Barrage Balloons


Spot the Barrage Balloon
over Wandsworth Common

(Click on image to enlarge)

A while ago I was looking closely at an aerial view of Wandsworth Common (taken by the RAF in 1941) when I noticed something odd. (Actually, there are LOTS of odd things in this photograph, but let's discuss them another time.)

What I saw was a balloon far below me.

Can you find it?

Aerial view of the north of Wandsworth Common, 1941. To get your bearings, notice Wandsworth Prison at the bottom point.
Much of the Common is given over to allotments (as discussed in August's Chronicles), but also various enigmatic defensive structures (for example on the Bolingbroke Grove side).
Can you spot the balloon?
[Answer at the foot of the page.]
(Click on image to enlarge)

Intrigued, I looked around for more info. On Saturday 8 October 1938, the Daily Mirror reported the erection across London of a "web of death" — a balloon barrage. Wandsworth Common was included.

As the article makes clear, the intention of the day's exercise was to reassure Londoners that effective measures were being taken to protect them, and to act as an ultimately visible advert to bring in more recruits.

(Click on image to enlarge)


London's "Web of Death" for attacking aircraft. The balloon barrage of the Auxiliary Air Force will go up today for its first large-scale exercises.

Zero hour for the Barrage men will be 8 o'clock this morning when the balloons will be placed in position at central and suburban areas. The balloons will be inflated with hydrogen at about 10 a.m. and will come down again at 6 p.m. The exercises will give Londoners their first opportunity of seeing the barrage at work, and will be a means of recruiting men for the balloon squadrons.

An Air Ministry official said to the Daily Mirror "Men within the age limits of twenty-five and fifty are urgently needed to help in the spreading of a web of death in the sky against enemy aircraft attacks.

"We hope that what London will see will impress on the minds of the public how great a part the Balloon Barrage will be playing in the defence of London.

"We still need thousands of recruits for the 6,000 at which we aim, and we are expecting a rush on all recruiting centres tomorrow."

From every point from which the balloons will be flown the general public will be allowed to get close views of the work. Private air pilots are warned not to fly anywhere in the neighbourhood; the balloons will be flying at any height, says the Air Ministry.



Winch tenders carrying hydrogen cylinders will speed through the centre of London all tomorrow. The exercises will not be the complete barrage planned for London, but a mass demonstration of a "steel net air defence."

In time of war the balloons will be disposed round London and flown at points over the Metropolis.

They will be loaded on lorries, which carry the winches, and will thus possess great mobility.

Conditions of service in the Balloon Barrage Squadrons are, in general, the same as those for the aeroplane squadrons of the Auxiliary Air Force.

Applicants in receipt of disability retired pay or disability pensions cannot be acepted. Recruits are required for balloon operation and. maintenance. Technical trades of the squadrons include balloon riggers, fabric workers, lorry and winch drivers, and hydrogen workers.

The following Balloon Barrage Squadrons are open for recruitment:

Nos. 901, 902 and 903 (County of London) Squadrons, No. 1 Balloon Centre, Kidbrooke, London, S.E.; No. 904 and No. 905 (County of Surrey) Squadrons, No. 2 Balloon Centre, Mansfield-road, Hook, Surbiton, Surrey.

Nos. 906 and 907 (County of Middlesex) Squadrons, No. 3 Balloon Centre, Stanmore Park, Middlesex; Nos. 908, 909 and 910 (County of Essex) Squadrons, No. 4 Balloon Centre, Chigwell, Essex.

[BNA: Link; continued Link.]

Barrage balloons go up over London (1938—39)

Here are some striking images from contemporary cinema news shorts.

"Hundreds of these fat fellows dangling almost invisible chains will build an impenetrable wall of steel around our cities. Here is one over the Quadriga at Hyde Park Corner..."

Stills from Gaumont British/Pathe News: "Barrage balloons go up over London" (1938).

Here's another short, from the following year:

"London sees balloon barrage test", Pathe News footage from 1939.
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And take a look at this fabulous film, nicely AI enhanced and colorised, showing central London later in the war:

At 8mins 45secs a balloon rises above the Houses of Parliament. The scene then shifts to Hyde Park. With its mix of camouflaged huts, weaponry and balloons, I imagine Wandsworth Common looked much the same during the war. At 16:10 another balloon goes up near the Tower of London/Tower Bridge.
You can view the film on YouTube here.

The balloons, each tethered on a steel wire, would either be lined up in a protective ring around the perimeter of the capital (hence "barrage"), or distributed across the entire area.

