Balloons, embarrassment, and wartime memories

Barrage balloons
The types of balloons Brian remembers.

One endearing memory I have from the years during the last World War is of barrage balloons, one of which was stationed very near to our home. For any younger readers, who may not be aware of what they were, ‘barrage balloons’ were one of the United Kingdom’s first lines of defence, in the event that enemy aircraft flew over wishing to drop bombs on us. They were enormous bags of hydrogen gas, shaped vaguely like an elephant when fully inflated, with a bulbous body and three large flaps on one end, which were the main cause of the somewhat elephantine appearance because they looked like that animal’s ears!

The balloons were attached to the earth by a strong steel cable, which in turn was wound around a large drum, similar to a giant cotton reel, the reel itself mounted on the back of a truck or, sometimes a more permanent shed on a concrete base. The balloons were stored flat until required and then inflated from gas bottles kept nearby, a job which could take quite a long time, due to the sheer size of the thing. Once fully charged with gas, the large reel was started up, (it had a motor), and just like some enormous piece of fishing tackle, the balloon was set free of the ground, to rise slowly into the air. They were usually flown at a height of about two thousand feet as far as I can remember, and they served as a double weapon against German aircraft, in that, especially one flying at night, could fly into the gas filled bag, exploding the hydrogen and destroying the plane, while a second form of discouragement was provided by the steel cables, almost invisible to a moving aircraft, but very effective for cutting a wing off, making it completely and suddenly un-airworthy.

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But of course, the idea wasn’t so much a hope that a plane would fly into a balloon or its cable – the main purpose was that the aircraft would fly much higher, to avoid such danger, making it harder for them to hit their targets and also easier for the anti-aircraft guns, situated near the balloons, to put up a barrage of shrapnel-creating shells, which would hopefully hit their target and bring the planes down that way. Whether any of these preparations were in any way actually successful against the enemy, I have no idea.

A wonderful sketch of the event by Brian Lee.

My young mates and I liked to go and watch the balloons being filled and launched by the team of WRAF’s, (Womens Royal Air Force), stationed there, especially on one particular occasion, a day when it was quite breezy. Apparently it was decided by the crew that they could still launch without too much trouble, after all it was only a bit of a breeze blowing, not a hurricane! So the balloon was dragged out of its container, laid out on the ground in the approved manner, the gas bottle was connected and the filling process began.

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There were a whole series of ropes fixed around the side of the balloon, and as the bag started to fill out, one of the girls would get on the end of each piece, to steady everything until the actual launch was ordered. The unfortunate thing was, as soon as the bag started to actually leave the ground, in its usual sedate manner, the breeze started to swish it about, all over the place, much to the surprise and startling of the young girls holding on to the ropes. They were well trained people, who had had it well drummed into them that they must, under no circumstances let go of the ropes until the appropriate orders was given, so up they went, with the lively balloon, until they were all hanging about six feet off the ground, squealing with fright, but still waiting for the order to let go!

The NCO in charge had also been dumbfounded by the turn of events, and stood, mouth open just gaping up at the balloon for a few moments then, fortunately he came to his senses and yelled for the filling to stop and the reel to be reversed. And so, one of what could have been a major disaster of the last war was avoided and all the girls got back to terra firma without any injury.

To us kids of course it was all great fun, to the military bods, highly embarrassing!