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Author Topic: Barrage Balloons in Medway  (Read 19886 times)

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Offline peterchall

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Re: Barrage Balloons in Medway
« Reply #31 on: July 24, 2012, 08:45:31 »
Apologies, Maid of Kent, I must have read your direction of movement the wrong way round.

The fact that the balloons you saw were in one specific direction - over the river - suggests that they were connected with No 952 Squadron based at Sheerness, mostly with waterborne balloons. Can you remember how many there were and how high they flew?
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Offline Maid of Kent

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Re: Barrage Balloons in Medway
« Reply #30 on: July 23, 2012, 21:47:37 »
It was BEFORE October 1943 that I remember seeing the Barage Balloons over the Medway. Visulising it as best as I can after all these long years, they seemed very big and quite close, not as far over as Grain, more as though they were off what was the council tip or Copperhouse fort area

Offline otis

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Re: Barrage Balloons in Medway
« Reply #29 on: July 03, 2012, 11:37:43 »
I may have found the link that explains the change of heart between the rather complacent stance to the use of balloons over the estuaries in my document dated 13/10/39 ( ...that the balloon defence of Chatham would be an unacceptable embarrasment to the London and Medway defences ....), and that of 2 months later where the First Sea Lord is fuming over the lack of balloons.

On the 23rd November 1939 the destroyer HMS Gipsy was destroyed by a mine off Harwich. This was an embarrasment as the mine was beleived laid by a low-flying German seaplane, that dropped several mines in the swept channel. Despite there being a large number of AA weapons at Harwich, none of them fired soon enough. It may have been they did not identify the aircraft as hostile.

An irony is that the destroyer was alledged to have been at sea picking up 3 shot down German airmen, which may have been the crew who dropped the mine.

So the First Sea Lord would ( at this time ) have been far more concerned about the protection of his valuable ships than saving the blushes of the RAF strategy and Army gunners.

"there was more hit than miss about this arbitrary bombardment"

Offline peterchall

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Re: Barrage Balloons in Medway
« Reply #28 on: June 30, 2012, 23:48:15 »
More information on the run-down of Balloon Command, from ‘Royal Air Force Handbook’ by Chaz Bowyer. A reduction in the size of Balloon Command began in January 1943 and WAAF operators were progressively re-mustered to other trades. The WAAF trade of Balloon Operator was abolished in 1944. Balloon Command was disbanded on 5 February 1945.

This photo confirms that standard LZ balloons were used on barges:

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Offline peterchall

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Re: Barrage Balloons in Medway
« Reply #27 on: June 30, 2012, 11:53:51 »
Thanks  :)
So 952’s activities in the Thames Estuary was not a diversion from convoy escort but was its originally intended task, and a barrier from Southend to Sheppey would automatically protect the Medway Estuary as well.

If MBBF duties by Q Flight started in August 1940, it was presumably by using extra balloons and personnel, because the Thames Barrier operation continued until December 1941. Also presumably, the faculties used for that were then transferred to MBBF operations, which must have made it one of the largest balloon squadrons. The 40 balloon strength that has been quoted relates to August 1940 – are there any details of its later strength?

Regarding my reference to 960 Squadron moving to Canterbury in 1944, it was not a mis-print. But since it has nothing to do with the Medway, I will start a separate thread.

