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Revealed: Secret of the balloon blitz

PUBLISHED: 14:44 26 October 2001 | UPDATED: 10:45 03 March 2010

THE long-hidden top secret role of Felixstowe during the Second World War has at last been revealed – more than 55 years after hostilities ended.

THE long-hidden top secret role of Felixstowe during the Second World War has at last been revealed today – more than 55 years after hostilities ended.

Government officials have disclosed that the seaside town was used for a successful special operation 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.

Now the MoD has confirmed what happened, and details and photographs are to be included in a new book, called Felixstowe at War.

Operation Outward involved service personnel targeting the enemy from great distance – similar to the way war is conducted today by firing cruise missiles from hundreds of miles away, but much more primitive.

It involved mainly marines and Wrens launching massive hydrogen-filled balloons trailing incendiary bombs and long metal wires from the golf course at Felixstowe Ferry.

The balloons were inflated to a diameter of 6ft and were set for a pre-determined height where they would then expand to 8ft.

Attached to them were metal hawsers and the incendiary devices. When the balloons came down over Germany, the metal wires clattered into high tension electricity cables, causing mass blackouts in many towns.

The bombs were designed to cause fires to harass the enemy and keep them occupied, especially during bombing raids and other pre-planned missions.

The MoD says 99,142 balloons were launched from Felixstowe – 45,599 trailing wires, and 53,543 carrying incendiary bombs.

The operation was carried out by six naval and marine officers, seven WRNS officers, 80 Royal Marines and 140 Wrens.

The Wrens were those based during the war in the old convalescent home – now a seafront car park – at the bottom of Convalescent Hill, and usually spent much of their time making nets for the harbour boom defences.

Ten documents are held at the public records office at Kew about Operation Outward and are now open to public viewing.

John Smith, one of the authors of the book, said: "The operation had been classified as secret under the Official Secrets Act until very recently when the Government agreed to release details.

"Quite a few people obviously knew it went on, but it was a bit like the incident at Shingle Street, where people knew something happened but not quite what was involved.

"The balloons could only be sent on those days when the wind was blowing off the land and onto the sea to ensure they would get a good start across to the continent.

"The handling and launching of the balloons was very dangerous and several of the Wrens were injured, some seriously."

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.

Felixstowe was a vital base during the Second World War, with all forces using the town for garrisons, which included the Navy's HMS Beehive motor torpedo boats unit.

Felixstowe at War, by Phil Hadwen, John Smith, Peter White and Neil Wylie, will be published on November 3, priced £15.

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