In January, the idea of training members of the WAAF to operate balloons was suggested to Balloon Command. This innovation had become necessary in view of the need for economy in manpower. It was realised that if WAAF could be employed as balloon operators on static balloon sites, several thousand airmen could be deployed on mobile squadrons and further squadrons could be made available for posting overseas. Much effective research was done by RAF officers and men, to make balloon handling less strenuous, with the result that in April 1941 an experiment began on the training of airwomen. The WAAF who knew most about balloons at that time were the fabric workers, which was described earlier. It was not surprising that when volunteers were called for in April 1941 to train as balloon operators, 265 fabric workers volunteered and 247 were accepted as being physically suitable to join the experiment. An intensive training course was inaugurated at the No. 1 BTU where RAF personnel gave expert instruction and help to a keen and enthusiastic party of airwomen. Several weeks were spent in lecture rooms studying the theory of balloons, with miniature models for demonstration purposes; then more weeks on an operational training site learning the practical side - how to tie knots, whip ropes, splice cables, operate winches, and finally how to "fly" and "bed" balloons.
These pioneers proved that women could tackle the job when on 10th July 1941 the first trained WAAF Balloon Operators were formed into crews and sent to sites at Sheffield, Portsmouth, Glasgow, Cardiff and London. Recruitment and commitments increased training courses were set up at No. 17 and other localised Centres additional to the two BTUs' at Cardington and Larkhill.
Initially the ratio of WAAF substitution was 20 per crew against 9 in the RAF. This was altered twice and by the end of 1942 there were 15,700 WAAF Balloon Operators replacing men what was still a high ratio of fourteen to nine. In January 1943 WAAF formed 47% of the entire personnel of Balloon Command and all-women crews manned one thousand and twenty-nine balloons sites.
Although the main purpose of the No. 17 Balloon Centre's was the Barrage it also became the home of other RAF detachments called in Service parlance, "Lodgers". Even if they did not actually work there, the Centre provided serviceman with the important things in their life; food to eat, a place to sleep, medical service and most important - Pay!
The first known Lodger was recorded on the 9th February when RAF personnel began to attend 16-week instructional courses for Radio & Wireless Mechanics at the Hull Municipal Technical College. The initial course consisted of 22 Trainees but by the following July up to three consecutive courses were running with up to 100 at any one time. Those attending were "billeted out" to lodging houses in the city including the Marina Commercial Hotel at 118 Anlaby Road, Hull. The training took place under the auspices of the College at the Boulevard Secondary School, which had been closed, for education in July 1939.
In the early hours of the 16th February No. 942 Squadron HQ received a report from 58 Balloon Site to the effect that 4 HE bombs had exploded in fields nearby and there was no damage. This site at Cooks Farm off Hull Road was in a line with 20 Site on nearby Somerden Road; between them there was a large permanent building surrounded by four tall lattice towers; this was a Air Ministry Direction Finding Station. This installation, one of many in the country provided navigational bearings for friendly aircraft by radio and bombers returning from operations into Europe frequently used this method. Of the 4 enemy bombs that was dropped it could be said was a very near miss!
During an air raid on the 13th March a single incendiary bomb fell on the Centre and it was recorded as no damage or casualties, no other similar incidents are mentioned in that Log. However from other sources a severe air raid did occur on the night of the 18/19th March with the report of many bombs falling in fields. Some of these supposed "misses" could relate to the secret activity on farm and other lands North of the Centre. What had been created were dummy targets and decoys to draw bombs from the intended targets by the use of fires, the exposure of lights and beacons. These sites operated under the code name of "Starfish".
In her book, "Sutton, Bransholme and Wawne", Merrill Rhodes identifies the position of one of the "Starfish" Beacons by referring to diaries written on the 19th March 1941 by the farmer of Wawne Common Farm. He described the fall of many high explosives and thousands of incendiary bombs, making particular mention of the land mine that caused considerable damage to the farmhouse and other buildings. He concluded there was to be no bed for him that night as the crew of the Beacon had arrived. Merrill also shows that the RAF crew lived in a caravan on the site keeping the beacon alight to deflect enemy aircraft from Hull. With hindsight it does show that the decoys had been successful but it was very unfortunate for the farmer! RAF air photographs of the area taken in June 1942 show that numerous bomb craters were visible in the fields surrounding the Centre.
