RAF Titchfield: A History of Southampton & Portsmouth’s Barrage Balloon Command

RAF Titchfield History of barrage balloon command

RAF Titchfield near Fareham, Hampshire, was a non-flying unit and home to No 12 Balloon Squadron during the Second World War. From 1939 to 1945, it was the HQ for the Southampton and Portsmouth Balloon Barrage operations, also known as “12 BC” (12 Balloon Centre) Titchfield. 

There were approximately 600 servicemen and women on duty during up until February 1945 at which point Britain’s Balloon Command formally disbanded. 

During this period, the men and women of the Titchfield base were required to operate and deploy tethered hydrogen filled barrage balloons over strategic locations along the Hampshire coastline. It was also where barrage balloon operators were trained before being deployed elsewhere around the country. 

How barrage balloons were used in WW2

Barrage balloons would be tethered to the ground and then suspended into the air by heavy wire cables. Individual balloons would form a barrage as a collective and could be flown as high as 5,000 feet.

The plan was to force enemy aircraft to fly higher, thus reducing their bomb aiming accuracy. Another hope was that aircraft would be destroyed by flying into the cables.

raf titchfield barrage balloon command
The RAF Titchfield barrage balloon base as seen from the air in 1943. You can see the A27 road running underneath the base (Credit: Crown Copyright)

The story of RAF Titchfield

The first inkling that there would be barrage balloon station created at Titchfield was heard in early 1939.

There was intense local speculation about how the Air Ministry intended to use 85 acres of land they had acquired from Hampshire County Council along the Segensworth and Southampton roads:

The land consists of smallholdings tenanted by attendants at Knowle Mental Hospital and fields. Small holders have been paid compensation in lieu of long periods of notice usual when land is required for other purposes. Inquiries made elicited information that the Air Ministry intend shortly to carry out certain “important work” and that it is proposed to make a concrete road. Although nothing official could be learned, it is hintedthe land will be used as a balloon barrage station as part of the precautions taken to protect the Southampton district from attack by air.

Hampshire Telegraph, Friday 3rd February 1939

And as we now know, it would not be long before the Air Ministry moved in and started construction. 

raf titchfield balloon sheds
In this 1949 aerial photo you can see 5 large barrage balloon sheds to the right of the RAF Titchfield, next to a double hangar. Each shed could hold 16 barrage balloons.
(Credit: britainfromabove.org.uk/image/eaw022196 & Crown Copyright)

Barrage balloon squadrons at RAF Titchfield

Initially the local teams were trained at Portsmouth, but once Titchfield was ready, all the drills could be done there instead. RAF Titchfield was to become the base for the barrage balloon squadrons covering the local coastal areas:

  • 924 Squadron: 24 Balloons covering the Eastleigh area.
  • 930 Squadron: 40 land-based balloons and 10 waterborne over Southampton.
  • 932 Squadron: 32 balloons over Portsmouth.
  • 933 Squadron: 24 balloons over Gosport.

Gosport, Portsmouth, and Southampton had docks and naval bases, and Eastleigh was home to aircraft production and an airfield. As such, these areas were critical for the war effort and so required a large barrage balloon presence. 

Titchfield hadn’t always been this busy and active though.

Prior to the war, the village was best-known for the historic abbey, where it’s said Shakespeare stayed and even wrote some of his works.

However, by the time the war broke out, an area just north of the village to the east of Park Gate, became a hive of activity. Hundreds of men and women would be deployed to the base.

There was a phoney war at first, so the operators were able to use the time to familiarise themselves with the barrage balloons. It was very much a a case “learning on the job”.

One tip quickly picked up was to not fly balloons in winds in excess of 35 miles per hour, as this could quickly result in a lost balloon… more about those later though.

Personnel at RAF Titchfield

Norman Gardiner, a writer for the Hampshire Magazine in the 1980s, wrote how many airmen were posted there after coming out of Dunkirk. He explained how upon arrival at the station, they were somewhat nonplussed to find that “12 BC” was a “Balloon Centre”, and not “12 Bomber Command” as they thought it to be. 

raf airmen at Titchfield
RAF men possibly posing at Titchfield from the Jennie Gauntlett Hill diaries (Credit: Hampshire Record Office)

In his early 1980s article titled “The Southampton and Portsmouth Balloon Barrage”, Gardiner recounted how RAF Titchfield was a relatively small station, comprising of just 600 airmen and WAAFs. Initially the base was under the command of Group Captain Curtis as the Station Warrant Officer (SWO). 

