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The Japanese Balloon Bomb Assault on North America: An Alberta Perspective

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N. Frank Chiovelli

Reprinted with permission of the author and publisher of For King and Country: Alberta in the Second World War

For King and CountryThe vulnerability of the northern forests during a time of increased wartime air traffic was underlined in the preamble to The New Prairie and Forest Fire Act given assent on 8 April 1941:

A great number of aircraft flying in the northern part of the province was, perhaps, the cause of at least some of the fires fought in outlying districts. Of nine fires that occurred in the Athabasca Valley, north and west of Whitecourt, seven were directly on the beam used between Edmonton and Fort St. John, B.C., and two of these were only a short distance on either side. Whilst being unable to definitely state that the fires referred to were caused by lighted cigars or cigarette butts being thrown from planes, a thorough investigation into all other possible causes was made and the conclusion was therefore arrived at that these fires were caused in this manner. It is definitely known that a large percentage of lighted cigars or cigarette butts dropped from as high as 6000 feet are capable of starting fires ....11

Another factor in the defensive measures being developed at this time was the "Free Balloon Barrage" [FBB], an anti-aircraft defence system put forward by a Commander Fraser RN, a member of the Boom Defence Organization. The Royal Navy Department of Miscellaneous Weapon Development [DMWD], headed by Captain G.O.C. Davies RN, was quick to assign Canadian-born Commander Charles Goodeve RNVR to implement the idea. He in turn arranged for Commander F.D. Richardson RNVR to head the development team.

The Free Balloon Barrage, as Fraser envisioned it, would consist of large groups of individual rubber balloons launched in the flight path of incoming enemy aircraft. Designed to operate at altitudes of 14,000 to 18,000 feet, each balloon would carry an explosive device suspended from it, and hanging below that would be a 2000-foot length of thin piano wire with a parachute attached to its free flowing end. An aircraft coming into contact with the wire would create drag, thus deploying the parachute. This in turn would cause the wire to pull the bomb onto the surface of the aircraft. A spring-type pressure-plate surrounding the bomb casing then would be tilted, setting off the powerful explosive. Enemy aircraft were destroyed or damaged by this system, and their pilots did have concern when over British targets.

The FBB was assigned to the RAF Balloon Barrage Organization for operational deployment, while the DMWD continued to improve the system until it reached a dependability factor of 80 per cent. However, in early 1941 large bombing raids over Britain ceased and the system was withdrawn from service. While employed the FBB System was treated as Top Secret, and only people directly involved were given instruction as to how it worked. The general public were not told of it, but merely asked to stay away from any suspicious objects with which they came in contact and to inform the authorities immediately.12

These developments parallel defence planning in Canada and the United States from 7 December 1941 until the end of the war. Instructions were given to top-level officials warning of air raids, troop landings, and naval attack; all of these were considered capable of employing high-explosive, incendiary, or chemical warfare agents.13

Canada and the United States were generally in complete harmony on defensive and security measures. Both worked hard to deny the Japanese any knowledge of the effects of enemy activities, and at the same time to prevent alarm among the civilian population. This was effectively accomplished when the press and radio of both countries voluntarily observed a complete blackout on matters relating to the balloon offensive.14

However, this purely negative form of security measure failed to promote public safety or popular co-operation with the authorities. It was perhaps inevitable that Col. J.H. Jenkins, OBE, ED, with the Directorate of Military Operations and Planning, would have incidents such as the following to report:

Experience with the Minton [Saskatchewan} incident [which involved an unexploded 15-kg bomb and two incendiary devices recovered on 12 January 1945}; and the recent Alberta incident [near Provost, Alberta} where boys used a red hot poker to unsolder connections from the brass demolition charge attached to the instrument pack, indicates the advisability of discreet publicity. The O. C [Officer Commanding} K ¨Division R.C.M.P... considers it essential for the proper detection and collection of balloon material that the general public be put in the picture.15

This legitimate and practical concern led to the practice of informing people on a "need-to-know" basis. Some rural Postmasters, ranchers, trappers and Hudson's Bay Company trading-post factors were asked to assist in passing along word of sightings and findings.16

The military already had formed the Interservice Bomb Disposal Unit [IBDU] commanded by Lt. Cdr. E.L. Borradaile RCNVR, with headquarters in Ottawa. Members of this unit attended a special course conducted at A-5 Canadian Engineer Training Centre at Camp Petawawa, near Pembroke, Ontario, prior to being posted to bases near likely balloon-intercept zones in western Canada.

Military District No. 13, headquartered at Calgary, Alberta, had a detachment of four who maintained and operated two sets of bomb disposal equipment. They were Lieutenants B.G. Day and R.H. Neame, and Sergeants G.A. Hart and A.W.H. Ivens. Their area of responsibility was the province of Alberta and the District of MacKenzie. They were to be kept busy with twenty definite balloon bomb recoveries in Alberta and four in the District of MacKenzie, both during the war and shortly thereafter.17

Notes

11. Alberta, The Prairie and Forest Fire Act, 8 April 1941; Peter J. Murphy materials.

12. The history of the Free Balloon Barrage, and the Royal Navy Department of Miscellaneous Weapon Development, are described in Gerald Pawle, Secret Weapons of World War II [Ballantine Books, 1968]. See especially pp. 23, 122-123, 132-134.

13. Canadian Army Headquarters, Historical Section [GS], Report No. 28, 15 October 1949.

14. Ibid.; Canadian Army Headquarters, Historical Section, Press Note 1-0-9-2, 8 February 1946, p. 7.

15. Canadian Army Headquarters, Historical Section, op. cit.; C.P. Stacey, Six War Years The Army in Canada, Britain, and The Pacific [Ottawa: Queens Printer, Department of National Defence, 1955].

16. Canadian Army Headquarters, Historical Section, op. cit.

17. National Defence Headquarters, General Staff Directorate of Military Operations and Planning, General Summary Japanese Balloons in Canada, 15 March 1945. This report provides the best account of the Interservice Bomb Disposal Unit.

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