The WAAF Balloon Squadron casualties

A couple of months ago I published a blog post on the Pen-y-lan Road blitz victims.  Shortly after that I was put in touch with someone who remembered the night clearly and told me about another group who lost their lives that night.  They were members of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) who were living in the newly built Lady Margaret’s school caretaker’s house on Colchester Avenue and managing a barrage balloon tethered nearby.  They were killed when the house took a direct hit from a German bomb.

Training session

Much Googling later and I had failed to turn up any details. The internet seemed to be devoid of any information about the incident.  The casualties don’t seem to be on any Cardiff memorials and neither could I find them mentioned in the newspapers, which isn’t too surprising given the censorship in place at the time.  The civilian casualties of the Cardiff blitz bombings are listed but of course these were military victims and don’t appear on that list.  I tried looking at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) records but again drew a blank.  Then, last weekend I happened upon a folder on the Cardiff blitz in Cathays library and in there was a copy of a letter to the South Wales Echo in 1997 recalling the same incident.

Newspaper Article on Colchester Avenue WAAF Victims

The letter provided a lot of leads.  It pretty much mirrored what I had been told a few months earlier but not only did it list the names of the casualties and the injured but also information about a book written by a WAAF officer, Muriel Pusham, who was stationed at Cardiff Castle and one of the first on the scene afterwards.

WAAF Training

Training session for the WAAF balloon operators.

Now armed with names I could do a lot more research.  Three of the four women named in the letter  I found listed on the CWGC website.  It soon became clear why I hadn’t found them earlier.   There was no mention of Cardiff on their records.  I discovered that their bodies, rather than being buried at Cathays cemetery, were transported back to their home towns and buried there. Also, having found their names I could find their squadrons and more information about what happened on the night.  This is what I discovered:

  • 18/5  02.31
    The barrage was flying at 500′ when a “stand-by” followed by a “shine” at 02.34 was received from the Balloon Officer, 10 Fighter Group.
  • 18/5  02.41 to 03.35
    E/A attacked at varying heights from 1000′ to 10,000′ dropping flares, IB and HE.  At approximately 03.10 hours site 53/18 received a direct hit from an HE bomb which killed three WAAF balloon operators. Mary Askell (sic), Betty Stannard and Paddy (sic) Brand and wounded four others, Terry David, Cpl Lilian Ellis, Marjorie Oates and Betty Reynolds.  These were the first war casualties sustained by the Squadron.
  • 20TH MAY 1943
    The remains of three casualties, left for their respective homes. Each coffin accompanied by a W.A.A.F. Officer and N.C.O.

WAAF Balloon Squadron inspection

 

This is what I have been able to find out about the victims:

HELEN ROSS BRAND

Aircraftwoman 1st Class, 953 Balloon Squadron, Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (Service Number 2116411)

Helen Ross Brand was born in 1922 in Keith, Scotland to John Brand and Jessie Ross Brand nee Lobban. She died aged 20. She is buried in Keith (Broomhill) cemetery in Scotland (section B, grave 28). She is also remembered on the Keith War Memorial.  The newspaper article  reporting her death wrote she was due to be married in three weeks to a RAF Cadet.

Keith War Memorial Helen Ross Brand

MARY MACASKILL

Leading Aircraftwoman, 953 Balloon Squadron, Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (Service No: 2045888)

Mary MacAskill grave headstone

Mary MacAskill was born in c1921 to Norman and Joan MacAskill of Culrain, Scotland. Prior to enlising in 1942 she was training to be a nurse. She died aged 22.  She is buried at Kincardine Cemetery, Ross and Cromarty (grave 166) in Scotland. She is also remembered on the Ardgay War Memorial.

 

 

 

 

BETTY MARY STANNARD

Leading Aircraftwoman, 953 Balloon Squadron, Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (Service Number 2068971)

Betty Stannard Grave

Betty Mary Stannard was born in Kent in 1922 to Albert James Stannard, an Estate worker from Monkton, Kent,  and Mary Eleanor Stannard nee Williams. (Her father Albert worked on the estate belonging  to Collingwood ‘Cherry’ Ingram, ornithologist and plant collector and son of Sir William Ingram, owner of London Illustrated News).   She died aged 21. She is buried at St George’s in Benenden, Kent (grave reference : Row 13. Grave 59).  Betty Mary Stannard is commemorated on the Benenden War Memorial in Kent.

