Double Victory: Minorities and Women During World War II
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Lighter-than-Air Craft

Barrage balloons, blimps, dirigibles, and zeppelins. A number of disasters during the interwar period, combined with ever advancing airplane technology, caused most nations to move away from using lighter-than-air (LTA) craft for military purposes by World War II. The U.S. Navy lost three dirigibles between the wars: the Shenandoah (1923) and Akron (1933), both due to adverse weather, and the Macon (1935), due to structural failure.

Many countries employed barrage balloons in defending cities or military installations against low-level air attacks. The British staged some 450 large kite balloons around London, which would be sent aloft while trailing large, steel cables that had to be avoided by incoming aircraft. British sources claimed 200-plus "kills" of German V-1 buzz bombs from these barrage balloons. The Soviet Union employed similar technology against German air attacks.

During World War I and in the interwar period, the United States tried several types of LTA technology, with varying degrees of success. By 1939, the U.S. Navy had determined that rigid airships were not effective in military applications. Nonrigid airships, or blimps, saw the most extensive wartime use. The navy registered 167 blimps, most of which were used to patrol the North American coastline or as long-range air support for convoys in the Atlantic and Mediterranean. Of more than 89,000 total ships escorted by blimps in convoy, only one, the tanker Persephone, was lost (25 May 1942) while under airship protection in two world wars. LTA craft could patrol in more varieties of weather than airplanes could, and they were capable of remaining aloft far longer; however, they had extremely limited offensive uses. No submarine kills by blimps have been confirmed, but the blimps were an effective deterrent, forcing the submarines to stay submerged and inactive.

Three different types of blimps were employed during World War II by the U.S. Navy. The G-series came from the navy's 1935 purchase of the Goodyear Defender. The next seven G-series airships held 6 crewmen, measured 192' in length and 45' in diameter, and had a volume of 196,000 cu ft and a speed of 60 mph. The K-series comprised the majority of the Navy's LTA fleet. These blimps housed a 12-man crew, measured 251.7' in length and 62.5' in diameter, and had a volume of 425,000 cu ft; they had a top speed of 75 mph and a range of 2,000 mi. Only a few M-Series craft were built. They had distinctive, 117-ft-long cars. These held 10-plus crewmen, had a volume of 647,000 cu ft (refurbished to 725,000 cu ft), and a top speed of 75 mph. These craft were posted along both U.S. coasts, in the South Atlantic, in the Caribbean, and in the Mediterranean.

In the postwar years, LTA technology was never again so widely employed in military use. By the 1960s, nearly all LTA craft were retired from military service.

Matthew Alan McNiece


Further Reading
Collier, Basil. A History of Air Power. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1974.; Swanborough, Gordon, and Peter M. Bowers. United States Navy Aircraft since 1911. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1976.; Vaeth, J. Gordon. Blimps & U-Boats: U.S. Navy Airships in the Battle of the Atlantic. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1992.
 

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