• The National WWII Museum Blog
dividing bar

SciTech Tuesday: The National WWII Museum’s 2017 Robotics Challenge

On Saturday May 13th, 40 teams from Louisiana and Alabama gathered to compete and share their project designs in The Monuments Men–the theme for this year’s robotics challenge.

The robot competition involved students programming their Lego Mindstorms robots to complete 11 tasks. These tasks represented the efforts of the Monuments Men and others in Europe dedicated to saving the cultural heritage of Europe. For example, robots rescued paintings from boxcars, moved the Mona Lisa and a Nike statue from the Louvre, and cleared and posted sentries on damaged monuments.

Teams also designed bridges to carry their robots. This represented the effort to rebuild the bridges of Florence. As the German forces retreated they destroyed the bridges to slow the advancing Allies.

Awards are given annually for the best competitors in the robot competition, and for robot design, and project. In addition, judges pick a Grand Champion. The Grand Champion may or may not win at any of the individual events, but embodies the spirit of the challenge. This year’s Grand Champion team won, in addition to the usual trophy, copies of The Monuments Men, signed by author Robert Edsel. We thank Mr. Edsel for this generous contribution.

  • Grand Champion
    • St Michaels of Crowley, LA
  • Competition
    • 1st place-Tie between SJ Green Charter School of New Orleans and St Pius of Lafayette
    • 2nd place-St Theresa of Gonzales, LA
    • 3rd place-JLT Imaginations of Prairieville, LA
  • Design
    • 1st place-Our Lady of Fatima of Lafayette, LA
    • 2nd place-Kenner Discovery Health Sciences Academy of Kenner, LA
    • 3rd place-St Theresa of Gonzales, LA
  • Project
    • 1st place-Girls Scouts of Gonzales, LA
    • 2nd place-St George’s Episcopal of New Orleans, LA
    • 3rd place-Metairie Park Country Day School of Metairie, LA


Next year’s theme will be The Pelican State Goes to War, in honor of the opening of our traveling exhibit of the same name. It will take place May 12th 2018, and registration will open in January.

Thanks to Chevron, who sponsors the event and sends volunteers, and to Fontainebleu High’s RoboDawgs, who volunteer as referrees and table setters.


Posted by Rob Wallace, STEM Education Coordinator at The National WWII Museum

May Classroom of the Month — Get In the Scrap!

Each month the Museum will feature a standout classroom participating in Get in the Scrap!. Get in the Scrap! is a national service learning project about recycling and energy conservation, inspired by the scrapping efforts of students during World War II.  Each featured class does stellar work to make a difference in their school, home, community and even the planet!

For May, we’re featuring students from Sovereign Avenue School in Atlantic City, New Jersey, who are using Get in the Scrap! in every discipline.  The students and their teacher, Ms. Williams, sat down to answer a few questions for us about their work with Get in the Scrap!

The Dolphins from Sovereign Avenue School in New Jersey show of their water bottle piggy banks.

The Dolphins from Sovereign Avenue School in New Jersey show of their water bottle piggy banks.

Team Name: The Dolphins

Number of Get in the Scrap! points thus far: 89

How has Get in the Scrap! been a good fit for your curriculum? Please explain: 

“I have incorporated ideas from this program into Reading, Writing, Science, Social Studies, and Math.  The students have learned parts of speech from Scrap Libs, learned about alternative energy sources (and researching and writing a brochure), and even explored their artistic sides by creating piggy banks with recycled water bottles and art scraps.”

What has been your favorite activity? Why?

“When I asked my students about their favorite activity, they were evenly split between the recycled piggy banks and the Scrap Libs.  They all talked about the fun they had working with others, and enjoying the opportunity to be creative.”

This is just one of the many amazing classrooms participating in the Get in the Scrap! national service learning project. You can learn more and sign up your classroom today at getinthescrap.org!

