No. 976 ‘B’ Balloon Squadron was a new squadron formed on 14th April 1944, although the squadron number 976 had been in use up until January 1944 for a Barrage Balloon Squadron that served in the Suez Canal Zone and North Africa.
A very comprehensive Operations Record Book was written by the Commanding Officer, Acting Squadron Leader B.W.B. Chapman. This record reads like a personal narrative and therefore provides an excellent account of the Squadron’s activities, something that is sadly lacking for other units. Here is the transcription.
14th April to 31st May 1944
The Squadron was formed with the sole object of placing under one head Nos. 50 and 53 ‘B’ Balloon Flights by joining them under one establishment and appointing a Squadron Commander. The establishment does not provide for a Squadron Headquarters, the unit being administered entirely by No. 1 RAF Beach Squadron. The Officer Commanding, No. 976 ‘B’ Balloon Squadron is in effect therefore for all Operational matter only.
The writer was posted to command the Squadron with effect from 14th April 1944, the date of formation, and reported to No. 12 Balloon Centre, RAF Station, Tichfield on attachment on the 19th April 1944 to take over Nos. 50 and 53 ‘B’ Balloon Flights located there. The Flights, as separate Units, had been engaged on training for beach landings for some months and were considered fully trained.
The Squadron was transferred to the 2nd Tactical Air Force from Balloon Command with effect from 20th April 1944 and was moved to its new location with No. 1 RAF Beach Squadron, under Headquarters No. 101 Beach Sub Area, by 25th April 1944.
The Squadron’s function is to provide balloon protection for the beaches and beach maintenance area in a landing on the Continent of Europe, and for this purpose it became part of Headquarters, No. 101 Beach Sub Area.
At the new location, preparations continued without delay throughout the month of May, during which period the Squadron took part in Exercise “Fabius”.
This period of preparation up to the end of May, is covered by the records of No. 1 RAF Beach Squadron.
The total strength of Officers is five and the four Flight Officers were selected for Flights by Balloon Command as follows:-
No. 50 Flight. No. 53 Flight.
F/Lt. L.A. LANE. F/Lt. H.L. JARMAN.
F/O. R.J. CALLAGHAN. F/O. F. BISSENDEN.
1st June 1944 (D-5)
Both Flights of the Squadron have been fully briefed for Operation “Overlord” during the last four days, and all personnel have been moved to their respective locations in the Marshalling Area. Owing to the particular nature of our job, not more than three Officers or Airman are phased in on any one craft, therefore on marshalling, the Squadron is probably split up in to more sections than any other formation.
Prior to briefing a Squadron Operational Order has been issued in order to record in writing for Flights a general outline of their duties, although the last word in all such matters was given to them during briefing. Although a great deal of thought had been given to the problem, by far the most difficult matter on which to brief the men was that of initial deployment of balloons on landing. The experience of Exercise “Fabius” was useful but could not in many ways ensure success on an actual landing in enemy territory where enemy resistance was likely to be considerable. Exercise “Fabius” taught us that the balloons must be deployed as a Squadron, a map division of the area of deployment being made for the sole purpose of allocation of Flight Officers’ responsibilities, an actual division and the sorting out of personnel into their respective Flight to be made after say 48 hours when conditions permitted. The problem of initial deployment was made no easier by the fact that the writer took over command to form the Flights into a Squadron too late to be placed on the ‘X’ list. However, just prior to the briefing, certain information as to the assault and the nature of the beach area was made available and as a result it was considered necessary to alter the actual sequence of site deployment from that outlined in the Operation Order. The following plan was substituted and the men briefed.
It was arranged that each crew of two men manning a balloon would receive when at sea an actual map of the area (scale 1 in 25,000), and with this a trace showing the desired layout of the barrage over an area of 7000 yards long by 1000 yards deep. The balloons were phased in as follows:- First tide – H + 120 mins. – 9, H + 240 mins. – 17, H + 285 mins. -10, H + 330 mins. – 5, H + 360 mins. – 7, and Second tide – H = 11½hrs. – 9, H + 16½hrs. – 3. During briefing crews were given their Craft Number and told the wave on which they would land. The crews were instructed to deploy balloons in areas (illustrated on a key plan) according to the wave on which they were landing commencing with 9 balloons along the beach in the centre of the Sector, subsequent waves being placed inland, Eastward and Westward. If, however, on landing they found gaps in the are to be deployed before their arrival which might be caused by casualties, these were to be filled first. The trace attached has been divided into the deployment areas.
Al Ranks have been made fully aware that exercises are over and that this at last is the operation proper. All know their parts inside out and are extremely eager to get on with the job. I feel quite confident that the great effort that has been mad by all, as a result of the lessons learned on Exercise “Fabius”, to ensure that balloons and personnel “marry up” correctly at the “hards” and arrive at the correct beaches, will meet with success.
After the intense rush of the preparations period and the responsibilities of briefing, all Officers find the lack of responsibilities in the Marshalling area a welcome rest.
4th June 1944 (D-2)
The Squadron is now entirely divided up into their many craft parties in the Marshalling Area and many have already moved to the “hards” and gone aboard. Everyone is fully prepared and keyed up waiting for the “off”. This was given this morning to those still in camps but was later cancelled on receipt of a 24 hours postponement due to bad weather, which was windy and looked unsettled.
5th June 1944 (D-1)
Orders to embark received this morning in spite of no improvement in the weather. All were aboard by approximately 16.00 hrs., the writer being entirely detached from the Squadron on a L.C.I.(L) No. 420, due to touch down at H + 230 on “Queen Red” Sector of Moon B.M.A. (M.R. 085808). Wind was blowing up and weather looked bad but in spite of this, the Captain received his orders at 18.00 hrs. to get under way and that the operation was “on”. By 21.00 hrs. the huge convoy from Newhaven had formed up and was heading for its destination. The sea was rough and many of the troops were already suffering from seasickness. There is no doubt that all on those small craft will always remember the short sea voyage as the most uncomfortable ever spent. The writer was only able to avoid seasickness by spending the night in a gun turret on the top deck.
