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Black and white postcard of a Royal Air Force Balloon Barrage at Cardington, Bedfordshire. In the background, the airship hangars which are still there today can be seen.

Barrage Balloons - the nation's defender

Barrage balloons flew above Britain during World War II, becoming an iconic feature of the British skyline

Explore England and Wales on the eve of war

Protection against dive bombers

A number of the types of aircraft used by Nazi Germany during its Blitzkrieg campaigns relied on diving to release bombs accurately. Ju-87 Stuka dive bombers even had special sirens fitted to their wings to increase the noise produced when diving to strike fear into those on the ground. To counter this low-flying threat, Balloons were raised with heavy cables designed to destroy low flying aircraft, forcing them up into the effective range of Anti-Aircraft Defences.

Balloons were raised with heavy cables designed to destroy low flying aircraft

Mainly crewed by the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, these balloons were grouped into Squadrons like fighter aircraft. Described by one WAAF as ‘three times the size of a cricket pitch’, the balloons were simple to manufacture and operate, and were often anchored to trucks via a winch that could be used to control the balloon’s height. They were designed to hang in the sky, their anchoring cables and hydrogen filling designed to deter any low flying or attacks on the balloons themselves.

Black and white photo of a W.A.A.F. operators in a hangar. They are all standing still in uniform, with their hands behind their back and in a row as they are reporting for inspection at the end of a day of training. Behind them, the ballons have been tucked away and can be seen floating in the hangar.
Balloons safely tucked away in the hangar for the night. W.A.A.F. balloon operators report for inspection before going off duty after a strenuous day of training on the balloon site. England. Image: Wikicommons

Although ineffective in stopping high level bombers like the He111 and the Do17, the Balloons did force the Stuka into higher flight patterns during the Battle of Britain, making it easier for the RAF and anti aircraft crews to shoot them down. An attempt by the Luftwaffe to break through defences at low level over Dover in 1940 was thwarted by balloons, and one source has Balloons responsible for “102 aircraft crashes in the cables, resulting in 66 crashed or forced landings.”

However, as use of the Stuka declined and the Germans switched to mainly night time raids, so the usefulness of the barrage balloon declined. The balloons did nevertheless find usefulness once again when the first German ‘Vengeance Weapons’, V-1 Rockets, began falling on the United Kingdom in 1944. Designed to fly low to avoid fighter detection, the pilotless V-1s would often blunder into barrage balloons and detonate before finding their target.

Main image: Royal Air Force Balloon Barrage at Cardington, Bedfordshire (note the distinctive airship hangars, which are still there today). Image: Mary Evans / Grenville Collins Postcard Collection

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