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"With all the men, tanks, trucks, airplanes, and the tons and tons of supplies being gathered for the invasion, if it hadn't been for the barrage balloons, Britain would have sunk."

This page is respectfully dedicated to George A. Davison
320th AAA Barrage Balloon Battalion (VLA)


   On August 15, 1941, the announcement was made that Routon, Tennessee had been chosen as the site for the Army's new barrage balloon training center (the original BBTC had been established temporarily at Camp Davis, North Carolina; the postcard directly below shows a balloon being man-handled at Camp Davis). Tyson was to be the only Army post of its kind in America. Construction began on September 4, 1941. The barrage balloon was a new tool of defensive warfare and the camp was established for the express purpose of constructing barrage balloons and training personnel in their deployment and use, an assignment commissioned by the Secretary of War on April 14, 1941. The location of the camp was chosen because it was considerably far away from regular air lanes and balloon activities would not interfere with peacetime aviation. Much planning, including devising training and operational procedures, was accomplished at Camp Davis while waiting for the new camp to be completed. Antiaircraft defense planners tested and documented the complicated process of handling the winches and cables for the balloons, which could be flown up to altitudes of 10,000 feet. Power was furnished by gasoline-powered motors which had to be maintained also, and atmospheric conditions had to be evaluated before releasing the balloons. All of the tactics and techniques involving the balloons and their equipment were developed from scratch in 1940-41, after which training manuals were created and training cadres formed. The Coast Artillery formed several "Barrage Battalions" in 1941 and they were deployed in conjunction with AAA guns to defend the oil refineries and storage facilities near Los Angeles in Southern California. However, the balloons were not ready to be fully deployed in time to avert the disastrous suprise attack by the Japanese at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.

Barrage balloon being man-handled at Camp Davis, NC.

   Paris and all of Henry County soon became jammed to capacity with workmen. At the peak of employment, a total of almost 8,000 persons were engaged in erecting the camp. Construction peaked at Christmas 1941 and then began to diminish until the camp was completed, on March 14, 1942. On that day, the camp was turned over to the U.S. Army.

   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. Great Britain had used similar balloons during the last years of World War I and in the early days of World War II thousands of balloons dotted the British skies.

Painting of U.S. Army soldiers working with a balloon.

   On Friday, February 13, 1942, Company B of the 302nd Barrage Balloon Battalion sent aloft the first balloon at Camp Tyson. United States Army Brigadier General John B. Maynard, arrived at Camp Tyson three days later and assumed command of the installation.

U.S. Army balloon being deployed in 1942.

   The camp was named after Brig. General Lawrence David Tyson of Tennessee, World War I fame. Tyson had graduated with honors from the United States Military Academy at West Point, helped capture Geronimo and his followers in Arizona, became professor of military tactics at the University of Tennessee, served as a Colonel during the Spanish-American War, was appointed a Brigadier General (inspector general) in the Tennessee National Guard, was elected to the Tennessee House of Representatives, and served as Speaker of the House from 1903 to 1905. He led the 59th Infantry Brigade, 30th Division and its 8,000 for Tennessee and the Carolinas to the breaking of the Hindenburg Line during World War I, discovering at the height of the battle that his son, a Navy aviator, had been killed in battle over the North Sea. It was General Tysonís fervent hope and prayer that the United States would never again be faced with battle as it was in 1917-18. Camp Tyson was named in his honor in hopes that the work performed there might share in bringing the "civilization and peace of the world" that Tyson so yearned.

Camp Tyson postcard, circa 1943.

   The original reservation consisted of an area of government-owned land containing a total of 1,680 acres. It was approximately 1.5 miles wide, north and south, and 2.5 miles long, east and west. As finally developed, the contonment area (housing, service and supply, hospital and training center facilities) utilized about 900 acres. Camp Tyson was developed primarily for the training of units of the Coast Artillery Corps assigned to activities connected with the use of barrage balloons, as an arm of defense against attack by enemy military aircraft.

   The camp provided quarters for 535 officers and 8,356 enlisted men. The total cost was $11,708,640 (the 75-foot flagpole on the parade ground cost $2,754). It was comprised of about 400 buildings. Included in the construction of the camp were ten miles of asphalt road, five miles of railroad, a post office, hospital, guest house, service club, two chapels, a library, and a theatre.

