As early as 1929 the Air Defence of Great Britain recommended that a balloon barrage should form part of the defence of Cities. The Balloon Barrage was a passive form of defence, which caused enemy raiders to fly higher and to bomb less accurately, and to a degree deterred dive-bombing. The balloons also forced enemy aircraft to a higher altitude where they could be more easily dealt with by defending searchlights, anti-aircraft guns and fighter 'planes. It was later realised that balloons deterred the sowing of Sea-Mines in the Estuaries. The basic method of sitting the balloons was to place them on the perimeter of the area to be defended. However if sited equidistantly over a circular area the likelihood of an impact increased twofold. An unfortunate bi-product of the barrage was that the balloons were also lethal to our own aircraft. A further drawback was that the balloons were also used by enemy crews to identify their allotted targets.
In 1936 the Air Council made plans for a balloon barrage initially for the London Area under the operational control of Fighter Command. The planning of this was extended to provide similar barrages in the United Kingdom at areas vulnerable to air attack on main cities, ports and industrial areas. There was a need for local bases from which the barrages could be maintained and in 1938 - 1940 this resulted in the building of eighteen identical Balloon Centres, the master plans for which were prepared to support up to four Mobile Balloon Squadrons. The plans were amended to fit within the land available at each location, all of which were near to city centres.
The City of Hull, with its Docks was a prime target for such enemy attacks and the base for that area was designated as the RAF 17 Balloon Centre, which was planned to accommodate and support three Balloon Squadrons. Construction of it started late in 1938 with RAF Personnel reporting for duty early in January 1939. Wing Commander J. M. Brickman was appointed as the first Commanding Officer, assumed command on 17th May 1939 and was responsible to 33 Group of Balloon Command.
It was built on over eighty acres of land, previously tenanted by Stamford Smith of Mount Pleasant Farm. Wawne Road, West Carr Lane and the Foredyke Stream - bordered it, north west of the village of Sutton, which was within the City and County of Kingston upon Hull. The land was never again to be used for agriculture.
It was to consist of over 95 buildings and structures, the majority of them were made of wood but the operational buildings were more substantial and very large. For instance the Winch Lorry and Trailer Garage it had a width of 197 feet, a length of 290 feet and a height of 35 feet. The four Balloon Hangars each had a width of 75 feet, a length of 100 feet with a height of 50 feet.
The remaining three large buildings were Balloon Repair Sheds and these each had a width of 50 feet, a length of 75 and a height of 50.
Further operational buildings were needed - Packed-balloon Stores and Hydrogen Trailers Shed.
These were of asbestos sheeting on metal frames, while the three Squadron Offices, Stores and Workshops were of wood.
For the storage of operational devices of an explosive nature, a Bomb Store was included. This was of brick with a concrete roof with a width of 20 feet, a length of 50 feet and was protected by a retaining blast wall and breastwork of soil.
Two further operational structures that did not appear on the original plans but obviously required for local needs were constructed, one of which was the Centre's Operation Room from where the Balloon Barrage could be controlled. This 20 foot square building, immediately behind the Station Headquarters was of brick with concrete roof with a blast wall to protect its entrance. The second structure was a 40 feet high wooden Observation watchtower sited at the rear of the Gas Decontamination Block.
The storage of other equipment in bulk, such as general, clothing and barrack stores was allocated wooden buildings of various sizes, with lubricants in corrugated metal sheeting shed. For petrol, high capacity underground tanks were installed on each of the two service roads leading into the Centre from Wawne Road. Each of these tanks was fitted with three dispensing points to enable simultaneous refueling of six motor vehicles.
Other wooden buildings consisted of Station Headquarters, Guardhouse, Officers, Sergeants and Airman Messes and 13 Barrack huts - each to hold up to 22 Airmen and for their relaxation - 2 Sitting Rooms. (These were originally furnished with armchairs and writing desks but when personnel on the Centre increased, they were used for sleeping purposes. However they retained the address of No's 1 & 2 Sitting Rooms.)
The planned wooden buildings were of sectional hutting designed in 1935 by the Air Ministry and primarily for use at RAF Stations that were intended to be temporary. Each section was bolted together to form huts of any length. Those at the No. 17 had roofs of asbestos sheeting which indicates that the external walls had been covered with Canadian Cedar weatherboarding, classing them as 'Type A' of which a life of 10 to 15 years was required, though they actually lasted 22 years.
The necessary services were of single brick construction, rendered with cement and these included toilets and classrooms. The Station Sick Quarters was of the same construction but the adjoining Commanding Officer's House was evidently more substantial - complete with pillars each side of his front door!