Post by Chrissy Gregg, Virtual Classroom Coordinator

  • Posted :
  • Post Category :

Sci-Tech Tuesday: 75th Anniversary of U-boat attack in Gulf of Mexico

On the morning of May 19, 1942, the Heredia was steaming from Guatemala to New Orleans. Just as it reached the mouth of the Mississippi River with 1,500 tons of bananas and coffee, it was intercepted by German U-boat 506 and hit with three torpedoes. The explosions after the hits destroyed four of the ship’s emergency vessels, and sunk it in three minutes. Sixty two people were on board the ship—36 died and 26 survived. Two lifeboats were launched, and several other people were rescued by shrimp trawlers in the area.

The Heredia, owned by United Fruit, was the second ship sunk by U-boats in the Gulf of Mexico. On May 4, the Norlindo, which was carrying only ballast, was sunk much farther south in the Gulf. From early 1942 into 1943, about 20 U-boats patrolled the Gulf of Mexico, looking especially for oil tankers carrying oil from Louisiana and Texas. In all, the U-boats sent 56 vessels to the bottom of the Gulf. Only one U-boat was sunk by US ships.

The wreck of U-166 lies near the mouth of the Mississippi, sent there by depth charges from PC-566. This patrol boat was accompanying the Robert E. Lee, a passenger ship that was transporting the survivors of other U-boat attacks back to New Orleans. On July 30, 1942, the Robert E. Lee was attacked and sunk by U-166, killing 25 of the 430 on board. PC-566 couldn’t save the ship, but it got vengeance.

Almost a mile of water sits over the remains of U-166, which was discovered during exploration for the ill-fated Deepwater Horizon oil well in 2001. In 2014, a National Geographic expedition led by Robert Ballard sent remotely operated vessels to map and photograph the wreckage.

In 1943, Allied forces achieved advances in radar that shifted the balance of naval warfare, and the Axis and its U-boats never could match them. Casualties fromand tonnage lost toU-boats decreased dramatically from 1943 on.


Posted by Rob Wallace, STEM Education Coordinator at The National WWII Museum


Jazzing it up

Home Front Friday is a regular series that highlights the can do spirit on the Home Front during World War II and illustrates how that spirit is still alive today!

WWII poster, 1941-1945. Image courtesy of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

WWII poster, 1941-1945. Image courtesy of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Duke Ellington. Count Basie. Cab Calloway. Ella Fitzgerald. Louis Armstrong. Glenn Miller. These are just a few of the infamous jazz musicians from the WWII era, who helped keep the Home Front spirit high with their music.

April is nationally recognized as Jazz Appreciation Month, and to get in the spirit, the blog post this Friday will acknowledge the contributions of jazz to WWII. During the war, music was needed more than ever to bring joy in a dark time to people on the Home Front and soldiers at war. Read on to find out how jazz artists rose to the occasion to make the music happen in difficult times and kept the Home Front spirit burning bright.

The music industry was actually undergoing a war of its own during WWII. In 1942, two of the most prominent musician unions went on strike against all four recording companies in the U.S.. The strike then caused a shortage of music needed for troop morale. Yet, Lieutenant G. Robert Vincent had a solution to the problem. After approval of the U.S. government, he brokered a deal between the unions, recording companies, and the U.S. government. By agreeing to not distribute any records for commercial use, Vincent was able to get the recording companies to agree to record albums for the troops to listen to while at war. More amazingly, he also convinced top-name musicians in the business to record for the albums despite the strike they were involved in. What did these records end up looking like though?

Lt. G. Robert Vincent. Image courtesy of the Stanford University Library.

Lt. G. Robert Vincent. Image courtesy of the Stanford University Library.

Vincent’s efforts resulted in records now known as “V-Discs”, the V standing for Victory. See below some images of V-Discs that were saved due to some soldiers’ craftiness and ability to smuggle the records back home in spite of the U.S. government’s efforts to destroy the records. The government used several means to confiscate the records to keep their agreement with the recording companies. The production plants were forced to destroy the masters of the records, the Provost Marshall confiscated records from returning soldiers, and the FBI even stepped in if necessary to prosecute anyone who tried to commercialize the records.