Motorized balloon and rigging crew, circa 1941.

   America was anticipating German attacks from the east coast and a Japanese invasion from the west coast. In Spring 1942, balloons came into use in places like New York, San Diego, Norfolk, Virginia, and Pensacola, Florida. Ships were outfitted with the balloons to keep German aircraft from sweeping in low and strafing them Soon, several U.S. Army barrage balloon units saw combat in North Africa, providing effective protection against low-level attack on captured Mediterranean ports.

   The 320th Antiaircraft Balloon Battalion (VLA) (denoting Very Low Altitude) was the only Black combat unit to take part in the initial D-Day landing on the Normandy coast on June 6, 1944. The barrage balloons seen floating over the beaches of Normandy in June 1944 were the responsibility of this unique unit.

   As an arm of antiaircraft defense, barrage balloons had a very short lifespan. After the Luftwaffe had been effectively dispatched from European skies, the balloons soon became obsolete. Camp Tyson then became a staging area for troops going overseas, and also as a prisoner-of-war camp for German prisoners captured in North Africa.

excerpted from http://www.spinksclay.com/AboutUs/camptyson.html

BRIEF HISTORY (excerpted from Barrage Balloons for Low-Level Air Defense by Major Franklin J. Hillson, USAF)

   The barrage balloon was simply a bag of lighter-than-air gas attached to a steel cable anchored to the ground. The balloon could be raised or lowered to the desired altitude by means of a winch. Its purpose was ingenuous: to deny low-level airspace to enemy aircraft. This simple mission provided three major benefits: (1) it forced aircraft to higher altitudes, thereby decreasing surprise and bombing accuracy; (2) it enhanced ground-based air defenses and the ability of fighters to acquire targets,since intruding aircraft were limited in altitudes and direction: and (3) the cable presented a definite mental and material hazard to pilots. Many people think that a barrage balloon system was designed to snare aircraft like a spider web capturing unwary flies. Not so. Any airplanes caught in these aerial nets were a bonus; the real objective of the balloons was to deny low-altitude flight to the enemy. Mindful of these capabilities, the British saw the barrage balloon as a viable means to counter low-level attackers during the world wars.

   During the last years of World War I, the British employed the barrage balloon in response to attacks by German Gotha bombers on London. Called an "apron," the barrage consisted of three balloons 500 yards apart joined together by a heavy steel cable. These balloons had an operational height of 7,000 to 10,000 feet, and by June 1918 ten apron barrages shielded the northern and eastern approaches to the capital. Although there is no record of these balloons ever directly bringing down an enemy aircraft, they did permit British fighters and AAA to concentrate their efforts in a smaller expanse of airspace (above 10,000 feet), and they prevented the Gothas from flying low. The Germans themselves thought the barriers were very effective. Gen Ernst Wilhelm von Hoeppner, the commanding general of the German airforce in World War I, received a report stating that the balloons made attacks very difficult and would make future raids on London virtually impossible if balloon defenses continued to improve. In fact, an increase of 3,000 feet in the operational height of the barrage balloons would have effectively stopped German heavier-than air bombardment of London since the Gotha's combat altitude was only 13,000 feet. Major General Edward B. Ashmore, the London air defense area commander, valued the barrage balloon system and the services of its 3,587 personnel. Although the barrage balloon flew for only a year in England during World War I, it was a fully integrated component of the British air defense system and performed its important mission very well.

   The success of the barrage balloon in the First World War paved the way for its use in the Second. This time, however, instead of a mere handful, thousands of balloons dotted the British skies. Again, the balloons provided a partial solution in countering fast, low-flying German bombers and fighters and in protecting key installations. The British belief in an integrated air defense system meant using every viable air defense weapon for self-protection--a combination that included the principal means of fighters, antiaircraft artillery, and balloons. The only modification in balloon usage from World War I concerned the apron concept. Instead, single balloons were used because they could be sent aloft more quickly and were easier to operate. Thus, in 1936 with war clouds darkening the horizons, the Committee of Imperial Defense authorized an initial barrage of 450 balloons for the protection of London.

