Felixstowe's secret war exposed
PUBLISHED: 21:11 29 November 2001 | UPDATED: 10:56 03 March 2010
THE disclosure of details of Felixstowe's secret role in World War Two has brought memories flooding back for Wrens who were part of the mystery mission.
THE disclosure of details of Felixstowe's secret role in World War Two has brought memories flooding back for Wrens who were part of the mystery mission. RICHARD CORNWELL spoke to members of the Operation Outward team.
WHEN teenager Antoinette Porter was told the part she would play in the war, she simply could not believe it.
It sounded too bizarre for words, almost laughable. Except this was war – and everything was deadly serious.
And although the role she and other Wrens were to play at Felixstowe was to remain a secret for the next 55 years, it has long been the butt of family jokes.
"I was just astonished at the time, I really could not believe it. And although my family has laughed about it many times over the years, I don't think my children quite believed it at all until now!" said Antoinette.
The Wrens based at Felixstowe during the Second World War had a most unusual task.
They were members of a mission known as Operation Outward, designed to cause widespread fires and mass disruption across Germany.
Although some local people have known about the operation, it has been shrouded in mystery with the Ministry of Defence refusing to release details until recently.
The Wrens and a number of marines were tasked with inflating giant latex rubber balloons with hydrogen, attaching to them 100 yard metal wires or incendiary devices, and letting them go in offshore winds – sending them towards the enemy.
During the course of the war, the MoD says an incredible 99,142 balloons were launched in Operation Outward from the golf links between Old Felixstowe and Felixstowe Ferry – 45,599 trailing wires, and 53,543 carrying incendiary bombs.
When the balloons came down over Germany, the metal hausers clattered into high tension electricity cables, causing mass blackouts in many towns. The bombs caused fires, damaging buildings and destroying crops.
Targeting the enemy from great distance is a familiar part of war today – the launching of cruise missiles from ships hundreds of miles from the conflict is a familiar image – and the balloons were an early trial run, though far more primitive.
Antoinette, then 18, was sent to Felixstowe in May 1943 after volunteering for "a very dangerous and secret" job.
"We weren't told what the job was, only that it would be on the east coast outside Felixstowe. I imagined repulsing would-be invaders and my heart raced with boundless enthusiasm!" she said.
She arrived in the seaside town to be taken to her billet at the Suffolk Convalescent Home, which stood where the Convalescent car park now stands near the Town Hall. The town was a military base with virtually all civilians evacuated and their homes mothballed.
The seafront was a tangled mass of razor-tipped barbed wire, huge concrete cubes stood on the beach to stop tank landings, barrage balloons flew above the harbour, and on the horizon out at sea could be seen the new Rough Towers anti-aircraft gun emplacement.
Inside the convalescent home, the 140 teenage Wrens were split 16 girls to a room, all in double-decker bunks with neat navy and white, anchor embroidered Vantona bedspreads.
Antoinette recalls them having one broken piece of mirror to share. One girl had a radio and they listened to Vera Lynn and Glenn Miller.
She was briefed about Operation Outward with about ten others.
"Silently, if not open-mouthed, we listened. Apparently, we teenagers to a girl, were to launch attacks on Germany from a golf course two to three miles from where we were staying, and be taught to handle and fire Lewis guns and rifles in defence of the site," she said.
"The plan was to inflate to ten to 12 feet white latex rubber balloons in three-sided housings, attach various rather nasty devices to them and, when the wind was right, dispatch them to Germany. We were aghast!
"We were divided into Port and Starboard watches and were to begin operating as soon as the weather was right.
"Through our window at the convalescent home we could see the big grey barrage balloons and by their position we were able to tell if, and where, we were working.
"Triple tails out to sea – off to work. Tails reversed – off to an old Butlins camp (today Charles Manning's Amusement Park) a mile down the road to sort and assemble the balloons, which were about two to three feet in size before inflation.
"We attached black bakerlite necks to these with twisty bits and little things called pip-settings, which were meant to control their performance when they reached a certain height over the target.
"When they were launched we also attached, depending on the weather, rain weights, which have remained a complete mystery to me!