 

I have added their names to the Roath ‘Virtual’ War Memorial which now has almost 100 names on it, but a lot more to add.

 

Location

I examined old maps to see if I could work out exactly where the incident occurred.  I recall the caretaker’s house in Lady Margaret’s / Howardian school but it wasn’t necessarily rebuilt in the same place as the one that had been bombed.  On one of the old maps there are ‘ruins’ mentioned.  I wonder if this was the site.  If that’s the case then it would be on what is now Hammond Way, not far from the Colchester Avenue junction.  I am guessing this barrage balloon site was chosen to try and protect Roath Power Station from being bombed.

Ruin mentioned

 

Cardiff had quite a lot of barrage balloon sites across the city. They were also flown from Splott park, Cathays park and Roath park recreation ground.  I have read recently that the balloons were made and maintained at a base in Ely.

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Barrage balloon flying over Roath Park Recreation Ground – 1939

 

We All Wore Blue: Experiences in the WAAF by Muriel Gane Pushman

We all wore blue

This book adds some interesting memories to the incident described above though also contains some mysteries and be warned some gory bits.  The author was stationed in various parts of the country during her WAAF career so not all the book is about her time in Cardiff.

She describes there being eight balloon sites in Cardiff, ‘one being in the centre of the docks, the famous Tiger Bay area.’

‘….our headquarters were in the stables at Cardiff Castle’   ‘….. a solitary balloon was flying stoically from the keep.’

‘…..the men were responsible for the maintenance of the balloons and winches, and we were in charge of the girl operators.’

She describes the night of a raid and writes:

  • ‘It was not until daybreak that the full horror became known. One of our balloon sites up on a bill on the far side of the city had received a direct hit, blowing the Nissen hut to smithereens and instantly killing several of the girls.  The pretty young corporal in charge had her arm and shoulder blown off and suffered dreadful damage to one side of her face.  in this appalling condition, she had managed to crawl to the Pioneer Corps position – nearly a quarter of a mile away – to raise the alarm.  She had only been married the previous week, …..’
  • ‘Now, as I stood with the other officers while the parts of the bodies were collected, I found myself shivering despite the warm sunshine.’

She also describes attending the funerals:

  • ‘The next week was a blur. Nothing seemed quite real.  We were called upon to accompany the bodies to their respective home town and attend the funerals alongside the families.’
  • ‘I had never been to a funeral before and having to attend so many was physically and emotionally draining.’
  • ‘……. when the other WAAF officers returned from the funerals in Scotland’.

There were a couple of odd things that stuck me about the information in these quotes.  I don’t think I would describe the Colchester Avenue site as being ‘on a bill’.  Also she describes never having been to so many funerals before and the other WAAF officers returning from the funerals in Scotland. The three WAAF casualties I have identified, two were in Scotland and one in Kent.  So does that mean there are some not yet identified?  There is one more name in the letter that appeared in the Echo that I have not been able to trace but there may sadly have been more than that.

 

Barrage Balloons

A barrage balloon was three times the size of a cricket pitch. The balloons consisted of several panels of very tight fabric, at the back were three fins. The top of the balloon was filled with hydrogen, the bottom half was left empty, so when it was put up at a certain height it filled with natural air. If there wasn’t enough wind, the tail fins looked floppy but in time they filled with air. Balloons lost a certain amount of hydrogen when flying so they had to be topped up every day at the sites.

Crown Gardens 1939

The barrage balloon at Crown Gardens (Cathays Park) in 1939.

Balloons were held by cables which were fixed to winches on lorries. Cables were more important than the balloons as an aircraft had only to touch a cable and it would be destroyed straight away. If the balloon was shot it exploded, taking the aircraft with it.
The bombers had to fly over the balloons, so they couldn’t get any accuracy with their bombing, and they couldn’t dive bomb. It was dangerous to be near a cable if a balloon was shot down as the falling cable could kill a person. The winch has an altimeter which told you how high to fly the balloon, as they were flown at different heights. It was a hazardous job when you were winching up in a confined space, in wind and rain. If there was a strong wind the balloon would take itself off. It had to be handled with care because of the hydrogen.
The rope attachments consisted of metal rings which secured the balloon when it was down. Because of wear and tear the ropes were becoming dangerous so they were replaced with wire, and the metal rings were put on the wire.

