This squadron was never meant to come to India in the first place it was destined for Rangoon but a series of mishaps and last minute change of plan led this squadron to be deployed in Calcutta (Kolkata). Balloon Squadrons do not exist anymore since the rules of war and the tools of war have subsequently changed and slowly these regiments were retired from active service.
The deployment of this squadron in my city of Kolkata came at a time when the fear of a Japanese attack was imminent. Contrary to the common belief Kolkata was not the only city to be bombed by the Japanese; cities like Vishakhapatnam, Kakinada and Chennai were also attacked. What was common between these cities were that all of them were major ports and the Japanese Imperial Army wanted somehow to break the supply chain of war supply to China which was a major front and was giving a tough fight to the Japanese aggression.
This blog is dedicated to the men of the 978 Balloon Squadron who despite the limited resources and the limited manpower took the challenge on their shoulder and with balloons defended my city.
I am not going into war details since most of this information is always available online instead I will summarise the basic game plan deployed by the Japanese. Intelligence gathered by the Japanese reconnaissance missions over the city revealed that large shipment was arriving at the ports of Calcutta which for sure was destined to the Burma front. The Japanese were fast conquering most of Burma and the Allied were preparing for a full offensive. Another key reason for an attack on Calcutta was that the docks were used for transportation of fuel to the Chinese fronts.
The Japanese successfully created diversion tactics by attacking Chittagong this led to the Allied forces to re deploy their air defence asset to Chittagong away from Calcutta. This would mean that the city was having a lack of proper defence against a large scale Japanese air attack. The city was left with two squadrons of Hawker Hurricane and one squadron of night-fighter.
What Is A Balloon Squadron?
Balloons were being used in wars for centuries initially, these were just signalling devices followed by the use of these for reconnaissance usage by giving a bird’s eye view of the battle field. Full-scale use of ballooning came to be used during the American Civil War. These were used to make maps of the battle field and for aerial reconnaissance.
During WWI balloons were started being used extensively by the artillery divisions for them to update the ground troops as the view that they would get from the top would always be advantageous. But by then aircraft were also being used by both the sides which meant that the balloons were susceptible to air attacks.
During WWII the British found a new usage of the balloons which came to be known as Barrage Balloons. Commonly these were known as Blimps and were simply designed as a defensive measure. Balloons filled with Hydrogen gas were lifted up in the air and were secured to the ground by steel cables. Not one cable but several cables in a spread out fashion. This prevented aircraft bombers to dive low and go for a precise target run. The cable was not visible to the pilots of the bombers since they were flying at high speed and the aircraft wings would get tangled with these wire and with the high speed the aircraft would get damaged and crash.
These, however, had some limitations as the height of their deployment were limited to a certain height which the hydrogen filled balloon could lift up to also the steel cables added weight which limited their altitude. Another danger was that of a rogue or loose balloon which would have steel cables dangling and can damage power cables and properties.
Unlike aircraft, these could not be deployed when the attack was on going but rather had to be pre planned. Usually, these were deployed near strategic installations like bridges, docks, important buildings etc.
Formation of 978 Balloon Squadron
As mentioned in the beginning they came to Calcutta by sheer coincidence and were actually destined for Rangoon. 978 Balloon Squadron was led by Squadron Leader Robert Wallis Beresford (1906 – 2000), he was the key person who took a detailed interest in the research of balloon section of the RAF (Royal Air Force). He himself was a pilot with the RAF. This was more of an experimental regiment and the squadron was still trying to improve their usability on the battle field.
The details of the deployment of the balloon squadron in Calcutta were most found from the writings of Corporal Henry Hardy. Squadron Leader Robert Wallis Beresford formed a team of men who would be a part of the squadron at Cardington the team consisted of twelve men, one corporal, one sergeant and two officers. Some of the names which were recorded in the documents were that of Corporal Cowan, Sergeant Frank Keiranan, Donavan, Jones, Fitzpatrick, Dickeson, Morrison, Snow, Allan, Evens, Cox, and others.
The Journey Starts
The squadron was initially formed to be deployed in Singapore and boarded the ship Athlone Castle from Liverpool. The journey would take up to nine weeks due to the uncertainty of the war. The convoy of ships took the long Atlantic route to prevent attacks by U Boat.