Gardiner went on to say how Curtis was old enough to have seen service in the First World War. He only had a service number of just three figures. When he first reported to the RAF Titchfield guard room on his first day as SWO, he was told to give his full number, and not his “last three”.  

In the Hampshire Magazine article, Gardiner further explained how Curtis found little favour amongst many of those who came under his command. This was confirmed one day when Curtis went to go on leave, only to find his car would not start on account of water being poured into the petrol tank. 

Gardiner’s memories of the number of barrage balloons being used locally appears to differ from those listed on records I’ve seen. He wrote:

The total number of balloons in the two barrages, was, if I remember, approximately 528, flown from various sites around the two towns. Some sites in Southampton that I can recall, were Portswood Recreation Ground, Bitterne Park Recreation Ground, Shirley Recreation Ground, Stoneham Lane, (a WAAF Site), Southampton Common, at the top of Hill Lane and Burgess Road, (also a WAAF Site), Hoglands Park, and St. Mary’s College Ground, Lances Hill, where a Walrus Aircraft from what is now Eastleigh Airport, flew into the cable of a Balloon being flown from that site, and crashed into the front garden of a house. 

Norman Gardiner, Hampshire Magazine early 1980s.

The hazards presented by barrage balloons

One of the main issues faced by the barrage balloon operators based at Titchfield was the weather. It could be very hazardous when balloons were flying. A sudden gust of wind or rainstorm were capable of tearing balloons from their mooring winches. This would cause understandable havoc and damage to property from the loose cables. 

Aircraftmen of Titchfield’s No. 12 Balloon Centre “bed down” a kite balloon somewhere in the Southampton area (Credit: www.iwm.org.uk / re-coloured by Dan Steele)

There are many stories of barrage balloons coming astray in the local area, with cables wrapping round chimneys and other projecting parts of buildings as far away as the Isle of Wight. 

We lived just down the road from the Balloon Barrage and the odd balloon escaped from its mooring and floated past our house trailing its steel cable. 

John Williams, Titchfield Spirit: Village Voices

I’ve also been told a story by a gentleman in 2021 who recalls Southampton docks being protected by barrage balloons with the chains attached. He had a childhood memory where one night a barrage balloon was shot, catching fire and as it deflated, travelling down a road in Millbrook, dragging the chains down the road underneath it.

You can imagine how scary that would have been to him as a child. 

Incidents such as this would cause panic at the Titchfield barrage balloon station which, among other things, necessitated journeys to and from Poole Gas Works far into the night for hydrogen to get new balloons up and flying again.

The entrance to RAF Titchfield on the A27 road during the Second World War (Credit: Norman Gardiner, Hampshire Magazine)

This activity was essential in order that Southampton and Portsmouth should remain protected if further air raids came. 

There were more serious incidents too related to the balloons under Titchfield’s command.

The Supermarine Walrus crash at Bitterne in 1939

On the 12th of December 1939, a British Supermarine Walrus MkI from 754 Squadron based at Lee-on-Solent was just visible in cloud when it hit a barrage balloon cable, crashing at 340 Bitterne Road in Southampton.

The crash resulted in 4 fatalities: Lieutenant Richard Heriot Mackay Heriot-Hill, Pilot Officer Michael Fortnum, Leading Airman Michael McLoughlin and Air Mechanic Louis Moorhead.