"Perimeter Balloon Barrage"
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"Field Sited Balloon Barrage"
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Incoming enemy planes would be forced to rise above the balloons or risk being struck.

"The Cable and the Bomber / Lethal Cables"
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In theory (and to a degree in practice) dive-bombing specific targets would become harder for enemy planes, and fuel consumption increased (particularly for heavily laden bombers). At greater altitudes, planes were easier to track, increasing the effectiveness of ground fire from anti-aircraft guns.

The barrage was probably not as successful as hoped, though it definitely boosted morale. But later in the war the balloons were remarkably effective against unpiloted V1 flying bombs ("Doodlebugs").

London County Council map of the northern part of Wandsworth Common showing bomb and fire damage.
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The exercise in October 1938 did not go entirely smoothly, as the South Western Star reported a few days later:

"Balloon breaks away on Clapham Common..."

Pilots warned "that the balloons would be flown at any height in an area which included Putney Bridge and Clapham and Wandsworth Commons..."

(Click on image to see complete article)


Balloon Breaks Away at Clapham Common

The balloon barrage demonstration on attracted much attention in the boroughs of Battersea and Wandsworth. An unexpected incident was that a balloon above Clapham Common broke away as also did two others further east. The balloon from Clapham Common was caught by onlookers at Stockwell and anchored to some garden railings. These were bent and partly uprooted by the strain, but they held the runaway until an army lorry arrived and towed it back.

Another balloon which broke loose from its winch at Lambeth had a short spell of freedom. Its cable, dragging over the roofs, became entangled in the superstructure or a factory roof and was held firm long enough for members of the crew to climb up and secure it.

[BNA: Link]

[View the complete article, and a transcription, here....]

I'm not sure whether women were involved in the 1938 exercises (the article above only mentions men), but by the time Laura Knight painted this splendid image in 1943 they certainly were:

Laura Knight, A Balloon Site (1943). (Imperial War Museum Catalogue No. Art.IWM ART LD 2750.) A barrage balloon being hoisted into position by WAAF women in blue overalls. The image is of Coventry — not, alas, Wandsworth or Battersea. But I'm sure the scene must have been much the same here.
For more on how they functioned, see e.g. Dorothy Brannan's memories of flying barrage balloons
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I've started to trawl through people's recollections of Wandsworth Common during the war for references to balloons.

Here are some I've found in the wonderful WW2 People's War: An archive of World War Two memories — written by the public, gathered by the BBC:

Joan Stay's story

Bombs continued to rain down, criss-crossing searchlights lit up the sky at night and the anti-aircraft fire was fearsome. Firemen and air raid wardens did what they could to protect the city.

Large balloons appeared in the sky which were called barrage balloons. They were elongated, grey shapes like inflated elephants attached to thick wire ropes to trap unwary, low flying enemy aircraft.

Marlene's story

As we lived so near to the Common, we could see the great barrage balloons rising up against the skyline, like huge silver saucers, which seemed to cover the whole of London. Their cables were designed to stop low flights.

Many of the operators were women who valiantly kept them afloat. Sometimes one of these balloons had to be cut free in bad weather and we would gleefully watch them crash into chimney pots or into the trolley bus cables overhead!

As soon as we saw these operators getting ready for the launch, we knew that we had about twenty minutes before the raids started, giving us time to collect our possessions together.

Diana Wilkinson's story

I didn't like the barrage balloons overhead, they were intimidating. I remember playing on swings in the local playground and asking my mother about them. She explained what they were for and I felt a bit happier. She also told me time and again not to pick up any bits of metal lying in the streets.

Stan Chicott's story

Then of course we had the blitz which was horrendous.

All I can remember really was what was happening on Wandsworth Common which was quite close to me. First of all they put up a balloon barrage unit, with the cylinders and the great big balloon and the winch to winch it up into the sky to try and stop the bombers.

Then they dug trenches right across the field to stop the planes landing with troops in.

And then of course we had the Home Guard, which was slightly later in the war, and all these guys used to turn up to Wandsworth Common and they used to do their field exercises.

Then you had, say, about twenty Home Guard crawling through the bushes with their rifles, followed by about forty little boys crawling after 'em. And I must confess I was one the little boys.

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I sent an early draft of this essay to my old friend Hugh Betterton, knowing he'd grown up more or less directly under the balloon (in a house on West Side now demolished).

What I'd forgotten is that he is the youngest of his family — and it turned out that not only did his siblings remember the war, but his father had been actively involved with barrage balloons.

