The Barrage Balloon: Memories of a Coleorton resident

Marian Walsh with barrage balloon

Marion Walsh (centre) with members of her team in front of the inflating balloon

During the 1970’s and 1980’s before I moved to Coleorton I lived in Essex, and during that time I was an inspector for the M.O.D. The work that I did meant I had to sign the secrets act, and I travelled all over the U.K. liasing with the three forces. Obviously I am unable to talk of my work with the M.O.D. - that information stays with me till I am no more - apart from one item that the public knew and the M.O.D. could not keep the people from seeing.

I was ordered to report to the R.A.F. Cardington in Bedfordshire, which at that time held the biggest hangers in the U.K. I arrived with a working crew, my vast book of reg’s and equipment. We would enter this vast hanger by a small side door, and there would be the reason I was summoned, a barrage balloon known during W.W. II as blimp. It was finished being assembled in sections. It lay on the pristine floor of this of this huge hanger, like some shining silver skin from a vast deflated whale. I walked round looking at the work done, then gave the men in my crew to start inflating. On the belly of the balloon was a large sleeve, this was connected to a powerful airline, and the balloon would start to inflate; after a while you could see the different shapes that make up the balloon, three fins, nose cone, scoop. But when it was half inflated, I would halt the procedure. Now I would have to get into a special jump suit, with a gauze mask because the material inside was covered in chalk, take off my shoes and put on a pair of special soft kid pumps. The sleeve was opened just enough to allow me to crawl inside taking with me my special marking equipment, and a lamp on a very long lead, the sleeve was resealed and there I was like Jonah in the belly of the whale. Now the inside of the balloon was not as some people think a big open space - it’s made up of a maze of tunnels, all made out of sheets of propylene, several thickness’s thick. This would keep in the helium gas. It had a second floor so that air could be taken from the scoop which helped in stabilization. I had to switch off my light, when I was in a certain area, let my eyes adapt to darkness, then if I saw any light from the outside, I would mark the spot with my special marking equipment, lights on, and proceed doing this until I was fully satisfied that I had looked at every inch of that balloon’s belly. This procedure would take me several hours. I would then work my way back to the sleeve and signal I was ready to be released. I would then inform my working party that I had found several areas that needed attention, this entailed that several patches would have to be applied and this meant that they would have to work through the night, so that the thick grey adhesive could cure ready for my final inspection the following day. They would be under the guidance of a senior member.

I would spend the night at the base, writing out my reports. The next morning I would go through the same procedure again, then if I was satisfied with the work carried out during the night, I would give instructions to fully inflate the balloon, while this was taking place, the nose cone frame was fitted, then the steel cables which would hold it to it’s mooring, but for now it was being attached to an heavy duty R.A.F. towing tractor. It wasn’t until the balloon was fully inflated, that you could see why R.A.F. Cardington was the only place this giant could be made and inflated. And that it’s early life was the base for Britain’s airships. The motors that opened the massive doors went in to action, and from my signal the tractor started to pull this huge silver whale out into the outside world, I followed it out, and sure enough there was the public, all standing beside their parked cars on the A603 which ran beside the R.A.F. base. I watched with keen eyes as the balloon was attached to its mast, after several more checks and P.S.I. readings, I took from a clip attached to my pocket my official M.O.D. stamp with my name and number on, “woe betide if you ever lost it” signed and stamped the M.O.D. documents taking full responsibility for this gleaming silver whale.

Compiled December 2023 by Marion Walsh, member of the Coleorton Heritage Group.