Britain’s Bomber Balloon
Against Nazi Germany
British female military auxiliaries handle a barrage
balloon ~ Incendiary sock unit
Between 1942 and 1944, the British Royal Air Force
and Royal Navy frequently got to bickering over a certain issue. It was,
oddly enough, to do with a program pushed by the Royal Navy’s Captain Gerald
C. Banister, Director of Boom Defense to use free-flying, eight foot wide,
hydrogen-filled balloons to sabotage German infrastructure.
The RAF was often concerned about the balloons
interfering with their air operations and rightly so. The German Luftwaffe
was endlessly harassed by these simple devices and to the Admiralty and
British Chief of Staff, that alone was worth the small cost for deploying
these balloons. And the toll on German infrastructure, forests and farmland
was greatly more lucrative to the British war effort.
Mind you, there were also some pretty monumental
accidents with the program, but for the most part, these relatively cheap,
clever and amusing little devices were a delightfully successful tool in
the British arsenal. It was Operation Outward.
The lightbulb of this idea first clicked on
with the Air Vice Marshal of the Balloon Command, who oversaw barrage balloon
operations intended to defend against low-flying Luftwaffe bombers. It
was suggested to launch balloons that would fly into German territory using
radio trackers and triangulation to follow their course. The idea was initially
turned down as, well, silly.
But after a monstrous storm in mid-September
1940, when several barrage balloons came loose, drifted over the North
Sea and reaped havoc on electrical infrastructure in Sweden and Denmark,
Prime Minister Winston Churchill asked that the strategic value of balloon
attacks on Germany be assessed.
The Air Ministry once again deemed the whole
idea rather silly and shot it down (so to say). Captain Banister pushed
the idea through the Admiralty, however, and after studying the factors
carefully, they decided the idea was brilliant.
Here’s what they found: In studying meteorological
concerns, they discovered that the winds above 16,000 ft (needed for such
devices to float the distance and direction from Britain to Germany) almost
always went West to East, meaning the Germans couldn’t retaliate in kind.
Also, the whole apparatus of the balloons and their sabotage devices were
not only relatively cheap (about £85 at current day equivalent),
but could be made almost exclusively with surplus materials.
Women of WRNS launching Outward
balloons at Felixstowe
The rigged-up balloons themselves were designed
thoroughly and with great imagination. Inside surplus eight-foot wide latex
weather balloons filled with hydrogen, the Navy inserted a wire so that
as the balloon rose and continued to expand it would tighten the cable
and stop the ascent at 25,000 ft. (7,600 m). They also added a slow-burning
fuse that was calibrated, using calculated arrival time over Germany, to
activate a slow drip from a can of mineral oil to lighten the balloon’s
load and slow its decent.
The same slow-burning fuse was also rigged
to the balloons’ weapons. These weapons came in two forms: wires and incendiaries.
When the fuse triggered the wire apparatus,
the balloon would drop a 300 ft (91 m), 1.8mm diameter steel wire at the
end of a 700 ft (210 m) hemp cord. The wire would then trail below the
balloon until it (with any luck) struck German power lines, shorting out
the lines and damaging electrical infrastructure to a great degree. These
worked to varying success but certainly succeeded quite frequently.
The incendiary devices came in several forms
and were intended to ignite forests and fields. One design was a metal
canister which contained seven or eight half-pint bottles filled with white
phosphorus, benzene, and a strip of rubber which would melt inside. When
the fuse activated the device, it would tip over and drop the bottles which
would shatter and ignite.
The second kind of device was simply a metal
imperial gallon container filled with jelly that would ignite into a 20
Incendiary sock unit
then there was the incendiary sock, a tube filled with wood wool and coated
in wax which, when dropped, formed a V shape to get it stuck in a tree
where it would then burn down over 15 minutes, hopefully catching the forest
ablaze. Luckily, the Royal Navy already had about 10,000 of these things
just lying around.
The first launch site for Operation Outward
was a golf club in Suffolk in Britain’s Southeast. Over 200 officers and
non-commissioned men and women from the Royal Marines and Women’s Royal
Naval Service, under the command of Boom Defense were responsible for lofting
these little gifts to Germany into the air on days with favorable weather.
They had to coordinate with the Air Ministry, as well, to avoid damaging
British aircraft, which led to the bickering first mentioned.
Between March 20th, 1942 and September 4th,
1944, Operation Outward launched 99,142 balloons, sometimes as much as
1,800 over the course of a few hours.
The results were spectacular, probably bringing
cheeky grins to many faces in the Admiralty.
The first indication of success was chatter
heard in Luftwaffe communications of German pilots chasing down these devilish
balloons. The cost of fuel and wear and tear to their aircraft was already
far outweighing the cost the Royal Navy put into the program.
Throughout the remainder of the war, intelligence
and various news articles in occupied areas like France and Denmark provided
some reports of forest and farm fires and many power outages caused by
shorted wires in Germany. The personnel and material needed to attend to
these situations were far from negligible.
After the war, a report studying German records
concluded the damage done by Operation Outward was, at the very least,
£1.5 million worth (or £49 million in 2016). Of course, records
were both incomplete and not even available from the Russian occupied zone.
Highlights and glaring mistakes from Operation
Outward include: when a wire balloon hit an 110,00-volt line near Leipzig,
Germany in July 1942 causing a transformer failure at the Böhlen power
station which then burned to the ground.
On the other side, one balloon got caught by
a wind and headed for England and knocked out power in the town of Ipswich.
In a grave incident the night of September 19th, 1944, one balloon drifting
over Sweden caused two trains to crash at Laholm.
WAAF preparing a balloon for launch