6th June 1944 (D-Day)
France was sighted early next morning and before long we were slowly drawing in to our Beach Sector. Some little time before going in, the Captain received a signal that no opposition had been received by Naval forces off the beach. However, as we drew close considerable enemy action could be seen ashore. Two or three balloons could be seen flying at operational height (2,000‘) the remainder being still at the landing height of 100’ and it looked as though the 9 crews landed at H + 120 were experiencing difficulties. L.C.I. (L) 420 touched down right on time at 10.50 hrs., and at the moment of beaching, a shell hit the Port Bow causing casualties and putting the Port landing gangway out of action. All landing was therefore effected on the Starboard side and the craft’s stern swung round to Port to give greater cover for troops. The landing was very ‘wet’, the water being more than waist high.
The writer reported to the A.A. Report Centre and found the landing plans being generally harassed and delayed by shell and mortar fire and sniping from the two flanks Lion sur Mer and Ouistreham, particularly mortar fire from the latter. As it was just high tide the area between the water’s edge and the sand dunes at the back of beach was extremely narrow, a mere 30’ or so. Behind this was barbed wire and mined areas. Into this small beach strip already littered with knocked out tanks, bull dozers, vehicles, etc., more and more equipment was being pushed and owing to the lack of space for lateral movement it was not possible to get it all out through the hastily formed beach exits. The assault waves had obviously suffered considerable casualties and excellent work was being done in moving the wounded but the dead could not yet be cleared. The 17 balloons due in at H + 240 arrived on time but in view of the comparatively short length of beach as yet cleared of obstacles, mines, etc., and the congestion of vehicles deployment further inland was made extremely difficult. While the crews were sorting themselves out, enemy mortar fire tended to increase and was now added to by fairly continuous shellfire. Many Unit commanders hastily formed the opinion that the balloons were being used by the enemy for aiming and many requests were received for them to be removed. Pending a decision from higher authority, the writer refused to accede to these requests. Firstly it was considered that those flying at 2,000 ft. (9 – “in” at H + 120 as planned) along the beach could not assist the enemy’s fire on a beach they knew “insideout”, and secondly those now coming in on the second wave and now flying at 100 ft. would be off the beach probably in the course of an hour. However, within half an hour of the writer landing, an order was received from the Divisional Commander (through the Beach Sub Area Commander) that balloons were not to be flown and were to be cut away, if necessary, immediately. Owing to lack of space, bedding down was impossible and an effort was made to close haul down to point of attachment. However it soon became obvious that this too was impracticable as in very few cases could the balloons be close hauled without them fouling obstacles. As it was, in two cases, the guys became entangled in barbed wire over mined areas and some difficulty was experienced in freeing them. It must be remembered that conditions were rough with an off sea wind of at least 25 miles per hour. Although consideration was also given to deflating, it was dismissed as impossible owing to the general conditions and that as a solution it would take too long. From the manner in which the order was given, and hasteners received at frequent intervals, it was obvious that half an hour or so was considered long enough to dispose of the thirty odd balloons now landed or on L.S.T.’ in the area. The alternative having proved impossible, a runner was sent to instruct all crews to cut adrift all balloons already landed and to stand by to deal with the remainder as they landed in the same manner. While this was being done the Naval Officer In Charge was requested to signal all craft to cut away the balloons before landing and so assist the Balloon Operators in their task. To some extent this was effective.
During the day it is estimated that some 60 to 70 balloons were cut away which in the opinion of the writer was unnecessary, as craft were continually hit on landing whether they carried a balloon or not. It was extremely disappointing, particularly as it was certain a barrage would be required before further equipment would be available. From about H + 300 minutes the majority of the Beach Sub Area personnel were diverted from all other work to that of clearing the beach and all landings were held up for a couple of hours in order that all possible effort might be placed on the major problem of getting the exits working again. Therefore Flight Commanders were instructed that when balloons had been cut away, the personnel so freed were to be placed on the most essential work in the immediate vicinity. Not a moment was lost and very soon Balloon Operators were engaged on:- laying of beach track, a most urgent task at that time, stretcher bearing, guarding German prisoners, digging out bogged vehicles, etc. Later, when traffic had been got moving, our men assisted with clearing dead off the beach, burials, helping the Beach Dressing Stations, and off loading the Dukws at the Sector Stores Dumps. At dusk, in accordance with an earlier plan, Balloon Operators dispersed “Smoke” at the smoke points, manned the posts and operated the smoke screen until the Pioneers were landed. The writer undertook the operation of this for the A.A.D.C.
During the day all personnel provided themselves with some cover by digging in. Flight Commanders established themselves at convenient points East and West of the A.A. Report Centre (the writer’s location) and personal kit was collected from the many points where it had been dumped on landing. A considerable quantity of kit was lost however by shellfire and small vehicle and ammunition truck fires.
Air cover was excellent but in view of poor weather and low cloud it was not difficult for enemy aircraft to slip in unnoticed, drop his bombs, do a bit of straffing and get away, and he took full advantage of such opportunities.
Squadron personnel suffered no serious casualties. F/O Bissenden was hit on the nose by a piece of shrapnel but was able to carry on after it had been dressed.
The order in the plan for the landing was no sleep for anyone during the first 48 hours and all work continued through the hours of darkness.