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Offline HERB COLLECTOR

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Re: Barrage Balloons in Medway
« Reply #26 on: June 29, 2012, 23:21:46 »
Some more information on 952 (Thames Barrage) Squadron from; 'What Did happen to Amy Johnson?' by Roy Nesbit, Aeroplane Monthly Jan & Feb 1988. The ref given is PRO air 27/2300 952 (Thames Barrage) Squadron Nov 1939-Dec 1941.
"Before the war, it was recognised that all estuaries leading to large ports and cities in Britain provided avenues through which enemy bombers could fly at low level to drop their loads accurately on targets. Something had to be done to close these gaps in the balloon defences and arrangements were made to fly the standard balloons, known as "low zone" balloons, from static barges moored in the estuaries. In the Thames Estuary, 32 barges were moored between 00o 43' East and 00o 54' East, a band of sea seven miles wide between Southend-on Sea on the north bank to Sheerness on the south bank. Each barge flew only one balloon. However, it was soon found that the barges could not weather the rough seas at the far entrance to the estuary, and the plan was modified in December 1939. East of a line running south from Shoeburyness, the barges were replaced by drifters, which were small fishing vessels equipped with engines. These were moored at 12 sites across the estuary.
The arrangement within these vessels was a truly British compromise. Each was manned by three or four RAF men to handle the balloon and its winch, while the drifter was under the control of a civilian crew. The civilian captain of each drifter was in command, even to the extent of ordering the RAF men to cut the balloon adrift if necessary. The vessels were too small to bed down the balloons, but these could be close-hauled by winches.
Thus, groups of RAF men were working on barges and drifters in the Thames Estuary, each man usually staying on board for about ten days before being relieved. The vessels were visited regularly by supply boats and they were equipped with radio telephones. They formed part of 953 (Thames Barrage) Squadron.


The Mobile Balloon Barrage Flotilla Squadron was formed soon after the fall of France from a motley collection of French and Belgian vessels. The RAF crews on these vessels formed Q Flight of 952 (Thames Barrage) Squadron. The maiden voyage of the MBBF was on the 4 Aug 1940.
"At first, the balloons were flown at a height of 3,500ft, but the German fighters simply shot them down while out of range of defensive fire, enabling the Stuka dive-bombers to destroy many merchant vessels. The operating height was then brought down to about 2,000ft, with the shells set to burst 500ft above them."

The Amy Johnson connection.
On January 5 1941, Amy was flying an Airspeed Oxford from Squires Gate to Oxfordshire. Lost in bad weather, she spotted some barrage balloons flying above cloud.
"At 1010hr on December 17, 1940," a German mine "exploded underneath the balloon drifter 'Carry On' 92 tons, which disintegrated. All the civilian seamen and the RAF men on board were killed. Other mines were suspected and......it was decided to evacuate the men from six other drifters.......the balloons.......were left flying from the abandoned vessels."
It was these balloons that Amy had seen. Unable to see the ground and thinking she was over land, with no wireless and running out of fuel, she decided to bale out. She came down near convoy CE21, sailing from Southampton to the Thames Estuary, the convoy escorted by 5 Mobile Balloon Barrage vessels.
Lt Cdr Walter E. Fletcher RN, captain of HMS Haslemere, mobile MBBF vessel, attemted to rescue Amy, but both he and Amy lost their lives.
See Amy Johnson @ http://www.kenthistoryforum.co.uk/index.php?topic=565.0. Particularly Paul's link.
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Offline peterchall

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Re: Barrage Balloons in Medway
« Reply #25 on: June 29, 2012, 12:11:33 »
A potted history, based on
http://www.bbrclub.org/1940%20Status.htm
http://www.rafweb.org/Sqn900.htm
Plus other sources and books.

Nationally:
Balloon Command existed from 1/11/1938 to February 1945.
It was divided into Barrage Balloon Groups, all having roughly the same life span. Groups were divided into Balloon Centres, and the only new ones to be formed after the initial set-up, to operate the Anti-Diver Belt, were:
No 22 Balloon Centre, Biggin Hill, from 19/2/1944 to 20/11/1944
No 23 Balloon Centre, Gravesend, from 1/2/1944 to 15/1/1945
No 24 Balloon Centre, Redhill, from 1/2/1944 to 15/1/1945.

No new home based squadrons formed after August 1940, except for No 954, based at Cobham, Surrey, in 1943/1944, for the defence of Brooklands airfield.

The Balloon Training School closed in 1943 and many squadrons disbanded from late 1943 onwards. Some were re-formed in 1944, with crews drawn from existing squadrons, to operate the Anti-Diver Belt.

The main reason claimed for the existence of the balloons was that they kept enemy aircraft high and within the field of fire of AA guns, hence the few actual successes awarded to them. Others claim they were more of a hazard to our own aircraft. Let the figures speak for themselves:
54 enemy aircraft are known to have hit balloon cables, of which 26 were destroyed.
310 friendly aircraft hit balloon cables, of which 129 were destroyed.
The Anti-Diver Belt destroyed approximately 300 of the 4261 land-launched V1s destroyed by all the defences.

