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Sunday, March 09, 2008

Sunday Ship History: Behold the Barrage Balloon!

Take a look at the picture above showing the beach head at the Normandy landings. What do you see? Ships, men, tanks? What about those balloon things above the ships and the beach? Those are barrage balloons and they provide a form of antiaircraft protection to the forces on the beach.

These balloons saw action not just on D-Day, but somewhere- every day during the war -a barrage balloon was being used to defend some vital component of the war machine, from vital harbors, to ship yards, to merchant ships steaming in convoys carrying vital supplies to England, to LSTs landing on the beach heads of the Pacific.

What do we remember about them?

Barrage balloons came into existence during the later stages of World War I, when the British were looking for assistance in reducing the German bombing threat. Steel cables suspended from balloons proved effective in imposing flight limitations on German bombers - limiting altitudes at which they could fly over Britain and closing off certain approaches. As noted in "Barrage Balloons for Low-Level Air Defense" by Major Franklin J. Hillson, USAF, the balloon arrays served multiple purposes:
The barrage balloon was simply a bag of lighter-than-air gas attached to a steel cable anchored to the ground. The balloon could be raised or lowered to the desired altitude by means of a winch. Its purpose was ingenuous: to deny low-level airspace to enemy aircraft. This simple mission provided three major benefits: (1) it forced aircraft to higher altitudes, thereby decreasing surprise and bombing accuracy; (2) it enhanced ground-based air defenses and the ability of fighters to acquire targets,since intruding aircraft were limited in altitudes and direction: and (3) the cable presented a definite mental and material hazard to pilots. Many people think that a barrage balloon system was designed to snare aircraft like a spider web capturing unwary flies. Not so. Any airplanes caught in these aerial nets were a bonus; the real objective of the balloons was to deny low-altitude flight to the enemy. Mindful of these capabilities, the British saw the barrage balloon as a viable means to counter low-level attackers during the world wars.
With the advent of World War II, thousands of barrage balloons appeared in the skies of England and the United States began to develop barrage balloon expertise out of concern about possible air attacks on important assets, including the Panama Canal. See here:
A fourth air defense element, the barrage balloon, received considerable attention but only scant development before the United States entered the war- The Air Corps began work on a barrage balloon in 1938, but more active preparations did not get under way until the beginning of 1941, after reports during the summer and fall of 1940 had indicated the effectiveness of balloons in Great Britain and Germany in interfering with low-level bombardment. After the Air Corps had developed a large and relatively high-altitude-type balloon, the Chief of Staff decided to transfer most barrage balloon activity to the Coast Artillery Corps. When the Coast Artillery took over at the beginning of June 1941, the Army had three barrage balloon companies and just three balloons. But it had tentatively decided to acquire 3,000 more balloons, and plans evolved during the summer and fall of 1941 to expand the barrage balloon force to be used for continental defense purposes alone to eighty-five batteries, each flying thirty-five balloons.54 By 1 November 1941, five battalions of three batteries each were being organized and trained at the Barrage Balloon Training Center at Camp Davis, North Carolina. The Army sent three of these battalions to bolster the air defenses of the west coast soon after the outbreak of war. It also decided to replace the Air Corps type of balloon with the smaller British balloon which, although designed to fly at lower levels, was easier to handle, less expensive to manufacture and operate, and readily procurable.

As one part of the new antiaircraft project approved in the spring of 1942, a maximum of forty balloon battalions of prewar strength for continental defense was to be provided. The number actually employed for this purpose during the war was a little more than one-tenth of this strength, and in the United States balloon battalions were used only at a few west coast locations and at the Sault Ste. Marie Canal.55
Except that the Marines were also working with barrage balloons. And it also ignores the use of barrage balloons in amphibious warfare operations - including D-Day (about which more later).

Merchant ships carried the balloons (and occasionally flew "barrage kites" for the same effect - limiting enemy aircraft attacks).

Little can be found on the web about the Marines use of barrage balloons except for some photographs of Marines wrestling with balloons in training and some side comments about the use of barrage balloons during some Pacific island landings as set out here:

The Coast Guard-manned USS LST-207 ...loaded Marine Corps supplies and departed on 4 November and reached Purvata Island, Bougainville on 6 November 1944..

...After three more resupply echelons had been sent to Bougainville from Guadalcanal in which LST-207 participated, she departed on the 11th of February, 1944, for the invasion of the Green Islands. Stopping at Ondonga Island, New Georgia Islands, she loaded personnel and cargo of the 37th Special Battalion, Navy CBs while enemy planes were bombing an airstrip half a mile away and departed with 250 Navy CBs in convoy for the Green Islands invasion. At 0849 on the 15th she passed into Nissan Island Lagoon and put bulldozers ashore for roadwork. At 0650, two bombers were observed attacking one of the screening destroyers on the 207's port bow. Two near misses were observed. After dropping bombs one of the planes circled and headed toward the convoy and the 207 opened fire with no perceivable damage. Again at 0705 a plane approached astern three miles distant at 12,000 feet and when at 3,000 feet and abeam the LST opened fire. The plane dropped two small bombs about 200 yards out and forward of the vessel and then veered up and away beyond range. Barrage balloons flown at 2,000 feet during the attack and were believed to have caused the bombs to fall too far to starboard, thus missing the vessel.
The crew of one LST saved, in part, by a balloon.