7th June 1944 (D+1)
Enemy air activity over the beaches was considerable throughout the night in spite of a terrific A.A. barrage. Many enemy aircraft dropped bombs from well under 2000 ft. and it is felt balloons would have been invaluable.
During the day Flights moved their Headquarters to better locations on the first lateral and improved their slit trenches. Where men could be spared from the various beach clearing jobs a start was made with the collection and salvaging of winches and balloon equipment which had been dumped along the beach on landing.
The enemy was driven out of the villages of Ouistreham and Lion sur Mer today with the result that there was a welcome relief from the sniping which had taken place from the houses at either end of the beach and had caused many casualties.
Furthe intermittent air activity.
The supply of “Plumtree” balloons for this beach was cut away by the Navy before craft landed as they were still of the opinion that a balloon attracted enemy fire.
Further “smoke” off loaded by us and also assisted in its operation at dusk.
8th June 1944 (D+2)
With the exception of two 3 ton Bedfords which were on Craft No. 3211, all vehicles were now in our possession and off loading was commenced. Craft No. 3211 was shelled during crossing and became a casualty. Both vehicles were lost.
The first consignment of hydrogen cylinders arrived and were off loaded from craft to dump established by No. 50 Flight. Collection of winches continued. Flights continued to provide men for stretcher bearing, P.O.W. guards and repairs of beach roadway, etc.
No. 53 Flight was detached for guard duties at Glider Field which amounted to maintaining a patrol of as large an area as possible where the gliders had landed (MR 098766) to safeguard the instruments, etc., until the arrival of personnel to remove them. Area was some distance from the beaches and the whole Flight was moved there for this job.
During the morning a JU88 which had had its tail shot off by A.A. fire crashed at the back of the beaches within a few yards of the Command Post where a conference of all heads of services was in progress. The full bomb load went up and it was remarkable that only 6 lives were lost, none of those at the conference being injured. The writer was within 20 yards of it and it was not a pleasant experience. The aircraft was one of four which flew in along the beach from the East at about 200 ft. which they often attempted, machine gunning the beaches as they went.
In the early afternoon an Enemy aircraft, one of three, being chased by our fighters, jettisoned its bomb load in the centre of the Beach area just behind the first lateral and by a stroke of luck they fell on the petrol stores in the Sector Stores Dump just established. All the petrol went up and the fire spread to the Ammunition Dump adjacent, most of which was also lost. The fire and explosions were very bad and quite unapproachable until early morning.
In spite of smoke screens, shelling and mortaring continues daily from the East banks of the River Orne. F/Lieut. Jarman was hit on the elbow by a shell splinter but was able to carry on after a dressing.
9th June 1944 (D+3)
Fifty men and two vehicles from No. 50 Flight worked at the Ammunition Dump all day. Remainder of that Flight commenced servicing of Balloon Equipment.
All of No. 53 Flight now located at Glider Field where they were experiencing considerable spasmodic enemy activity in the form of shelling across the Orne and occasional straffing from the air.
The day was conspicuous for the absence of air cover; our aircraft being grounded owing to fog in England. Enemy aircraft made the most of it and A.A. did excellent work.
10th June 1944 (D+4)
Enemy air activity was fairly continuous throughout the night and heavier than previous nights. He is dropping a considerable number of anti personnel bombs which cover a wide area with a large number of small explosions and are definitely unpleasant. The writer stood in for the A.A.D.C. as Duty Officer at the A.A. Report Centre on the first lateral during the night.
Majority of No. 50 Flight personnel and two vehicles were again loaned to the Ammunition Dump for the day. Flight Commander with some of the remaining airmen undertook the burial of some dead in the area of the Flight Headquarters.
No. 53 Flight had a busy day helping the Airborne troops to collect stores which were dropped for them by parachute during the morning.
Weather has improved and air cover was plentiful again and very welcome.
The Beach Sub Area Commander, Col. Montgomery had already asked at his daily conference when further balloon supplies could be expected and today he stated that he would like a barrage deployed as soon as possible, to cover a much larger area however than that originally contemplated. In fact, he defined an area 7,000 yards by 2,000 yards deep to include Ouistreham and Lion sur Mer, and asked that none be flown by day until most of the barrage was deployed so that it would not pin point any area in particular. The original deployment plan covered only 1,000 yards inland. The A.A.D.C. (Lt. Col. Johnson (Heavy A.A.) and his Second, Lt. Col. Armstrong (Lt. A.A.) at whose Regiment Headquarters the Writer made his Headquarters [MR 070744] had both advocated such a barrage previously, and the operational details were arranged with the former in anticipation of replacement balloons and hydrogen being available any day.
11th June (D+5)
No. 50 Flight moved their Headquarters into a farm (MR 098800) adjacent to the field they have been in on the first lateral. Gives them excellent storage room, an office, and cookhouse in the spacious farm outhouses, and plenty of ground for a bivouac area. Most of this Flight worked in Ammunition Dump again today. They also provide a party to meet all tides in the hope of some “Plumtree” supplies being received, as the Navy have been requested on several occasions since ‘D’ Day to ensure that craft bring balloons and that they are not cast away. Practically no balloons reached shore however. LAC McConnell was injured by a Dukw today and evacuated to the United Kingdom.
No. 53 Flight sent party to beaches to service winches in Flight Dump there and salvage equipment. Further supplies for Airborne troops were dropped by Sterlings (sic) on the Glider field again this evening.
The writer spent most of the day trying to organise the loan of some balloon equipment from other Squadrons on the next beaches and visiting dumps to ensure an immediate notification on arrival of first consignment.
Enemy action continues in the form of shelling and mortaring from the East of the River Orne in the Sallenelles area, also from the German lines four to five miles inland to the South as it has done since ‘D’ Day.
12th June (D+6)
No. 50 Flight personnel were largely occupied in off loading in Dumps again today.
