• Andy Robson

Deciphering Military Records – A WAAF Case Study

Our client was interested in finding out more about her maternal grandmother’s Military Service during WW2. She could recall, as a child, seeing a photograph of her grandmother in a WAAF uniform in her great grandmother’s house. There were no surviving family members who could provide any information and the photograph, sadly, had gone missing over the years. She contacted us for help in finding out more.

First, we recommended that she apply for a copy of her grandmother’s Service Record via the gov.uk website.


She obtained a copy of her grandmother’s death certificate, submitted her request, paid the £30 administration fee, and then waited several months. Finally, the documents arrived. Patience really is a virtue in family history research!

It can be a painstaking and difficult business to interpret these cryptic records – even with the aid of the eleven page list of common abbreviations supplied by the RAF! At Your Family Historian we not only interpret these records for you, but we put events into context and create a complete record. Below is the report we provided for our client. Reproduced here with her kind permission.

Leading Aircraftwoman Ethel Scott (2079739)

Ethel Scott enlisted in Durham on 1 June,1942 and the next day was placed on Reserve (RES) to await place on the WAAF training program.

She entered service as Aircraft Woman 2nd Class (AW2), No. 2079739 and on 8 June,1942, was posted to 1 WAAF Depot, Bridgnorth, Salops, for 4-weeks' processing and basic training.

Ethel was classified as 'ACH/Ball' = 'Aircraft Hand / Balloon'. WAAF's were given a choice of which branch of the service they wished to join, but often they were simply streamed wherever the need was greatest.

On 13 July,1942, she was posted to 15 Balloon Centre, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, to train as a Balloon Operator. This was part of 33 (Balloon Barrage) Group, Auxiliary Air Force (AAF), which was responsible for all the balloon barrages in the North of England.

The operational strength of 15 Balloon Centre comprised 936, 937 and 938 Balloon Squadrons; 936 and 937 Squadrons being responsible for manning the Tyne Barrage, and 938 Squadron the Tees Barrage. However, the Centre also provided command, administrative, workshop and training facilities for the Squadrons. The fact that Ethel carried out her training with 15 Balloon Centre indicated that she would eventually serve in one of these 3 Squadrons.

The training was considered physically arduous. There were no specific WAAF working fatigues so they wore mens' boots and overalls. The women learned all aspects of raising, recovering and storing a balloon; on the ground it was usually 'bedded down' using sand bags and guy ropes. In order to do this, they had to learn how to handle ropes and cables, tie a variety of knots, and operate and maintain the winch which controlled the balloon's ascent and descent.

4-20 September,1942, she was attached to 936 (County of Northumberland) Balloon Squadron, AAF, at Longbenton, Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

The Squadron comprised 4 Flights (A, B, C & D) of 8 balloons each. These included 4 Water-borne balloons for the protection of vessels on the River Tyne. Assigned to A Flight. This was presumably for 'on-the-job' training. 'HH' on transfer list indicates that remained on the strength of the parent organisation - 15 Balloon Centre - during this period. 'H' indicates that unit was Home based rather than Field Force (overseas). Although the Headquarters of 936, 937 and 938 Squadrons were all located at RAF Longbenton, their individual Flights and Sections were distributed around the areas they were protecting.

9 October,1942, posted back to 936 Balloon Squadron. Again, assigned to A Flight.

Although Ethel's training was now considered complete, she was not yet qualified and the month she spent with 936 Squadron seems to have been to bring her to an operational standard.

8 November,1942, qualified as a Balloon Operator after passing Trade examination with mark of 52%. The examination had 8 subjects: balloon drill; balloon maintenance; winch driving; winch maintenance; rope splicing; wire splicing; balloon technical; and balloon theory.

13 November,1942, returned to 15 Balloon Centre for reposting.

Now that she had qualified, she was presumably being sent to a different Squadron rather than the one she had trained with.

19 November,1942, posted to 937 (County of Northumberland) Balloon Squadron AAF, at Longbenton, Newcastle-upon-Tyne. This comprised 4 Flights (A, B, C & D) of 8 balloons each. These included 3 Water-borne balloons for the protection of vessels on the River Tyne. The Section (or Crew as it was usually known) which operated a particular balloon was a self-enclosed unit. Members would take it in turn to cook, wash the billlet hut, and stand guard over the balloon. The nominal strength of a Section was 2 Corporals in command and 14 Operators. Most of these were needed to manhandle the balloon when it was on the ground, but the women took turns to perform more specific tasks; such as driving the Section lorry, operating the winch, inflating the balloon, or calling out the regulation series of drill instructions through a megaphone.