Damage was done to buildings in the centre of the City of Hull on 22nd March, though this was not caused by enemy action - the culprit was a friendly barrage balloon that had escaped from Site 52 at the south-west corner of Queen's Gardens. The cable suspending from it attacked chimneys' in Alfred Gelder, Parliament and Quay Streets and then went on to dislodge a minaret from the Guildhall Clock Tower, which crashed through the glass roof of the Guildhall Banqueting Chamber. Thinking there was an air raid, staffs in the building were immediately sent to the shelter in the basement, and when nothing further occurred, twenty minutes later it was back to work!
Returning to their desks a young lady was found in a "faint" which had obviously happened when the masonry fell. However, she was soon revived and except for her lone ordeal, no one else was injured.
During the month of April it was a case of "Dig for Victory" - Spring had come to the Centre. The CO reported in detail that 4 acres of land had been ploughed for potatoes, ¼ acre each for beetroot and broad beans, 1 acre for peas and space for 3,000 sets of onions. To provide enough seedlings to grow 10 to 12 acres of vegetables a seedbed had been made and a small sowing machine (a drill) had been obtained. The only thing he did not report was who had done the digging!
From February until the beginning of May, Hull has suffered some 22 bombing air raids. The Centre's Log records that on the night of 7/8th May, Hull had suffered a severe enemy raid. It states that a large parachute mine that had fallen in the centre of the City had caused the first large fire.
The No. 942 Squadron's Balloon Site on Island Wharf received a direct hit and the two huts and other equipment there subsequently burnt out. The same Squadron's Flight HQ in the nearby Boat Train Railway Station buildings and the Riverside Quay was completely destroyed by a fire. It was described as an inferno and RAF casualties there were recorded of the death of AC1 Stanley Port of the RAFVR and 3 others injured. The Flight HQ was re-established at the Lock-pit on King George Dock.
The Log continued that in the same raid 3 RAF personnel was killed and several injured at the Marina Commercial Hotel at 118 Anlaby Road, which was gutted by fire. The trainee RAF Radio Mechanics lodging there fought the fire until the water supply ran out and those who survived were moved to the Boulevard School as a temporary measure. Other trainees were billeted in private houses in Dover Street: an area that was heavily bombed the same night, four of them took cover in a brick shelter and although the walling suffered a vertical crack and the concrete lid moved, they survived.
On the same night bombs had fallen near the Hull to Doncaster Railway level crossing on Anlaby Road and the nearby Balloon Site (No. 59) was completely destroyed by fire. This site had been on open land at the rear of Miles Motor Cycles premises on Anlaby Road near the junction of Selby Street. No casualties there were reported and the balloon site was later established at the Nautical College on Boulevard. The protection of the level crossing continued with the transfer of No. 56 Balloon at West Parade to West Park.
On the east side of the City the Headquarters of ‘D’ Flight at Marfleet was also hit and set on fire those on duty brought it under control. There were no casualties but the bowl in the Officer’s toilet was badly damaged! Other fires had been started on nearby King George Dock estate and the pit prop storage areas became an inferno when the fire was at hand to Corporation Road the No. 75 Balloon Site there was evacuated without injury to the crew.
There is evidence to show that during the heavy air raids, personnel at the Centre 'took cover' in the Air Raid 'Shelters Surface' and 'Sleeping' for them. It can be assumed that the Balloon Crew on Sites did the same when possible, as brick shelters had also been provided, but for the crews on a 'Waterborne' on the River - there was nowhere for them to go! They witnessed the heavy air raids on the City of Hull where many of them had homes and became concerned for the well being of their families.