The storage of hydrogen gas and petrol in large quantities at the Centres obviously called for the method of heating the buildings to be steam central heating and three coke or coal fired boiler houses were constructed. Two were required to supply the operational buildings, with their associated brick chimneys soaring over the roofs of the Hangars attaining a height of nearly 60 feet. The third boiler house was to provide hot water to bathhouses as well as heating to the Barrack blocks and Messes, but the similar constructed chimney of it only reached a height of about 40 feet. Other less lofty chimneys were needed for the coal-fired stoves in Officers', Sergeants' and Airmen's' Messes.
During the planning of the Centres, the fight against the use of poison gas by enemy forces was a priority and the necessary buildings included a Gas Defence Centre, Decontamination Centre and Gas Clothing Stores. For the test of personal Respirators there was a Gas Chamber. Air raids were another threat, brick and heavy timber blast walls surrounded the Station Headquarters, for the guard at the Main gate, a small brick and concrete sentry box was added. For the other personnel 13 Surface Shelters were constructed - 7 of which were fitted with bunks and officially referred to as "Air Raid Shelters-Sleeping". Surprisingly 3 of them were within 50 yards of the Bomb Store, which might have resulted in a rude awakening!
For the relaxation of the personnel at the Centre, three wooden buildings were provided for the Navy Army Air Force Institute (NAAFI), YMCA and Church Army. A church was not added until much later but the CO's Record dated 1st September 1939 states, "Two clergymen reported for duty."
Hard standings, footpaths and metalled roads were needed; the plans called for the roads to have a width of 15 feet and the main entrance to the Centre was sited on West Carr Lane. That public thoroughfare had a width of only 10 feet and between the entrance to the junction of and Wawne Road was widened to 18 feet. The Hull Corporation who also provided mains water, drainage and electricity supply probably did this work. The necessary high-level water tank and electricity sub-station were included at the Centre.
For security purposes a perimeter fence was required and this consisted of steel chain mesh supported on angle iron posts and topped with three strands of barbed wire. Metal gates were fitted into the fence at the four roads into the Centre, two of these were on service roads and hence the gates were plain. The other two access roads, one to the Officer's Mess and the other the Main Entrance to the Centre, both gates were more ornate.
Public works contractors used civilian labour to carry out the construction of the Centre under contract to the Air Ministry; the contractor was known to be George Wimpey & Company. (No not the one of Hot Dog fame!) The Air Ministry Works Directorate (AMWD) was responsible for the design, execution and maintenance of all RAF civil engineering works and a depot and workshops was included on the site.
As the race to complete the building of No. 17 continued, the Auxiliary Air Force readied themselves for the important role they were to play in the obvious forthcoming war. The AAF was formed on 9th October 1924 with the intention of training pilots, and was part of a territorial or reserve force to enable the increase of the Royal Air Force in time of a war by up to 34 Flying Squadrons. In March 1937 the London Balloon Barrage was formed and eventually 4 Balloon Centres and 10 AAF Balloon Squadrons were to operate some 450 balloons in the Metropolis.
On the 1st November 1938 due to the proposed expansion of the barrages, Balloon Command came into being for administrative purposes. In mid January 1939 a further thirty-seven Balloon Squadrons of Auxiliary Air Force were formed. Recruitment for them began, with the aim of obtaining 16,000 men between the ages of 25 to 50, local to the Balloon Centres. Many were of an age that rendered them unsuitable for other forms of active service, though eligible to serve in the Balloon Squadrons.
By the 25th January 1939, No's 942, 943 and 944 (East Riding.) Balloon Squadrons had established their headquarters at Wycliffe Chambers, Campbell Street, Kingston upon Hull. Each Squadron was to consist of 5 Flights with 9 Balloons each balloon with a crew of a Corporal, 10 Airmen of the Auxiliary Air Force and a Regular RAF Balloon Operator. He would have been trained at the No.1 BTU at RAF Cardington and then responsible providing local training for the Auxiliaries.
More than 1,300 local men were required to fully man the East Riding Squadrons. Placards seeking the necessary volunteers was displayed which acclaimed;
Three of those who joined No. 942 Squadron were Tom Thorpe, Tom Mould and Tom Bentley. Tom Thorpe, a painter and decorator, paraded twice a week for training as a Fabric Worker / Rigger. He was 32 years of age and for that duty he was paid the sum of six Shillings (30P) which helped pay the rent and paid for his cigarettes for a week!
Tom Mould was a Postman, who - at the age of 39 years, had also joined No. 942 but his trade was to be a Balloon Operator. He had seen service in the Army during the last year of the Great War and when back in civilian clothes he joined the Territorial Army. He rose to the rank of Battery Sergeant of the Garrison Artillery and served on Bull Sand Fort in the Humber, which was manned during the threat of war in 1938. Probably by his age he left the TA and decided to serve in the AAF, which had a higher age limit. He was to prove to be handy with a gun! The third of the trio was Tom Bentley; he joined in May 1939 at the age of 28 and he spent most of his service on balloon barges on the River Humber.