In anticipation of balloon deployment in the near future No. 53 Flight personnel were taken off guard in the Glider Field and brought back to the beach area where they set up their Headquarters in an orchard (MR 077797) conveniently central in their proposed Flight area.
13th June (D+7)
Last night’s air raid activities were rather heavier than usual and enemy aircraft appeared to be over most of the night.
Both Flights provided personnel and vehicles for offloading at Dumps. No. 50 Flight supplied men to assist the Provost in traffic duties. A small percentage of the Squadron personnel have had some training in traffic control, which is now proving very useful.
Parties continue to meet all tides for “Plumtree” balloons but none arrive and it is assumed that the craft have reported that no barrage is flying in this area and it is assumed in the United Kingdom that none are required here.
Received advice that balloon stores and hydrogen have arrived at anchorage and it is expected they will offload in the next 48 hours.
Commanding Officer visited A.A.O.R. and discussed points of balloon flying policy with A.A.D.C. Arrangements have also been made for a communications link-up with A.A.O.R. via A.A. sites in addition to the Squadron’s own R/T on P.46 Sets so as to provide for a failure of the latter. Control of balloons for dropping supplies to Airborne Division might be imposed at short notice.
For communications, the Squadron Officers were each provided with a P.46 set, so that contact could be established immediately each walked ashore. Circumstances on landing were such however, that operating was difficult and distances were short enough to make contact by runner more satisfactory. By D + 2, however, as the Flights became better established the 46 Sets were put into operation and have proved excellent at a distance of up to 2 miles. Beyond that distance interference from the large number of similar sets in the area is so great as to make reception impossible.
14th June (D + 8)
A further consignment of hydrogen was offloaded today by No. 50 Flight. No. 50 Flight made a recce of sites for barrage.
One inflated balloon was taken off a L.C.T. today.
No. 50 flight provided men for Provost duties and No. 53 continued with offloading at the dumps.
Collected 3 sets of Stabilisers from Dumps today which is the only equipment received to date.
The beach Sub Area Commander stated that he was anxious to have balloons deployed thinly over a large area as soon as possible.
Lieut, Col. Johnson (H.A.A. and A.A.D.C.) Lieut. Col. Armstrong (L.A.A.) and the writer discussed the operation of balloons and decided that it may be that searchlights will be unable to operate when balloons are flying in which case balloons will fly at night in cloudy conditions and searchlights operate on clear nights. If this principle is applied , Searchlight officer Commanding and officer Commanding Balloons must confer daily at 18.00 hrs to decide policy for the night.
Enemy action continues.
15th June (D + 9)
No. 50 Flight provided Provost party and No. 53 Flight fully employed at dumps.
Collected 26 balloons from dumps but no stabilisers. Hydrogen supplies coming in well. Cannot do anything about stabilisers. Great difficulty experienced by writer in locating stores as they are split between Ordnance, R.E. Stores and Ammunition Dumps. Discussed position with S/Ldr. Hill and F/Lt. Salman (No. 974 Squadron) and arranged to borrow 10 balloons and 13 sets of stabilisers from them which were collected this evening.
16th June (D + 10)
No. 50 Flight provided Provost party and No. 53 Flight were again employed in Dumps.
No. 50 Flight inflated 12 balloons which were flown at 2,000 feet till 05.00 hrs, 17th June 1944. To ensure balloons do not pinpoint any particular area decided not to fly balloons by day until barrage is more complete. further equipment arrived at Ordnance today.
17th June (D + 11)
Four balloon casualties occurred during the night caused by A.A. shrapnel.
Further six balloons inflated by No.50 Flight and casualties replaced. Remainder of this Flight’s area was reconnoitred for deployment of the full barrage. Planning a good layout is proving very difficult owing to doubtful and definitely mined areas and risks have to be taken.
No. 55 Flight fully employed at Dumps.
The enemy keeps up his spasmodic bouts of shelling over the whole area, from the East and the South, also mortaring in the Ouistreham area particularly the lock gates and canal mouth, from East of the River Orne.
Visited A.A.O.R. regarding Dakotas flying in low recently at 500/1000 ft by day which will be no use when balloons are flying by day.
No. 50 Flight flew 19 balloons tonight from 23.00 hrs to 05.00 hrs. 18th. June, 44.
18th June (D + 12)
No balloon casualties during the night.No. 50 Flight inflated 3 more balloons today making this Flight’s total 22.
No. 53 Flight commenced inflations and deployed 12 balloons during the day.
34 balloons flown tonight from dusk to dawn. Quite a good barrage.
Personnel have now been withdrawn from outside duties and all are employed on balloon work.
19th June (D + 13)
A North Easterly gale developed during the night causing two balloon casualties. The weather today was too bad for further inflations; it also stopped all work on the beaches which closed down temporarily.
One of No. 50 Flight’s balloons yawed and hit the roofs of some cottages when being hauled down, and exploded on the roof tops causing quite extensive damage to them. No one was injured, however, and the one or two very old people who occupied the cottages were well looked after by the Flight who also affected all possible repair to the cottages. There was no reason to suspect that the purity of the balloon was at fault and no suggestion can be made as to the cause of the explosion.
20th June (D + 14)
Weather still too bad for work on the beaches.
For the first time balloons were left up during the day and barrage was increased to 40 by 12.00 hrs., by 6 more inflations by No. 53 Flight.
At approximately 17.00 hrs. an enemy aircraft (F.W. 190) appeared out of the clouds, swerved and turned on seeing the balloons and was shot down by A.A. almost immediately.
Only 50% of barrage was flown during the night owing to strong winds.
21st June (D + 15)
Weather still bad. No. 50 Flight had one casualty during the night; a cable was severed by shrapnel.