One such crewman on a Balloon Barge was LAC Tom Bentley. Tom had joined No. 942 Balloon Squadron in May 1939 and soon after the start of hostilities he was sent to 'A' Flight and serve on a Balloon Barge moored on the River Humber off Hull's Albert Dock. He and many of the crew members lost all their personal equipment in the fire when the Flight HQ was destroyed.
During the raid of the 8th May some 203 civilians were killed and 165 injured and the next night, the 9th, a further 217 were killed with 160 injured. For secrecy purposes the Blitz of Hull were reported in the media as having taken place at a 'North - East Coastal Town'!
On the 3rd June Corporal Tom Mould, who we met earlier was aboard His Majesty's Drifter "Talona", a "Mobile", stationed at the mouth of the River Humber when he successfully shot down a Junkers 88 mine-laying aircraft, for which he duly received credit. It is likely that he used either a Lewis or Vickers .303 calibre machine gun, both of WW 1 vintage issued for defence.
From a rather dangerous but good viewing position on a Balloon Barge, Tom Bentley saw the effect of enemy mine-laying when between his barge and the river bank of Albert Dock: the Steam Trawler "Caspian" was sunk in minutes by an 'acoustic sea mine' while returning from the fishing grounds to discharge her cargo at the Hull Fish Dock. This vessel, built in 1895 was re-floated, repaired and in 1943 re-registered as GY755 to continue her own dangerous war service, catching fish.
On a later occasion while Tom Bentley was still on the same Balloon Barge, enemy aircraft dropped Incendiary Bombs over the river and one fell through the hatchway of the craft. One of the crew in a panic threw water over it and the ensuing explosion gave of choking fumes from the Phosphorous the bomb had contained. Tom and two of the crew suffering from shock and fumes were transferred to recover at the Centres' Sick Quarters. It is known that when Tom was fit again he returned to duty on the same Barge and continued to remain in the RAF until early in 1946.
During the early hours of Sunday 31st August heavy bombing took place in the Beverley Road/ Wellington Lane area and the community air-raid shelter in Waterloo Terrace received a direct hit. From nearby Arthur Terrace and on leave from No. 943 Balloon Squadron, Aircraftman 1st Class Hedley Towle (46) his wife, son and two daughters had taken cover in that shelter as did 25 other local civilians, all were killed by enemy action. (The death of Hedley Towle's family together with a description of the feeling that Hedley would have endured with his loss is recorded in the book 'The Blitz on Hull (1940-45)'. Shortly after publication the author, Reverend Phillip Graystone became aware of the death of Hedley with his family and he asks that those who contacted him as the correction he had promised: please accept my description of the unfortunate incident.)
On the 2nd September another operation commenced in the Humber area with the use of balloons. It was marked "Top Secret" under the code name of "Albino". The balloons were spherical and known as Admiralty Type Mk VI free balloon, which were to put in place aerial minefields in the skies over East Yorkshire.
It was in October 1940 that Balloon Command began discussions with the Admiralty who had put forward the idea to sow Air Mines at night in the path of attacking enemy aircraft. They had been carrying out research, which suggested that 4,000 mines could foul airspace of 10 miles by 30 miles for 8 hours with a wind speed of 30 mph. They also estimated that the overall cost of each would be £2 and cheaper than anti-aircraft gun shells!
The Balloon Development Establishment at Cardington examined the idea and came up with the apparatus FPD Mk 1 and tests with it was made in the London Area and it was reported as being a 'Heath Robinson affair'. It had a self-destruct mechanism that could be set for up to 8 hours delay by winding a slow fuse round a number of nails on a piece of wood. The poor Operator would then have to inflate the balloon, set the fuse for the length of the delay, light the slow fuse with a match or lighter and run with it to launch it into the air. No mean feat at night in the middle of a field!
These experiments were carried out by RAF crews and at that time the Airwomen of the WAAF were withdrawn from this Operation. The reason for this probably was the act of the lighting of fuses and launching a live bomb would make them ‘combatants’ and that time the WAAF’s were not officially members of the Armed Forces of the Crown; it appears that was to change.
