In the ice and snow no doubt it became difficult for the construction of sites and the crews manning those already established endured considerable hardship. Some relief for the Waterborne did come in January with the erection of two wooden huts on the North Wall at Grimsby Fish Dock and another two at Island Wharf in Hull. These provided limited shore accommodation for resting crews and the storing of their personal equipment.
The Flight at Grimsby was operating Balloons on 10 Drifters in the Humber Estuary, 6 at the Boom and a further 3 off Immingham Dock. In addition on land it was responsible for the preparation of Balloons for use on certain minesweeping operations and Merchant Ships in Convoys but eventually that work took place on board HMS Killingholme anchored on its station in the Estuary. This vessel had a flat bottom that possibly gave both the RN Crew and the RAF Airmen afloat a rough time and longed for a spell ashore; this did come when it returned to Grimsby Docks every two weeks for fuel, stores and balloon equipment including Hydrogen.
On 12th January a road traffic accident involving a RAF vehicle occurred on Beverley Road in Hull, this resulted with the death of a civilian, Mr W. Burton. The Coroner recorded his verdict as accidental death.
There was a set back in the creation of the Hull Barrage recorded in Centre’s Log Book for the 16th January that only 11 balloons were operational. It is said there was a considerable problem with the porosity of balloons and while an answer to that was sort: full flying strength was restricted.
Even with the obvious small amount of spare time available the Centre ’s ‘Concert Party’ was formed and these ‘artistes’ broadcast on the BBC radio between 7.20PM and 7.40PM on the 22nd January, twenty minutes of fun from “Somewhere in England” - Who’s down hearted!
More fun came when on the 15th March an ENSA concert party arrived at the Centre. Serviceman’s wit referred to that organisation as ‘Every Night Something Awful’ but as the bitterly cold 1939/40 winter ended it can be thought that the visit was appreciated.
With the coming of Spring thunder storms appeared when on 16th April, balloons on the Waterborne “ Ebor Jewel” and “Student Prince” were struck by lightning, luckily the crews were not injured. The 25th of the same month saw changes in the structure of the East Riding Balloon Squadrons when “A” Flight of No. 944 became Flights “D” & “E” of No. 942 Squadron.
The movement of extra personnel to ‘D’ Flight coincided with an increase in the number of balloon sites in North Lincolnshire where its HQ had been established in a semi-derelict farmhouse north of East Halton. The village and the surrounding area were rural and although mains electricity had arrived there was no mains drainage or piped water; improvement in those services was cancelled for the war. However FHQ was connected to the electricity, and possibly some Balloon Sites near to commercial establishments also enjoyed such illumination. For those manning the Balloon Sites it was four years of water from pumps or wells, using Elsan chemical toilets, and reading by the light of oil lamps!
The Admiralty Oil Tanks and associated railway lines were the Flights’ main responsibility and 14 Balloons were deployed for protection. Most of these sites were on arable land and had access from local lanes and minor roads. However, one site south of the Tanks, was on marshland and some 900 yards from Haven Road. Access to this site required the construction of a track, capable of carrying the Winch Lorry over a dyke to a turning circle. It is thought this was the work of a farm labourer with a horse and cart; he did do a good job as it’s still in farm usage into the Millennium.
For the crew’s accommodation all sites eventually received Air Ministry Class ‘B’ sectional wooden huts. These had a timbered-felted roof and the size of them depended on the number of personnel to be accommodated. The one at the Flight HQ with a width of 18 feet and a length of 60 feet had to house a balloon crew and other Flight HQ personnel; this was somewhat larger than those at the remote sites. A ‘tortoise’ stove heated every hut - at least while the ration of coal or coke lasted! The stoves, the brown linoleum on the floor, and the brass catches on the metal windows were all burnished and polished to a very high degree. It is known that because of the distance from the Balloon Centre, local shopkeepers visited the Flight and balloon sites possibly under contract to the RAF. The local coal merchants delivered the fuel for the stoves, and as the Crews were self-catering a similar arrangement was made for butchers, bakers and grocers to deliver their rationed produces to individual locations. This trade was beneficial to the local economics as was the increase in the sale of ale at the village hostelries but the farmer’s wives were not so happy, their free range chickens were not providing them with as many eggs!