Flights were late in lowering to cloud base: not being completed until 08.30 hrs. Wickham ‘deadman’ sites have to be bedded or fly at 2,000 ft. which shows the need for 100% L.P.W.s if cloud base restrictions are to be imposed.
Barrage still 40 balloons: No. 50 Flight 22, and No. 53 Flight 18.
One of No. 50 Flight’s flexible drives u/s owing to fracture of male drive member at gearbox.
22nd June (D + 16)
At 22.10 hrs. a Spitfire impacted one of No. 50 Flight’s cable. Cable was severed and links did not fire which on inspection proved to be due to insufficient striker protrusion. The writer’s report which was rendered is attached. (Appendix No. 3)
All balloons were bedded from 08.30 hrs. to 15.40 hrs. on control from A.A.O.R. Weather improved but wind still fresh and No. 50 Flight experienced great difficulty in bedding as a result of another flexible drive going u/s (another fracture of male drive member at gearbox which appears to be weaker than the mild steel shear pins).
Signal sent for flexible drive spares to be sent by air.
No. 50 Flight had 2 breakaways during the night due to strong winds. The armament on one cable fired and functioned correctly during the night and might have been an impact. Two further balloons inflated by this Flight making barrage 42 balloons; No. 50 Flight – 24, No. 53 Flight – 18.
Heavy shelling all day and one coaster set on fire on the beach at about 21.00 hrs.
23rd June (D + 17)
Two balloons holed by shrapnel last night. Wind now abated but weather cloudy.
Shelling continues particularly in early morning, making the 18th day of almost continues enemy action in this area.
Flights have been operating with all personnel accommodated at Flight Headquarters but No. 50 Flight now find establishment of some manned sites essential in view of their only two flexible drives being u/s and, with exception of Wickham sites hauling down has to be done by hand.
At 20.45 hrs. a number of Sterling (sic) aircraft flew in from the channel at 1000 ft with supplies for the Airborne Division and flew through the barrage which was flying at 2000 ft; no order for control having been received. Two aircraft impacted balloon cables, on which the lower links fired but the parachutes were not withdrawn. A few minutes later, having dropped their load, the aircraft again flew through the barrage but no impacts occurred. After the impacts the two aircraft concerned continued on their way unharmed. The occurrence was fully investigated and a copy of the report rendered is attached (Appendix No. 4). It is unlikely that Sterlings are fitted with cutters and in the absence of any other explanation it must be presumed that the speed of the aircraft (judged to be about 120 m.p.h.) was too slow to operate the arming. In addition to the comment in the report it can only be said that the apparent ineffectiveness of the barrage caused a great deal of adverse criticism locally from other services. The absence of control was ascertained to be the fault of the R.A.F. Sector who did not advise A.A.O.R. of the aircraft’s arrival.
24th June (D + 18)
Weather now excellent and no trouble experienced today with cloud base conditions. No. 50 Flight deployed another balloon making 25, No. 53 Flight still flying 18.
25th June (D + 19)
Control exercised by A.A.O.R. bedding all balloons between 04.00 and 07.00 hrs. Little air activity during the night but shelling continued most of the time.
The writer collected flexible drive spares which were called for in signal dated 22nd. June, 1944, from Airstrip where they had been landed this morning from the United Kingdom. Spares fitted and all vehicles made serviceable before dusk; within three days after the signal had been sent for the parts. Excellent work on the part of people at home and we all felt that obviously no effort was being spared.
Weather broke at mid-day and became cloudy with rain.
26th June (D + 20)
Weather still poor, little aircraft activity. Considerable ground activity in the front line area, a battle having started during the night.
Owing to very low stocks of balloons and limited hydrogen, barrage cannot be increased any further at the moment.
27th June (D + 21)
There has been no interruption to flying during the past two days. 26 L.P.W.s (Mk. IX winches) to replace those lost or damaged on the beaches were collected today.
Full barrage will be possible as soon as more balloons and hydrogen arrive.
28th June (D + 22)
Delivery of a small number of balloons enabled No. 53 Flight to inflate a further 5 bringing barrage up to 48 (No. 50 Flight – 25 and No. 53 Flight 23). 30 bottles of hydrogen were borrowed from No. 974 Squadron who were receiving an ample supply of inflated balloons from the United Kingdom via ‘Plumtree’.
More L.P. Winches having been salvaged than expected, five of those received yesterday were given to No. 974 Squadron who had also had casualties.
In accordance with a request from A.A.D.C. , plans were made today for barrage to be extended eastwards to cover Ouistreham Docks up to West bank of the canal.
Instructed No. 53 Flight to obtain suitable house accommodation in Lion sur Mer for Flight Headquarters as equipment is suffering through lack of suitable cover in the orchard.
29th June (D + 23)
Balloons still short and arrangements made to borrow some more from No. 974 Squadron. Until more are obtained, No. 50 Flight’s two casualties of last night cannot be replaced.
Little air activity but shelling continued.
Weather turned bad again this afternoon with squalls, hail and lightning. Three balloons badly holed in dock area by shell shrapnel but owing to bad static conditions these were not replaced today.
30th June (D + 24)
No. 53 Flight moved their Headquarters into a house at Lion sur Mer (M.R. 077811).
A few more balloons arrived at the Dump and No. 50 Flight’s casualties in the dock area were replace. 17 shrapnel holes were found in the three that were damaged and repairs were effected.
Weather improved and at dusk 4 balloons were deployed on the Locks and East Bank of the canal by No. 50 Flight bringing that Flight’s total up to 27. These last four balloons will be serviced during the hours of darkness only as any signs of activity by day in this area which is in full view of the enemy on the East Bank of the River Orne brings accurate mortar fire. The Squadron is now flying balloons within 500/1000 yards of the enemy, separated only by the River Orne and a limited number of our Infantry patrols.
