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Summary: A film by the RAF Film Production Unit, giving a dramatised account of the work of RAF barrage balloons flown at sea in the Thames Estuary.
Description: Reel 1: Censors certificate. Title Butchers Empire Film Service Limited. Scrolling text introduces the importance of barrage balloons and The Comely Bank, a drifter crewed by Merchant Navy and RAF personnel, moored at sea to deter divebombing and minelaying; they work ceaselessly to keep the shipping lanes safe for our convoys. Royal Air Force Film Production Unit titles; RAF FPU presents: Operational Height A tale of the balloon ships which guard the channels to our ports. Convoy at sea. A cruiser (?) signals by Morse lamp. Flying boat OQ:T overhead. Close-up teleprinter showing message to C-in-C Kingsport from ATL/C Immediate Priority Urgent repeat urgent convoy due arrive western anchorage 0730 tomorrow stop vital that channel by swept and balloon barrage in position. The message is passed to the commander of the minesweepers in his office; Why the hell didnt they let us know when these convoys are so far ahead of time!. Commander orders three ships to sea. At sea and dropping markers. A spiked naval mine is detonated with rifle fire. Back in the office the commander speaks to the commander (named Armstrong) of the balloon squadron. In the balloon commanders office a discussion ensues about the weather and readiness etc. Film cuts to The Comely Bank, with banter onboard as a birthday telegram to Aircraftman Rogers is relayed over the radio. Rogers, expecting 48 hours leave, a date with his girlfriend Beryl and a cake, goes below and a sleeping crewman (Frank) complains about the noise he makes (cheerfully singing Bless Em All). On shore the ration boat is loaded, including the package for Aircraftman Rogers. Ration boat requests instructions and is told to wait, and then to pass a message to Comely Bank. Discussion at balloon office as to tactical situation.
Reel 2: Comely Bank at sea with balloon above. Comely Bank is redeployed to a different location and the crew attend to their various duties. Frank, the winchman, reels in the balloon. Anchor raised. The change of site risks the ration boat not reaching Comely Bank with Rogers cake. At port the ration boat, named Denton, sets out. Denton at sea. Passing the Kiddaw. Rations etc transferred at sea to the Kiddaw. Aboard Comely Bank Rogers takes the helm from the skipper. Comely Bank underway and dropping anchor. The skipper teases Rogers about his seamanship. More transfers from the Denton to other vessels; Comely Bank is last and Denton is obliged to return to harbour. Comely Bank winches in (with an interesting point of view shot looking down from the balloon). Rogers is called from the wheelhouse to relieve Frank on the winch. The balloons gas is refilled. Comely Bank updates control and is told the bad news about the ration boat.
Reel 3: In the galley of the Comely Bank, Frank and another airman work on a replacement cake and bake it in the captains oven. The cake is later served and is not well received; Rogers goes on watch and takes the opportunity to throw his slice of cake into the sea. On watch on a nice bright night. Alone on watch, Rogers rereads a letter from Beryl. A radio call QBZ, QBZ, QBZ; Rogers presses the alarm and the crew hurry to their action stations. Swines! Right in the middle of my tea!. The crew look out. Another boat, the Citron, has its balloon shot down in flames by the enemy. At balloon control officers suppose the Germans are trying to open the way for their minelayers. A Heinkel 111 attacks the Comely Bank, splintering the deck and wheelhouse and a gunner fires back. A model shot shows a near miss. Crew uninjured and reports to control; inspection reveals the Comely Bank has lost its anchor. Balloon control warns Comely Bank not to start its engines for danger of acoustic mines. The balloon starts dragging the boat. Balloon control requests a minesweeper to assist Comely Bank.
Reel 4: The crew keep watch for mines as the minesweeper leaves port. Plumbing the depth. A parachute mine is seen descending. The minesweeper enters unswept waters. Comely Bank enters shallower water when an enemy aircraft strikes her cable and crashes in flames. Comely Bank sights the minesweeper and the two make contact. At balloon control the officer commanding retires for the night. Stock footage; to the tune of The Star Spangled Banner a troopship full of US soldiers arrives safely at port. Comely Bank docks. Closing shot of a balloon over a dock.
Production Details: Air Ministry (Production sponsor)
Royal Air Force Film Production Unit (Production company)
Taylor, Adrian (Production individual)
Kelly, S (Production individual)
Sweeny, W H O (Production individual)
Personalities, Units and Organisations:
Keywords: Thames Estuary, Thames (River), England, UK (geography)
Sheerness, Kent, England, UK (geography)
Physical Characteristics: Colour format: B&W
Sound format: Sound
Soundtrack language: English
Title language: English
Technical Details: Format: 35mm
Number of items/reels/tapes: 4
Footage: 3009 ft; Running time: 34 mins
Notes: According to documentation held by the Film and Video Archive, this film was distributed internally to RAF audiences, to domestic cinemas, and overseas to allied and neutral countries. A fairly standard example of the genre, highlighting the work of men in a less well known arm of the RAF, who go about their work (which is quite clearly a mostly mundane and tedious business) in a chipper and victorious manner.
According to Kindell, referenced below, vessels such as Denton, Comely Bank, Kiddaw and Citron were all real vessels, part of the Sheerness minesweeping and balloon fleet.