No 1 Balloon Training Unit

In 1936 Cardington was formally handed over to the RAF and on Jan 1 1937 No 1 Balloon Training Unit was formed (known as No 1 BTU Cardington)

Open No 1 BTU 1.1.1937

This extract from the record book of the No 1 Balloon Training Unit shows the formation date of the Unit.

H F C Luck 1919

H F C Luck - the first Commander of No 1 BTU at Cardington.

The first Commander of the No 1 BTU was Sqdrn Leader H. F. Luck who had strong airship credentials. He was part of the successful R34 airship flight across the Atlantic both ways back in 1919 and was later attached to the R101 airship programme. In 1939 the No 2 Balloon Training Unit at Rollestone Camp, Salisbury was dissolved and part of its functions and staff transferred to the Number 1 BTU at Cardington.

To digress somewhat but to understand the background of both RAF Balloon Training Units it is necessary to back track to 1920 when the School of Balloon Training was formed at Rollestone Camp in Wiltshire. In the following years this small unit was involved in experimental work but also provided observation balloon training for the army. Interestingly many of the men attached to this small unit already had airship experience. One of the earlier commanders was Flt Lieut Wann a survivor of the R38 airship disaster of 1921; he in turn was followed by Flt Lieut H Carmichael Irwin who had served on many airships including the R36 and R80 of which he was Captain. (Irwin later transferred to Cardington and was to lose his life in the R101 crash in Oct 1930).

Other “airship” men who served at Rolleston included J Evason (a member of the R34 airship crew who flew across the Atlantic in 1919), Henry James Leach (later connected to the R101) and H F C Luck the first commander of No 1 BTU at Cardington. It is not clear when, but the School of Balloon Training was renamed The Royal Air Force Balloon Centre and in November 1936 became the No. 2 Balloon Training Unit and was dissolved in 1939.

When one considers the history of these Units it becomes clear that there was a great deal of experience passed on from the airship years long after the demise of the airship programme.

No 1 BTU was active at Cardington throughout WW2 and was responsible for the training of barrage balloon operators - courses were held for Balloon Riggers, Fabric Workers, MT (Mechanical Transport) and Balloon Handling. Looking at records for this period it appears there was also time for further balloon experiments and high altitude testing. In is recorded a party of 35 Polish airmen received balloon training in March 1941 and by May 1941 WAAFS began arriving on the camp for training.

Empire Air Day May 39 BP Box 5912

Demonstrating barrage Balloons in 1939

Air Day May 1938 at Cardington

A Barrage balloon on site in 1938

*(Images left and centre shown with permission of Beds & Luton Archive Services BP Boxes 227, 591 photography John Day Ampthill Images).

The Unit closed down on 19th November 1943 - after listing daily reports for the previous weeks the final entry in the unit’s record books read:

“The above final entries mark the cessation of existence of this Unit. Since its inception in 1937 No 1 B. T. U has trained over 5,000 R.A.F Balloon Operators: with a few exceptions every Balloon Officer in the Command has attended a Balloon Handling Course at least once, and many Officers have returned for a second course. About 5,000 W.A.A.F Balloon Operators and W.A.A.F Officers have been trained in balloon handling. The M.T school has trained as far as can be ascertained, about 8,000 Balloon Operator Drivers and nearly 4,000 W.A.A.F Drivers MT. The MTM course has dealt with over 1,000 airmen.”

Commanders of No 1 Balloon Training Unit

01.01.1937 Sqdrn Leader H.F Luck

03.04.1938 Flt Lt A H Allen

05.01.1939 Wing Commander E F Turner AFC

28.07.1939 Wing Commander R S Sugden AFC

27.03.1940 Wing Commander C W Harrison

06.05.1940 Sqdrn Leader G J Rayner

13.08.1940 Wing Commander H F Luck

15.10.1940 Sqdrn Leader Sherwell

27.02.1943 Sqdrn Leader C T Fitzgerald

June 1938 Balloon Unit cropped

Above is an extract from the RAF officer listings dated June 1938.

Please make contact if you have any information about this Unit or the people who served in it. -Thank you. Jane

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