Control was exercised by A.A.O.R. from 20.00 hrs. to 21.15 hrs. for Sterlings dropping Airborne Division supplies.
During the last few days, the shelling from the South has increased and it is obvious that the enemy is using a heavier gun, something in the region of 105 mm.
End of Month Operational Data
Average number of balloons flown daily :- 40.6
Total casualties :- 26
OPERATIONS – GENERAL
Weather conditions have been poor over the period, and it is thought worse than expected.
In the quickly changing cloud conditions it has been impossible with assault equipment, to comply with the standing order to fly 500 ft. below cloud base during the hours of daylight. In any event it is quite impossible to estimate 500 ft. below cloud base.
Very soon after deployment, crews were deployed on “parent” sites each of which is responsible for 3 or 4 balloons, which has been found to be more satisfactory than accommodating all personnel at the Flight Headquarters, particularly with a well spread barrage. As much dispersal as possible is also essential in view of enemy shelling.
Few nights have passed without some enemy air activity, but even so it can be said to be less than anticipated. A large number of bombs dropped are anti-personnel which are very unpleasant.
In the early days before a replacement barrage was deployed, enemy aircraft straffed the area on several occasions and it can be said that the barrage has definitely put an end to that, which has been fully appreciated. A compliment was paid to the Squadron by the Beach Sub Area Commander for the inobstrusive (sic) manner in which the redeployment was made without drawing attention to any V.P. in particular.
Great disappointment is felt by the writer that the cutting away of the initial barrage was insisted upon, for it is considered to have been quite unjustified and it is certain that a barrage in those early days would have saved many lives and equipment. Further it is thought that had it been possible to phase the majority of balloons in on the second tide that early confusion would have been avoided
It is regretted that details of all enemy action which takes place in the area cannot be faithfully recorded in this diary, owing to the absence of any staff at the writer’s Headquarters and the fact that the writer could not vouch for it all personally unless always on the spot, which was not possible.
If it had not been for the cutting away of the initial barrage supplies would have been more than sufficient and complete to the last detail. L.P. winches have proved to be excellent so far, but it is most important to use a grease gun on the Power Drive Sprocket on every occasion the flexible drive is used.
It is felt that the single Acting Inertia Link has let us down and that a Double Acting Link should have been used even if a number of casualties through prematures had to be accepted.
Attachment to the R.A.F. Beach Squadron is proving most unsatisfactory and only a minimum of assistance is given to this Squadron by them, obviously due to the fact that any achievement by balloons is credited to No. 976 ‘B’ Balloon Squadron.
Complete independence with an addition of one Junior Officer (Admin) and six ACs only would have been a much superior arrangement and quite adequate. Non of these personnel need have been phased in before D + 3 or 4.
This is of the highest and although the continuous shelling together with a raid on most nights is proving very wearing the men are standing up to it extremely well.
By extraordinary good fortune the Squadron has so far had no fatal or major casualties to personnel.
1st July (D + 25)
Owing to bad weather with low cloud and later continuous rain, all balloons had to be lowered to 500 ft at 09.15 hrs. This means bedding all the sites at the Canal entrance as these are operated by Wickham winches.
A number of balloons were collected from No. 974 Squadron today as their supply position is considerably better than ours; most “Plumtree” supplies appear to be going into their Sector.
2nd July (D + 26)
Weather brighter at dawn and cloud above 2,000 ft at first, but later lowering to 500 ft.
No. 50 Flight inflated and deployed a further two balloons bringing that Flight up to 30, and the total barrage up to 53.
Two new Bedford 3 tonners arrived as replacement for those lost on Craft 3211.
3rd July (D + 27)
Weather very bad today with heavy rain and low cloud.
Shelling was very close to No. 50 Flight Headquarters this evening.
All personnel are of course still living in dugouts, the buildings being used only during the day for messing, cooking and stores.
4th July (D + 28)
Weather improved. Shelling continues. An enemy aircraft came down in flames just South of No. 50 Flight Headquarters.
Enemy activity continues on a reduced scale, principally at night. The A.A. defences are thick and give them a warm reception. In many cases the attacks are for the purpose of laying mines in the anchorage without any bombs being dropped on land.
5th July (D + 29)
Weather much better. F/Lt. Lane and F/Lt. Jarman collected some balloons from Nos. 974 and 980 Squadrons.
Shelling again heavy in afternoon and onwards throughout the evening and night. Those coming from the enemy lines in the South (North of Caen) have become very troublesome lately as they are of larger calibre than those from the east (probably 105 mm) and are increasing in quantity. Also they are landing along the beaches and the beach main lateral and they are successfully pinpointing the main crossroads where traffic is heaviest, with the result that it has been necessary to close down our beaches almost altogether.
Every endeavour is being made however to let the enemy believe that operations continue here so as to draw the shelling entirely to this area which is proving quite successful up to the present.
6th July (D + 30)
No. 50 Flight inflated further balloons for the dock area to make the barrage around that V.P. as satisfactory as possible. Another inflation by No. 53 Flight brings the total barrage up to 56 (No. 50 Flight, 32 and No. 53 Flight, 24).
Two balloons struck by lightning in thunderstorm this afternoon, and it was necessary to reduce height to 500 feet at 23.00 hrs.
7th July (D + 31)
Shelling has been continuous throughout the night and particularly severe around No. 50 Flight Headquarters. One Enfield motorcycle was completely written off and a Bedford truck superficially hit. The room in the farm buildings used as a Flight office was also wrecked. Again a remarkable escape for all personnel as none was injured.
Weather turned bad again with rain.
No. 53 Flight inflated 3 more balloons bringing that Flight’s total up to 27 and the barrage total 59.
