Aces High
March 24, 2006 6:50 AM   Subscribe

In 1938 the British Balloon Command was established to protect cities and key targets such as industrial areas, ports, landmarks and harbours.Barrage balloons or "Bulging Berthas" were inflatable shiny silver-painted balloons, made of rubber-coated fabric, and filled with hydrogen gas used prevent low level attacks by enemy aircraft. The balloons flew anywhere from 500 feet to 10,000 feet. The 15 gauge flying wire that tethered them could clip the wings off a plane. They were also used at sea and to cover invasions. They were also effective against the V-1 flying bomb and back in the late 80s, at least one general thought they could still be used to protect airfields.
posted by Smedleyman (16 comments total)
There's also a reunion club.

And the obligatory wiki link.
posted by Smedleyman at 6:51 AM on March 24, 2006

Also: All planes flying through or near a hex with a barrage balloon must roll a d20 to see if the balloon cable is hit.
posted by Smedleyman at 6:52 AM on March 24, 2006

So thats what those things were for. I'd seen pictures, and I always assumed they were for holding up radio antenas.
posted by delmoi at 6:54 AM on March 24, 2006

What a great band name: British Balloon Command.
posted by Ironmouth at 7:09 AM on March 24, 2006

I remember as a kid making model planes and wondering why the Focke Wolf 190 kit came with cable cutters on the leading edge of the wings. Genius.
posted by Sk4n at 8:03 AM on March 24, 2006

I don't know why, but the picture in the d20 link is weirdly inspiring to me. I love the idea of barrage balloons floating over a tabletop game.
posted by COBRA! at 8:19 AM on March 24, 2006

A balloon's used in one of the new Doctor Who episodes, the Empty Child...
posted by flameproof at 8:41 AM on March 24, 2006

Smedleyman, great post!

Ironmouth, I can see them opening for British Sea Power
posted by shoepal at 8:52 AM on March 24, 2006

In Hope and Glory, there's a great scene where the British civilians are entertained by a barrage balloon that gets loose from its cables, and then it's shot down. A great film about life during the blitz.
posted by bardic at 8:57 AM on March 24, 2006

Huh. I'd read about barrage balloons and was never quite sure what they were and what they looked like. Nice post!
posted by languagehat at 9:18 AM on March 24, 2006

I'll ditto everything that's been said here so far.
posted by briank at 9:54 AM on March 24, 2006

I still have a hard time imagining these things working. Unless there were just such a ridiculous number of them that you couldn't see the sky, why not just fly between? I know that WWII aircraft were not F-14 Tomcats, but I'd imagine that it'd be simple to fly between the balloons or for a rocket to miss them. Even better, shoot the balloon and let the 500 feet of steel cable destroy things for you when it snaps back.

Someone have a better explanation of how these worked practically?
posted by Eideteker at 10:09 AM on March 24, 2006

You can also parachute out of barrage balloons, much more 'interesting' than exiting an aircraft since it's very silent and you have plenty of time to enjoy the view as they winch you up.
posted by fingerbang at 10:34 AM on March 24, 2006

why not just fly between?

Remember, most bombing raids were conducted at night, and the only light available to the pilots was star and moonlight. (People were ordered to use heavy curtains so that city lights would not be visible) In addition, there was lots of smoke and commotion from the battle. So, the pilots probably couldn't see the balloons much of the time.
posted by unreason at 10:36 AM on March 24, 2006

What unreason said. And while I can't find the quotation, I remember reading accounts of the days leading up to the Normandy invasion in which the sky around the English channel was blotted out by these ballons. En masse they were as effective as anything else I guess.
posted by bardic at 10:54 AM on March 24, 2006

You can also see barrage balloons in many photographs of D-Day, such as this scene recreated for SPR, or this real shot from a landing boat.

Eideteker, from the thirdish link:
It was hoped the barrage balloons would deter invasion by low-flying aircraft. The barrage balloon, filled with lighter-than-air gas, was attached to a steel cable that could be raised or lowered using a motorized winch. In forcing enemy planes to higher altitudes, surprise invasions became less likely and bombing accuracy was hampered as well. The balloons restricted the airspace available to rogue aircraft, channeling their flights into zones protected by ground-based artillery. The cables themselves presented a hazard to pilots, capable of shearing off a passing plane's wings and propellers. At one time, a charge was placed beneath the balloon that would blow when the wing of the plane slid to the top of the cable, with the release of the helium setting the plane on fire.

As with many such defensive technologies, much of the point is simply increasing the complexity and cost of an enemy assault as a totality. The benefit is not necessarily in creating an impenetrable shield (probably impossible anyway). Pilots watching out for balloons have one more distraction, which could increase their vulnerability to ack-ack. Pilots flying higher or more defensively will drop bombs less accurately, forcing the enemy to build more bombs, more planes, fly more flights, and risk more crews to hit the same targets.

A precise example is given:
In an attempt to clear the balloons from Dover, the Germans launched a major effort in late August 1940. They destroyed 40 balloons but lost six aircraft in the process. Much to the Germans' chagrin, 34 new balloons appeared the very next day.

Basically, balloons are cheap, but planes and pilots cost real money.
posted by dhartung at 5:32 PM on March 24, 2006

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