   With the capital securely covered, barrage balloons also flew at fleet anchorages and harbors in threatened areas. Although airfields also requested them during the early months of the war, the balloons were not available because of slow production and losses due to combat and bad weather. However, thanks to a new balloon plant, the barrage system had 2,368 balloons by the end of August 1940 and would maintain approximately 2,000 operational balloons until the end of the war.

   These numbers demonstrate the extent to which the British valued their balloons. They had even formed Balloon Command in 1938, an independent command under the leadership of Air Marshal Sir E. Leslie Gossage, to control the 52 operational barrage balloon squadrons stationed across Great Britain. BC was charged with the job of creating a barrage of huge balloons aimed at protecting British towns and cities, as well as key targets such as industrial areas, ports, and harbors. They were intended to protect everything at ground level from the threat of low-flying German dive-bombers. The barrage balloons, which were set at heights of up to 5,000 feet, would force these aircraft to fly high, making them less accurate, and bring them within range of the antiaircraft guns. Eventually, this command consisted of 33,000 men. The amount of equipment and the number of personnel, however, tell only part of the story. Performance in combat is the principal indicator of a weapon system's success, and the balloons received a thorough test during World War II.

   Balloon crews, which could be as many as 16 strong, came mainly from the Women's Auxiliary Air Force. It was their job to put up these huge balloons, which were tethered at various heights on steel cables. The working conditions were difficult and dangerous.

   By the middle of 1940, there were 1,400 balloons, a third of them over the London area. By 1944 the number had risen to nearly 3,000. Later in the war, the barrage balloons were moved to combat the V-1 'flying bomb.'

   The balloons were huge (on average, about 62 feet long and 25 feet in diameter), lolling things that were put up from balloon sites or from the back of lorries with a winch. By 1944 the balloons were moved to make up a ring around south London to combat the V-1 menace with a fair degree of success — as many as 100 V-1s snagged themselves on the balloons' cables. It was not all plain sailing, however. Some of the balloons were struck by lightning while others were shot down — as many as 50 were shot down in one day when they were set up round Dover. The balloons were filled with hydrogen and flown from winch lorries used at static sites, but their mobility became essential when the barrage was moved to face the V-1 menace. (The Scottish physicist Arthur Vestry (1869-1959) later devised a method for protecting barrage balloons from lightning.)

BALLOON OVER TOWER OF LONDON    During the Battle of Britain and throughout the war, balloons proved their worth, time and again. Besides protecting strategic cities and ports, barrage balloons mounted in boats defended estuaries against mine-laying aircraft. A declassified wartime report assessed their performance: "Following the aerial sowing of mechanical mines, the reallocation of various units of the balloon barrage system to places like the Thames Estuary, and certain other channels, has resulted in effectively reducing the aerial mine sowing operations of the German Air Force." Barrage balloon cables also successfully frustrated German attempts to achieve surprise, low-level penetration at Dover.

   The Dover incident deserves elaboration because it provided, in the words of Air Marshal Gossage, "a clear indication of their [the Germans'] respect for the British balloon barrage." 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. Air Marshal Gossage commented on the action: "The protective balloons still fly over Dover. The attack on the barrage has proved too costly. . . . In general, major attacks on balloon barrages have ceased, the enemy having realised that the game is not worth the candle. The fact, however, that he hoped to destroy our balloons is in itself proof of the utility of the barrage." During the height of the blitz, 102 aircraft struck cables, resulting in 66 crashed or forced landings.

   After the Battle of Britain, balloons continued to prove their effectiveness in combat. Because of heavy losses during the day, the Germans switched to night attacks. Defensive night fighters were still in their rudimentary stages of development, so guns and balloons had to do most of the work against German bombers. Even after advances in night-fighter technology, it was the opinion of London that "balloons and guns were still essential, not so much to bring the enemy down as to keep him up so that point blank bombing was impossible." Two examples illustrate London's sentiments. First, a recently installed aerial barrage at Norwich surprised the Germans and diffused their bombardment by forcing them to attack above 8,000 feet. Second, the barrage balloons at Harwich saved that city from an attack by 17 bombers because the Germans went after their secondary target at Ipswich-Felixstowe, a place not protected by balloons. Overall, balloons lessened the severity of night raids on England by deterring point-blank bombing. Incidentally, they also had some tangible results in February and March of 1941, in that seven enemy aircraft crashed after striking cables in various parts of Great Britain.