For cooking, each site was issued with a very handy paraffin cooking stove, which had an oven and two rings; imagine using one of them to fry un-rationed eggs for breakfast! Personal hygiene should have been done before we enjoyed that egg, though for that purpose water had to be collected from a pump or well if there was one near the site. Luckily bath parades took place every week at the “County Hotel” at Immingham. Some of the Hull lads were excused from bath parades; they had found private billets for themselves and their wives who were only too glad to escape from the bombing to live in the country. Their Mums and Dads were also called for, and some families were later to settle in North Lincolnshire.
It was not until 1942 that surface brick air raid shelters were built at each of the ‘F’ Flights Balloon Sites these also housed the telephone equipment and some spare rigging equipment. In addition twelve berth Air-raid Shelters (Sleeping) was constructed on No. 5, Station Road, North Killingholme and at East Halton Balloon Site. For the Officers at Flight HQ six berth sleeping shelter were available, and although it had an outside entry: a toilet was attached.
Owing to the isolation of many of the North Lincolnshire Balloon sites it appears they continued to be manned by Airmen during the existence of the Barrage.
At the Centre during the month of May another type of activity was taking place, something beloved by Servicemen, “Bull” a visit of a high-ranking officer or dignitary was expected. This involved a lot of scrubbing and polishing by the ‘other ranks’ with the NCOs shouting, “ If it’ll move - move it - if it won’t - white wash it! “ When all this had been done - on the Monday 15th April 1940 Princess Mary - HRH Princess Royal - inspected the Centre and went on to make other visits in the area.
The first members of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) to be stationed at No. 17 arrived there on the on the 27th May 1940. The 38 Airwomen and 3 Officers occupied three barrack huts within the confine of the Centre. No doubt they brightened up the Centre and there were more smiles on the faces of airmen. Brett Taylor wrote in ‘Air-Britain’ in July 1977 and gave a description of the work of the WAAF Balloon Fabric Workers:
“Until 1940, airwomen had been restricted to working as “fabric bashers” at the Balloon Centres, where they were clad in dungarees, shod in plimsolls and topped-off with a navy blue beret to protect their hairs-dos. They worked inside and outside the giant silver monsters, crawling about patching pinholes in the fabric with circular patches stuck on with solution - other tears up to three inches were also mended with patches cut to shape to avoid waste of fabric. For stitching they used herringbone stitch with single thread and avoided knots. Larger tears had to be mended with a sewing machine - there was plenty to learn”.
Some of the new arrivals were in fact WAAF Fabric Workers one of them was ACW Olga Johnson who in December 1939 at the age of 17 years had volunteered into the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force at the Centre at Sutton. At that time the lower age limit was 18, but as she said in 1998, “I was surprised they did not ask for my Birth Certificate”. After a medical she was handed a travel warrant and joining notice to report the next day to the WAAF Training Centre then at RAF West Drayton, where she was kitted out, taught some drill and sent to the No. 2 Balloon Centre at Hook in Surrey. There she received ‘hands on’ tuition on the “Silver Monster” - the Kite Balloon. She described her training as, “picked it up as you went along”. Early in 1940 she returned to the No 17 Balloon Centre with the Trade of a Fabric Worker.
The day for her and the permanent staff consisted of a pre-war RAF daily routine - Physical Training (PT), Parade and Inspection on the Square and then up to 12 Hours of the inspection and repair of balloon fabric.
They must have looked very fetching when they arrived for work as already described except that the dungarees were two pieces. Olga confided in me that they made belts from balloon fabric to keep up their slacks - it was so thin that stiffening was required!
This work took place in one of the three Balloon Repair Sheds on the Centre. It had a polish floor and it was kept clean. It had to be as the fabric was very thin and any piece of grit could cause damage. (That floor would have measured 50 x 75 feet.) The deflated balloons would arrive on trolleys unwrapped and filled with air. A number of the ‘fabric bashers’ would then climb outside and inside it and search for any holes in the fabric. Those found were marked inside, out, recorded on a blueprint, then repaired. When they had finished, those inside the “silver monster” had to plead to be let out and often teased by the RAF lads but they eventually freed them. The serviced balloon was then wrapped up again and sent to one of the Hangars where they were again inflated and sprayed with silver dope. Olga recalls her a daily ration of a pint of milk, which had to be drunk under supervision as an antidote to the effects of inhalation of the aroma of adhesives used in the repair of the fabric.
She also recalls that Sutton was a strict but very happy station - a pass was even needed to get out and in! The guards there were not as smart as those were at Hook, who were Coldstream Guards. Even so, she felt safe at Sutton and during the Blitz on Hull in 1941 the girls were sent into the Sleeping Shelter on the Camp. Even in those days the Institute (NAAFI) had been decorated in a colourful Caribbean Theme and dances took place there.
