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Operation Outward

by Gaëtan Marie

It is said that even before the Montgolfier brothers first manned a hot-air balloon in 1783, they had already thought of military uses of their creation. They imagined an aerial assault on the British fortress of Gilbraltar, supposedly immune to attacks by sea or by land. While this was over-optimistic, the military were quick to find other practical uses to balloons. During the 1870 Prussian invasion of France, and especially during World War One, balloons were used as observation posts, guiding artillery fire. During the Second World War, they were mostly used in the anti-aircraft barrage role. A little-known fact is that balloons were also used during and after World War Two in other, more offensive, roles. The first such offensive use of balloons was Operation Outward which, ironically, was as successful as it was unexpected.

On the night of 17 to 18 September 1940, strong winds broke loose a number of British barrage balloons. Unleashed, the balloons drifted across the North Sea and landed in Denmark and Sweden, causing damage to power lines, disturbing railway traffic and even knocking out the antenna of the Swedish International radio station. At least five balloons were reported to have drifted as far as Finland.

As news of the runaway balloons and the damage they caused reached England, Prime Minister Winston Churchill ordered on 23 September that the military use of free-flying balloons against Germany be investigated. It was reasoned that if balloons could accidentally provoke such damage, they could surely be much more harmful if deliberately used as a weapon.

In fact, the matter had already been investigated. The British had begun producing barrage balloons in 1936 as war clouds gathered and in 1937, the Air Ministry had conducted a study to determine how much damage a balloon could cause if it broke off from its mooring and trailed its steel cable across the countryside. The study showed that if the steel cable were to short out power lines, power would be out for at least six hours.

However, the study was a civil-defence measure only and offensive use of balloons was not seriously considered until Churchill's request. Initially the Air Ministry opposed it on the grounds that the balloons would interfere with air operations, and that they would consume resources with no guaranteed results. Retaliation with similar balloons by the German was also a concern.

The Admiralty Board, on the other hand, was more interested in the idea, arguing that the program would be cheap and that the necessary resources – mostly hydrogen gas – were in ample supply. In addition to that, Germany was far more vulnerable to such attacks than Britain. Dominant winds blew from Britain towards the continent 55% of the time, and only 38% of the time in the opposite direction, making German retaliation improbable. More importantly, Germany's power grid was considered more vulnerable to damage by short-circuit, and Germany's large pine forests were more vulnerable to incendiary attacks than British forests.

A long bureaucratic struggle between the Air Ministry and the Admiralty began, retarding the program until September 1941, when the go-ahead was finally given.

Operation Outward, as it was called, began when a first launch site was set up in Landguard Fort near Felixstowe in Suffolk. Two types of balloons were to be used. The first type carried three 6-pound incendiary “socks” designed to set fire to pine forests and heathland, while the other trailed a long steel wire which, it was hoped, would hit power lines and create a short-circuit.


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