Balloons being prepared for flight at a British port prior to D-Day.

   Even though German aerial activity over England gradually decreased, British balloon activity did not. Balloon Command units accompanied troops in North Africa and Italy, where they protected beachheads against low-level attack. Four thousand balloon personnel even took part in the invasion of Normandy, crossing the channel on D-day to protect artificial harbors, captured ports, and ammunition dumps of the Allies. But perhaps the best example of "balloons in combat" occurred during the V-1 offensive against London in 1944. Once again, balloons were an integral part of the air defense system and, in this case, formed the third and last line of defense against this low-flying weapon. Approximately 1,750 balloons from all over Great Britain were amassed around London, forming what one British officer called "the largest balloon curtain in history." Although guns and fighters destroyed most of the V-1 bombs (1,878 and 1,846, respectively), balloons were credited with 231 "kills." Basically, that was the last hurrah for British barrage balloons, and as the war gradually wound down in 1945, so too were the balloons of Balloon Command.

   Great Britain was not the only country interested in aerial barriers. Many Americans would be surprised to know that the United States had its own extensive barrage balloon defense during the early part of World War II. In fact, many areas of the West Coast had "balloon curtains" protecting cities. factories, and harbors. By August 1942 approximately 430 balloons defended important areas in California, Oregon, and Washington against low-level attack. Several balloon units were also sent overseas into combat. In late 1943, for example, Army balloon batteries deployed to the fighting in the Mediterranean.

   The North African campaign covered a fairly large front, and, as expected, many areas lacked sufficient air defenses. Balloons provided protection to several important ports, effectively enhancing the existing antiaircraft defenses. For example, in August 1943 the air defense region protecting Oran, Algeria, "requested 60 balloons for its sector in order to discourage torpedo, dive bombing, and low level bombing attacks." By October 1943 three American barrage balloon batteries (each with 45 balloons) operated in various ports in North Africa and Italy. When the port of Naples was captured, a battery of balloons operated there as part of the overall protection of that harbor from air attack. Naples was crucial to Allied operations in Italy: "Among [Mediterranean] ports Naples was the most important in the Allied line of communications; during January 1944 the port handled more tonnage than any other port in the world with the exception of New York." Although it was close to the German lines and received many air attacks, Naples had a solid air defense system and suffered only slight damage. A Fifth Army antiaircraft officer stated that a good port defense consisted of several elements, including an ample number of barrage balloons. The AAF Air Defense Activities in the Mediterranean summarized balloon operations in that theater: "Although American barrage balloons were not of primary importance in the Allied air defense system, they were undoubtedly valuable as a supplementary device to fighter aircraft and AA."

excerpted from http://www.airpower.maxwell.af.mil/airchronicles/apj/apj89/hillson.html


BEACH LITTER   The 320th Antiaircraft Balloon Battalion (VLA, or Very Low Altitude) (Colored), an all-Negro unit attached to the U.S. First Army, brought in barrage balloons in LSTs and LCIs in the third wave at Omaha and set them up on the beach, to prevent Luftwaffe strafing during the early hours of the assault. (Barrage balloons actually caused some serious concern at the Normandy landings, especially in the early hours. Several batteries of long-range German artillery could see these large balloons tethered above ships from several miles inland and were able to bombard those ships that they could not see with a fair amount of accuracy. Many Navy crews cut their balloons loose when it became apparent that the Luftwaffe was not going to be a big factor that day, but the artillery was.) After the beaches were secured, hundreds of balloons were set aloft over ships and shore. All of the barrage balloons flying over Omaha (like those at right, showing the beach littered with debris late on the afternoon of June 6) were flown by the African-American troops of the 320th, a little-known fact about the invasion.

   In fact, of the U.S. First Army's Omaha Beach assault forces on D-Day, less than 500 out of 29,714 troops were black. These were one section of the 3275th Quartermaster Service Company and the above-mentioned 320th Antiaircraft Balloon Battalion (VLA) (less one battery). Of the 31,912 U.S. troops landing on Utah Beach, approximately 1,200 were African-Americans and included troops of the remaining battery of the 320th Balloon Battalion, the 582d Engineer Dump Truck Company, the 385th Quartermaster Truck Company, and the 490th Port Battalion with its 226th, 227th, 228th, and 229th Port Companies.