Part of the reason for limited Marine history may lie with this:
Six barrage balloon squadrons were activated starting in October 1941 to play a role in the defensive responsibilities of te FMF. During 1942 two squadrons were dispatched to Samoa, one to Tulugi (served without balloons there) and three squadron by December were located at Noumea...A Marine barrage balloon group headquarters was organized in January 1943 to control the squadrons located there...By December 1943 all six squadrons were deactivated...It had been decided in June 1943 that the Army would relieve the Marines of barrage balloon responsibilities.
As an antiaircraft tool, the balloons sometimes seemed a mixed blessing, as set out here:
Barrage balloons for LSTs, which had been used in the Sicilian landings that summer, were introduced to the Pacific fleet by the second echelon. This device snared one Nip plane in early November and proved baffling to the pilots; but the balloons were finally discarded in 1944 because they gave away a task force's position to enemy search planes.
As you might gather, the use of barrage balloons was important to the invasions of Sicily and Italy.

But the biggest use was probably during the Normandy invasion on D-Day, June 6, 1944. As can be seen in nearby photos, every LCI (Landing Craft Infantry) toted along its own barrage balloon, as did some larger vessels. There were some concerns with the ship mounted balloons:
Barrage balloons actually caused some serious concern at the Normandy landings, especially in the early hours. Several batteries of long-range
German artillery could see these large balloons tethered above ships from several miles inland and were able to bombard those ships that they could not see with a fair amount of accuracy. Many Navy crews cut their balloons loose when it became apparent that the Luftwaffe was not going to be a big factor that day, but the artillery was.
Among the first men on the beach were members of the Army's 320th Barrage Balloon Brigade (VLA)(Colored):
The 320th Barrage Balloon Bn. was unique at Normandy for two reasons. First, it was the first barrage balloon unit in France and second, it was the first black unit in the segregated American Army to come ashore on D-Day.

The VLA in the 320th designation stood for "very low altitude." These units used smaller barrage balloons that could easily be moved by a few men and transported across the channel on landing craft. A standard balloon crew was normally four men, but trained personnel were in short supply and the 320th reduced the crews to three men to get as many balloons in the air as possible.

The barrage balloon concept was simple, lighter-than-air balloons were tethered over an area that the Army wished to protect from air attack. The balloons were flown at irregular intervals and altitudes. If an enemy plane attempted to fly into the area, it ran the risk of striking one of the wire cables holding the balloons. This could be enough to slice off a wing or the cable could become entangled in the propeller. It was a passive form of defense which forced the enemy aircraft to fly above the balloons where it would be harder to hit the target. Many of the ships taking part in the channel crossing flew barrage balloons to prevent low level attacks.

The men of the 320th were not second rate soldiers. They were highly trained and took pride in their job. When they were told they were going to land in France to protect the invasion beaches, they quickly realized that the standard VLA balloon winch was too heavy and cumbersome to lug ashore from a landing craft. The M-1 US Army winch had a gasoline motor and weighed 1,000 pounds. The British Mark VII weighed almost 400 pounds. They developed an expedient by adding two handles to a Signal Corps RL-31 Winder and putting the balloon wire on the DR-4 drum. This new winch weighed only 50 pounds and could easily be carried ashore by one man.
In addition to tying up enemy aircraft assisting in preventing the aerial mining of waterways, the English barrage balloons also were responsible for taking out V-1 rocket bombs (early cruise missiles), perhaps as many as 100.

With the end of WWII, the barrage balloon seems to have faded away, having served well in two wars.

In 1989, however, barrage balloons were suggested as a possible solution to low flying aircraft threats:
Modern technology allows aircraft to fly high and fast, but it also permits them to fly at very low altitudes--perhaps their most advantageous capability. Radar, antiaircraft artillery (AAA), and particularly SAMs make today's air defenses extremely formidable, but these systems are vulnerable to ultra-low-level attack by enemy aircraft. Because SAMs and other antiaircraft systems are deadly to high-flying aircraft, both NATO and the Warsaw Pact emphasize low-level attacks. This tactic helps negate the effect of SAMS, decreases enemy response time, and enhances the element of surprise.
To counter that surprise there might be a need for "a wonderfully simple weapon--the barrage balloon."

Give a salute to the brave men and women who wrangled balloons at time of war!

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