Barrage balloons and their part in the defence of Britain in WW2
Barrage balloons were a significant contribution to the defence of Britain in the Second World War. This page starts by explaining what they were and how they worked. Then it goes on to add realism with insights from actual experiences with barrage balloons from people alive at the time.
By the webmaster based on information and contributions from older people and research in museums and online
What were barrage balloons
Barrage balloons were large balloons tethered to the ground with long steel cables. They were filled with hydrogen which is lighter than air, so giving the balloons their lift. Three tail fins helped stability. They were used over factories and populated areas in World War Two to create obstacles for German aircraft, forcing them to climb higher, so limiting bombing accuracy. Their steel cables could seriously damage aircraft that flew into them, and they could be raised or lowered to the desired altitude by winches.
Barrage balloons were a common sight in WW2, even for civilians. They were normally kept anchored at parks and military bases during daytime, and at night, they could be seen rising into the air on their cables, swaying in the wind. However, they became obsolete after the war as new and more accurate anti-aircraft technologies were developed. These were also safer as hydrogen, although relatively cheap to produce, is highly flammable.
Sadly I was just too young to see the balloons for myself, but the following insights come from people slightly older than me who did see them.
Operating heights of barrage balloons
The barrage balloons in the image are a screen shot from an old film. They are using dramatic licence in that they are shown the flying misleadingly low. They were actually deployed as high as 1,524 metres.
A cable breaks
A barrage balloon was kept anchored, ready for use in our local park. One very calm summer Sunday afternoon, I saw the balloon slowly drifting off in the direction of some houses. It had a broken mooring cable hanging from its harness. It looked huge as it was probably only about 20 feet high. The broken cable had just enough weight to hold it at that height. Suddenly there arrived a big RAF truck with a winch. The men were grabbing the broken cable and trying to join it with a metal U-bolt shackle. This eventually achieved, they gradually backed back to the park, taking the balloon with them. I always wondered how the cable managed to break as it was quite thick and made of steel.
A cable breaks at night: a menacing monster looms from the blackness
As a young boy in the Second World War, I was living in a house with an outside lavatory. Late one evening, after dark, I went outside to this lavatory. Everywhere was very dark because of the blackout. Suddenly I saw a black shape in front of me. It was really huge, filling neighbours' back gardens as well as ours. It wasn't moving. Lurking would be the best description. I was really frightened; I screamed and burst into tears. My aunties heard and ran outside to bring me in.
Later I found out that it was a barrage balloon that had caught on the school spire. We lived at 29 Millfield Road, Edmonton, and our garden backed onto Silver Street School. So the barrage balloon had wafted into the gardens. Even after this was explained to me, I didn't like going out to the lavatory in the dark anymore.
Why barrage balloons often needed mending
As barrage balloons often got machined gunned by the German bombers and our fighter planes, they needed to be repaired. I saw this being done in our local park. There were hundreds of silver patches all over it.
Possibly the first war damage - caused by a loose barrage balloon
My very first memory was of our chimney suddenly falling down. There wasn't an air raid. What was it? It turned out to be the trailing steel cable of a breakaway barrage balloon which had wrapped itself round our chimney. This was very early in the war, so was possibly the very first example of war damage. I remember vividly my rage at being kept indoors when such exciting things were going on outside!