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  • Writer's pictureCaptain Crisp

The Balloon Goes Up!

Many people living on Hampshire’s coast will still remember the proliferation of barrage balloons that flew both on the coast itself, and in the larger towns during the Second World War.

These were manned [?] by the RAF’s Balloon Command – mainly by members of the WAAF during the war itself.

By early 1938, it was fairly obvious that another war was imminent in Europe at least.

The various encroachments by the Third Reich across Europe, coupled with the Munich Crisis, decided the British government to advance their defence modernisation even more so than they had in the previous two years.

The fear –especially looking at the Luftwaffe’s successes in the ongoing Spanish Civil War – was that aerial bombing was the main threat to Britain.

In addition to the introduction of new fighters and bombers gradually coming into RAF service from late 1937, Balloon Command was formed on 1 November 1938, coming under the control of Fighter Command, and headquartered at RAF Stanmore, Middlesex [close to Fighter Command’s own headquarters at RAF Bentley Priory] and headed by its own Air Officer Commanding, Air Vice Marshal O T Boyd.

At the start of the war in 1939, Balloon Command comprised five Groups around Britain, similar to that system used in Fighter Command, with each Group being responsible for separate balloon Centres in the particular region, with each Centre comprising several balloon Squadrons.

No 32 Group, covering the West Country, was temporarily based from June 1940 - November 1941 at Harefield House, Romsey, when that headquarters was moved to Claverton Manor, near Bath, Somerset.

For Hampshire’s particular interest, No 30 Group, headquartered at Chessington, Surbiton, Surrey, was responsible for five Groups, including No’s 1, 2, 3, 4 and 12 Balloon Centres.

No 2 Balloon Centre was based at Hook, comprising no’s 904 and 905 [County of Surrey] [Balloon] Squadron Auxiliary Squadrons covering Surrey.

No 12 Balloon Centre, based at RAF Titchfield, near Fareham, from 1938-1945.

RAF Titchfield was the base for:

924 Squadron, with 24 Balloons covering the Eastleigh area.

930 Squadron, with 40 land-based balloons and 10 waterborne ones, covered Southampton.

932 Squadron, with 32 Balloons, covered Portsmouth.

933 Squadron, with 24 Balloons, covered Gosport.

Portchester Barrage Balloon

Eastleigh was a particularly important target location for the Germans – with the Supermarine and Cunliffe-Owen factories at the airport building new, and also assembling imported aircraft that had arrived via Southampton Docks.

Portsmouth and Gosport were, of course important naval bases, requiring a good deal of protection from aerial attack.

Southampton was one of the vital docks for Britain, both for the import of raw materials necessary for Britain’s survival and for the production of her war machinery, and also increasingly as a military staging post.

By July 1940, at the start of the Battle of Britain, Balloon Command had almost 1500 balloons across Britain, with a third of these concentrated around the city of London.

These balloons played a vital, and relatively cheap part of Britain’s anti-aircraft defences, with several thousand still in use by late 1944, at the height of the V1 menace.

Each balloon was roughly 62 feet long, 25 feet in diameter, with the gas lifting capacity comprising 75% explosive hydrogen gas, with a pocket containing 25% air, with the cable allowing them to be flown at altitudes of up to 5,000 feet.

This height forced enemy aircraft to fly within the altitude fused shell range of anti-aircraft guns which also limited the chance of shrapnel falling to earth – just as dangerous for the civilians below.

At the height of the Battle of Britain, balloon production was at 1200 per month.

Towards the end of the Battle of Britain in 1940, it was decided to train increasing numbers of WAAF personnel to be Balloon Operators, thus enabling more men to be released for other RAF duties.

The role was an extremely physical one, and initially there were doubts from the AOC and indeed also his WAAF Staff Officer on whether women were up to the task asked of them – it was thought that at least 20 WAAF personnel would be needed to replace 10 men!

Nevertheless, the first WAAF 10 week course began in May 1941, with the girls trained in eight subjects; Balloon Drill; Balloon Maintenance; Winch Driving, Winch Maintenance; Rope Splicing; Balloon Technical and Theory training, with a stiff examination to be passed at the end of the course.

They were then, on completion, posted to various centres to be placed on a balloon crew of twelve as qualified Balloon Operators – and no more than 14 girls were needed at most to replace the 10 men!

Indeed, by the end of 1942, 10,000 men had been replaced by 15,700 WAAF Balloon operators!

Pre-war, Imperial Airways [becoming from 1940, BOAC] flew their Empire, or ‘C’ and ‘G’ Class passenger flying boats all over the Empire from their respective docks at Southampton.

The increase in wartime water traffic, and particularly the 50 balloons of 930 Squadron protecting the docks meant that BOAC’s flying boat operations were moved to Poole harbour for safety shortly after the outbreak of war.

However, by the end of 1944, with the end of the war in sight, the use of balloons as part of Britain’s anti-aircraft defence was gradually winding down.

Some were still in use, of course, on the South East coast as part of Operation ‘Diver’, the defence against the V1 flying bombs which were still sporadically reaching Britain.

Balloon Command formally disbanded in February 1945, having provided a vital part of Britain’s air defence, with many men and particularly women proud of the arduous and often unsung essential part they played during the war, with over 450 personnel dying on active service.

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