The red balloon scare of 1940

I hadn't come across this before. @ukwarcabinet recently linked to some informal notes of a War Cabinet meeting held on 8 February 1940. It was pretty quiet, even for the Bore War, and 'Some of the subjects discussed were rather discussed by way of filling in time'. Including this:

At the end of the Meeting there was a reference to a scare which had started through a red balloon floating about in the Eastern Counties. This balloon had been sent up for meteorological purposes, but it had apparently given rise to a scare that gas balloons were being let loose by the Germans. The London Passenger Transport Board had told their employees to be ready to put on their gas-masks!

It seems they weren't particularly concerned by this incident, despite what it might have said about the fragility of morale. The scare wasn't kept secret; the Manchester Guardian had already reported it that morning (p. 7), with some extra details:

"ENEMY GAS"
Harmless Balloons Start Rumours

Extraordinary rumours in Eastern English and Scottish coastal districts followed the discovery yesterday of a number of small balloons. These were harmless British meteorological balloons but stories which had spread in various parts of the country had suggested that they were of enemy origin and that they contained dangerous gas.

At King's Lynn (Norfolk) these stories led to the police issuing the following statement:--

The enemy has dropped balloon toys which may contain gas, highly inflammable, and explode on being touched or handled by lines attached. Police and observer corps should be informed if any are found.

The balloons are used for testing atmospheric conditions and occasionally they sink to the ground without bursting. They are harmless except that they contain hydrogen, and are therefore likely to explode if brought into contact with a naked flame.

So the story is that British meteorologists launched some weather balloons which came down in the eastern parts of England and Scotland. Passers-by found them, thought them suspicious, and reported them to authorities, which in turn made public statements that they were dangerous German weapons -- either incendiary devices or actual poison gas bombs. In more normal times, it's unlikely that a stray weather balloon would be interpreted as something dangerous, just something curious. Now, with the war strangely calm and the expected bombers nowhere to be seen, it's more understandable that people would be jittery and overreact to mundane (if rare) sights (it had happened before and would happen again). And it certainly had to be considered that the Germans might try to use some sort of secret weapon against Britain. But the fact that the scare seems to have happened simultaneously in widely separated places -- London, Norfolk, Scotland -- suggests that there was something else going on too. Was the Met Office trying out a new balloon design? Perhaps it was the red colour mentioned in the War Cabinet discussion which made the balloons look especially sinister? Anyway, it's another scare to add to my list.

PS I think I should get credit for not mentioning Nena. Until now.

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7 thoughts on “The red balloon scare of 1940

  1. Post author

    I prefer the German version too (Hielten sich fuer Captain Kirk / Das gab ein grosses Feuerwerk!) It is actually quite apt, because insofar as it makes any sense at all, it's supposed to be about toy balloons floating into the sky, causing a panic and starting the Third World War. Should be Airminded's theme song, actually.

  2. Post author

    Oh, and I forgot to add: another factor which may have increased anxiety/alertness in early February was a minor air battle near Whitby on Saturday, 3 February: one He 111 was shot down, the first brought down on English soil. Another was shot down over the sea nearby, and a third forced to land after being damaged (and was captured). At least two others got away. A minesweeper got one in the Moray Firth. This was all reported at generous length in the Monday papers, and seems to have been the most intense air action for quite some time, so it might well have looked like the Germans were up to something.

  3. Arghhhh! Earworm.

    Thankfully 'local boys' AC/DC are playing here, so that dealt with any annoying eighties Fraulein.

  4. Post author

    One of the Mass-Observation diarists in Simon Garfield's We Are At War: The Diaries of Five Ordinary People in Extraordinary Times (London: Ebury Press, 2006) was an office worker in Glasgow and she reported on this rumour at length in her entry for 7 February 1940. It sheds some interesting light on the transmission and reception of stories like this so I'll reproduce it in full here:

    This afternoon produced an unusual amount of war commentary. Mr Mitchell returned at 2.50 saying that Mr Moffat had told him that he had been told by the porter at Dunblane station this morning that the officials at Fife had told him to beware of what appear to be children's balloons. These balloons are full of poison gas. Anyone seeing one should refrain from touching it, but should call a policeman instead.

    I said I thought the Germans would hesitate to use such a method, because the direction of the wind is west to east and we could so easily retaliate, and there was a risk that their own balloons would blow back on them. Mr Mitchell did not agree.

    At 3 p.m. Miss Bousie returned from lunch saying that there were bills about saying 'Small balloons, don't touch'. Miss Bousie wishes to know why the Government have not told us how to handle such a balloon. Should one put water on it? Mr Mitchell's advice was to call a policeman. She rejected this as there may be no policemen in the vicinity. Mr Mitchell said, 'Then just go on and forget about the balloon.'

    Miss Bousie: 'There may be people in the vicinity who could not know that it was dangerous. No. I would stand beside the balloon -- no matter how long I had to stand -- until a policeman happened to come that way. Go on and forget that it was there? Good gracious no! There was too much of that sort of thing in this world. People just thought of themselves.'

    I began to tell Mother that there was a wild rumour going about on the subject of balloons. She said she knew of it already for the BBC had issued an official denial at six. Mother's words were: 'This fool put a lighted cigarette against the balloon.'

    'What fool?' I said.

    She said, 'In the factory where they were making the poison gas. There were a lot of balloons with gas in them and this fool went in with a cigarette which he had no business to be smoking and puts one up alongside a balloon, and it exploded. No damage was done.'

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