During the AAF recruitment campaign public flying displays of Barrage Balloons was provided from No. 1 Balloon Training Unit at RAF Cardington and on Thursday 23rd March 1939 a Crew of 12 regulars of the RAF with all the necessary equipment arrived at Hull's Walton Street Fair Ground.
One of that Crew was Leading Aircraftsman Albert England. Bert had joined the RAF in 1935 and did his Balloon Training in the No. 1 Entry at No. 1 BTU in January 1937 and even in the Millennium he remembers his eventful one and only visit to Hull. He relates that the Mark 3 Balloon was prepared, inflated and flown successfully and with some of the AAF relieving the Crew, they were sent to one Drill Halls in Walton Street for a hot meal. On their return suitably replete, all that remained of the balloon was pieces of burnt rubber; it had been struck by lightning! This was to cause the demise of many other Barrages Balloons during the next five years.
Apparently the unfortunate display did not deter the would-be balloon operators in the Auxiliary Air Force. The volunteers of course, continued their normal occupations but they were required to attend on evenings and weekends for training. This was provided by a limited number of Regular RAF Balloon Operators who as well as some drill and discipline gave lectures and demonstrated the art of splicing both steel and sisal ropes, tying knots and hand sewing of balloon fabric.
The Squadrons Headquarters buildings were not ready at No. 17 Balloon Centre but the Squadron’s operational training began there on the 1st July 1939 where the art of flying of balloons began in earnest. The initial balloon there was inflated and flown on the 17th of the same month; this balloon was used to calibrate the anti-aircraft guns and to test the Radar at the nearby Royal Artillery Battery.
The RAF personnel attached to the Balloon Squadrons had other duties besides training, the obvious forthcoming war required considerable preparation for the establishment of a Balloon Barrage. Equipment had to be collected and stockpiled, buildings commandeered, remote sites planned.
On the 23rd August the clerks in the Orderly Room at the 17 Balloon Centre were busy completing over 800 copies of Form 1445D. These missives had the title of “NOTICE OF CALLING OUT under the Reserve and Auxiliary Forces Act, 1939” and the spaces for Name, Rank, Number and Unit now contained the details of every volunteer of the East Riding Balloon Squadrons. This called for each to attend at the 17 Balloon Centre at once; they were to serve for the duration of the war.
There was the excellent mail delivery in those days! The buff O.H.M.S. envelopes containing the notices popped through home letter boxes the next morning - Thursday 24th August 1939, the day the Auxiliary Air Force together with the 47 Balloon Squadrons was embodied into the Royal Air Force.
On that day No. 942 Squadron alone records a complement of 290 Auxiliaries, 7 Regulars and 13 Officers but it is estimated that the total of Auxiliaries both Officers and other ranks in the three Squadrons numbered over 900 local men.
The members of the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve also received their calling out notices in August 1939. Described as a 'Citizen Air Force' the RAFVR was created in 1936; this was the RAF's equivalent of the Territorial Army. The purpose of this service was to train young men to become pilots, observers and radio operators in their spare time and for lectures, recreation and parades local centres were established. The centre for Hull was at Newland House on Beverley Road, a building that was used for other RAF purposes during WW2. Surprisingly many VR Airmen and Officers were to serve in the Balloon Squadrons.
It was also during August 1939 that the Balloon Squadrons Headquarters were were established in the Hull area, for the operation of the Hull Barrage. No. 942 was located at Newland House, Beverley Road, No. 943 at 22 Pearson’s Park, and No. 944 had the Crown Hotel, (known as the Red Hell) Marfleet Lane.
On the 28th August the Squadron’s Flight HQs’ were formed No. 942 had one at Hull’s Riverside Quay Railway Station and two others at Grimsby Fish Dock and East Halton; together they were responsible for North Lincolnshire and the River Humber. No. 943 also had three at Wycliffe Chambers, Hamlyn Avenue, Anlaby Road and Pearson’s Park; they were assigned the land West of the River Hull. No. 944 was to cover the land East of the River Hull with Flight Headquarters at 348 Holderness Road, the Anchor Hotel (another public house known as the Blue Heaven) Southcoates Lane and the Wesleyan Chapel (circa 1873) on Hedon Road, Marfleet.
The RAF Permanent Staff who received the Notice of War at 11.00AM on Sunday 3rd of September 1939, numbered 6 Officers and 66 Airmen who, with their colleagues in the Squadrons, went on to celebrate the declaration of war by holding a dance in the NAAFI the same evening!
Those present on that day were all volunteers with ages officially ranging from 18 to 50 years and many proudly displayed medal ribbons on their uniforms from earlier service. They were the nucleus of another means of defence over the Humber area and City of Hull - The Hull Balloon Barrage.