A balloon flown by the 320th protects the E-3 exit at Omaha Beach on D+2 (Easy Red sector).

   One man in the 320th distinguished himself above many others that day. Corporal Waverly B. Woodson, Jr. was still a second-class citizen in terms of the rights he enjoyed as an African-American citizen of the United States. His diminished social and political status in the 1940s America was not reflected by his conduct in action. Serving as a medical corpsman with the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion, Woodson rode an LST into Omaha Beach and suffered a shrapnel wound when the vessel struck a mine as it approached the landing site. Disembarking while under continuous mortar and machine gun fire, Woodson assisted in establishing an aid station on the beach and remained on continuous duty in treating casualties for the next 18 hours. He then assisted in retrieving and reviving three soldiers who had nearly drowned while leaving a landing craft which had slipped its anchor and drifted into deep water. Woodson was then hospitalized for treatment of the wound he had received the previous day. He was one of the over one million black GIs and WACs who loyally served in the armed forces in defense of their country during World War II (more information).


The insignia of the 1st Marine Air Corps Barrage Balloon Squadron.

United States Marine Corps Barrage Balloon Training, Parris Island, SC, May 1942

The photos used in the slideshow were taken by photographer Alfred T. Palmer in May 1942 and were downloaded from the Library of Congress American Memory Collection Office of War Information Color Photograph Collection.



The March 9, 1942 cover of LIFE Magazine shows an American balloon and her crew somewhere in the field (cover image reprinted courtesy Time, Inc.).


Normandy, June 10, 1944. On this street in Vierville-Sur-Mer, peasant life went on as usual after the terrific shelling on D-Day. Occasional shells from the enemy lines dropped close by, but life went on as usual. A tarpaulin covered a dead German to the left of the road. Tethered Allied barrage balloons, visible in the distance, were designed to protect the Allied beachhead from low-flying German aircraft. ("This Road Leads To a Beach Called Omaha," watercolor by Alexander P. Russo, Naval Historical Center, Invasion of Normandy Art Exhibit.)


British LCT's line the Normandy shore, each with a barrage balloon designed to discourage enemy air attack. (From Coast Guard at Normandy by Scott T. Price.)


This famous photo shows Omaha Beach secured and dozens of ships unloading, thanks, in part, to the protective canopy of barrage balloons above. (From Coast Guard at Normandy by Scott T. Price.)


LST-325 (left) and LST-388 unloading at Omaha Beach on June 12, 1944 while stranded at low tide during resupply operations. Note the propellers, rudders, and other underwater details of these LSTs, as well as single 40-mm guns and the "Danforth"-style kedge anchor at LST-325's stern. And, of course, the barrage balloon in the distance. (National Archives and Records Administration Photo No. 80-252797, originally a U.S. Navy photo; available at NavSource.)


British barrage balloons are safely tucked away in their hangar for the night. W.A.A.F. balloon operators report for inspection before going off duty after a strenuous day of training. [Photo via Still Picture Branch (NWDNS), U.S. National Archives.]


American barrage balloons — destined be tethered from landing ships prior to a seaborne assault — clutter an Italian dock.


During the Fifth War Loan Campaign, two army barrage ballons are shown anchored to the ground in a parking lot next to the Koppers Building on Grant Street in downtown Pittsburgh, PA. One balloon will remain on the ground while the other will fly slogans. Dated June 13, 1944, from the Collections of the Pennsylvania Department, Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh.


LST 502 beached on Omaha, June 1944. No less than 13 barrage balloons protect the immediate area. Note the LST's open door at left, with a crewman on the ramp. When the tide goes out, the LST will be high and dry and can begin unloading.


Troops wade ashore at Utah Beach, June 1944. This unidentified sector is protected by eight balloons. Details include a DUKW driving along the shoreline (middle left), as well as the LCVP with its open ramp dominating the foreground, complete with life vests strewn everywhere and a bored-looking coxswain standing at right.




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