Also on a lighter side she remembers that on one of the morning parades she had not polished her uniform brass buttons. When it was announced that the WAAFs’ would be inspected, she warned her mates she was going to faint. When the Station Warrant Officer - “He who must be obeyed”, saw her flat on the ground he roared, “Get that woman off my parade.” Two of her mates obliged and they ‘helped’ her to the nearby Sergeants’ Mess where they all enjoyed coffee and watched the parade in comfort. (Late in 1942 Olga was sent to an Operational Station where she spent her time at a Charging Board, dealing with aircraft batteries. She left the service in 1946.)
The strength of the Barrage continued to increase and by the end of May 1940 - 55 balloons were operational. At the Centre on the 28th May Wing Commander K.D.F McCaskill, O.B.E became the Commanding Officer and his personnel there numbered 17 Officers, 363 Airmen and 38 Airwomen.
Further Airmen continued to arrive at the Centre and one of those who arrived in June was Marshall Jackson. His home was at Scunthorpe where he had been in Insurance when late in 1939 he had volunteered into the RAF. It was April 1940 before he was called up and after his Basic Training by the sea at Morecambe as an Aircraftsman General Duties he was posted to No 17 Balloon Centre. His first job there was at the Accounts Department where to his amazement the local RAF Auxiliaries worked a 9 to 5 day. His billet was No. 1 Sitting Room; obviously space at the Centre was becoming short. He did not occupy it for long as he was posted to No. 943 Balloon Squadron and until 1942 he served at Remote Sites at Francis Askew School Playing Fields, Pickering Road, Cod Farm St. Andrews Dock and open fields in Hessle.
With the enemy occupying Norway and Denmark, the month of May saw the invasion into Holland, Belgium and by 22nd June, the capitulation of France. The many airfields in those countries provided bases for the German Air Force making the United Kingdom more vulnerable to air attack and it was seen that more Balloon Barrages were required. In the next two months a further 20 Barrages were formed to make a total of 41 operating in the UK. The urgent requirement of balloon equipment elsewhere had an effect on the Hull Barrage.
On the 15th June a total of 38 Remote Balloon Sites was vacated and from them 26 winches, balloons and the personnel were sent to the Group HQ at Sheffield, one of those who left Hull was LAC Ted Watson. He recalled the movement, which included two Flights of No. 944 Balloon Squadron, who were then dispatched in convoy to the No. 1 Balloon Training Unit at RAF Cardington in Bedford. There they were absorbed into the newly formed No. 966 Balloon Squadron and sent to serve at Newport Gwent where, some 28 Balloons were first flown.
On the same day the Hull Barrage was re-constructed by Wing Commander G.E.S Lamb, Officer Commanding No. 942 Balloon Squadron, he had at his disposal a total of 36 balloons, 14 of, which were waterborne. His headquarters was then situated at Newland House, 435-439 Beverley Road, Hull with Flights “A” at the Riverside Quay Railway Station, Albert Dock, “B” Hedon Road and “E” Holderness Road in the City. In North Lincolnshire, “C” Flight at Grimsby with “D” at East Halton.
The level of 36 Balloons in the Hull Barrage continued until the 1st of July and on that date saw the first day air raid, which took place on the Saltend Oil installation east of Hull and storage tanks were set on fire. The raider had flown from the North but by then the number of Balloon Sites on Hedon Road was down to two, though there was still one operating at the target of the attack. The raider, a Heinkel 111 was shot down in the sea off Spurn Head by Spitfires from RAF Leconfield.
The Barrage Control was moved on the 3rd July from the Centre to Newland House. This was (and still is) a large two storey house with the roof reaching a height of nearly 40 feet. On the apex there was an observation post and access to it was a vertical ladder from the second floor landing. No doubt airmen had to clamber up this ladder with rifles slung to spend long hours observing the barrage but now they had more fire power - a fitted machine gun. It was related to me that this was a wooden gun, I doubt that. We shall see that some of those AAF lads were quite handy with Lewis or Vickers Machine guns.
During July some 28 Balloons, equipment and men became available as on the last day of the month the Centre’s Commanding Officers log records that the strength of the barrage had reached 74 balloons. (This was the ultimate number recorded.) No. 942 Squadron operated 42 of them with No. 943 operating a further 32. It concluded that 24 of them were Waterborne. As there was no mention of No. 944 Squadron it could be presumed that by the events related earlier, it had become non-operational. Other official records written shortly after that date state that the number of Waterborne was 6 only, whereas a map for the reconstruction of the barrage in June 1940 had proposals for a further 12 sites of that type.
