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  • Writer's pictureJason White, GUS CEO

Barrage Balloons on D-Day: Technology, Operations, and Impact

Capability Overview

Barrage balloons, used extensively during the Normandy invasion, were designed to deter low-flying enemy aircraft. These Very Low Altitude (VLA) balloons, about 35 feet in length, were filled with hydrogen and tethered to the ground with steel cables. The primary purpose of these balloons was to create an aerial obstacle, forcing enemy planes to fly higher, thus reducing the accuracy of strafing and bombing runs​ (Air and Space Smithsonian)​​ (warhistoryonline)​.

Missions and Successes on D-Day

The 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion, the only African American unit to storm the beaches on D-Day, was crucial in deploying these balloons. On June 6, 1944, the battalion landed on Omaha and Utah beaches with the mission to protect the invading forces from aerial attacks. Despite heavy enemy fire and initial chaos, they managed to deploy several balloons by the evening of June 6. By the next morning, additional balloons were aloft, providing essential protection for the troops on the ground​ (Air and Space Smithsonian)​​ (MilitaryHistoryNow)​.

The presence of these balloons effectively prevented German aircraft from executing low-altitude strafing runs, thereby significantly reducing casualties and contributing to the overall success of the landings. The balloons' cables were equipped with small explosive charges designed to detonate upon contact with enemy aircraft, further enhancing their defensive capability​ (History Collection)​​ (Army)​.

Difficulties Faced

The deployment of barrage balloons was not without challenges. The initial landings were met with intense German fire, which destroyed many balloons before they could be deployed. Additionally, the equipment required to manage the balloons, including heavy winches, posed logistical challenges. The soldiers of the 320th adapted by using modified field cable winches to control the balloons, ensuring they could be quickly deployed and managed under combat conditions​ (Air and Space Smithsonian)​​ (Army)​.

Follow-Up Days and Commendations

Following the initial landings, the 320th continued to operate barrage balloons to protect the beaches and subsequent supply landings. By August 1944, as the Allies gained air superiority, the need for barrage balloons diminished, and the battalion was redeployed for other assignments in France. The 320th's efforts did not go unnoticed; they received commendations for their bravery and effectiveness. Notably, General Eisenhower praised the battalion for their crucial role in the invasion's success​ (warhistoryonline)​​ (Army)​.

Key Figures

One of the notable members of the 320th was Corporal Waverly Bernard Woodson Jr., a medic who performed heroic acts on D-Day despite being wounded. He treated numerous casualties under fire and was recommended for the Medal of Honor, though he received the Bronze Star and Purple Heart instead​ (MilitaryHistoryNow)​.

In Summary

The barrage balloons deployed by the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion played a vital role in protecting the Allied forces during the D-Day invasion. Their innovative use of technology and the bravery of the soldiers operating them were key factors in the success of Operation Overlord, marking a significant contribution to the eventual Allied victory in Europe.


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