Kent
Kent Squadrons came under No 1 Balloon Centre, Kidbrooke.

No 952 Squadron formed at Sheerness in November 1939 and had a strength of 8 land based and 32 waterborne balloons by August 1940. From the minutes of the meetings in Otis’s Reply#18 it seems to have had a strength of only 8 waterborne ballons over the winter of 1939/1940, which were used to defend the Yantlet Dredged Channel from December 1939 to early 1940 (Minsterboy’s Reply#5). The RAF’s objection to balloons over the Thames and Medway, and the Navy’s complaints that those authorised had not materialised, leads to the impression that the squadron was always intended as a convoy escort unit. The 8 land based balloons were presumably for the defence of Sheerness.

No 961 Squadron was formed at Dover in July 1940 with 16 land based and 8 waterborne balloons. I can find no mention of it ever having moved, and it seems to have existed until the disbandment of Balloon Command.

The second website listed above has this entry:
No 960 Squadron:
24 (16 waterborne) balloons in August 1940.
February 1940 to pre-December 1943, Lyness, Orkney.
1944 – Canterbury.
Is this a typing error, and this squadron supplied 8 land based balloons after the Canterbury blitz of 1942?

Two other squadrons operated by No 1 Balloon Centre were: 901 at Abbey Wood, and 902 at Kidbrooke. I don't think either of those were in Kent, even before the transfer of territory from Kent to London.

And that, so far as I can make out, is it, although I obviously can’t claim not to have missed something.
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Offline peterchall

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Re: Barrage Balloons in Medway
« Reply #24 on: June 28, 2012, 15:10:20 »
There was a veritable armada of vessels based at Sheerness, including ‘Channel Mobile Barrage Balloon Vessels’, ‘MkVI Balloon Maintenance Vessels’,  and ‘Kite Balloon Vessels’ – the small balloons like those in my photo were MkVI, also called ‘Kite Balloons’. Apart from the ‘Channel Mobile Balloon Barrage Vessels’, the other types are also listed at other bases. So, added to Seafordpete’s statement, it confirms the smaller balloons were in use that early in the war.

With 32 waterborne of a total of 40, I get the impression that Sheerness’s function was to supply balloons to convoys, and that the need to protect the Yantlet Dredged Channel was an unwelcome diversion. The only other comparable base was Hull, with 24/42, and next was Birkenhead with 12/52.

Besides the above there were, if I counted correctly, 12 other locations with waterborne balloons, varying from 3 to 10 (In Kent, Dover had 8/24) and, with one exception, they were all at coastal ports, probably with the waterborne ones out over breakwaters and harbour entrances, etc. The one exception was Dagenham, with 3/45. Source: The link in Reply #8

Regarding the First Sea Lord’s anger mentioned in the document in Otis’s post, could it be that at a previous meeting the army and navy had voted against the RAF and the decision was that the Estuary would get balloons? But, as the guy responsible for providing them, would the Chief of Air staff then have dragged his feet over supplying balloons for ‘fixed’ defence of either the Thames or Medway, bearing in mind what was stated at the meeting of 13/10/39?
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seafordpete

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Re: Barrage Balloons in Medway
« Reply #23 on: June 28, 2012, 14:31:50 »
I'm not offended, I just commented and the 100ft I typed should have been 1000  :)

Minsterboy

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Re: Barrage Balloons in Medway
« Reply #22 on: June 28, 2012, 13:51:12 »
Peter, there was no offence taken, I just felt that my bit didn't give many answers and was just explaning why.

seafordpete

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Re: Barrage Balloons in Medway
« Reply #21 on: June 28, 2012, 12:49:30 »
"Mind you, if they were putting Balloons in the Yantlet Dredged Channel to stop the low flyers, then why not have them in the Medway Estuary ?"

