Barrage ballon being inflated 111038 CREDIT BARRATTSEMPICS VIA PA
Aviation History

Barrage Balloons: The RAF Squadrons That Defended WWII Britain

The Royal Air Force's Balloon Command operated from 1938 until 1945.

Barrage ballon being inflated 111038 CREDIT BARRATTSEMPICS VIA PA

Barrage balloons helped to defend cities, ports and industrial areas (Picture: Barretts via PA).

Balloon Command operated the UK's barrage balloon defences during the Second World War.

It was formed on 1 November 1938 and based at RAF Stanmore, Middlesex, under the control of Fighter Command.

The unit was headed by Air Vice Marshall OT Boyd with the title of Air Officer Commanding.

In July 1940, at the start of the Battle of Britain, Balloon Command consisted of 1,466 balloons, including around 450 over London.

The balloons played a significant role in Britain's anti-aircraft defences, as they restricted the freedom of German aircraft, often forcing them to fly different routes to a particular target and into anti-aircraft fire.

Furthermore, the balloons' highly visible presence boosted the morale of the civilian population.

By 1944, there were several thousand of the balloons.

WAAFs being instructed on mooring barrage balloons
Members of the Women's Auxiliary Air Force receive a lecture on mooring a barrage balloon (Picture: PA).

During the Second World War, Balloon Command was organised into five groups in the UK. Each group was responsible for individual Balloon Centres in that region, which in turn were made up of balloon squadrons (nearly 100 in total).

The five groups making up the command were:

  • No 30 Group, with its headquarters in Chessington, Surrey;
  • No 31 Group, with its headquarters in Birmingham;
  • No 32 Group, with its headquarters in Claverton, Somerset;
  • No 33 Group, with its headquarters in Sheffield, Yorkshire;
  • No 34 Group, with its headquarters in Edinburgh.

Why were balloons used?

Barrage balloons were primarily placed on the edge of an area which needed defending.

They were on average about 62 feet long and 25 feet in diameter and were sent up to heights of 5,000 feet to force bombers to fly higher.

This increased altitude made enemy aircraft less accurate and brought them within range of the anti-aircraft guns.

However, there were obvious disadvantages to any barrage as the balloons also provided an obvious bomb aiming aid to the enemy, by highlighting the very areas they were meant to defend.

Barrage balloons over Surrey hills
Barrage balloons over Surrey in 1944 (Picture: EMPICS via PA).

Who served in the unit?

Balloon Command also had the distinction of training large numbers of women.

In 1940, it was decided to train members of the Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) instead of male operators to relieve more men for active duty.

In May 1941, the first batch of WAAF volunteers began a 10-week training course.

By December 1942, 10,000 men had been replaced by some 15,700 WAAF balloon operators.

In Autumn 1944, the use of barrage balloons finished in the UK, with Balloon Command being disbanded in February 1945.

Sources: Barrage Balloon Reunion Club, RAF Lincolnshire Info, Anne Frank Guide, RAF Museum, Nevington War Museum.

Landing craft, barrage balloons and allied troops landing at Normandy on D-Day
Barrage balloons featuring during the D-Day landings on 6 June 1944 (Picture: US Maritime Commission).