31 December,1942, at annual review, proficiency as a Balloon Operator assessed as grade 'A - SAT', and character as Very Good. Trade Proficiencies were graded as A (Tradesman), B (shows leadership ability in Trade), or C (shows Administrative ability), and sub-divided as Ex (Exceptional), Supr (Superior), Sat (Satisfactory), Mod (Moderate), Inf (Inferior). 'A - SAT' therefore meant she was considered Satisfactory as a Balloon Operator.

1 April,1943, promoted to Aircraft Woman 1st Class (AW1) after passing Trade examination with mark of 67%.

4 June,1943, with the threat of bombing much reduced in the Tyneside area, 936 and 937 Squadrons were amalgamated to form 936/937 Balloon Squadron, AAF.

31 December,1943, at annual review, proficiency as a Balloon Operator assessed as grade 'A - SAT' and character as Very Good.

1 January,1944, promoted to Leading Aircraft Woman (LAW).

26 August,1944, discharged under Section 652, Class 11 of the King's Regulations - compassionate grounds. At discharge, proficiency as a Balloon Operator assessed as grade 'A - SAT' and character as Very Good.

The Barrage Balloon Service

Balloon Command was created in 1938 to protect British cities and key targets such as industrial areas, ports and harbours. The concept was a simple one; by littering the skies over a target area with tethered balloons, bombers would be forced to fly higher to avoid colliding with them. This, in turn, would adversely affect their bombing accuracy. In order to achieve an effective air defence using balloons, it was estimated that 9 balloons were needed for every square mile of a city or town. By the middle of 1940 there were 1,400 barrage balloons in service, a third of them over the London area.

Balloon Command

HQ, Old Church Lane, Stanmore, Middlesex

5 x Balloon Groups

30 Group based at Chessington, Surrey

31 Group based at Birmingham

32 Group based at Claverton, Somerset

33 Group based at Sheffield, Yorkshire

34 Group based at Edinburgh

Each with several Balloon Centres

Each with several Balloon Squadrons

Each Squadron had 24 Balloons

Each with 3 x Balloon Flights (designated A, B and C) Each Flight had 8 Balloons

Barrage balloons were large - the standard LZ (Low Zone) type was 62-ft long and 25-ft in diameter - and comprised several panels of air-tight fabric which were sown together. The top two-thirds of the balloon was filled with hydrogen to give it lift, the bottom third was allowed to fill with natural air once the balloon was aloft to keep the hydrogen in place. There were 3 fins at the rear of the balloon; a single vertical fin located underneath the balloon kept it facing into the wind, two horizontal fins - one located on each side - acted as stabilisers and kept the balloon level. Balloons lost a certain amount of hydrogen when flying so they had to be topped up every day on the ground.

The balloons were secured by a thick cable played-out from a mechanical winch; either mounted on a lorry or free-standing on the ground. There was a gauge on the winch to show how much cable had been played out. Each day, as long as the weather wasn't too bad for flying, the balloons would be inflated and raised to their 'close-hauled' altitude of 500-feet. Once a raid was confirmed as in-bound, they would then be raised to their operational height of up to 5,000-feet. The winch speed limited the raising and hauling down speed to about 400- feet/minute, which meant that the balloons required 11 minutes to reach 5,000-feet from their close-hauled altitude. The balloons were easy to see and avoid, and it was the cables that were the real threat to aircraft. Early trials showed that a stationary cable was often simply severed by an aircraft which struck it. Cables were therefore designed to simply break away from their respective balloons and winches, parachutes being deployed from each end to cause drag against an aircraft's wing; the Double Parachute Link (DPL). The effect was to stop an aircraft dead in its tracks so that it simply dropped out of the sky.

In 1940, it was decided to train members of the Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) as Balloon Operators to free-up men for active duty. The first batch of WAAF volunteers began a 10-week training course in May,1941, and by December,1942, there were 15,700 WAAF Balloon Operators.

In Autumn,1944, the use of barrage balloons ended in Britain with the end of the V-1 'Doodlebug' threat. Balloon Command was disbanded in February,1945.

If you would like to learn more about how we can help you decipher military records visit www.yourfamilyhistorian.co.uk/family-history-research

If you would like to arrange a free consultation then use this link to contact us. www.yourfamilyhistorian.co.uk/contact