Duke Ellington and his Orchestra V-Disc. Photo courtesy of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Duke Ellington and his Orchestra V-Disc. Image courtesy of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

V-Disc featuring Count Basie. Image courtesy of Stanford University Library.

V-Disc featuring Count Basie. Image courtesy of Stanford University Library.













Overall, V-Discs provided the troops in WWII with the jazz music as well as other types of music genres they were accustomed to hearing back home before the war started, or as Lt. Vincent put it, “A slice of America” straight from the Home Front. Some of the artists that recorded for V-Discs included big names like Count Basie, Frank Sinatra, Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, Nat King Cole, and Artie Shaw as well as Glen Miller, Jo Stafford, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, and Billie Holiday.

If you would like to hear some of the great music recorded for the V-Discs, many songs have been compiled on the Internet Archive website. Here’s a video of Duke Ellington performing for a little sample:

For some ways you can experience jazz in a similar experience to the troops or in a modern setting or just learn more about jazz music in general:

  1. Get tickets for the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival
  2. Attend a concert at the historic Preservation Hall in New Orleans
  3. Check out the shows put on at BB’s Stage Door Canteen at the National WWII Museum
  4. Learn all about jazz with the Smithsonian Museum’s jazz archives

Posted by Savannah Bamburg, Education Intern and Lauren Handley, Assistant Director of Education for Public Programs at The National WWII Museum.

SciTech Tuesday: The 75th Anniversary of the Doolittle Raid

Seventy-five years ago today, on April 18, 1942, Lieutenant Colonel James Doolittle led a group of 16 B-25s filled with 79 men (in addition to himself) on the first bombing run of Japanese territory in World War II.

Medium bombers had not been launched from a carrier beforecarriers had only 467 feet of takeoff space. The idea for the mission came from Navy Captain Francis Low, who saw planes landing and taking off from an airstrip in Norfolk, Virginia, where a carrier’s outline had been painted on the runway for practice. He noticed that the medium bombers could often take off before crossing the carrier’s outline. Doolittle was put in charge of planning a mission to boost American morale and to damage Japanese confidence.

The B-25 was chosen, even though it was new and untested, because of all the two-engine bombers it was the most capable of taking off from an aircraft carrier. Other planes had longer ranges, but their wingspan was longer and would limit the number of planes that a carrier could fit. The aircraft were modified so that they could complete the 2,400-mile mission with a payload of 2,000 pounds of bombs. The normal range of the B-25 was 1,300 miles. To extend their range they were equipped with extra fuel tanks, most of their defensive guns were removed, and their Norden bomb sights were removed, too.

The 15 planes took off from the carrier Hornet in the western Pacific, flew over Honshu to target military installations in Tokyo and other cities, and then headed for mainland China. The planes each carried three high-explosive bombs and one incendiary bomb. The planes had to take off hours sooner and hundreds of miles farther from Japan than expected when Japanese airplanes were spotted from the Hornet. The Hornet was accompanied by the Enterprise and her escort ships, which comprised Task Force 16 under the command of Admiral William Halsey. Landing in Vladivostok would have made a shorter trip, but the Soviets had signed a neutrality pact with Japan in 1941.

The planes flew over Honshu at about 1,500 feet, receiving little resistance, about six hours after their launch. They dropped several bombs around Tokyo, and others near Yokohama, Nagoya, Kobe, and Osaka. After dropping their bombs, all but one plane turned southwest toward eastern China. One B-25 was low on fuel and headed toward Vladivostok. That plane landed on a base at Vozdvizhenka, where the plane was captured and the crew interned. Aided by a strong tailwind of about 29 miles per hour, the remainder of the B-25s reached the Chinese coast about 13 hours after launch. Without that tailwind, they probably would not have made it to China. Over land, the pilots crash-landed or bailed out. Three men died while bailing out, two perished at sea, and one over land. Three men were executed after capture by the Japanese, and another five were held as POWs. Of those, four survived to the end of the war and were liberated in August 1945. The remainder were rescued, often aided by Chinese, who suffered severe retribution afterward.

