104 ‘P’ Balloon Flight

No. 104 ‘P’ Balloon Flight was formed in February 1944, under the command of Flight Lieutenant W.C.R. Hendry and trained in the U.K. for its role as a Port Balloon Flight to be deployed with the 2nd Tactical Air Force.

104 ‘P’ Flight moved with No. 991 Beach Balloon Squadron from Birmingham to Leigh on Sea, Essex on 10th May 1944 and, still together, the two units moved to No. 12 Balloon Centre at Titchfield, Hampshire on 21st May. No. 991 Beach Balloon Squadron left Titchfield on the 1st June and would make their landing in Normandy on 10th June.

No. 104 ‘P’ Flight left Titchfield in convoy on the afternoon of 8th June and moved to the Concentration Area at Old Sarum. On the morning of 14th June, they left for the Marshalling Area at Camp C 7, Hursley and then, in the afternoon, moved on to Camp C 1 at West End, near Southampton.

On the morning of 17th June, the Flight left in convoy for the Embarkation Area in Southampton. There were 2 officers and 47 Other Ranks (one airman having been removed to the C.R.S. at West End)

The Flight embarked on an L.S.T. that morning and landed across the beach in Normandy in the afternoon of 18th June, proceeding to their designated location. This was at Commes, about a kilometre outside Port en Bessin. The next day was spent setting up camp at their base, then on 20th June the C.O. and the second officer prospected sites for the Flight’s balloons.

No. 104 ‘P’ Balloon Flight were to deploy balloons to assist in the air defence of Port en Bessin. The small harbour had been brought into full use just a few days before they arrived, and tankers had begun using two 6” pipelines, installed to allow the bulk delivery of fuel.

On 22nd June the 104 Flight inflated and flew the first seven of their balloons and over the next three days they added thirteen more.

An Aircraftman Balloon Operator reported for duty on the 29th June (either the one they left behind or a replacement, presumably) and at the end of the month Flight Lieutenant Hendry reported that the health of the Flight’s personnel was excellent.

A view of Port en Bessin sketched in chalk by War Artist Stephen Bone © IWM Art.IWM ART LD 4388
A view of Port-en-Bessin, sketched in chalk by war artist Stephen Bone, showing balloons flown by No. 104 ‘P’ Balloon Flight.
(© IWM Art.IWM ART LD 4388)

During July 1944 , No. 104 ‘P’ Flight carried out the operational flying of balloons without incident, so the unit’s Operations Record Book reports only recreational activities and visits.

On 1st July at 14.00, Flight personnel attended a bathing parade at Bouffay and on 8th July at 15.00 there was a visit to the cinema at Fontenailles.

Squadron Leader Ogilvy-Stuart, from the Air Ministry Directorate of Servicing and Maintenance, visited at 11.00 on 19th July. (He had visited No. 976 Beach Balloon Squadron the day before, to investigate cable armament issues.)

Flight personnel attended the George Formby concert party at Courseulles at 15.00 on 20th July, and Squadron Leader Armitage, C.O. of No. 980 Beach Balloon Squadron, visited the Flight at 17.00 on 21st July.

The Flight visited the cinema at Fontenailles at 15.00 on 26th July, enemy aircraft dropped leaflets in the Flight’s immediate area at 01.00 on 27th July and, at 11.00 on 28th July, Wing Commander Usher and Squadron Leader Smithers from 85 Group visited the Unit.

More recreational and welfare events are recorded in August 1944:
1st August at 16.00 – Padre from 83 Group visited the Flight and held a short service.
5th August at 14.00 – Personnel attended a Cinema Show at Villiers sur Port.
8th August at 11.00 – Senior Medical Officer from No. 2 Beach Squadron visited.
14th August at 15.00 – Padre from 76 A.A. Brigade R.A. visited.
17th August at 18.00 – The Flight’s football team played a Rest Camp XI, and lost 8 – 1
18th August at 11.00 – Squadron Leader Smithers visited from 85 Group.
19th August at 18.00 – Padre from 76 A.A. Brigade R.A. visited the Flight and held a service.
24th August at 18.00 – The Flight’s football team played a match with an Army R.E.M.E. XI and lost 4 -1.
30th August at 14.00 – Personnel attended No. 1 Gang Show at Villiers le Sec.
31st August at 20.00 – Senior Accountant Officer from 2nd T.A.F. Rear visited.

