In an age of supersonic flight and nuclear weaponry, to most people, the term “Barrage balloon” conjures up an image of somewhat comical contraptions, occasionally hoisted above newly opened shopping centres, car showrooms and the like, as eye-catching publicity gimmicks. However, from the onset of World War two, Barrage Balloons played a vital role in Britain's defence strategy throughout the war years, helping to fend off attacks from enemy aircraft.
These impressive and fascinating silver monsters - made of rubberised fabric and filled with highly flammable hydrogen gas, were painstakingly manufactured and maintained by hand, waiting to be hoisted aloft by skilled operators at the first sign of air attacks. Their role was a passive defence in which they were most effective, they were to prevent concentrated low level and dive-bombing attacks by enemy aircraft and later, to bring down flying bombs. Unlike tanks, aircraft and battleships, barrage balloons were "sacrificial". In doing their job, they were inevitably destroyed, which must have caused mixed feelings in those who lovingly cared for them with skill and dedication.
There were many Balloon Barrages and Centres around our shores. This is the story of just one of them -17 Centre, based at Sutton on Hull.
This book is a factual account, based on research of remaining written records, recollections of those who served in the Balloon and Training Commands, and site visits to what little remains of the former Barrage Balloon Base.
It would not have been possible to write this book without the valued co-operation and assistance of several sources of copyright text, maps and photographs. I am most grateful for the help I have received, and the copyright of the organisations for material they provided to me is fully acknowledged. I must also record my thanks to the Kingston upon Hull City Council for the refurbishment and the memorial now affixed to the original gates from RAF Sutton on Hull.
Now that the electronic age is well and truely upon us, I would like to thank Alan Brigham for his assistance in preparing this new mode of presentation, a web-based version of; Hull's Own Air Force Station - 17 Balloon Centre & RAF Sutton on Hull.
My sincere thanks go to the many that have relived their memories and opened their photograph albums together with those who helped me into the research that was involved,
without them all there would be no story.
Finally my thanks go to a lady whose knowledge of the history of the Sutton area is renowned: Merrill Rhodes who for many years has encouraged me to “finish your book”. Now that is done I have had the nerve to ask Merrill if she would do me the honour of providing a Foreword!!
Leonard C. Bacon.
This is ‘a story waiting to be told,’ in the author’s words. I first met Len in Sutton four years ago when he asked me what I knew about RAF Sutton. “Not a lot!” was my honest answer.
Apart from some older ladies in Sutton whose War years were enlivened by the company of young RAF personnel, very little is now known about the Station, and nothing at all has been written about it. Photographs were virtually non-existent. The paucity of information intrigued Len, an ex-RAF man. This, and a visit to RAF Leconfield in 1996, were the catalysts for this account.
The writer’s painstaking investigations have resulted in this quite astonishing book, full of intelligent research, and enhanced by anecdotal evidence. Without this work, the period of Sutton history sandwiched between the centuries of open farmland on Wawne Road, and the busy bustle of Bransholme and the North Point Shopping Centre, could be forgotten.
From its embryonic state as the No.17 Balloon Centre in 1938, to the building of Bransholme in the late 1960s, this 80 or so acres throbs with life - a vast concourse of 95 buildings, incorporating hangars and classrooms, storerooms and a church.
Len invites us to meet the men and women who lived their lives here, and so played their part in the War Effort. The science of balloon manufacture and operation is described authoritatively, and the running of the Balloon Centre is defined in each of the War years. There are, too, details of sites and activities of the Hull Barrage elsewhere.
By 1942, the operations of the RAF Station Sutton-on-Hull, as it was then known, involved hundreds of personnel, and the following year the RAF School of Fire Fighting and Rescue was established; this was to continue until 1959.
With the War ended, Len discovers a somewhat changed way of life at the Station, now relieved by Libraries, Sports and Dances, Concerts and Films, and the occasional Big Event.
The author has conducted meticulous research on his subject, and collected and collated his findings in this fascinating and absorbing book. He treats what could have been an uninspiring subject with interest and dynamism. He has traced and spoken to many people who worked at the Balloon Barrage and the RAF Station, or who attended activities there. There are many personal stories and accounts, as the characters recall their own memories – of fear, shock, relief, optimism, and friendship.
Throughout, the writing is tinged with humour, making this not only a definitive account of RAF Sutton, but also a ‘very good read’.
I am privileged to be able to recommend this excellent book.