Extract from "Up, up and away!"
by John Penny

The Second World War Balloon Barrage

During World War Two balloon barrages were installed at a number of locations to act as a passive form of defence, designed to force enemy raiders to fly higher, and thus bomb much less accurately. A preliminary survey of Bristol was carried out in July 1938 and as a result it was decided that the presence of Filton aerodrome prevented the use of balloons to cover the whole area. Two small independent layouts were therefore proposed to protect the harbour installations in the city centre and at Avonmouth and on November 1st 1938 RAF Balloon Command was formed to co-ordinate work throughout the country .The provincial barrages authorised were then organised into Auxiliary Air Force Balloon Squadrons and in the various localities Balloon Centres were also formed to administer and provide a peace time headquarters for the new squadrons, as well as overseeing the assembly and testing of balloons and the training of their crews in time of war. Although the balloon barrage in the Bristol area was the responsibility of No.11 Balloon Centre, which was established on January 16th 1939 at the Territorial Army and Auxiliary Forces Association premises in Clifton, it was only after the opening of a temporary office at 57 Victoria Street on February 6th that recruiting for the three 'County of Gloucester' Squadrons, No's. 927, 928 and 929 was able to begin. July 8th saw the appearance of the first barrage balloon in Bristol and although a foretaste of things to come, it was, in fact, only a demonstration set up on the Downs for the benefit of local people. Nevertheless, on August 9th, a new camp at Pucklechurch was handed over as the permanent home for No.11 Balloon Centre and within a month barrage balloons were flying in their protective role from a number of sites around the city.

The standard barrage balloon deployed in the Bristol area was the LZ (Low Zone) type which was designed to be flown from a mobile winch at a maximum altitude of 5000 feet. It was just over 62 feet long and 25 feet in diameter at its widest part, with a hydrogen capacity of 19,000 cu. ft. and was so designed that when an aircraft struck the cable it was severed at the top and bottom by two special explosive links. The aircraft thus carried away the main portion of the cable with open eight foot diameter parachutes at each end, these exerting enough drag to stop the victim almost dead in the air and send it crashing to the ground. Simultaneously, as the cable parted from the balloon a wire ripped off a patch which allowed the hydrogen to escape, causing the envelope to descend slowly to the ground.

Balloon diagram

With war clouds gathering, on August 25th the local balloon squadrons were mobilized, No.927 subsequently moving to Avonmouth, 928 to the area around Clifton, Pill and Portishead and 929 to sites in East Bristol. However, this arrangement was to be somewhat short lived for on October 19th No.929 Squadron transferred north to protect the Forth Bridge, while on November 24th No.928 Squadron departed for Felixstowe leaving just No.927 Squadron to man both the Bristol and Avonmouth barrages. Although a replacement, No.951 Squadron, began forming at Pucklechurch on December 15th, it was to be March 30th 1940 before the new unit had received enough men and equipment to finally be declared operational.

By this time Sir Stanley White, the Managing Director of the Bristol Airplane Company, was becoming concerned at the lack of protection for his factories so on May 27th he wrote to the RAF requesting that a balloon barrage should be provided to protect the manufacturing complex in the Filton area in spite of the fact that he was well aware of the difficulties this might cause to any fighters operating from the nearby aerodrome. The response was rapid and two days later White was informed that he would get his balloons, No.935 (County of Glamorgan) Squadron being transferred from South Wales to Filton where they commenced operations on May 31st. However, by the summer of 1940 two problems had been highlighted which were to plague balloon barrages throughout the war .The first of these involved lightening strikes during thunder storms, and in the Bristol area the most serious incident of this type took place on the night of July 26th when a total of 28 balloons were hit and brought down in flames. The other unfortunate tendency was for balloons to break free from their moorings and as they floated over town and country , often with their steel cables still attached, they left behind a trail of damaged buildings, as well as electricity cables and telephone wires cut down as if they had been cobwebs! Nevertheless, in spite of all the difficulties, by the beginning of August a comprehensive balloon barrage was in place around Bristol, with No.927 Squadron, based at 'The Chalet', Henbury, flying 32 balloons to protect Avonmouth Docks, No.935 Squadron at RAF Filton deploying 24 balloons around the Bristol Airplane Company works and No.951 Squadron, which operated from 3 Caledonia Place, Clifton, covering the City Docks complex with a further 40 balloons.

Notwithstanding the sterling service given between June 1940 and July 1941, during which period six balloon operators in the Bristol area had lost their lives due to enemy action, by the end of the year the reduced threat from German raiders coupled with a manpower shortage was leading to the amalgamation of balloon squadrons throughout the country. Locally, this process began on January 14th 1942 when No. 951 Squadron was absorbed by No.927 Squadron and later in the year in a further attempt to solve the personnel shortage, the enlarged squadron began to receive WAAF operators to replace the men. The first three trained female balloon crews arrived on August 13th and by early 1943 women had taken control of a number of Bristol's sites. Shortly after, the amalgamation process reached its ultimate conclusion, No.935 Squadron joining with No.927 on April 14th to form the strangely titled No. 927/935 Squadron, the headquarters of which was established at 'Drinagh', Sneyd Park. This unit continued to fly the local barrage until July 12th 1944, by which time the raids on the West Country had ended enabling much of the equipment and a number of personnel to be transferred to South East England to counter the 'Flying Bomb' menace.

Although the barrage balloons around Bristol failed to bring down any enemy aircraft, they certainly did much to prevent accurate shallow dive bombing taking place and therefore probably saved a number of important facilities from destruction. Their main disadvantage, however, was the danger they posed to RAF aircraft and during 1941 the Filton barrage was responsible for bringing down a Hurricane on February 21st and a Magister on March 2Oth, the pilots of both machines being killed. The Bristol barrage also proved to be hazardous and when a Wellington bomber flew into a balloon cable in the north of the city on April 3Oth 1941 three of its crew perished in the subsequent crash in St Andrew's Park.

Reproduced with permission
from John Penny