Fist Of History

May, 2013Archive for

Operation Outward – the Allies fire balloon campaign

Monday, May 13th, 2013

Winston Churchill was a fascinating figure in World War II, the leader of the British Empire and an incredibly influential figure in the conduct of the war and the ultimate success of the Allied cause.  He was also a fan of really oddball weapon systems, one in particular that caught his eye, and has an eerie parallel, was Operation Outward.  Operation Outward was an effort by the British from 1942 to 1944 to mess with the Nazis through the use of balloons transporting destructive surprises from the British isles to continental Europe.  The basic plan was simple, load a balloon with a pyrotechnic device, send it up high into the atmosphere where steady winds would catch it, allow the wind to blow it in the direction of Germany, and after a predetermined length of time have it descend to Earth.  When it hit, the pyrotechnic device went off, if you were lucky, it had landed in one of Germany’s plush forests and would set it on fire.

For those who are familiar with World War II odd weapons plans you’ll have immediately jumped to the parallel, the Japanese fire balloon campaign of 1944-1945 against the United States in which more technologically advanced craft used the jet stream to fly from the Japanese islands to the western United States, where they would descend, blow up a powerful bomb, and hopefully set things on fire with a pyrotechnic load.  What is further shocking is that both campaigns actually worked fairly well, both the British and the Japanese caused resources to be diverted from the war effort to battle this unusual assault upon their respective enemies.  In fact the campaign against the United States was considered disturbing enough the American government censored mention of the attack, and its subsequent forest fires, from being printed out of concern it would distract the American populous from the war effort.

The British plan though had an interesting twist – some of the balloons they sent aloft did not carry explosives but instead carried piano wire, a single long spool of it that would trail below the balloon as it scuttled along near the ground.  The plan was that the piano wire would strike a German high-tension power line and cause a massive arc and short in the system, disrupting German power production.  Oddly enough it worked, it even caused the Germans a major power failure partway through the war.

Which got me thinking – the balloons were not that expensive to build and they worked fairly well – I wonder if a plan like that could work against a modern nation?

Sources:  Wikipedia on Operation Outward and the book Loose Cannons by Graeme Donald.