The area defined by the A.A.D.C. is now covered with a very good barrage. A little thinner than was originally planned as a result of the Sub Area Commander’s request that the area of cover be extended, but nevertheless an effective barrage with its greatest concentration over Ouistreham and the canal entrance.
Preparations for the thrust on Caen commenced with a terrific raid this evening before dusk by Lancasters on the enemy lines and northern part of the town. The southerly winds brought the dust from the heavy damage caused to the town all over the coast area and conditions were unpleasant for many hours.
8th July (D + 32)
In the early hours the push on Caen commenced, preceded by a terrific artillery barrage from a long line of guns running within a few hundred yards of the barrage area.
The artillery barrage did not cease until approximately 10.00 hrs.
No. 50 Flight moved their headquarters today to two very suitable houses at Riva Bella. The enemy seems to have the area of their present headquarters pinpointed for his guns and furthermore the new location is more central for their present Flight area, and the houses will provide accommodation for all ranks when shelling ceases and we are able to come up out of holes in the ground.
9th July (D + 33)
The evening weather report was unfavourable and the writer exercised control by bringing all balloons down to 1,000 ft, just before dusk as it is considered that the chance of losing a large percentage of the barrage by strong winds or lightning cannot be taken unless casualties can be replaced immediately which would not be possible at present. Officer Commanding No. 50 Flight was strongly opposed to this course and considered that 100% barrage should always be flown and casualties accepted.
10th July (D + 34)
Weather still bad with rain and squalls. Barrage still being flown at 1,000 ft.
A small bomb and a mortar shell landed in No. 50 Flight Headquarters area but no casualties caused.
11th July (D + 35)
Balloons raised to 2,000 ft again during the day.
12th July (D + 36)
Weather much improved today.
12 balloons collected from No. 974 Squadron.
13th July (D + 37)
Weather moderate with low cloud at times and cloud base flying restriction presents great difficulties.
Enemy aircraft are recently taking advantage of cloud cover and come out of cloud to straff artillery and troops outside barrage area. The latter is respected and enemy aircraft have not been seen flying below 2,000 ft in area of barrage since it was deployed.
Shelling from the South has now ceased as a result of the enemy being pushed out of the area north of Caen and that town being taken is a great relief.
14th July (D + 38)
Weather poor and conditions not improved by smokescreen which operates almost continuously.
Enemy aircraft seen in vicinity again but outside barrage area.
15th July (D + 39)
The Commanding Officer attended a conference for Squadron commanders called by W/Cmdr. Usher, No. 83 Group Headquarters, Rear for discussion on equipment matters.
Shelling and mortaring continues – almost entirely in No. 50 Flight’s area now.
16th July (D + 40)
Weather fair, but early morning mists and low cloud at dawn necessitate the hauling down of the barrage nearly every morning.
17th July (D + 41)
Little interruption in the spasmodic shelling and mortaring from the east and the air activity last night was heavier than usual. Quite a bad night.
Our own artillery barrage against the enemy to the east seemed quite fierce today.
18th July (D + 42)
Our own air cover was much increased today at dawn and our artillery barrage again heavy. Attack commenced to the South, east of the River Orne.
S/Ldr. Ogilvie Stuart of Air Ministry S.M. 14 arrived to inspect and investigate cable armament troubles, in particular, the Spitfire and Stirling aircraft impacts of the 21st and 28th June 1944. He found the general standard good but personnel of No. 50 Flight have obviously had insufficient training on Mk. VI armament.
19th July (D + 43)
Weather excellent. A balloon flying on the Lock Gates, Ouistreham had been impacted during the night and investigation shows that the lower armament functioned correctly. Interrogation of the gun sites in the vicinity reveals that the impact was by a Ju. 88 flying up the canal at 150 ft and which apparently came down in the sea some distance from the coast. The Squadron was later awarded one third share in the destruction of this aircraft. The A.A. fire at the time was intense. A copy of the answers to questionnaire “Proforma for Impacts” which was submitted to Air Ministry is attached.
Commanding Officer attended a conference at No. 2 RAF Beach Squadron Headquarters called to discuss and arrange future administration of Nos. 976 and 980 Squadrons as a result of the proposed disbandment of the respective R.A.F. Beach Squadrons.
The Royal Air Force Medical Officer, S/Ldr. Elphick visited No. 50 Flight.
20th July (D + 44)
Weather good with little cloud until afternoon when without any visual warning or advice from Met. Section (from who two forecasts are being received daily as a result of a request made by the writer shortly after landing) an extremely severe thunderstorm broke. The lightning was the worst ever seen by Squadron personnel and the entire barrage with the exception of one balloon was lost within an hour. No information had been received that severe storms might be expected in this area and when the first sign of it breaking was seen it was considered to be too dangerous for personnel to be employed on winches in an attempt to haul down. Many cables were struck in such a way that the entire 2,000 ft of cable became a sheet of flame accompanied by a terrific explosion and nothing was left of it.
The last weather forecast gave the lightning risk as “E” which had been received quite frequently, which in the opinion of the writer, does not justify a reduction in the barrage.
The equipment available within the Squadron permitted only 20 balloons to be replaced by dusk and during the night arrangements were made for sufficient equipment for full replacement and the small reserve to be collected from other Squadrons next day.
Torrential rain followed the storm and conditions became very difficult on sites.
Had the Met. Section raised the lightning risk or issued a warning of the storm the writer would have reduced the barrage to 50%, and no doubt exists now that this is the correct policy in spite of the implication before landing that control for adverse weather need not be considered and that such losses must be accepted.
21st July (D + 45)
Heavy rain continues today and road conditions are very bad, being flooded to a depth of 18 inches in places.