Doolittle feared that his loss of all 16 planes would lead to a court-martial. Instead, he was promoted to brigadier general while still in China, and awarded the Medal of Honor by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt upon his return home.

The raid caused little material damage to Japan. However, it did have its intended effects—to boost morale in the United States and to dent Japan’s confidence. It also led to the Japanese military’s determination to hold the central Pacific, leading to the Battle of Midway and the overextension of Japanese naval forces in that direction.

The last surviving Doolittle Raider is retired Lieutenant Colonel Richard Cole, who was Doolittle’s copilot. He is now 101 years old.

Cole’s Museum oral history is here.

All images from the collection of The National WWII Museum.

Learn more here about the Museum’s B-25.

Posted by Rob Wallace, STEM Education Coordinator at The National WWII Museum

Doolittle’s Daring Raiders Lift the Gloom that Descended After Pearl Harbor


Lieutenant Colonel   Jimmy Doolittle was  first to take off from the Hornet.

Lieutenant Colonel Jimmy Doolittle was first to take off from the Hornet.

April 18, 2017, marks the 75th anniversary of the Doolittle Raid. Below is an essay by Keith Huxen, PhD, the Museum’s senior director of research and history, that frames the importance of the daring raid to the Allied cause in World War II. The essay appeared in the spring 2017 issue of V-Mail, the Museum’s quarterly newsletter for Members. Visit the links below the essay to explore more about the Doolittle Raid via the Museum’s Digital Collections. Learn more about the benefits of Museum membership here.

In December 1941, Americans were reeling after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and military onslaught across Asia and the Pacific. Emotionally, the nation was in shock, and a deep, consuming anger quickly set in as the people came to comprehend the enormity of the damage in Hawaii. Americans resolved to fight, and thirsted for revenge. However, despite their newfound determination, Americans would find that they would have to travel through a long, dark valley of war.

The emotions of the time were perhaps best encapsulated in the experience of USMC Captain Henry T. Elrod, who flew with VMF-211 to Wake Island only days before the Japanese attacked. Fighting valiantly and repeatedly against the odds in the following days, Elrod distinguished himself on several occasions, once conducting a solo attack against 22 enemy planes and downing two Zeroes, and on another occasion sinking the Japanese destroyer Kisaragi from his fighter aircraft with small-caliber bombs. After all American aircraft were inoperable, Elrod organized beach defenses to meet the enemy. It was during combat with invading Japanese forces on the beach that Elrod was killed on December 23, 1941.  Wake Island surrendered that day.

For his heroism, Elrod would be posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor, but his personal trial was symbolic of the desperate situation the Allies faced as 1942 dawned. On Christmas Day 1941, Hong Kong was taken. The Japanese overwhelmed Australian forces on Rabaul, a key base, in late January. In February, the United Kingdom was stunned as Singapore surrendered, and then the Japanese bombed ports in Australia. In March, the Dutch East Indies, with its vital supplies of oil, rubber, and tin, fell to the Japanese.

The biggest American domino in the chain was conquered next. The Japanese had attacked the Philippines as part of their sweeping attacks on December 7–8, 1941. Now, after five months of fighting, Filipino and American troops on the Bataan peninsula surrendered on April 9. A small group of stout American and Filipino forces continued to resist from the island of Corregidor in Manila Bay. Unbeknownst to the American public at the time, however, the captured troops were then subjected to the brutal Bataan Death March.

At last, the first thin ray of light pierced the dark valley of continuous defeat. On April 18, 1942, American air forces under the command of Lieutenant Colonel James Doolittle conducted a surprise raid against Japan. The raid was daringly launched with stripped-down B-25 bombers launched from carriers too far away for the crews to safely return. The bombing damage done in Tokyo and other sites was actually insignificant, but the jolt of finally striking back at the enemy, coupled with the courage of Doolittle’s aviators embarking upon a one-way mission to China (three captured Raiders were eventually executed), spurred a massive psychological lift for Americans weary of bad news.