The use of the apparatus was determined by whether or not there was a large number of enemy aircraft flying on a course that could intercept them; the wind direction and speed, and that there was no friendly aircraft in the path of them. The LZ Barrage Balloons in the area of the launch of them would be grounded.
After further tests and training in the London Barrage the use of the Free Balloon Barrage was expanded to include Hull and eleven other towns and ports in the UK. With the strict secrecy during WW2 and the passage of time the exact location of the Humber Area is uncertain however during November 1941 Albino stand by and necessary training took place at Balloon Site No’s 24, 21, 58 & 41 all within ‘D’ Flight of 942/3 Balloon Squadron the locations were in open land East of the City of Hull. No actual flying is recorded but it did state that it took seven minutes to inflate two of the Admiralty Type Mark VI balloons.
By 1942 it is thought that the original Heath Robinson equipment had been improved because during June and July of the year further Albino Stand by and training took place again within ‘D’ Flight at Balloon Sites 6, 15, 21, 24 & 63 all of which were crewed by WAAF Balloon Operators. One who was there relates that the worse thing in the handling of the equipment was the length of the piano wire; it was known to be 2,000 feet long.
In their initial training the WAAF’s had learned to fit and operate the explosive charges used on the Double Parachute Link System and in operation they handled them daily now they were being trained on the use of yet another explosive device and even run to fly the balloons, how things change: were they then ‘combatants ?’
There are no records to suggest that the use of "Albino" was a success but it said that it did cause considerable damage to civilian property, which would not have done much for the morale of those on the ground!
There were other similar operations and at least one with some modifications to the Albino equipment was used: the Long Aerial Mine. These were dropped by the RAF to form a mine field in the path of approaching enemy aircraft. Similar to the Double Parachute Link, the Parachute and Cable System consisted of a length of piano wire attached to two parachutes, fired aloft by rockets.
It is possible that with the non-appearance of large armadas of enemy aircraft all the operations were cancelled by 1943.
On 1st December, Wing Commander H.F. Luck, O.B.E took over the 17th as Commanding Officer.
It was during this year that Tom Thorpe, who we first met in January 1939 after doing a spell as a Fabric Worker / Rigger at the Centre, was sent to No. 55 Site in Hull's Porter Street. Kath Cone who was 9 years old had an experience with the balloon from that site when she was attending Villa Place School. During an Air raid, with her schoolmates she was taken to an Air Raid Shelter and when the All Clear sounded getting out of it was difficult, as a deflated barrage balloon was over it. Help was at hand, the Crew came and took the balloon away and no doubt it was repaired, refilled and used again. In 1998 Tom recalled that incident and added that they had a lot of trouble with the children " messing about with our balloon" and to stop them it was always flown at 100 feet. Shortly after the incident Tom received promotion to Corporal to be in charge of No. 51 Site in Norfolk Street, it was there that other events where to be recorded in No. 942 Squadron's Log. That was on the 4th December when an unexpected visitor to Hull came to bother Tom and the crew at No. 51 Site, when an aircraft hit the balloon cable. It was a case of all balloon systems working perfectly causing the aircraft to crash on already bombed houses nearby.
In 1998 Corporal Tom Thorpe - then aged 92 years, related that it was humorously said by the airmen who operated the Balloons in the Humber Area, that during all the time they were flying them, they had only brought down one aircraft that actually hit the balloon cables and that was - "one of ours"! The RAF wartime humour can be applauded, though their claim proves to be correct.
In the Balloon Squadron's logs there is no mention of enemy aircraft actually being forced down by the cables, though there is a report from No. 942 Squadron dated 4th December 1941 - I quote: "Miles Master (8595) impacted cable on site 51. Both DPL's fired and plane crashed in Dover Street burning out and destroying 3 houses. Pilot 742801 F/Sgt Hulbert descended safely by parachute."
Tom Thorpe was able to remember it happening and I am pleased to say that so can the Pilot - Flight Lieutenant F.H.R. Hulbert, A.F.C. A.E. RAF Retired. Ray - now an active 81 year old, has submitted to me in 1998 his report of the long ago day when from the air, he unexpectedly visited the City of Hull.