A coaster and barges moored in Port-en-Bessin harbour with balloons in the sky above, flown by No. 104 ‘P’ Balloon Flight.
Oil painting by Stephen Bone (© IWM Art.IWM ART LD 4385)

From 1st September 1944, No. 104 ‘P’ Balloon Flight became part of No. 159 Balloon Wing, newly formed under the command of Wing Commander Usher. The Wing was formed to administer all the R.A.F. balloon units on the Continent, and operated from Villiers le Sec.

In September, the performance of the Flight’s football team started to improve:
4th September at 15.00 – Personnel attended a Gang Show at Bayeux Theatre.
8th September at 18.00 – Personnel attended a Cinema Show at “The Ship” location in Port-en-Bessin.
11th September at 17.00 – Field Cashier from 85 Group visited the Flight.
17th September at 15.00 – The Flight’s football team played a match against No. 991 Beach Balloon Squadron. The result was a draw – three goals each.
19th September at 17.30 – Field Cashier from 85 Group visited the Flight.
21st September at 15.00 – Personnel attended a Cinema Show at Bayeux Theatre.
30th September at 15.00 – The Flight’s football team played a match against a Royal Navy XI. The result was, 104 Flight won 3 goals to 1.

At the end of the month, F/Lt. Hendry records that “Physical training is now carried out every morning at Headquarters” and again states, “The General Health of Unit Personnel is excellent.”

October 1944 began with the same routine for No. 104 “P” Flight.

4th October at 15.00 – The Flight’s football team played No. 991 Beach Balloon Squadron at Tracy sur Mer. 104 Flight won by 6 goals to 1.

The football team’s performance was reaching a high but something new was developing for No. 104 ‘P’ Flight.

On 6th October the Flight carried out an order to deflate all balloons and the next day all the deployed balloon crews and their equipment were brought into Flight Headquarters. Over the next three days, equipment was checked, packed and returned to stores and Wing Equipment. From 11th to 20th October the Flight was preparing to leave the area where it had been for the last four months.

On 29th October at 20.00, Flight Lieutenant Hendry attended a conference with Wing Commander Usher at No. 159 Balloon Wing. The next morning at 09.00, Flight Lieutenant Hendry left with an advance party to report to U.S. 1st Army Headquarters.

26 men from No. 991 ‘P’ Balloon Squadron were attached to the Flight and on the last day of October, the Flight collected vehicles and equipment. They departed the next day, 1st November 1944, for a special operation with the U.S. 1st Army. At 08.30, Flying Officer Burgess set off with a convoy of five vehicles conveying personnel and equipment, and twelve additional vehicles carrying hydrogen were collected at Wing en route. At 17.00 the Flight arrived at Rouen and camped for the night. Crossing the Belgian frontier at 16.00 the next day, they camped overnight at Mons. After another day on the road, the Flight reported at Verviers, Belgium on 3rd November and were billeted in a convent.

Flight Lieutenant Hendry and Flying Officer Burgess visited 1st U.S. Army headquarters at Spa on 4th November, to discuss matters of signals and equipment. The Flight personnel carried out a check of equipment.

For the next five days the Flight trained and prepared for their new operation. Unit personnel went to a church service on the 5th and to a cinema show on the 6th. During their time in Verviers there was continuous enemy V1 action, with several exploding in the area. At 20.00 on the 9th of November the Flight was notified that they were to move into Germany the next morning.

At 09.00 on the 10th of November, Flight lieutenant Hendry left Verviers to report at Walheim, Germany for briefing. Half an hour later, Flying Officer Burgess left Verviers with the Flight in convoy, arriving at Walheim at 12.30. Flight Lieutenant Hendry and Flying Officer Burgess left immediately for Aachen to reconnoitre and set up a command post. U.S. Army signals, mine clearance and medical personnel were attached to the Flight and at 16.00 the Flight arrived in Aachen in convoy and began to deploy on sites during insistent enemy shelling of the town.

Aachen had been taken by the Americans on 21st October and now, for the advance on Duren, barrage balloons were to be floated eastward to mark the line of the German positions for the aerial bombardment.

Barrage balloons, manned by the R.A.F.’s No. 104 ‘P’ Flight on the outskirts of Aachen, are prepared for flight. They would be floated eastward marking the line of the enemy positions for the attack on nearby Duren.
(Picture credit: CriticalPast)

After their special assignment with the Americans at Aachen, No. 104 ‘P’ Flight became one of No. 974 ‘P’ Balloon Squadron’s flights when 974 Squadron re-formed and returned to the continent to give balloon protection along the Scheldt Estuary, near Antwerp.