Doolittle’s Raiders provided a flicker of hope for the future, but the valley of war still had dark pathways ahead. On May 6, 1942, Corregidor fell to the Japanese, sealing Allied defeat in the Philippines for the time being (guerrilla groups would continue to fight on throughout the war).

With many battleships sunk in Pearl Harbor, the US Navy was forced to rely upon submarines and aircraft carriers in a new naval warfare. Beginning the day following Corregidor’s fall, on May 7–8, 1942, the US Navy and Imperial Japanese Navy fought the Battle of Coral Sea. It was indecisive in that both sides scored against each other’s all-important assets—the United States sank the Japanese light carrier Shoho but lost its own carrier Lexington—in the first battle in naval history in which the fleets did not sight each other and combat was conducted solely through the air.

Halfway through 1942, the United States was still without a significant victory on the battlefield, and Americans were wondering how long this situation could be endured. Our enemies were growing stronger every day. They could not know it at the time, but the terrain of the dark valley of war was about to take a dramatically different shape when US forces next engaged the enemy off a small island in the Pacific, a place called Midway.


Watch eyewitness accounts of the Doolittle Raid from the Museum’s collection of oral histories here.

Watch a panel discussion about the raid from the Museum’s 2011 International Conference on World War II here.

A multimedia journey into the post-Pearl Harbor darkness, with videos, photos, and Museum artifacts, is here.


Next Stop, Nationals!

National QualifiersThis past Saturday, April 8, over 200 middle and high school students from across Louisiana visited The National WWII Museum to compete and take part in the annual Louisiana National History Day State Contest.  National History Day is a national student research contest in which students, working as either individuals or in groups, create projects relating to an annual theme which are evaluated and critiqued at school and regional level contests. This year’s contest theme was “Taking A Stand In History,” with students completing projects on figures ranging from Susan B. Anthony to Whitney Houston.

Having already advanced from one of five regional contests in Monroe, Baton Rouge, Shreveport, or New Orleans, these students and their projects represented the best student work Louisiana had to offer. Competition was fierce and exciting throughout the day with over 120 projects in 18 different categories seeking an opportunity to advance to the National History Day National Contest in Washington, DC.  The judges deliberated throughout the day and ultimately selected 68 middle and high school students to represent Louisiana at the National Contest the week of June 11–15, 2017.

Also awarded were three full scholarships for the Museum’s Normandy Academy Student Travel Program, a 12-day journey that allows students to follow in the footsteps of the Greatest Generation across the beaches and battlefields of northern France.

The National WWII Museum is proud to serve as the state sponsor for National History Day in Louisiana and we are expecting great things from this year’s student delegation. Congratulations to all the winners and to all the students and teachers who participated!   


This post by Collin Makamson, Student Programs Coordinator @ The National WWII Museum

Women’s History Month and WWII WASPs

Home Front Friday is a regular series that highlights the can do spirit on the Home Front during World War II and illustrates how that spirit is still alive today!

WASP pilots. Photo courtesy of National Public Radio website.

WASP pilots. Photo courtesy of National Public Radio website.

In light of how March was Women’s History Month and how March 8th was the recent celebration of International Women’s Day, the history of women supporting the war effort during WWII is particularly relevant. The role women played in WWII was a significant part of the American Home Front, which this blog highlights. Today’s topic will focus on the efforts of the WASP unit made up of civilian women for the original purpose of ferrying newly built air crafts to flight schools around the U.S. Yet, these women are now acknowledged as official veterans of WWII and for the often dangerous missions they undertook to help on the Home Front.

WASPs, otherwise known as Women Airforce Service Pilots, was first organized as a squadron in the summer of 1943. The squadron was actually the result of a merging of two separate women pilot programs within the U.S. that were already in place as a response to the U.S. entering the war. The WAFS, Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron, commanded by Nancy Harkness Love combined with the WFTD, Women’s Flying Training Detachment, which was led by Jacqueline Cochran by August of 1943. By the end of WWII, over 1,000 women were trained as pilots for WASP.