The Gosport barrage balloon attack in 1940

Another tragedy would occur on the 12th of August 1940, this time at the St. Vincent Sports Ground in Gosport where 933 Squadron had a barrage balloon site. It was the target of a German air raid, resulting in 12 fatalities.

barrage balloon gosport
A barrage balloon of 933 Squadron at Gosport (Credit: Unknown)

One of the airmen who survived the raid, AW Kemp, would later recount his memories from the day:

I remember a terrific explosion, we both lost consciousness. We must have been out for quite a while. As I came to Frank was shouting “I’m drowning!”, his face was covered in blood, his nose bleeding, he was in great pain. This had also happened to me, I felt terrible. We managed to struggle out of the trench and as we stood up we looked at the shelter in front and all we could see was a great big hole. I said to Frank “We’d better get help quickly as the others may be buried and badly injured”. As we passed the balloon winch it was on fire, and the house opposite had been hit. We entered the sickbay, there were casualties everywhere. All they could do for us was bathe our wounds and tell us Titchfield was coming to collect us. The mums did their best to comfort us, they realised there was no hope for the rest of our crew. We were in so much pain; all we wanted was treatment. Eventually our RAF ambulance turned up and took us to Titchfield where we were given drugs and treatment.

AW Kemp, Barrage Balloon Reunion Club
bomb damage gosport
A bomb-damaged barrage balloon winch St Vincent’s sports field in Gosport after the raid (Credit: IWM)

The hydrogen pool at RAF Titchfield

In his Hampshire Magazine article quoted earlier, Norman Gardiner also recalled how smaller Mark V1 barrage balloons were also deployed, but from Flathouse Wharf at Portsmouth, rather than RAF Titchfield. 

These smaller balloons would be flown from the stern of ships in the Channel convoys and were said to be a deterrent against machine gunning by low flying enemy aircraft. 

However, as with the barrage balloons at 12 Balloon Centre Titchfield, these smaller ones were also supplied with hydrogen gas from what was known as the Titchfield Hydrogen Pool. 

raf titchfield hydrogen pool
Men at the RAF Titchfield Hydrogen Pool in 1941 (Credit: Norman Gardiner, Hampshire Magazine)

Poole Gas Works and RAF Titchfield

The hydrogen for the Titchfield pool came from a hydrogen plant at the Poole Gas Works. This meant daily journeys between Titchfield and Poole by convoys of sometimes six or more specially adapted vehicles. Each would carry 30 cylinders to keep the continuous supply of gas to keep the balloons flying. 

It took 30 full bottles of hydrogen to fill one balloon so you can imagine what a continuous task this would have been between Titchfield and Poole during World War 2.

Gardiner said that the hydrogen gas convoys would sometimes be the only motor traffic aside from military vehicles on the streets in those days.

One week in the middle of August 1942, Titchfield surprisingly and unexpectedly became host to a contingent of American Naval personnel, one of whose officers was the famous film star, Douglas Fairbanks Junior. They were waiting to travel down to Southampton Docks to embark as part of the force to take part in the Dieppe Raid, which was to end in failure. 

Despite the failure of the Dieppe Raid, those at RAF Titchfield took pride in playing a small part in the preparation by supplying hydrogen and barrage balloons for the assault. Norman Gardiner helped in delivering the gas cylinders for these balloons. 

raf titchfield lorry
Hydrogen trailers being transported by the RAF Titchfield barrage balloon team (Credit: Norman Gardiner, Hampshire Magazine)

After the Dieppe Raid failure, he recalls seeing some of the cylinders recovered, bombs having split their iron casing from end to end. He described them as looking how a pea pod looks when popped open.

The hydrogen pool at RAF Titchfield would also supply gas to the army to use at Stonehenge. Here they would have paratroopers performing test jumps from a barrage balloon.

Other buildings and sections at RAF Titchfield

Aside from the Hydrogen Pool there were other areas on the base including:

  • MT (motor transport) section
  • Armoury in charge of which were two WAAFs
  • Telephone exchange
  • Clothing stores
  • Cookhouse
  • Sick quarters
  • Ambulance & fire service
  • Nightly fire watching

The WAAF at RAF Titchfield

Whilst I don’t know what the exact male to female split was at RAF Titchfield, it’s very possible that the women outnumbered the men at some points. As a barrage balloon base, the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) would have made up a large proportion of the service men and women. 

waaf women at RAF titchfield
WAAF team photo at Titchfield from the Jennie Gauntlett Hill diaries (Credit: Hampshire Record Office)

This was due to the decision in 1940 to release more men, including the operators of barrage balloons, for active duty. As a result, members of the WAAF would be needed to take over the operation. 

In May 1941, the first batch of WAAF volunteers began a 10-week training course.

