have great value as a deterrent to mine-laying by the enemy.

One Christmas Day the commanding officer of a water-borne squadron, accompanied by his adjutant, set out in a launch to shake the hand of every balloon operator under his charge. Though he stopped nowhere for more than the usual Christmas greeting, this trip took him four and a half hours. This indicates the practical difficulties of maintaining a barrage afloat. Nevertheless, some of the most useful work carried out by Balloon Command is upon the water. Life in the water-borne barrage varies with the geographic situation; but in a typical estuary barrage, the balloons are flown from barges and drifters. Each of these vessels is mobile and keeps steam up day and night. There is a civilian crew for maneuvering the vessel, and a crew of three or four airmen, with a corporal in charge, to manipulate the balloon. The winch is generally contained in the hold of the vessel and as, of course, there is no means of bringing the balloon down to the deck, it must always remain either flying or else close-hauled. A period of 10 days to a fortnight at sea is usual. During this period the crews may be in sight of land, but their only connection with the shore is the daily visit of the ration boat and radio communication. More frequently than any other balloon site, these men have had opportunities of combat with the enemy. Several hostile aircraft have been brought down by their gunfire.

During the Battle of Britain in August, 1940, it was essential that the English Channel should remain open to our convoys. On August 4, a convoy left a west of England port for the Thames Estuary protected for the first time by balloons of Balloon Command. During that first trip, and during nearly every subsequent passage, balloons were attacked by Messerschmitt fighters. Through rain, snow, ice and fog, or in gales which threatened to tear the winches from the decks, the RAF crews of Balloon Barrage vessels have now made well over 100 trips. It goes without saying that these men have seen more action than any other balloon crews, and as proof of their services there are, at the time of writing, already 10 honors in the Flight which operates the sea-borne balloons.

Enemy fighters are not the only resistance encountered. Shells from the German batteries are often observed. On one occasion one of them severed a balloon cable. The following extracts from the log of an RAF officer on a balloon barrage vessel indicate the variety of the hazards they run:—

"09:50 hours. Mine sighted on port bow necessitating sudden change of course. This was followed by sighting other mines on the starboard bow until eventually we zig-zagged through 23 of them. Obviously they had broken loose during the storm.

"11:05 hours. An Me-109 made two machine-gun attacks on — Shooting bad and no hits — attacked by four dive bombers. Bombs could be seen hitting the sea beside the ship.

"18:56 hours. Vivid flashes from French coast.

"21:43 hours. Enormous flash from French coast followed some 80 seconds later by the sound of heavy explosion.

"22:24 hours. AA fire from French coast. Throughout the night there was a series of flashes and occasional AA fire from both coasts.

"Thursday, 02:20 hours. This has been written subsequently as things moved too fast to record them at the time. I came below to call my relief and as I came on deck I was told that a motor boat had been heard on our port bow and had disappeared. About five minutes later there was an explosion astern followed immediately by another.

"Immediately the place seemed to become like a gigantic firework display. Everybody who had anything seemed to let it off. Tracers showing up scarlet in the night were returned by bullets, which appeared green in color. We kept dead quiet. The trouble was, or appeared to be, about a quarter of a mile astern and we were in such a position that we could do nothing effective if we did open fire.

"What actually happened we shall not know till we reach port, but the Motor Torpedo Boat Brigade were putting up flares all over the place. Presently we heard a "phew" — almost next door it seemed, but whatever it was it did not find its mark. After what seemed hours, but was only a few minutes, it seemed that the firework party was falling astern.

"Personally, I heaved a sigh of relief. By the gun flashes and rattle of machine guns I knew our escort was doing its stuff. But suddenly right on our starboard beam two high flares shot up and came sailing down lighting —and ourselves as clear as day. There followed what we all expected — a sickening thud. We thought the — had got it. Then there was another lull followed by the usual cries of "there she is" as the machine guns opened up again and flares showed us up.

"Our RAF crew, needless to say, are splendid. With all the excitement last night when I went aft, I hardly expected to find anyone at the which. But there he was — our man who shall be nameless.

"11:55 hours. This looks bad. About 30 Junker Ju-87s with an escort of Messerschmitt Me-109s arrived over the convoy. The procedure is simple. The fighters try to put the balloons down in flames, and, like one platoon following another on the parade ground, the dive bombers follow. Whether they saw something we didn't, I don't know, but the bombers suddenly veered away and that was that. But not before our fighters had got a couple of Junkers and possibly a third.

"18:54 hours. Alongside quay. Tied up."

There is little doubt that the ever present barrage of balloons in the sky has been a great encouragement and comfort to the British population during aerial combat and bombardment. But it has seemed sometimes, particularly in fine weather, that the work of the balloon operators was easy compared with the more obviously active operations of the RAF.

Among those who have never worked on a balloon site this view has perhaps been encouraged by the fact that women are now employed on the job. But though simplification in the technique of balloon manipulation has made it possible for certain sites to be taken over by members of the Women's Auxiliary Air Force, this simply shows what first-rate work women can accomplish nowadays, and is no reflection on the men they replace. Intelligence, skill and courage are still required; it is only the need for brute strength which technical improvements have lessened.

The training of women began, as an experiment, early in 1941. In July, the Air Officer Commanding reported to the Secretary of State for Air: "Training has proceeded to the extent that it has now been found possible to draft women to war sites in the balloon barrage, which sites they will in a few days' time be in course of taking over from the airmen."

When the first WAAF crews took over sites in the first barrage to be operated by them, it was found that it took 16 airwomen to replace 12 airmen. At the beginning of September, 1941, it was considered that the experiment was successful, and that substitution for men should take place gradually. When they finally take over in force the WAAF will have a grueling job on their hands. The maintenance of an efficient balloon service on the vast scale of the barrage flown daily in, the British Isles, demands the highest mental and physical alertness and the most careful organization. Under fire it is one of the most dangerous jobs; in winter it is one of the coldest. At all times it is exacting. The constant vigilance which is the price of liberty is demanded in full measure from every service-and not least from those who man the balloons.

This article was originally published in the September, 1942, "Special Royal Air Force Issue" of Flying and Popular Aviation magazine, vol 31, no 3, pp 97+100, 216, 220, 222.
The original article includes a thumbnail photo of the author and 7 captioned photographs.
Photos are not specifically credited, but seem to be from the British Air Ministry.

Photo captions: