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Updated: 12 Feb 12
Barrage Balloon from World War II

Balloon Command was created on 1 Nov 1938.

Its primary function was to form part of the defence of main cities, ports and industrial areas.

Creation of Balloon Command

As early as 1929 Air Defence of Great Britain had recommended the creation of a balloon barrage to form part of the layered defence for Britain's main centres of population. In 1936 the Air Council made plans for a balloon barrage for the London Area, under the operational control of Fighter Command. As the international political climate deteriorated this planning was extended to provide similar barrages across the United Kingdom at areas likely to be within range and the target set for air attack, i.e. the main cities, ports and industrial areas.

On 1 Nov 1938, Balloon Command was created. Its first AOC-in-C was Air Vice Marshall OT Boyd OBE MC AFC, who was also in command of the Observer Corps (ROC from 1941) and based at RAF Stanmore. From here it integrated into the reporting chain and operational structure of Fighter Command.

Structure of Balloon Command

As with Fighter Command, Balloon Command divided the country into a regional Group or Sector structure. There were five Groups, each responsible for a number of balloon squadrons within their area. At the start of the War approximately 800 balloons were in service, but by 1942 in excess of 2000 were operational across the regional barrages.

Regional Balloon Centres

The establishment of the regional barrages requiremed local bases from which the components of the barrages could be maintained. From 1938 until 1940 this resulted in the construction of eighteen Balloon Centres built to a master plan and designed 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 the centre of the city they were protecting.

17 Balloon Centre, Humber Barrage

The Hull Docks - including those at Immingham in Lincolnshire - were a prime target for enemy bombing raids. The base for the Hull area was designated as RAF Number 17 Balloon Centre, subordinate to 33 Group of Balloon Command. Construction started late in 1938 with RAF Personnel reporting for duty early in January 1939.

Centre and Squadron Composition

By 25th Jan 1939, Numbers 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. In turn each balloon was crewed by a Corporal, 10 Airmen of the Auxiliary Air Force and a Regular RAF Balloon Operator.

On 28 Aug 1939 the Squadron’s Flight HQs were formed. No 942 Sqn had one flt HQ at Hull’s Riverside Quay Railway Station and two others at Grimsby Fish Dock and East Halton (both in Lincolnshire); together they were responsible for North Lincolnshire and the River Humber.

Operation of the Barrage

Balloon Barrage was a passive form of defence which forced enemy aircraft to operate at higher altitudes, thereby reducing the accuracy of their bomb aiming. This higher altitude also favoured active defence measures including searchlights, anti-aircraft guns and assigned fighter aircraft. An additional fillip that only became clear once war had begun was that barrage balloons deterred the sowing of sea mines in the defended estuaries.

Barrage balloons were primarily placed on the perimeter of the area to be defended. However if sited equidistantly over a circular area the likelihood of an impact on the barrage cables was doubled.

There were obvious disadvantages to any barrage. Fighter and Coastal Command aircraft occasionally fell victim to these local defences. The balloons also provided an obvious bomb aiming aid to the enemy by highlighting the very areas they were meant to defend.

In Sep 1939 at the outbreak of hostilities balloon manufacturers were unable to meet demand which resulted in only 180 balloons being available to the 14 barrages being created outside London. By 1 Oct 1939, the Hull Barrage consisted of only 19 Balloons, which it will be seen was only about a quarter of those required.

Humber Barrage Command and Control

Direction of the Hull Barrage fell to the local Barrage Control, who acted on orders from RAF Fighter Command in the form of the Sector Operations Room based at RAF Station Kirton Lindsey. It was there that all information of approaching enemy aircraft from RADAR Stations and the Observer Corps was received. Further Details on the 17 Balloon Centre page.


The flying of balloon barrages was finished in the United Kingdom in Autumn 1944. This led to the disbanding of Balloon Command in February 1945. In February some 1,000 remaining airmen and airwomen who had served in that Command was reviewed fittingly at RAF Stanmore Park.

Bomber Command heraldic crest

17 Balloon Centre

Grimsby - E Flt 942 Sqn

East Halton - D Flt 942 Sqn

Barrage Balloon Depots on Airfield Information Exchange

Aviation Heritage Lincolnshire

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