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Operation Outward

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The balloons were expected to fly at a relatively low altitude of 16,000 ft over short distances, which meant they did not need any complicated ballast and pressure-control systems to control and maintain altitude. Mass production was therefore easy and cheap, each balloon costing only 35 shillings. The program did not put any British lives at risk, and required only some 300 personnel, most of them women who were not needed for frontline service.

The first launches took place on 20 March 1942. Within a few days, encouraging reports of forest fires near Berlin and in East Prussia came in. Even more encouraging were radio intercepts that showed that the Luftwaffe was sending up fighters to destroy the balloons. Whether that had been expected is unclear but was of great consequence. Germany was spending far more resources trying to destroy the balloons than Britain was by launching them. Sending fighters to destroy the balloons meant extra fuel consumption, airframe fatigue, crew fatigue and losses.

Although there are numerous reports of balloons shot down by German fighters, it can be safely assumed that the Luftwaffe did not sustain such "balloon intercept" operations, which would have been far too costly. Most balloon kills probably happened in the course of other aerial operations. In comparison, the infamous German V-1 "Doodlebug" missile was more effective as a nuisance weapon. Its military value per se was quite low, put it would have been politically impossible to ignore them, and therefore great resources were diverted to try to intercept the missiles and destroy the launch sites.

German civilian resources were also committed to fight the fires started by balloons. While the actual damage of such balloon attacks was negligible, the program was cost-effective and tied down resources Germany could have used elsewhere.

Given such success, a second launch site was set up at Oldstairs near Dover in July 1942. On the downside, precautions did have to be taken to ensure the balloons didn't become a hazard to RAF operations. In agreement with the RAF, launches could only be performed in daylight and a two-hour advance notice had to be given to the airmen.

Also problematic was damage caused to neutral nations by balloons ending up in Sweden or Switzerland. On the night of 19-20 February 1944, a balloon shorted a Swedish rail lighting system, resulting in a train collision. Diplomatic protests were issued by the Swedish government, but this mostly proved without doubt the potential of the balloon campaign. Various historical sources clearly show that balloons very often did land in these countries, and caused some damage.

However, the greatest success of Operation Outward was yet to come. On 12 July 1942, a cable-trailing balloon struck a 110,000 volt power line near Leipzig. The overload switch in the nearby Bohlen power station did not trip quickly enough, resulting in a fire which spread and destroyed the entire complex. The damage was estimated at a million pounds, to be compared with the £ 220,000 spent on operation Outward.

Launches decreased progressively to avoid interference with the ever-increasing bombing campaign over Germany, and slowly came to a halt after D-Day, as Allied forces were advancing. The last launches were made on 4 September 1944.

Between March 1942 and September 1944, 99,142 balloons were produced and launched. Of these, 55,343 were of the incendiary type and 45,599 of the cable-trailing type.


While Operation Outward was of no significant military value per se, it can only be considered a great success in the scope of total war. During a period of 30 months, the balloons were a nuisance to the enemy and did cause actual damage. The cost of the whole program was negligible compared to what it cost the Axis. As such, it is surprising that such an operation has remained largely unknown to this day.