With brief stopovers at Freetown and Durban, the ship finally sailed towards Ceylon (Sri Lanka) from where they will proceed towards Singapore. When the crew reached Ceylon the crew learnt that their equipment had been lost at sea when the ship S.S. Bangalore collided with another ship Richmond Castle. With no other option in hand and half the way around the world, the team decided to instead take weapons training for combat fight in Ceylon.
With no other operations in sight the squadron was returning to base on a Dutch ship Sibajac, unfortunately, this journey did not go well either. First, there was a boiler problem at Ceylon itself and after a couple of days when it was repaired the ship again had boiler issue once it reached Durban.
With things heating up at the Middle East the squadron was asked to go to Suez on the ship RMS Mauretania. After reaching Ismailia the team further proceeded to Aden. Out here the team had some luck where they managed to get some balloon provisions back and decided to put back the balloon project again.
From Aden, the squadron was ordered to head for Rangoon instead since by then the Japanese forces were eyeing the city and it required urgent defences. The Australian ship was heading back home so after a brief stop in Bombay (Mumbai) the ship proceeded towards Ceylon. When the ship reached Ceylon the squadron got the news that Rangoon was about to fall to the Japanese so it was no use going there instead so the troop was ordered to go to Calcutta (Kolkata) instead as the Allied forces assumed that the Japanese forces would target Calcutta next.
So the journey to Calcutta was something like this:-
Cardington –> Liverpool –> Freetown –> Durban –> Ceylon –> Durban –> Ismailia –> Suez –> Ismailia –> Mumbai –> Ceylon –> Calcutta
After reaching Calcutta the squadron was initially taken to Fort William where they spent a couple of days before being transferred to BNR. This place located past Kidderpore near Garden Reach was the headquarters of Bengal Nagpur Railways (now known as South Eastern Railways).
The Action Begins
The squadron headquarters were setup in one of the building and the team took refuge in tents that were set up. Hydrogen generators were installed near the river away from the buildings as a safety precaution. The balloons were stored in a warehouse which still exists now.
Additional ten men were sent to help the squadron. The team by now had five barrages for transportation of the balloons. Boats were also used to transport balloons to ships stationed at the dock.
A lot of these balloons were deployed around Calcutta like Howrah Bridge, Esplanade Square Kolkata and around Writers Building. These barrage balloons can be seen in some footages of the city clicked after the Japanese air raids of Calcutta.
Many Indian soldiers were also included into the squadron; these men were trained and then deployed in the fields.
Japanese Attacks the Docks
The Japanese Air Force made several sorties over Calcutta strategically dropping bombs in the central business district and in the docks. The number of bombs dropped at the docs were very high as much as 131 bombs were dropped on 10th, 16th& 28th of December 1942 followed by 17th & 23rd January 1943. The attack on 23 was the most devastating with over 70 bombs being dropped over the dock area and the casualty on that day was nearly 500. Since BNR was located near the docks the installation did face some damages.
The squadron had few casualties during their stay in the city and further deployment in Chittagong. Three members of the Balloon Squadron George James Edward Leaver, Straughan Leslie and Repton George are buried at Bhowanipore Cemetery. Mushtaq Ahmad Khan buried at Muslim cemetery in Kidderpore while Carruthers Richard is buried at Chittagong War Cemetery.
During the devastating Bengal Famine, the members of the Balloon Squadron were despatched to Jamshedpur for relief operations. The members of the squadron took active participation in relief work around the state.
Japanese Losing the War
With the Allied power slowly forcing back the Japanese army from Burma front the danger of an air attack on Calcutta subsided and with no other possible action in sight the squadron was ordered to go to Ceylon. The contribution to the war by the Balloon Regiment might have been forgotten by the city but a lone plaque inside the BNR (South Eastern Railways) headquarters still mentions their contribution in defending the city.
This blog would not have been possible without the support of Peter Garwood of BBRC. Thanks for responding to hundreds of my emails and supporting this blog. Another round of thanks must be given to my fellow blogger Rangan Dutta for helping me track the plaque. The Balloon Squadron had operated in Calcutta from 1st of May 1942 until 29th of March 1945.
This is not the end but the beginning of my WWII series, keep watching this space more such blogs are on the way.