Those being 6 to protect Keadby Bridge near Scunthorpe and a further 6 to defend Boothferry Road and Railway Bridges near Goole, though there is no evidence of those having become operational.
In the summer of 1940 a threat of an enemy invasion arose and an individual issue of circa 1917 Canadian Ross rifles and bayonets were made to each member of the crews on Balloon Sites. For defence, four machine gun emplacements were constructed on the perimeter of the Balloon Centre. To protect gainst enemy aircraft at the Sites, Vickers or Lewis Machine Guns, adapted to fit on high altitude frames, were also installed.
Some training with the arms was necessary and that took place: nightsticks were soon made redundant and the guards of the sites carried their rifle plus five rounds of ammunition. However if an invasion actually took place there were more important duties for those at the Centre, in the Squadrons and on the Sites on and North of the River Humber. If orders to cease the operation of the Balloon Barrage or if enemy action made it impossible to continue those in the RAF locally would assist the Military under the command of the Hull Garrison and they would make a considerable contribution to the defence of the City and Port of Hull.
In the Hull Garrison Defence Scheme the duties of some 900 airmen, many local born, were itemised. The personnel at the No. 17 Balloon Centre assisted by the crews of four nearby Balloon Sites was to form part of the defence of Sutton on Hull by taking over a road block, install a machine gun post at Noddle Hill Farm and with the defence posts at the Centre, cover Wawne Road. Other systematic foot patrols of the area were also required. The crews of certain Sites were to rendezvous at Hymers College, Queens Gardens and Pearson Park. Some were to reinforce the Reserve Battalion, others in the defence of the City Keep, all to be under the command of the Hull Garrison. Those from Sites East of the city were to come under the O.C. Outpost Company and carry out patrols of Holderness Drain while others were to retire to Saltend and there to come under the orders of the Defence Commander.
The Crews from the Waterborne Barges were to assist Royal Navy personnel in the immobilisation of the Docks and when that role was completed some were to become part of defence of the City Keep, while others join crews from land Sites already in place on the railway embankment running the North edge of King George Dock, it was there they were to resist the enemy’s entry into the Docks until the last!
It is obvious that a similar Defence Scheme had been prepared for North East Lincolnshire and it would include duties for those of the RAF at Balloon Sites in that county as part of the Hull Barrage. Although the threat of an invasion remained, thankfully the Schemes were never brought into use.
On Thursday 15th August, the balloons flown from East Park and in Marfleet were shot down in flames by machine gun fire from an enemy JU88. This aircraft - one of fifty that had attacked Driffield airfield in North Yorkshire, was returning to its base in Denmark and in passing the air gunner took the opportunity to increase his score. (RAF Driffield, a Bomber Station, was effectively closed until the end of the year by the attack).
The Log of No. 942 Squadron’s Log recorded the death of two Airmen and a Civilian during September. The first entry was that on Friday 20th, Aircraftman 2nd Class William Ernest Atherall was missing from a Waterborne Barge moored off Albert Dock in the middle of the River Humber. During the evening he had been detailed to check that the unit’s dingy was securely moored and was seen to go on to the deck but when he did not return the craft was searched and the alarm was raised by radio to Flight HQ. Official records state that he ‘ fell overboard a balloon barge and was believed drowned.’ His body was never recovered. Bill Atherall was from Hessle and prior joining the AAF in 1939 he had been a merchant seaman. On his death he was 36 years of age and left a wife and three sons. The details of the second entry for Thursday 26th only referred to “an unknown Airman” who was lost overboard from a vessel on the River Humber and believed to drown. However it was known that he had been on detachment from RAF Station Cheadle Heath.
On the same date the third entry refers to an incident at No. 8 Balloon Site at Pelham Road, Immingham, when a Civilian, Basil Hanton aged 12 years was ‘accidentally killed by (sic Rifle) fire’.
Official correspondence written at H.Q Balloon Command show that from the 18 provincial Barrages of 328 balloons operating on the 1st October 1939 considerable resources had become available and as the first year of WW2 ended 1,392 balloons were flying in 40 Barrages. The same document also shows that with 72 balloons: HULL was the second largest regional Barrage. Within one year the Barrages had been created and those who had worked hard to make that possible were now in readiness to wait for Phase 2 – “The Blitz”.
At the end of the year the City of Hull had already endured twenty bombing raids with civilian losses of 9 dead and 30 seriously injured.