Hugh Betterton (born 1949):

My father was in RAF and looked after barrage balloons on Myatt's Field in Camberwell. I believe that my mother visited him on occasions and my sister claims that our mother walked from there back to Wandsworth while an air raid was happening... knowing my mother, I would believe that!

Trevor Betterton (b.1936):

The site on Wandsworth Common was part of 904 Squadron, Auxiliary Air Force, formed in March 1938.

The squadron had numerous sites around south west London, one of them opposite 26 West Side, the personnel were housed in 1 Trefoil Road.

I seem to remember Dad was based at Clapham at some time in 1939.

904 Sqn was embodied in 2 Balloon Command, Royal Air Force, on 6 August 1939.

Dad joined 904 Squadron in November 1938. He went on to become an Airfield Controller in 1942.

Janet Paul (nee Betterton, b.1934) :

I remember the balloons well! But you must remember that I was only six when the war broke out, so I suppose I just accepted these strange happenings. I used to play on that bit of the common, but I suppose that stopped. Can't remember how long they were there. Was it until 1945?

I do remember the later years of the war more clearly — going to Dinton [Wiltshire] for instance, I think in 1941, because I loved it there with the freedom to paddle in the river at the weekend. I remember the school very well with all the children from 5 to 10 in one large room, and being set to teach the little ones to read. I was 8! Not so clear of the time in Cumberland with Mum's cousin the previous year though.

When I think back, I changed school five times during the war.

Went to All Farthing when I was four and a bit in 1937, then Cumberland in 1940 for a few months, then back, Dinton in 1941 for another few months, but I don't think Mum liked being in the country, so back again and this may have been when I went to a little private school as All Farthing was evacuated, but can't remember how long for.

I am pretty sure that I was back at All Farthing when I was 9 or 10 — 1942/3, and then Putney in 1944. And there must have been hundreds of children who did the same.

The one thing I remember very clearly, which isn't surprising, is running down Trefoil Road on the way home from school and a plane flying overhead and shooting — bullets all over the road! Think that must have been 1942. Suppose it was a German on his way home. But scary!

Graham Jackson replied:

Also refer to my book (A History of Trinity Fields: A Sporting Oasis, bottom two lines on page 97 and page 98), as apparently the Battersea Grammar School section of the Field on the corner of Burntwood Lane and Beechcroft Road was also used as a barrage balloon site.

PB: Thanks, Graham: I'll see if I can spot signs on RAF aerial photos.

Jason Hazeley:

"...all that barrage balloon stuff reminds me to re-watch the wonderful film Hope And Glory (1987), and prompts me to remind you to re-watch it, unless you've never seen it, in which case you really must, because it's GLORIOUS.

There's a sequence in which a barrage balloon comes unmoored and is filmed, effectively, waltzing in the sky. It's one of those moments that cinema does so beautifully. Highly recommended."

Hope and Glory was written, produced and directed by John Boorman, based o his own experiences of growing up in south London during the war. It was released in 1987. It scores a whopping 96% on Rotten Tomatoes.
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PB: Of course! I saw it years ago — but it completely slipped my mind (if I don't write things down, they evaporate - which is why one of the reasons I do these Chronicles).

I'll add your suggestion to the comments, in the hope that others pick up on it too. Plus some links.

View the (not very good) trailer for (the exceptionally good) Hope and Glory here. Plus some clips (including the balloon) here.

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So did you find the balloon in the aerial photo?

Barrage balloon over Trinity Road, 1941.
Detail of original RAF photograph, digitally tweaked by PB. For location, see e.g. Google: Aerial view 2022
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Further reading

There is a considerable literature on barrage balloons, for example:

Wikipedia: Barrage Balloon.

Wikipedia: Barrage Balloon Organisations of the Royal Auxiliary Air Force.

BBC: WW2 People's War: Dorothy Brannan's memories of barrage balloons.

YouTube: Animation showing how balloons worked.

Spartacus Educational: Barrage Balloons.

IanVisits: Unbuilt London: A balloon barrage surrounding the city.

(Click on image to enlarge)

Not about balloons, or Wandsworth Common, but you must read Sue Demont's The Bombing of Battersea: eyewitness accounts of everyday life in Battersea where some 500 civilians lost their lives during World War II and thousands became homeless. Sue weaves the historical record with vivid recollections by men and women who were children in Battersea during the war and shared their stories. Recently reprinted, it is available from the Battersea Society here (49 pages; £5).

I'm collecting material on Wandsworth Common and surrounds during World War Two, so if you know of any Wandsworth or Battersea-related photographs, or accounts, please let me know.


Barrage Balloons over Wandsworth Common

Queen Elizabeth II visits Wandsworth, 1953

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