"The balloons were packed in French chalk which got into the back of your throat rather badly. We used to put the residue on the floor and, during our cocoa break, slide up and down and fall over.
"We also wrote very tame, but we thought very daring and rude, messages on the balloons to Hitler, Goering, Goebbels and any other poor German who saw them. And, of course, the black messages, when inflated, became very large. Taking into account that some landed in Belgium, France and Holland, the locals must have been a bit puzzled."
Antoinette, now 76, and who lives in Wimbledon, London, had to cycle to the golf course.
Along with the other Wrens, she then had to inflate the white balloons via hoses attached to hydrogen-filled cylinders.
The balloons were housed in three-sided canvas tents and as they increased in size, there was friction between balloon and canvas and a risk of instant combustion. Buckets and stirrup pumps had to be used to spray them with water.
"In spite of our simple precautions the balloons did, quite frequently, explode causing the nearer Wrens to be flash-burned and the further ones to get an instant sun tan and singed eyebrows and hairline," said Antoinette.
"Fortunately I was never near enough to get badly burned but many of my pals were carted off to Trimley St Mary Hospital to be plastered with gentian violet or acriflavine, not a pretty sight. As teenagers we took all this in our stride, which I now find unbelievable."
Once inflated and the pip-setting attached, the balloon was loosed from its moorings and taken to have either one of three weapons attached – the 100 yard steel wire, a long fused canvas bag stuffed with straw, ignition material and bottles of liquid latex mixed with phosphorous, or petrol cans with timed fuses.
"We then took the balloon to a dispersal point on the golf course and let it go. Imagine a Force-8 and the balloon tugging at you, changing shape with the wind and nearly taking you with it," she said.
They operated in all weathers, including rain, as long as the wind was blowing offshore.
"The loveliest sight was on a summer's day and a successful launch of two to three hundred balloons streaming into the blue sky like big fat pearls, getting smaller and smaller and eventually drifting out of sight."
Among the successes of the operation was damage to cables not only across much of Germany but also Italy, and one major success was the destruction of a power station at Bohlen, deemed at the time as the equivalent of destroying a large warship.
Not every balloon though ended on the continent. Some blew inland and started a fire in a village in the Midlands with one newspaper giving Hitler the credit for his "fiendish new weapon", and the Germans were blamed again when disruption was caused to the railways.
Another Wren stationed at Felixstowe and who worked on Operation Outward from 1942 to 1944 was Phyllis Brittain, originally from Herefordshire but who now lives in Colneis Road, Felixstowe.
"It was absolutely laughable when you think back on it, and I have never known why it was kept secret for all those years," said Phyllis, who left the Wrens to marry a local farmer.
"My husband used to tease me rotten about the balloons which came back if the wind changed – if they did start to come back, then we had to tell Bawdsey and they sent the RAF up to shoot them down.
"It was dangerous work at times and several of the Wrens were hurt. The wire was terrifying – if it suddenly whipped round and lashed you it would cut you to bits."
Phyllis remembered tanks of water being kept nearby for the Wrens to jump into if they got any phosphorous on themselves, and also recalls phosphorous canisters being found on the golf course for many years afterwards.
DETAILS of Operation Outward are featured in a new book called Felixstowe at War.
The book, by Phil Hadwen, John Smith, Peter White and Neil Wylie, looks at the resort's role in conflicts and its defence of the country over the past 2,000 years – from the Roman invasion to the Falklands War.
Its 192 pages include 350 photographs, maps and drawings, most never seen before, capturing the preparations for war, the town at war, and those who were sent to be part of its military operations.
The Evening Star has five copies of the limited edition hardback, which is selling in the shops for £15, to give away as prizes.
The first five out of the hat who answer the following question correctly will win a copy:
How many balloons carrying wires and incendiary devices were launched during Operation Outward at Felixstowe during the Second World War?
Send your answer on a postcard to Felixstowe At War Competition, Evening Star, 105B Hamilton Road, Felixstowe, Suffolk, IP11 7BL. Closing date is December 8.