By December 1942, 10,000 men had been replaced by nearly 16,000 WAAF balloon operators in Britain.

My barrage balloon training took place at RAF Titchfield where I learned about winches, splicing ropes and theory. Practical experience was gained at Southampton before going to an operational Barrage balloon site at Yeovil; Somerset to protect the Westland Aircraft factory.

Mary Knight Smith, BBC WW2 People’s War

The Titchfield diary of Corporal Jennie Gauntlett

One such WAAF at RAF Titchfield was Jennie Hill. Born in California in 1904 to English parents, her family moved back to England in 1914. In 1928 she attended a course on motor car maintenance and driving in London.

Jennie Gauntlett Hill waaf corporal
Jennie Gauntlett Hill with her staff car (Credit: Hampshire Record Office)

These skills would stand her in good stead when war broke out. She was to become Corporal Jennie Gauntlett Hill in the Motor Transport Division of the WAAF, spending considerable time at Titchfield.

She would become a driver for officers and also happened to take many photos of her time there, as well as keeping a diary. Here are a few selected extracts from her diary at RAF Titchfield courtesy of the Hampshire Record Office.

  • 30th December 1940 – Fetched Group Captain Curtis from Hill Head as usual at 08.50. Nothing doing, got coffee etc. Strange to eat my supper alone at the old place. 
  • 10th January 1941: Jane Winton posted this a.m. Am very sorry she’s gone. Siren sounded 18.05 and C.O. said he’d stay on as reason to believe there was trouble. Portsmouth had the Blitz, first bomb put out all the electricity so no light or heating for us. 
  • 11th January 1941:  Portsmouth had a bad time. Candles to dress by for me and cold water. No heat, perishing cold. Had a very busy day, driving Gilder and C.O. Latimer at different times. 932 Squadron moving to Portchester D flight HQ because of DA Bombs. Asked Latimer’s permission to make up some hot coffee in the old kitchen, so in evening did so and C.O. went home later. Also filled up my hot water bottle. Longing to get home tomorrow for bath and warmth. 
  • 19th January 1941: It was lovely being home. Got up at 8.00 and got breakfast, then went to church; had remains of Xmas pudding for dinner v.g. – 2 p.m. packed and got foodstuff together. Raid in the evening. Bombs dropped and Southampton down in flames. 
waaf barrage balloon
WAAF women with a barrage balloon at Cardington, Bedfordshire, not Titchfield (Credit: IWM)

Social life at RAF Titchfield

As with any RAF base during the Second World War, Titchfield would host events and facilities to entertain the servicemen and women. Entertainers would visit the station from time to time. 

Norman Gardiner recalls Barbara Mullen performing at a show. She would later find fame as Janet in the TV show, Dr. Finlay’s Case Book. 

Another visitor was the late Dennis Noble, the well-known singer, who appeared one evening as the guest artist with the nearby Park Gate Choir. 

Christmas Day at the Station was always celebrated, as indeed it was at all Royal Air Force bases. The tradition was for the officers to wait on the airmen and WAAFs assembled for their Christmas dinner.

raf titchfield Christmas
RAF Titchfield servicemen during Christmas of 1941 (Credit: Norman Gardiner, Hampshire Magazine)

The dinner would always be followed by the Commanding Officer’s speech where he expressed his thanks to all ranks for their work on the Station over the past year, which usually ended, “I hope that the next year we shall all be spending Christmas in our own homes”.

And of course, as with any RAF base, both then and in the modern era, there would be occasional trouble.

RAF Titchfield was the Balloon Command Centre for Southampton and Portsmouth and housed many Women’s Auxiliary Air Force personnel (WAAFs). I remember the trouble that always occurred at the dances that were held there; an explosive mix of alcohol and young people during a vicious war.

George Watts, Titchfield Spirit: Village Voices

Off base, many local residents would billet servicemen and women from Titchfield. If you had a spare room in your house, the government would pay you for boarding military personnel.

Given that the WAAF and RAF personnel were fed on base, some local families would use the servicemen and women’s ration books to supplement their own.

RAF Titchfield’s closure and post-war history

In February 1945, Britain’s Balloon Command was disbanded. It had served as a vital part of country’s air defences during the Second World War, with over 450 personnel dying on active service.