"After serving with 601 Squadron from August 1940 - May 1941 flying 'Hurricanes', at the time of this incident I was an Instructor at 59 O.T.U Crosby on Eden near Carlisle, where pilots were taught to fly the 'Hurricanes' and everything else relevant to their becoming fighter pilots.
On December 3rd 1941, using Miles Master Mk III No. W8595, I flew to RAF Sutton Bridge, near Kings Lynn, direct across the Pennines as the weather and visibility was good. However, the following morning the weather was bad, with a lot of low cloud, so I waited for a while to see if it would clear. The 'Master' had no radio to aid my navigation, so it was not a good idea to fly across the Pennines! I decided to fly east of them, turn east towards the coast to miss the Hull balloons, then fly north to Scotch Corner, turn left through a gap in the Pennines and so to Crosby on Eden - I had flown this route before.
Over 50 years after the event you may think, "why not wait for better weather - why take the risk"? As we use to say - "there's a war on" and we were very busy at 59 O.T.U. Flying was 'on' seven days a week, as not only were pilots needed in the UK, there was also a huge demand for them in the Middle East. My quick return was necessary to help maintain the impetus of the whole initiative.
After taking off about mid-day, the weather gradually deteriorated. I was flying at 2,500 feet in between clouds with a layer above and below me, so I could not see the ground. I was about to turn east towards the coast, when I experienced a sudden deceleration. I could see a cable and a great gash in the wing, the 'Master' was a wooden aircraft and I realised I had hit a balloon cable. The aircraft had started to go into a spin and as I was only at 2,500 feet I knew there would be insufficient height below cloud to recover. A quick decision was necessary - to bale out! Open the sliding hood, undo the Sutton Harness, fortunately no oxygen or radio connections to unfasten and over the side, making every effort to avoid being knocked out by the passing tail plane. I pulled the ripcord, the parachute opened thank goodness and straight into the clouds.
On coming out of the cloud, the base, which was about 500 feet, I was horrified to see a large area of bombed and devastated buildings below me. I thought the chance of avoiding at least a broken leg or probably much worse, were slight. I did manage to manoeuvre to where it appeared a little less chaotic and landed with a pretty hefty thump.
Luckily, I landed in what must have been an entry or passage and much to my surprise I was completely unhurt - not even a sprained ankle. I released my parachute harness, retrieved my forage cap from behind it and was then properly dressed! I had no flying clothing on apart from my helmet, as the 'Master' was quite warm and comfortable when flown with the hood closed.
I was obviously near the centre of Hull as a crowd of people soon gathered. One came up to me and invited me to his office to use the 'phone, which was most helpful of him. Much to my surprise and amusement it was in an Undertaker's office! I contacted the local Balloon Squadron who came round to collect me. They were interested to hear about the effectiveness of their balloons and took me to where the aircraft had crashed. I was relieved to see that it was in the gardens of a row of already bombed out houses and all that remained of it was the tail wheel - the aircraft had exploded with about three quarters of a tank full of aviation spirit on board.
They gave me a railway warrant back to Carlisle and after a typically uncomfortable wartime train journey, I arrived back there at 9.30 PM. I knew there would be some of my friends at the Station Hotel so I joined them for a drink - or two.
The next day I reported to my Flight Commander who asked me how I felt. I told him I could answer that much better after I had flown again. I therefore took a 'Hurricane' up for about half an hour, did a few slow rolls and loops, and felt fine, so back to work - "there was a war on!"
Ray had joined the RAF Volunteer Reserve in 1938 and was called up for regular service in August 1939 and joined No. 601 (City of London) Squadron to fly Hurricanes during the Battle of Britain. He became an Instructor and after his brief visit to Hull he continued to train the much needed Fighter Pilots.
In 1943 he joined No. 193 Squadron, flying Typhoons for 12 months then became Commanding Officer of No. 10 Group Communications Squadron and afterwards Chief Instructor of No.3 Air Practice Squadron at RAF Hawkinge. In November 1945 he left the service, rejoined the RAF Volunteer Reserve, and continued to fly until 1953, when the Reserve was disbanded.