Prime use of ballons was to stop low flying attacks but also to force aircraft up high so the guns could get them, easier to lock onto a taget at 100ft at 200mph than 50ft at the same speed.
Kite balloons on & for  ships  were in use at Newhaven from late 1940  so presumably the same elsewhere. According to a Wren I spoke to the skippers hated them as they gave a long distance marker for the ship, visible before the ship was.

Offline peterchall

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Re: Barrage Balloons in Medway
« Reply #20 on: June 28, 2012, 12:22:00 »
Minsterboy, I hope I didn’t seem critical of you regarding not knowing the locations of other balloon sites on Sheppey – I certainly wasn’t, and agree about the ease of getting information from the internet today. On the other hand, I wonder if it hasn’t become too easy to feed stuff into the system, making it less reliable.

Otis, your 2nd post is of an earlier document by the Chief of Air Staff, so looking at that first it states that the ADGB Sub-Committee found that balloons in the Thames Estuary interfered with radar ( Odd that, because the Thames Estuary was one place where we know balloons were situated). Also, C-in-C of Fighter Command confirms the view of the ADGB Sub-Committee that balloons at Chatham would be unacceptable. The writer ends by asking his colleagues (presumably the navy and army chiefs) to support this view. We don’t know the result of that, but my guess is that the army chief had to make the casting vote on an issue that didn’t really concern him, AA Command being under the operational command of Fighter Command, and would back the one who knew most about it – the airman. On the other hand he would be trying to stop soldiers and guns being drained away from his front-line army, so would be happy to have AA guns replaced by balloons. My conclusion = I dunno :)

Your post of the later document:
Paragraph 2 concerned there being only 8 balloons of the 50 authorised for the Thames Estuary (a fact that the First Lord had just discovered while he was at Chatham). My conclusion = Despite the RAF’s opposition to balloons in the Thames Estuary (see above), someone higher up (who?) had authorised them. (Strength of No952 Squadron = 8 landbased and 32 waterborne, making total of 40, not 50, balloons?)

Last paragraph: I don’t see what the airman was getting at in saying that the estuaries (both Thames and Medway?) were now an artillery zone, unless it was to suggest that balloons were not need. All the balloons had been sent to Chatham, but the barges were not available for them - so they must have been intended to be waterborne (See note*). To me that suggests they were sent to the Dockyard to be installed, not that they were going to be deployed at Chatham. But the report that 7 caught fire is puzzling, because it implies that they were in the air – how so? Did the barges eventually become available and the system was being tested;  being early days was the earthing - vital for balloon winches - faulty?

A thought about waterborne balloons in a river: I can understand it for the Thames Estuary, which was virtually open-sea and was the reason for the construction of the AA forts. But surely the Medway at Chatham is narrow enough to have been protected by land based balloons on its banks, and the more complicated waterborne system would not have been needed.

Note: I don't think that the smaller, rigid tailed balloons, specifically designed to be waterborne, had then been introduced, so presumably the larger standard balloon was used.
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Offline otis

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Re: Barrage Balloons in Medway
« Reply #19 on: June 28, 2012, 08:07:50 »
...and this. So was someone persistant getting what they wanted ?
"there was more hit than miss about this arbitrary bombardment"

Offline otis

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Re: Barrage Balloons in Medway
« Reply #18 on: June 28, 2012, 08:01:26 »
Here is what I must have seen. It says Chatham, though whether it means Sheerness ?

Mind you, if they were putting Balloons in the Yantlet Dredged Channel to stop the low flyers, then why not have them in the Medway Estuary ?
"there was more hit than miss about this arbitrary bombardment"

Minsterboy

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Re: Barrage Balloons in Medway
« Reply #17 on: June 28, 2012, 07:04:32 »
Unfortunately the details in my little article about Barrage Balloons from 1985 were a bit lacking in detail but in those days we didn't have the internet and stuff had to be gleaned from whatever written material and reports that one could find. When I look at historical stuff that I wrote back in the 1980's its amazing how much it has been superceded by the depth of information now availablefrom the comfort of an armchair with a laptop.

I remember when I wrote my History of Aviation on Sheppey back then, that to get information that takes 10 mins now, involved a long drive up to the Public Records Office at Kew and all day going through numerous records to end up with just one or two sheets of notes.

 

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