Purpose of this blog

Dmitry Yudo aka Overlord, jack of all trades
David Lister aka Listy, Freelancer and Volunteer

Sunday, February 28, 2021

Balloon Attack

From the title you may have guessed that we’ll be talking about the offensive use of balloons. Immediately you’re thinking of the Japanese balloon weapons, however, that’s rather unlike me. So here is the story of British attack balloons. 

RAF Balloon Command in operation

Around 1935 England started to slowly re-arm and prepare for war. One of these re-armaments was the Barrage Balloon. Balloons had the advantages that they were very very cheap, quick to spread about and were highly visible to the population. The latter enabled the civilians to feel that measures were being taken to protect them, and improved morale. Of course, there were down sides. If one got loose it could theoretically cause havoc, then someone thought of the newly installed power grid (the UK was electrified in the early 1920’s). Thus in 1937 a study was carried out into the effect of a balloon’s cables hitting a power line. The effects seemed justified, as balloons became more and more common, many slipped their moorings and floated into power lines. This prompted a barrage of complaints to the head of Balloon Command from power distributors.  

Then in overnight between the 17th-18th September 1940 there was a storm with gale force winds. As this occurred at the height of the Battle of Britain the RAF’s Balloon Command was fully deployed. Several of the balloons were carried away in the strong winds, luckily most were swept out over the North Sea never to be heard of again.

But then a few days later reports began to filter back to the UK. The balloons had landed in Scandinavia, with at least five reaching Finland. The trailing cables had wreaked havoc on Denmark and Sweden, knocking out power lines, disrupting railways and one balloon even collided with the antenna of the Swedish international radio station. It is no surprise that the UK Government’s eyes lit up with an idea. If they’d caused this much damage by accident, with a system that cost just 35 shillings, imagine what they could do if they went at the problem deliberately. This was an even starker comparison when you consider the cost and ineffectiveness of Bomber Command’s night-time offensive.

Now, this would not be a British wartime story if as usual modern commentators had not got their projects mixed and confused. In September 1940 the Department for Miscellaneous Weapon Development (DMWD) started proposing an idea for free barrage balloons. These would be aimed at oncoming streams of German bombers, by launching them down wind of a calculated intercept point. They would then drift into the German bomber stream causing havoc and hopefully knocking loads of bombers out of the sky. In December 1940 this defence scheme became operational under the codename Operation Albino. It continued until November 1941, but was discontinued due to a variety of reasons, not least lack of success and lack of German bombers. Modern websites often seem to conflate the DMWD scheme to the later offensive scheme as the same weapon, so if you’re reading up on this later, be cautious!

Image captioned to be of Operation Outward launching site.

Anyway, while the DMWD was lobbing balloons at German bombers there was a bit of a bun fight going on over the offensive side of things. The Air Ministry was dead set against the idea, claiming it was a waste of time, resources and manpower for no identifiable result. Against that the Admiralty thought it was a great idea. The Air Ministry also was concerned about German retaliation in kind. But a study proved that the most common weather patterns were in the UK’s favour. Eventually, the Admiralty won out, and repurposed balloons from Operation Albino, which was being wound up. This may have been the key to getting the Air Ministry to relent as it meant that resources already spent were being shifted from a defensive to an offensive role.

The offensive campaign was codenamed Operation Outward, with the first launches on the 20th March 1942. Upon release the balloons had a slow burning fuse to trigger them over Germany. The balloons used were of two types. The first unfurled a wire hoping to cause damage to electrical systems. The second was an incendiary device designed to cause forest fires. The incendiary devices came in three versions, codenamed Beer, Jelly and Sock. These were actually bad codenames as they related to the contents of the incendiary load. Beer was six self-igniting phosphorus bottles, identical in concept to the No74 SIP grenade. Jelly was a 1 gallon can of jellied incendiary compound which could produce a fireball 20ft across. Socks were, well, cloth ‘socks’ filled with treated wood wool which had a fuse at either end. These were designed to drape over the upper branches of a tree and then burn for fifteen minutes. 

A pair of 'socks' attached to a Outward Balloon

Soon after launches started happening news stories began to reach the British of fires in German forests and other encouraging reports, including that the Luftwaffe was attempting to shoot the balloons down, wasting resources that could be better used elsewhere. One incident happened near Leipzig, on the 12th July 1942, when a wire balloon hit a high voltage power line. The surge protector failed to trigger, and the short circuit caused a massive fire. This fire destroyed the Bohlen power station, which it was estimated cost of one million pounds.

Damage to Bohlen power station

However, there was a downside. In a weird parallel to today and the arguments about autonomous weapon systems, both Switzerland and Sweden took damage from these balloons. Possibly the most notable incident was on the night of 19th-20th February 1944 when a wire balloon scored a direct hit on the lighting system of a railway line, knocking it out completely. The only problem was this was in Sweden. Things went worse when two trains collided in the darkness.

From the start of the project until February 1944 some 96,625 balloons were launched. From Feb 1944 until the project was stopped in September 1944 only a further 6,517 were sent on their way. The reason for halting operations was the state of the war. Allied air superiority meant that the weapons were potentially causing trouble for Allied air crews. Equally, at this point the Allies were nearing the borders of the Reich and so were entering the target zone of the weapon. Of the weapons launched the split was nearly 50/50 between wire and incendiary with 54,599 wire weapons, and the rest of the 99,142 being incendiary types. This number also gives another reason to stop the bombardment. Only about 100,000 balloons had been manufactured for Operation Albino. The cost of Operation Outward was just £220,000. Compared to that was the total disruption of the German electrical grid. A 1946 report showed that electrical faults became so common after 1943 that the Germans stopped recording them. From the incomplete records it was estimated that the balloons had directly done about one and a half million pounds worth of damage. Thus, from a purely economical point of view it was a success. It is likely that constant power disruptions meant a far higher degree of problems for the Germans than the cost figure would show. Imagine what a power outage would do to German production, or to radar or AA gun laying during a Bomber Command attack. For such a simple idea, that had so much success it is odd almost no one knows about it today.


Thank you for reading. If you like what I do, and think it is worthy of a tiny donation, you can do so via Paypal (historylisty-general@yahoo.co.uk) or through Patreon. For which I can only offer my thanks. Or alternatively you can buy one of my books.