The Balloon Command was to describe the first nine months of WW2 as being the "Pre-Blitz Period, during which little enemy activity gave the comparatively inexperienced balloon personnel time to learn their trade and for the service to build up resources."
Recent personal accounts from those who were there at the time show that the Centre was far from being completed at the beginning of the war. The build up of personnel continued and a further 21 Airmen arrived late in September 1939 - one of those was LAC Ted Watson. Ted originated from South Wales but had been living in the London Area; he joined the RAF on 4th March 1939 at the age of 18 years. After Basic Training he was offered quick promotion and a home posting if he trained as a Balloon Operator and he undertook a comprehensive course at No. 1 BTU at RAF Cardington in Bedford. His first posting from there in that trade was far from being a 'Home' one but as a AC1 he did possess the qualifications as a rigger, fabric worker, driver (winch) and driver of motor transport. He was also able to supervise the handling, flying and general maintenance of balloons. He recalled that on his arrival there was only 1 Hangar, 1 Barrack Hut, NAAFI, Sick Quarters, and most importantly, the Airmen's Mess. It could be said that they were the important places a young man required when he joined No. 944 Balloon Squadron during the first autumn of WW 2. The rest of it was like a building site with plenty of mud.
The building of the Centre continued, but there was urgency in the support and equipment needed by the Balloon Squadrons who were establishing remote balloon flying sites, both on land and water. This meant many long hours of work for all the RAF and later WAAF Fabric Workers, Riggers, Balloon Operators and ancillary trades when the balloons and associated equipment was inspected, prepared and dispatched to the Squadrons. All this effort was needed to complete and maintain the Balloon Barrage.
The Centre's Operations Building where the Barrage Control was established was brought into use. The large room with floor space of some 225 square feet contained a plotting table with equipment to maintain telephone and wireless telegraph communications to the Squadrons, Flights and Sites. Adjoining rooms housed the Telephone Exchange (PBX) and Teleprinter contact to other operational Controls.
Associated with this Control was the nearby observation tower, from which the balloons of the barrage and the Centre could be viewed. Our LAC Ted Watson vividly remembered that tower, when in 1939 he spent several nights on guard duty at the top of it armed with a rifle and 5 rounds of ammunition. It was a two-man post and they took turns in sleeping. A vertical climb of over 30 feet was required to reach their post - with rifles
slung it was not easy. Ted remarked, " It was a good view from there but very cold".
It was realised that lines of communication and routes for supplies was of great importance and plans to protect them by using Balloons were formulated. A solitary balloon initially guarded some of the likely targets for enemy attack, which included important railway junctions, locomotive sheds, river bridges, factories and the storage of various fuels.
On the north bank of the River Humber a single balloon protected the oil and petrol installation at Saltend but more balloons protected the Admiralty Tanks near North Killingholme Haven on the south bank of the same river. That site was of military importance as 53 tanks there contained various fuels for the Royal Navy. This establishment covered some 100 acres of reclaimed land, and having been opened prior to WW1 was the first such tank farm in North Lincolnshire. On the associated deep-water jetty in the Humber equipment for the transfer of bulk oil to and from tankers and refuelling facilities for RN vessels was available.
The Humber Estuary with its connecting rivers and canals was a further important line of supply and six "Waterborne" balloons flying from Fishing Drifters at the mouth of the River Humber was established. In records they were referred to as "Mobiles" and it was on these vessels that Corporal Tom Mould was to serve with some distinction against mine laying enemy aircraft.
At that time there was a floating boom with submarine nets, which spanned the river from Spurn Point to east of Grimsby. Operated by the Royal Navy, it defended and controlled the shipping on the river by literally opening and shutting a gate in the boom.
By the 1st October the barrage numbered 19 balloons but this increased as each new land site was opened and the availability of more 'Waterborne' on the River Humber. Three river barges were commandeered with the names of "Telow", "Cowes" and "Ebor Jewel" and the Motor Launch "Quail" was hired to service the barges at a cost of £1 per day. A RAF Seaplane Tender so saving the daily hire charge replaced the launch two months later!
During November there were problems with balloons in the Humber area, which caused the Home Security Intelligence to report on the 8th of the month that: "Several balloons (apparently about 5) were adrift. Some damage was caused by trailing cables to electric pylons and telephone wires at Stow near Gainsborough, this balloon grounded at Kirton in Lindsey. Two deflated balloon grounded at Kirmington near Cleethorpes and one was still adrift over Hull." Those that landed deflated were probably the result of misfire of the explosive charges on the DPL cables. This method was in its infancy, as was the whole operation of the flying of balloons - training and experience was required.
Around the same time some of the normally docile LZ balloons arrived in Denmark, where their trailing cables cut through electric cables as though they were cobwebs and caused considerable damage. Some of them were captured and the fabric from them was put to good use in the making of overalls for workmen. Hence, Denmark got instant compensation for the damage!