There were over 15,000 WAAF barrage balloon operators throughout the country, operating 1400 balloons.

 

National Memorial Arboretum

Memorial to the Barrage Balloon Squadrons at the National Memorial Arboretum

(The photographs used in this article are not from the Colchester Avenue location.)

 

It would be interesting to hear from anyone who recalls this tragic incident. 

 

Postscript:

Steve Duffy, journalist and local historian, who has researched the Grangetown WWI victims, has turned up the following information in newspaper reports regarding a heroine from that night:

HEROINE When a bomb hit a balloon site during raid, killing three others, Leading Aircraftwoman Lilian Sarah Ellis, although seriously injured herself, organised relief parties and undoubtedly saved the life of at least one airwoman.” Throughout the raid,” says the citation accompanying the award to her the B.E.M. “she displayed outstanding leadership, coolness and courage.”

Liverpool Express, May 20th: When bombs fell near barrage balloon site in South Wales on Monday night killing three WAAF. crew and wounding others, Corporal Ellis, Waaf in charge, who was herself injured, refused to accept assistance until attention had been given to her comrades, says Air Ministry News Service. When the raid started Corpl. Ellis ordered all the airwomen she could spare to shelter and had just put down the telephone after reporting to Headquarters when a bomb fell a few feet away, killing three airwomen wounding four, including Corpl. Ellis. Two airwomen who were injured went to the help of the others, although bombs were still falling. Men of the Pioneer Corps rendered first aid.

Another paper reported she had refused first aid herself, until the others had been attended to.

There are no clues in the reports as to who Lilian Sarah Ellis was or where she was from – one possible, a woman who had got married in the previous summer to a Charles Ellis – Lilian Sarah Humphrys and would have been 22 at the time and was from London. 

6 thoughts on “The WAAF Balloon Squadron casualties

  1. In May 1943 I was aged 6 living at the lower end of Earl’s Court Rd from where I used to watch the barrage balloon sink below the rooftops as it was winched down in the early morning. On the corner of Baron’s Court Rd and Colchester Ave was a large, brick built water tank. The barrage balloon site occupied the space between the water tank and the school house, referred to at the time as the caretaker’s house. I recall it being severely damaged but not demolished. Unless my memory is playing tricks I seem to remember ‘Army’ huts (not Nissen huts) on the site, possibly the ‘ruin’ referred to on the map.
    Another bomb fell on the waste land opposite Abbotsford Rd at the bottom of Melrose Ave, narrowly missing the GWR Roath Branch line and leaving a larger crater.

  2. Another excellent piece of historical research which brings back memories. I remember my parents talking about this incident and our own house in Baron’s Court Road suffered minor damage from shrapnel (though not necessarily at the same time), which hit our front door and from an incendiary which landed in the garden. The target for bombing which the balloon was intended to protect was primarily the power station but also the factories on the Colchester Trading Estate. These included, I believe, Dialoy, an aluminium processor which was almost certainly involved in war work. I believe there were also anti-aircraft batteries on the embankment of the Roath Branch railway line, a siding from which ran into the power station carrying coal. The Colchester Avenue barrage balloon is on a hill, the land rising gently from Newport Road to join Penylan Hill half way from the top. This particular balloon was mounted not on a lorry but tethered from an iron ring set into a steel grid reinforced concrete base. By the early-mid fifties the site was crumbling and I remember a group of teenage boys older than myself establishing a mini dirt bike league at the remains. This consisted of groups of boys racing several laps around the base on the cinders that surrounded it – perhaps inspired by the speedway of that time in Penarth Road. Good to see a comment rom Peter — I remember the Bowens well and their next door neighbours the Morgans!

    • Hello Rhys,
      I do not recall anti-aircraft batteries on the embankment of the Roath Branch railway line but I do recall anti-aircraft guns and searchlights on the high ground in a field beyond Llwyn-y-Grant Road. You will probably recall the superb view over SE Cardiff and the Bristol Channel before it was obscured by trees after Eastern Ave was built.
      My grandfather had a similar experience of shrapnel damage when a bomb exploded next to the Roath branch line. In his case a piece of shrapnel went through their lounge window, through a mirror on the opposite side of the room and embedded itself in the wall in a fist-size hole.
      One of the teenage boys racing around the cinder track you refer to was probably Alan Probert, author of the South Wales Echo article Memories of the Blitz.

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