The Balloon Shed Episode by Major Colin Gillespie
This year the Trooping of the Colour on Horse Guards Parade was perfection. As I watched, tears came into my elderly eyes. When I heard the order given for the officers to 'take post' my memory cast back to a parade where I, as Squadron Commander of 9 Independent Parachute Squadron Royal Engineers, gave the order to 'take post'. Not quite so grand a parade, but possibly a unique parade. The year was 1963.
9 Squadron was based in Gibraltar Barracks in Aldershot, with troops scattered, as ever, around the Empire. Aldershot was about to be vandalised by new development and the squadron had been allotted a wartime hutted camp at Crookham. It was splendidly isolated from Brigade HQ suitably in keeping with the tradition of the independence of that squadron. Among the red brick barracks we were to leave was The Balloon Shed and Balloon Square. The shed was no great architectural beauty but it had history. It was built in 1892 as the first permanent home of military aviation. It was from there that the first balloon detachments were sent to South Africa in 1898 for the Boer War. From 1904 onward much experimental and training work was done--S F Cody one of the best known aviators of all time was associated with the balloon school. The Royal Engineers ran it with an 'Air Estimate' budget of £4,300.
The chance was too good to miss for 9 Squadron to grab a bit of publicity. We asked for a farewell ceremony to be held. The Chief Engineer Southern Command claimed the privilege of taking the salute. (The Parachute Brigade Commander took umbrage and I was in the doghouse again).
On parade were a detachment from 7 RHA to represent the gunners who used the balloons for observation, a detachment from the RAF who represented those who took over military aviation from the Royal Engineers, and 9 Squadron to represent the Corps of Royal Engineers who provided the balloons. On parade was the Royal Engineer band from Chatham. Among the spectators was a ninety-year-old survivor from the pre 1914 balloonatics, Brigadier Gervers, who walked all the way from Aldershot station. (To my embarrassment we didn't provide transport). To complete the parade was the last remaining gas balloon maintained by the RAF at Cardington. This huge inflated envelope, with its' wicker basket slung below, was marched on to the parade by a small team of handlers. I digress here to explain that the drill for filling the balloon is critical so that it does not fly away with too much gas. Thus, the team have their hands on the basket and, on the command 'hands off, the team raise their hands and the pilot, who has control of the gas, can see if the basket lifts. After several minutes of 'hands off', 'hands on', 'hands off, 'hands on', there comes a moment when the balloon wants to fly and is restrained only by the ground team. It was at that moment of equilibrium that it was possible to move the balloon to the place appointed in front of the troops.
The balloon awaits the troops - Wing Commander Turnbull RAF is pilot in the basket
So I come to the point of this story. When the parade was quiet I spoke the famous words, which I am sure no other parade commander has ever given to his second command," Captain Hill take post in your balloon"
Maj Colin Gillespie reports to Brig Reid, Southern Command and Sqn SSM looks on.
John Hill saluted, turned to the wicker basket and climbed aboard. Scattering its' handlers with a sudden jerk, the balloon rose, took a corner off the roof of the balloon shed in passing, narrowly missed the chimney stack and climbed to the clouds above.
"Hands off" the balloon ascends with Capt John Hill RE (Sqn 2IC) in the basket. The detachment from 9 Sqn look on with wry amusement as it heads for the shed!
The band played...
"Will ye no come back again".