RAF Titchfield had played large part in that along the south coast, but the story wasn’t quite finished there. 

Much of the station would remain under the control of the RAF up until 1959. The main function in the decade after the war was as a pay office for RAF personnel who were serving in the middle east. It was said to have been very busy during Suez crisis in late 1956.

It was also to become No.23 Reserve Centre during this period. Below you can see a recruitment ad that was placed in a local newspaper for the station.

raf reserves recruitment ad
This ad for RAF reserves to sign up at Titchfield appeared in the local news in January 1949.

But overall, operations and personnel were wound down considerably, with some building in this period being handed over for commercial and social use.

For example, an egg packing operation would use a barrage balloon hanger for a short while in the early 1950s. The balloon sheds were also used to host the Titchfield Carnival Dance where the carnival queen was chosen. Hundreds of people are said to have attended to witness a series of eliminating dances.

card
This card dates from the 1950s and shows how the base had become No. 23 Reserve Centre. (Credit: https://www.ebay.co.uk/usr/aztec-collectables)

Here are some key moments in RAF Titchfield’s post war history.

1950: Hangars taken over for industry and denials of closure

The five barrage balloon hangars at Titchfield had been empty since the end of the war. The Portsmouth Evening News reported the following:

Hangars used for storing barrage balloons at No. 23 Reserve Centre, RAF Titchfield, are in use once more. With the five hangars, each of which could accommodate up to 16 balloons, is a large building which was used to house all forms of transport. This has been taken over by the Ministry Food for the storage of thousands of egg boxes. Three hangars have been leased to the Admiralty, who will be using them in the very near future. The fourth is to be used for storing plywood. In the fifth, there is much activity. A handful men have just completed building large pulverizing unit. Cyclomat have taken over the hangar an experimental station for the machine, which the first British application of a Continental principle of pulverizing. 

Portsmouth Evening News, Monday 23 January 1950
titchfield balloon hangar news
RAF Titchfield’s empty hangars to be used for industry.

It was hoped that this would create employment opportunities for local people… but there were also rumours that the station was to close completely. 

Rumours that the Reserve Centre are to close are unfounded. An Air Ministry spokesman told the Evening News: “The Air Ministry still have control of all units on the station.” The Officer Commanding the Reserve Centre (Sqdn. Leader Misselbrook) added “The station is definitely not closing.

1953: Wing Commander put on trial for theft of cash and tax evasion at RAF Titchfield

February of 1953 was a scandalous time at RAF Titchfield. Wing Commander Graham Bryant was accused of stealing cash during a dance event on the base.

It was to get even worse for him. Of the 24 charges he was facing, he was also accused of receiving nylon stockings and cigarettes in packages coming into the base from Egypt. The allegation was that he did this to avoid tax and duty.

Other airmen claim to have seen him in the officer’s mess feasting on steak dinners whilst they were eating cottage pie. It doesn’t sound like he was being particularly discreet with his alleged ill-gotten gains. 

daily mirror titchfield scandal
The scandalous headline in the Daily Mirror newspaper in February 1953.

The trial would eventually conclude with Wing Commander Bryant being acquitted of nine charges alleging he stole cigarettes, drinks, and quantities of food, as well as the property of the officers’ mess of Titchfield RAF station. 

But he was found guilty of four charges of conduct prejudicial to good order and Air Force discipline, being improperly in possession of two rugs, causing nylons to be packed with service documents with intent to avoid purchase tax and being in improper possession a quantity of meat, butter, sausages, bacon, cheese, and ham.

He was also found guilty of stealing a half bottle of gin. 

Bryant, who told the court “the service my life.” was sentenced to be dismissed the service. 

1956: Serviceman steals revolver in a suicide attempt on the RAF Titchfield base

A somewhat tragic tale, which thankfully didn’t end in a death, is that of Richard Gurdier, a senior aircraftman at RAF Titchfield. In October 1956 he was put on trial after stealing a gun from the base, then attempting to shoot himself.

He managed to survive the suicide attempt, but then fabricated a story about a gun wielding assailant attacking him and the base.

Another sensational headline regarding the old RAF Titchfield barrage balloon station in the 1950s.