Nancy Harkness Love. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress online collections.

Nancy Harkness Love. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress online collections.

Nancy Harkness Love. Photo courtesy of World War Two Database.

Nancy Harkness Love. Photo courtesy of World War II Database website.


Jacqueline Cochran. Photo courtesy of World War II Database.

Jacqueline Cochran. Photo courtesy of World War II Database website.

Jacqueline Cochran with an F-51 "Mustang" airplane. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress online collections.

Jacqueline Cochran with an F-51 “Mustang” airplane. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress online collections.

Some of the duties of the brave women who served as WASPs included transporting equipment and personnel vital to military operations and the dangerous job of flight testing repaired aircrafts before they were sent to men in combat.

One testimonial by Margaret Phelan Taylor, who served as a WASP, describes the time she was transporting a plane suffering from technical issues due to faulty parts burning out. Taylor did not have an adequate parachute fitted for a woman though and had to decide whether to jump and take her chances with the parachute or try to continue flying and hope she made it to her destination. She ended up completing the flight despite the smoking cockpit.

Margaret Phelan Taylor, WASP pilot. Photo courtesy of npr.org.

Margaret Phelan Taylor, WASP pilot. Photo courtesy of National Public Radio website.

To learn more about the experiences of actual WASPs, check out this oral recording of Geraldine Nyman’s time as a WASP found in the digital collections at the National WWII Museum. Her account can be found at this link.

However, despite the danger these women faced in serving their country and their contributions to the military during the war, WASP was only designated a civil service program, and its pilots, were seen as civilians rather than veterans until 1977, when they were recognized as veterans finally. Prior to their having veteran privileges, WASPs could not receive veteran burials. Not even the thirty-eight women who died during service were able to have veteran honors for their funerals. Furthermore, these women and their families were not rewarded with benefits normally awarded to those who served.

In 2009, President Obama signed the bill for WASPs to be awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest honor a civilian can receive from Congress. The award ceremony took place in March 2010 and about 200 former WASPs attended the event.

President Obama signing the bill for WASPs to be awarded the Congressional Gold Medal. Photo courtesy of U.S. Army website.

President Obama signing the bill for WASPs to be awarded the Congressional Gold Medal. Photo courtesy of U.S. Army website.

Deanie Parrish, former WASP pilot, accepting her Congressional Gold Medal. Photo courtesy of National Public Radio website.

Deanie Parrish, former WASP pilot, accepting her Congressional Gold Medal. Photo courtesy of National Public Radio website.

To honor these women and those like them during not just Women’s History month but throughout the whole year, here’s a few suggestions:

  1. Educate yourself about critical women in history, women important to you locally, and women in your family
  2. Consume art by women and support them. Films, literature, art pieces…
  3. Volunteer for an organization dedicated to helping women
  4. Shadow a woman for a day
  5. Change your profile picture on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter to a notable woman in history or your life
  6. Show your support for an organization or business run by a woman
  7. Google what modern inventions we have to thank women for. Coffee filters for your cup of joe, wifi, and dishwashers are just some.

Posted by Savannah Bamburg, Education Intern and Lauren Handley, Assistant Director of Education for Public Programs at The National WWII Museum.

All Roads Lead To Louisiana History Day 2017

Greater New Orleans National History Day Regional ContestOn March 25, 2017, The National WWII Museum hosted its Greater New Orleans National History Day regional contest:  the last of five regional contests to determine which students move on to the Louisiana History Day State Contest to be held on Saturday, April 8 at The National WWII Museum.  National History Day is a nationwide student research competition in which students, grades 6 – 12, either as individuals or in groups, conduct research and construct a project on a historical topic of their choice.  Projects in this year’s contest focused on the theme of “Taking A Stand In History” with student-selected topics ranging from Muhammad Ali’s protest of the Vietnam War to First Lady Betty Ford’s fight to raise awareness about the dangers of alcoholism and substance abuse.