During his 15-year service as a Pilot he had flown in nearly 40 different aircraft - from the era of the bi-plane Hawker Hart and Tiger Moth to the Gloster Meteor of the jet age. He lived a well-earned retirement at Sutton Coldfield until his death in September 2004, at the age of 86 years.
From other records evidence shows that from May 1940 until August 1944 a total of 91 RAF and USAAF aircraft were destroyed in collision with Barrage Balloons cables. With the crash already described: it is said a further 3 RAF aircraft crashed within the area covered by the Hull Barrage. They were: -
To alleviate the losses of Allied crews and aircraft: wireless beacons were installed on certain balloons on the perimeter of Barrages. This equipment, suspended below the balloon was powered from the ground via the modified cable and transmitted a continual tone that became known to Pilots as "Squeakers". The Hull Barrage had one such installation at No. 9 Site on Halton Marshes in North Lincolnshire; it was only activated when RAF aircraft were returning to their home bases.
Although the incident is not recorded in the Squadrons Logs, Tom Bentley recalls that one night an enemy bomber struck the cable of the balloon flown from his barge on the River Humber where he was serving. The balloon crew brought their machine gun into use but the aircraft continued to fly towards Spurn Point. It appears that the aircraft crashed into the North Sea off Skipsea and the Anti- aircraft battery there claimed to have shot it down.
The basic information of three similar incidents was recorded in the Duty Officer’s Log of D Flight HQ at Marfleet. The first dated Wednesday 5th February 1941 stated that Site No. 6 Balloon broke away with 4000 feet of cable this was due to impact with an enemy (unidentified) aircraft the winch had been moved 60 yards. The next day an entry showed that a new winch was on Site 6 and a new Balloon inflated; the old Winch went to the Centre and balloon salvaged from Paull Battery. Early in the morning of that very same day, Harold Beadle, then aged 14 years, had delivered the milk to the Battery and on passing the Balloon Site he saw a Sussex Winch Lorry stood on it’s bonnet, as he described it, half way up a tree! This Site was on the local known BBC Field, Thorngumbald Road and in 2006 Harold now at 79 years lives nearby.
The second in Flight records is that at 3.0 AM on the Friday 25th April 1941 the cables at No’s 41 and 63 Balloon Sites had been struck by an unidentified aircraft flying from the East to West both Balloons were lost; these sites were off Hull Road, Hedon.
The third incident was for Monday 4th August 1941 at 5.0AM the cable of the Balloon at Site 75 had been hit by an aircraft flying at 1,000 feet; this site was at the extreme end of Corporation Road on the foreshore of the River Humber.
On the other banks of the river a
similar event took place in March 1941 when an enemy aircraft crashed near Habrough, North Lincolnshire; the true target for this Heinkel 111 had been RAF Leeming in Yorkshire and off course, it entered the Balloon Barrage. The report made at the time described the raider flying very low jettisoning it's load of bombs on wasteland from which it could be said that a balloon cable had already caused damage to it and that a crash was imminent - before it was fired upon from a light anti-aircraft battery. The sole Gunner credited with the kill was rewarded with a barrel of beer that no doubt he enjoyed.
The balloon crew at No. 8 Balloon Site off Pelham Road at Immingham were possibly glad that the jettisoned bombs, although surprisingly close, had missed them!
It is said elsewhere that during February and March 1941 at least seven enemy aircraft fell to the balloons and that by 1945 the figure had increased by only seventeen making the final tally of twenty four but according to Squadron records, none crashed within the Hull Barrage, which in part confirms the saying related by Tom Thorpe.
During the year, a further 16 bombing air raids took place with the last in November making a total of 40 for the year. Casualties to the civilian population numbered 991 dead and 867 injured.
This was the second winter of the war and the RAF personnel continued to repair and maintain the balloons, but the Commanding Officer did not record what vegetables were harvested from the 'Dig for Victory' effort in the Spring!