Heritage: Barrage balloons at Hornchurch airfield

An RAF Corporal delivers a lecture on mooring a barrage balloon in 1942

An RAF Corporal delivers a lecture on mooring a barrage balloon to WAAFs in 1942. Practically all balloon sites would be operated by women. - Credit: PA

Barrage balloons had been used during the First World War as a defence against low flying aircraft and in 1938 they were once again deployed for defensive reasons, primarily to hamper dive bombers.

On February 26, 1939 the Balloon Squadron of the Auxiliary Air Force gave a demonstration of their use and local residents came to witness the winching crews raising and lowering the balloons.

However, in practice during the war they proved to be of little use against high-level bombers and also acted as obstacles to the operation of aircraft using Hornchurch airfield.

As the war progressed and air superiority was gained, a new threat required the provision of barrage balloons - that of the V1 rocket. A wall of balloons was hastily installed to ensnare this new menace, with limited success.

No 4 Balloon Centre at Chigwell was responsible for the winch crews locally. After the war, the balloons were used for parachute training and many older readers still remember watching parachutists jumping into the 1960s.

On one occasion an incident occurred which made national headlines. During a routine parachute training exercise at Hornchurch on May 14, 1961, a barrage balloon with a cage hung beneath and which was tethered to a truck, unexpectedly burst and started to plummet towards the ground.

Four parachutists had already jumped and two other trainees were instructed by the trainer to jump immediately, successfully parachuting to the ground.

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With the cage tilting at 45 degrees and supported only by fabric, there was still time for the trainer and a third trainee to jump, but Sergeant Small considered the inexperienced trainee might not survive. With the cage now free-falling and becoming virtually inverted, he told the trainee lift his feet from away from the cage and cling to a crossbar.

The cage impacted with the ground, followed by the deflated balloon and horrified onlookers feared the worst as they ran towards the wreckage.

After CSM Albert Edward "Rocky" Small and Lance Corporal Watts were extricated from the wreckage, both were rushed to Oldchurch Hospital, Romford. However, Small had suffered only a badly bruised leg, whilst Watts escaped with an injured nose.

For his courage and devotion, CSM Small was awarded the George Medal.

* More Andy Grant articles can be found on the Romford Memories Facebook group