At this year’s Greater New Orleans regional contest, over 250 middle and high school students with over 100 projects in 18 different categories competed throughout the day for a chance to advance their work to the State Contest, where they will not be competing solely with local students, but also with the winning students advanced from the Lafayette, Monroe, Shreveport and Baton Rouge regional contests as well.  The winners from the Louisiana History Day State competition will then travel on to represent the state of Louisiana at the NHD National Contest held each year in June in Washington D.C..

For these students, the regional contest is an important step and the result of many months of researching, writing and perfecting their work.

As the state sponsor for National History Day in Louisiana, The National WWII Museum congratulates all the winners and all the students in Louisiana who participated in our contests!

Next stop:  STATE!

Learn more about National History Day

This post by Collin Makamson, Student Programs Coordinator @ The National WWII Museum



SciTech Tuesday: Operation Outward

Last autumn my neighbors were having a birthday party in their front yard. The highlight of the decorations was a bundle of helium-filled mylar balloons. It was windy, and they worked themselves free. I was working in my yard, and looked over when I heard sounds of dismay, and I watched the balloons slowly drift towards the power pole across the street. The balloons contacted the transformer, there was a very loud bang, and all the lights on our block went out.

In England during WWII they had barrage balloons along the coast and over cities and military installations. They were large, tethered blimps, designed to make enemy aerial navigation difficult by placing obstacles in the way. Their long cables threatened to entangle encroaching aircraft.  The barrage balloons occasionally broke loose, like the mylar balloons I witnessed. But the defensive blimps, being anchored by heavy metal cables, caused much worse damage to electrical infrastructure.

In September of 1940 a large storm knocked loose a number of barrage balloons, which glided across the North Sea and caused considerable damage to power lines and radio antennas in Denmark and Sweden. After that, Churchill ordered that the possibility of using ballons like these as weapons be investigated. The Royal Air Force responded with a negative report, believing it to be too costly at a low likelihood of effect. The Navy responded enthusiastically.

Winds at high altitudes (>15,000 feet) tend to move from East to West over the North Sea and Europe, so the conditions were favorable, and the Royal Navy had a surplus of 100,000 weather balloons. Tests were conducted, and plans made.

These balloons were designed to be inflated to 8 ft in diameter. At launch a slow burning fuse was lit, and the balloons ascended rapidly, stopping at 25,000 ft as an internal band stopped further expansion. As the hydrogen used to inflate the balloons slowly leaked away they descended. The fuse would eventually release a small opening in a bucket of mineral oil, and as it leaked away the balloon descended faster.

About half the balloons carried a wire payload. The same fuse that released the mineral oil would also release a coil of wire held by hemp rope to the balloon. The balloon was calculated to maintain an altitude of at least 1,000 feet so that it would keep moving (below that the air can become very calm). In theory, the wire could short circuit high voltage lines, or break transformers.

The other half the balloons carried an incendiary payload. This was either cans of incendiary jelly, bottles of phosphorus grenades, or canvas tubes filled with explosive and fuses. These were all designed to create small fires. These also were items already on hand and easily and cheaply made.

There is a kind of genius in turning an accident, with knowledge, existing supplies, and some creativity, into a weapon.

In the latter half of 1942 the British launched between 1,000 and 1,800 balloons a day from a golf course in Felixstowe and a bay near Dover. All releases were clustered over 3 or 4 hours of a given day. Over 99,000 balloons were launched, and caused a great deal of havoc, confusion, and cost for the Germans. The biggest impact was from a balloon that hit a power line near Leipzig, and caused a fire that burned down the electrical station.

Launches were suspended during Allied bombing raids, for fear they would interfere with aircraft. In mid 1944, because of the great frequency of bombing raids, the release schedule was changed to single releases every 10 minutes during daylight hours. The last balloon was launched in September of 1944.


Posted by Rob Wallace, STEM Education Coordinator at The National WWII Museum