Mr. Grubb (prosecuting) said the corporal of the guard was in the guardroom. Just after midnight he heard a noise outside and saw Gurdier, who was moaning. Gurdier said. “I have been shot.” He went on to say something about an attack and that there was somebody wandering about the camp. Gurdier was bleeding from his right shoulder. Gurdier said he had stomach pains during the night, and they were so bad that he got dressed and cycled towards sick quarters. He saw someone climbing over the fence into the camp. A man fired at him. The bullet had gone right through Gurdler’s body, and it was a “sheer miracle’ that he did not die. 

Portsmouth Evening News, Monday 8th October, 1956

The result of the court case in Fareham saw Gurdier being placed on probation.

However, his brush with the law didn’t stop there. Just 4 hours later he was called back to court and put on trial for a different charge relating to stealing a gold pocket watch from a RAF Titchfield colleague. 

1958: The first ever aircraft lands at RAF Titchfield

Despite being a RAF base, aircraft had never actually landed on the site. That was until the 15th of October 1958 when a helicopter from the Naval Air Station at Lee on Solent landed on the station field.

I believe this was connected to a RAF competition taking place which had been won by servicemen of RAF Titchfield. 

The Portsmouth Evening News report on the helicopter landing.

In other news from October 1958, Fareham Fire Brigade were called to the base only to find there was no fire. A child had broken the glass on a fire alarm. 

Earlier in the same year, there was a notice in the Portsmouth Evening News that the Sergeant’s Mess at RAF Titchfield would not be responsible for any debts incurred by those other than creditors who had written authority to deal with the Commanding Officer. 

There were also accounts of weekend courses being held at the base for local air cadets. RAF Titchfield had become the HQ for Hampshire Wing Air Training Corps and the Fareham ATC.

In 2021 there is still some similar activity on the site. The 1350 (Fareham & District) Squadron, Air Training Corps have a hut on Farm Road.

1959: RAF Titchfield closes with rumours about the future

The base would finally close as a RAF operation in February 1959. 

Most units had already gone, with the ex-barrage balloon site operating on a slimmed down basis. In fact, in January of that year, there were only 60 officers left remaining, with 33 families living in married quarters.

The future of the RAF Titchfield site was debated hotly in the local press. There were rumours it might become a car manufacturing works. One county planning officer even suggested the site could be a suitable detention centre for young offenders.

RAF Titchfield was now derelict.

What remains of RAF Titchfield today?

The buildings were ultimately taken over by the Plessey Electronics Firm which would later become Marconi. In 2021 the site is now home for the Office for National Statistics and the Eaton Corporation.

I believe that the only remaining part of RAF Titchfield could be the Officers’ Mess and a hangar area. From the Abbey Park entrance, there are white buildings to the right-hand side which line up with the old site layout. 

raf titchfield officers mess
I an not certain, but the white buildings here could be the Officer’s Mess from RAF Titchfield.

These could be the old Officers’ Mess buildings (thanks to John Vicki on Facebook for pointing this out to me originally). Without doing a site visit for a closer look though, I can’t be certain. If you know, please do get in touch with me.

What I can be more certain of though, is that the old double hangars remain. Not the balloon sheds, but the pair of classic style hangars. You can see that on the comparative image below.

The double hangars remain but the barrage balloon sheds no longer exist.

You can examine the area yourself on Google using this link: https://goo.gl/maps/YMz4Cw474w7mF6FDA

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If you enjoyed this, you might also like reading some other local history accounts I have produced:

Credits & references

  • Norman Gardiner and the Hampshire Magazine
  • Titchfield Spirit: Village Voices 1914 to 1964 (you can purchase a copy on Amazon)
  • The Hampshire Record Office
  • https://www.solentsky.org/post/the-balloon-goes-up
  • https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/1081602X.2021.1944895
  • https://hampshirearchivesandlocalstudies.wordpress.com/2020/05/08/this-is-your-victory-film-and-photographic-exhibition/
  • https://www.forces.net/news/aviation-history/barrage-balloons-what-were-raf-squadrons-which-defended-wwii-britain
  • https://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ww2peopleswar/stories/09/a8962509.shtm
  • http://www.bbrclub.org
  • https://aviation-safety.net/wikibase/202861
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