Harwich Balloon Barrage

Balloon barrages were employed to cover areas of large dimensions which contained a large number of vital points. They furnished protection against low-level bombing, low-flying and dive-bombing attacks. The balloon barrage remained a deterrent in any state of visibility by day or night. They were especially useful in situations in covering an avenue of approach that was difficult to cover with light anti-aircraft guns. They could also reduce the need for the number of light anti-aircraft guns. Balloons themselves, however, required protection since the enemy may attempt to clear an area of balloons as a prelude to low level attacks on important targets. The light anti-aircraft gun and the balloon barrage are therefore, essentially complimentary methods of defence.

During a meeting on November 22nd 1939, the Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Fighter Command, decided that balloon barrages were required for defence against low flying aircraft laying mines in the approaches to Newcastle, Hull and Harwich.

The Harwich barrage required reconnaissance and a party left London on the afternoon of the 22nd to make contact with the Real Admiral in Charge Harwich Naval Base. The problem of defending the Harwich channel was that for most of its length it is narrow and twisting. It would be impossible to route shipping away from mines dropped in the fairway and a continuous defence would be required from Gristle to Cork Light.

Land sited balloons could cover the inner channel but the outer channel could only be defended by water-borne sites. This would require the conversion of barges and lighters to accommodate winches. Until this was possible, the initial plan was to deploy one flight of eight balloons between Landguard Point and Felixstowe Point and a second flight between Harwich Harbour and Dovercourt.

When drifters and barges became available the defence scheme would cover the channel elbow with five barges (where mines had been dropped previously) and the remainder of the channel was to be patrolled by three drifters, each flying one balloon. This was to be found by transferring five of the balloons at Harwich to fixed barges and three on the Felixstowe side to mobile drifters.

Right: The initial plan for the Harwich
Balloon Barrage. It was decided not to
fly balloons from the lighters in the end,
the three balloons instead being flown
from barges to extned the line along
the elbow of the channel.

The balloon barrage was to be formed by the movement of 928 (Balloon) Squadron from Bristol to Felixstowe, with two flights and one flight being detached to Harwich. Squadron and Flight Headquarters were to be based at RAF Felixstowe and one large hanger was taken over for stores, motor transport and balloon air inflation and repairs. Accommodation for crews of the water-borne sites would be found in barracks on site. However, initially accommodation for only half of the crews of the land sites at Felixstowe was available; the rest would have to be accommodated in tents until huts could be provided.

Hydrogen was to be drawn from Cardington. Weather forecasts were to be received from the Meteorological centre at RAF Mildenhall four times a day, while a weather station at Felixstowe was to keep a continuous watch on weather conditions.

On Nov 25th, 928 Squadron was informed that five Dumb Lighters were on their way from London for the fixed water-borne sites. Standard Mk II winches were to be dropped into the hold on a chassis. The barges were to be unmanned due to concerns about them not being suitable to ride out sea conditions in the proposed locations. It was noted that as the barges were unmanned the balloons would be more vulnerable to lighting strikes. Maintenance crews did however visit daily in boats to replenish hydrogen. It was also decided to abandon the part of the scheme which required flying balloons from drifters as it was felt to be too much of a risk with the amount of naval shipping using the channel at night. Instead it was decided to re-position the three balloons onto barges to extend the barge line along the elbow of the channel.

During February 1940, the balloon establishment of 928 Squadron was increased by eight to protect Parkstone Quay and anchorages, and the motor boat anchorages in Felixstowe Dock.

The new balloon deployment was as follows:

  • Flight “A” – 7 land sites on the Felixstowe side
  • Flight “B” – 6 land sites on the Harwich side plus one site at Shotley
  • Flight “C” – 10 barge sites
    • During May 1941 the balloon establishment was again increased from 24 to 32 balloons. The original reason of the barrage, as already stated, was to restrict mine laying in the channel approaching the Harbour. This was now considered to be of secondary importance to the number of naval ships now using Parkstone Quay. The new balloons were to give extra defence to this vital point. Four of the new sites were to be water-borne, one on land at Parkstone Quay and three at Shotley. It was also planned to fly the balloons from manned barges – at present dumb barges or bouys were still being used.

      The use of unmanned barges required that the balloons be flown at 1,000 feet for the safety of bombers operating in the area as there was no guarantee of the balloons being close-hauled at short notice. The First Officer In Charge of Harwich was concerned that flying permanently at this low height reduced protection to the Harbour. The Air Ministry on May 24th confirmed that the new water-borne sites would be on manned barges.

      All balloons flown up to date were L.Z balloons (Low Zone balloons – designed for low barrage work only with an operational height up to 5,000 feet). In addition it was suggested that the Navy would fly two Mk VI balloons (one from an oil tanker permanently moored in the river opposite Shotley Pier and one from the Depot ship “Badger”) but Balloon Command did not agree with personnel from other services manning balloons within barrages established and manned by Balloon Command. At least one Mk VI balloon was delivered to AADC Harwich on January 20th 1942 and flown from site H1.

      Right: Typical Tender Winch for L.Z Ballon. The trailer behind carried the
      gas cylinders to inflate the balloon.

      It has been stated that the Harwich Balloon barrage brought down more friendly planes than hostile (for example, a Hudson hit a cable on 11 March 1942, but managed to land safely at Martlesham) but the purpose of a balloon barrage was to force enemy raiders to fly higher with a resulting loss in bombing accuracy or to deter the enemy altogether. There are a few references in various sources indicating that raiders chose to drop their bombs elsewhere, apparently deterred by the AA defences of Harwich, which included the balloon barrage, so the balloons probably did serve their purpose.

      Following the Baedecker raids against Norwich in April 1942, this town, along with Ipswich and Chelmsford received barrage balloons. Known balloon sites in Ipswich are:

      • Christchurch Park, South end of park
      • Christchurch Park, NE corner
      • Murray Road
      • Gippeswyk Park, NW end of park
      • Gippeswyk east end
      • Holywell Park, Bishops Hill
      • Rope Walk, clearance area
      • Cox Lane, clearance area
      • Heathfields Institute, Woodbridge Road
      • South of Cliff Quay (between Cliff Quay and sewage Works)
      • Valley Road, verge east side
      • Albion Street, Clearance area
      • Barren Hill, south side Sandy Hill Lane by South Eastern School
      • Clapgate Lane tip site
      • Sherrington Road, west side opposite Broom Hill swimming pool
      • Cliff Lane Junior mixed school
      • Northgate School for Girls, Sidegate Lane
      • Western senior school, Marlow Road
      • Stoke Council School Belstead Ave
        • It was not until May 1943 that Lowestoft received barrage balloons following a raid on May 12th, (one of the FW 190 raids) despite repeated pleas in the past. A total of 12 land sites were established, but soon after one balloon was withdrawn.

          References:
          Formation – Harwich Barrage, TNA
          Provision of Additional Balloon Barrages on East Coast, TNA
          The Battle of the East Coast, JP Foynes, 1994
          Fortress Lowestoft, R Jarvis, Heritage Workshop Centre, 2002
          Manual of Anti-Aircraft Defence, Vol. II: Pamphlet No 1 – Principles, Characteristics and Lay-outs, WO, 1940

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