All available transport occupied on collecting balloon equipment and hydrogen from Nos. 974 and 980 Squadrons and No. 1 E.T.C.
Full barrage operational by dusk. Shelling continues and No. 50 Flight have near misses but no casualties.
22nd July (D + 46)
Royal Air Force Medical Officer, S/Ldr. Elphick visited No. 53 Flight.
23rd July (D + 47)
Considerable enemy air activity last night and shrapnel caused several balloon casualties.
24th July (D + 48)
Weather much improved.
All Units transferred from Compo to Fresh Rations with effect from today. Cooking on sites now presents minor difficulties until further stoves can be obtained and the change of rations very unpopular, but when the issue of fresh rations gets properly into its stride, it is anticipated they will be much better for the men.
There was sharp shelling of Ouistreham and the beaches this evening and one balloon on the canal suffered a direct hit.
The first R.A.F. Gang Show gave two performances in Hermanville Village Hall and it was possible to send all Squadron personnel. Excellent show and greatly appreciated.
Allied aircraft out again in good numbers today, but sharp enemy activity at dusk.
25th July (D + 49)
Request received from Sub Area Commander that the straight section of canal from point M.R. 114766 to mouth be covered by balloons as protection against aerial torpedo attack on Lock gates. Sites reconnoitred today and A.A.D.C. requested authority from R.A.F. for four balloons to be flown outside present barrage area.
Weather indifferent and forecast at dusk gave a high risk of lightning, and in consequence the writer instructed that 50% of barrage be bedded. Officer Commanding No. 50 Flight expressed the opinion that he was strongly adverse to a reduction of the barrage on a weather report.
Sharp shelling at dusk and air activity later.
26th July (D + 50)
Bad weather did not develop and full barrage flown again this morning.
Mortar fire resumed in Ouistreham area this morning after a brief lapse of this type of enemy activity. Shell fire from the east extended right along the beach today, well into No. 53 Flight area.
27th July (D + 51)
A sharp but short air raid during the night with shelling again in the early morning.
At times shelling and mortaring in the Ouistreham area seemed particularly bad today.
A definite improvement in fresh rations is to be noted.
28th July (D + 52)
There was a very sharp spell of shelling just after midnight, about 100 shells landing in the area, followed by some enemy air activity.
Intermittent shelling and mortar fire continued throughout the day.
29th July (D + 53)
No air activity or enemy action of any sort last night and little during today.
W/Cmdr. Usher and S/Ldr. Smithers arrived at Squadron Headquarters and visited No. 53 Flight Headquarters.
Decision given regarding the additional four balloons requested for the canal; the R.A.F. will not permit any extension of the present barrage area.
30th July (D + 54)
A beautiful day, clear and warm.
Authority received from Headquarters, 80th A.A. Brigade for four most easterly balloons deployed around the Lock Gates at Ouistreham to be flown at 1,000 ft at all times regardless of cloud base. This compromise has been necessary in view of undesirability of men being deployed to alter height of these balloons by day; the sites being in full view of the enemy on the other side of the River Orne and any activity observed by him invariably attracts mortar or shell fire. This authority to take effect as from 08.00 hours on 1st August 1944.
31st July (D + 55)
The Commanding Officer and Officer Commanding No. 50 Flight spent most of the day on a reconnaissance with the object of establishing a Squadron Rest Camp to which say a dozen men could be sent at a time for 48 hours. It was wished to set it up in an area sufficiently clear of enemy action by night for the men to sleep above ground and be able to get an uninterrupted night’s rest, for although morale is as high as ever, the continual enemy activity, either shelling or air raids is very wearing and as it is not known how long it will last it is felt there will be an adverse effect before long if they cannot get a break. This applies particularly to No. 50 Flight as the shelling and mortaring is heaviest in their area. However, although most of the British sector was explored in the beachhead it was not possible to find a suitable spot in which units reported no A.A. activity at night and so for the time being it was decided to leave the project in abeyance.
End of month operational data
Average number of balloons flying daily:- 54.6
Total number of casualties:- 89
From the point of view of weather the month has been an indifferent one and difficult for flying, particularly as the establishment does not provide for an officer to whom the duties of barrage control could be delegated. The writer is quite convinced that the policy of flying the barrage without regard to the possibility of casualties is unwise and inefficient from a defence point of view, even for a Beach Squadron, in this area.
In the early part of the month, considerable relief had been obtained from the cessation of shelling by the enemies 105 mm guns in the South as a result of the allied thrust on Caen.
Some sort of air activity occurred most nights, and Flights have suffered many balloon casualties from shrapnel, but the number of aircraft taking part in the raids is undoubtedly reduced and frequently must be under double figures, which one feels is really remarkable.
Work on the MOON beaches has now ceased altogether and the V.P. is really the Ouistreham Lock Gates and Canal entrance, which are of paramount importance if use of Caen as a port is contemplated, but all defences are still strung out along the beach area as well as in Ouistreham in an endeavour to deceive the enemy.
The Squadron’s luck still holds and there have been no casualties to personnel as a result of enemy action.
The 83 Group medical officer reported very favourably on the Squadron after visiting all sites. Although not virulent the activity of the local mosquito has become extremely intense and is now a definite nuisance. Also many units are now suffering from stomach disorders which are attributed too bad fly hygiene and the congestion of troops living in the area in field conditions.
Football has been introduced and many matches have been played by the Flight teams, particularly by No. 50 Flight, against both other units and civilian teams, and the pastime has been found a welcome relief from the atmosphere of a “target” area.
To be continued……….
Main source used for this page:
Operations Record Book of No. 976 Squadron – found in, ‘Air Ministry and successors: Operations Record Books, Squadrons’ AIR 27/2324 at The National Archives.