On the Home Front it was soon found that balloon fabric made very good shopping bags and when a rouge balloon landed in Hull a large number of ladies appeared with scissors to obtain enough material for that purpose. As balloon crews were handy with sewing needles: it is possible in their spare time and when redundant fabric become available, similar bags were made for friends and relatives.
At the start of hostilities it was obvious that enemy aircraft would only be flying from their bases in Northern Germany and an attack on Hull would most likely come from the North. The original Barrage was designed with that in mind and to protect the Eastern Docks and Oil Storage Tanks some ten balloon sites of No. 944 Squadron were planned along Hull's Hedon Road from the City to Saltend. Their locations were at Victoria Dock, Sweet Dews Farm, North East Corner of Alexandra Dock, Newtown Buildings, Holderness Drain Bridge near the Maternity Hospital, Corporation Road (near the River Humber), Ceylon Street Marfleet, Humber Cod Liver Oil, Somerden Road and finally, Saltend.
The penultimate of those sites was No. 20 where LAC Ted Watson was stationed as the Trained Balloon Operator. The Site was located near the Marfleet to Hedon Railway Line and consisted of one balloon a winch lorry and for the crew's accommodation: four bell tents. (Later a hut lit by electric lights and a brick Air Raid Shelter was added.) Ted was in the mud again!
The routine at a Balloon Site consisted of the Daily Inspection of both the winch and balloon with lots of training for the Crew. There was no "PT" for them whatever physical training they needed they got by manhandling the " Silver Monster." (In 1998 Ted was proud to point out that training had been essential. The pre-war time taken to "Fly" a balloon was 20 minutes and this was honed down by repeated training under wartime conditions to 5 minutes.) Throughout the night guards were mounted by the crew carrying nightsticks and torches.
The hot meals sent out from the Centre to the extreme remote Sites often arrived late and it might have been possible for the crew to make up some sleep lost during the previous night when on guard or tending the flown balloons and their beds were metal cots with straw filled palliases and blankets. (I forgot to ask Ted if they did have any sheets as the RAF usually issued them.)
Because he had a motorcycle of his own Ted was able to visit other nearby Sites and he recalled that the site at the Newtown Buildings was on the pavement at the junction of Southcoates Lane and Hedon Road where there was no space for a hut.
The crew there were roughing it in a sand bagged structure while at Holderness Drain Bridge the management of the nearby Maternity Hospital had given that Crew a Ward for their sleeping arrangements. Similarly the crew at the Victoria Dock Site were billeted at the Citadel Hotel! Both those arrangements was not to last, the RAF 'powers that be' felt they were far too comfortable so instead they provided both the crews with wooden huts.
The increase of the "Waterborne" continued with the arrival of seven barges and two Humber Sloops: the "Vi" and "Gravel", two of the barges bore local names of "Myton" and "Everthorpe". In due course they were fitted out and joined those already on station on the River Humber, one in particular moored off Hull's Victoria Pier and flying No. 61 Balloon was the "Norman Wade". She starred in numerous photographs one even showed that the Crew received their pay on board! Her stardom was not to last for long as in December she was moved to another station on the River and to cover Victoria Pier permission was obtained from the local authority and a Balloon land site was set up on Island Wharf, it was there that the first recorded RAF casualty took place.
On December 3rd entries in both the Commanding Officers' and No. 942 Squadron Logs recorded the death of Acting Corporal Percy Fletcher who had drowned in the River Humber.
On the previous evening he had been in charge of the guard on the Island Wharf Site and had possibly gone missing while checking the sentries. This site was on land between the lock pits of Town and Albert Docks with three sides exposed to the river, with the balloon bedded, the ground covered with snow and ice and in the blackout, it was a somewhat restricted area for the guards to patrol. A search for him was made and it was suspected that he had lost his footing and fallen into the River. This was confirmed next morning as his body was recovered from mud in nearby Wellington Street Creek.
He was a Hull man who had quickly volunteered into the Auxiliary Air Force early in 1939. Other official records show that his rank was Aircraftman 2nd Class and was aged 47. It is submitted that he had previously served his country and was seen to be capable of supervision, which resulted in the acting rank he held at his demise. He also had another special quality - patriotism. He and many other local men were prepared again to serve, defend and even to die for their country serving in the AAF/RAF on the local Balloon Barrages.
December also saw the deployment of a line of three balloons on the River Humber from Immingham Dock Entrance to Stone Creek. Four Drifters were provided for this operation with one kept in reserve as a relief.
With the arrival of the last day of 1939 the barrage numbered 35 balloons but this effort was not achieved without the loss of life - in the atrocious winter weather.