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Vembos T. Cold War Balloons and the Greek UFO Wave of 1954

Vembos T. Cold War Balloons and the Greek UFO Wave of 1954

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Published by Igor Kalytyuk

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Published by: Igor Kalytyuk on Nov 19, 2013
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Cold War Balloons and the Greek UFO Wave of 1954
 By Thanassis Vembos Examining the now-so-distant era of the early Cold War and its relation with the fascinating  phenomenon of UFOs, is an enthralling work. Many ignored or overlooked details come to light, helping us to understand better many incidents of that time. Someone investigating the UFO subject in Greece must come in terms with facts such as the lack of organized archives (or even the lack of archives in many cases) or the various difficulties in accessing them. Nevertheless, by searching old newspaper archives and other sources I managed to unearth a lot of stuff from this  bygone era, unknown even to Greek researchers. The great UFO wave in the autumn of 1954 in France and southwestern Europe was always one of my favorite subjects for research. I had managed to make a preliminary report by collecting material from newspaper files and books. Further search in libraries and archives and the onset of modern technology -digitalization of archives and digital cameras- opened up new vistas. This article replaces the old report which I had posted here ten years ago. During my research I realized that some, seemingly irrelevant, things were of much interest. During this distant era, when Cold War tensions were gradually increasing, Europe was deeply divided and the two superpowers were standing opposite to each other with their finger on the trigger. Western propaganda was trying to breach the nearly impenetrable Iron Curtain. One of the means to penetrate this barrier was the propaganda balloons. From August 1951 till  November 1956 Central European skies were brimming with hundreds of thousands of balloons, carrying hundreds of millions of leaflets and other printed propaganda material. The balloons were launched from West Germany and were carried by the winds over Iron Curtain countries, like Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary. According to official estimates, 590,415 balloons were launched, carrying 301,636,883 propaganda items Balloons were and are one of the most usual candidate to explain (or explain away) UFO reports. Truly, many of the latter can be attributed to weather and other balloons floating in the upper or lower atmosphere. On the other hand, ba
lloons are one of the most popular “interpretation” used
 by skeptics to discard the UFO phenomenon altogether. But truth, as always, lies somewhere in the middle. Yet, one that has a thorough knowledge of the nature and history of UFOs, will know that the  phenomenon is characterized by
the strange trait of disguise
. It masks itself behind various camouflages. The possible reasons are not a subject to be discussed and analyzed now; nevertheless the
Camouflage Factor
is an actuality. There are many cases wh
ere UFOs “used” the facade of the balloon to play their indecipherable
 –in the same way that they “used” the mask of planet Venus, of bizarrely shaped clouds,
of mirages, of hallucinations. In my research regarding the 1954 UFO flap in Greece, I found out much information showing that propaganda balloons were intricately connected with many contemporary flying saucer reports. I do not simply mean that UFO sightings were just balloons. There is something more than that. But before we survey the cases, we must first take a look at some facts about this six decades old propaganda campaign.
Balloons Storm Eastern Europ
At the late 1940s the Soviet dominance over Eastern Europe was consolidated; the borders closed and an Iron Curtain was raised between East and West. This nearly impassable barrier had cut off not only free travel of people but free exchange of information as well. Now the monopoly (and subsequent control) of information was under the control of Moscow and the aligned governments of its satellite communist countries. On 17.12.1947 the newly founded  National Security Council of the United States issued decree NSC-4-A giving the green light to the conduction of clandestine operations of psychological warfare against the Soviets and their satellites. A part of this campaign were radio stations transmitting to countries under Soviet control. These radio stations were not officially affiliated with the American government
they could transmit programs and the American government could deny any responsibility.
In 1948 CIA‟s Special Procedures Group (SPG) set up Project ULTIMATE for the dispersion of
 propaganda leaflets in Eastern European countries but was assessed that the time was not still ripe. In June 1948 NSC 4-A decree was replaced by NSC 10/2; the new one was more detailed on psychological war operations (psy-ops). In June 1949 National Committee for a Free Europe was founded in New York; its airwaves branch was Radio Free Europe (RFE). RFE transmitted its first program on July, 4, 1950. The first balloons with propaganda material were launched on August 13, 1951, from a field just 5 kms away from Czechoslovakian border, thus commencing Operation Winds of Freedom. Each balloon was carrying nearly 3,000 leaflets. Weather conditions permitting, up to 2,000  balloons were launched every night. A total of 11 million leaflets were sent to the Iron Curtain this way. The operation was not especially effective from a political point of view but RFE and CIA gained valuable experience. Helium-filled balloons of various sizes and types were used. The spherical rubber balloon containing leaflets was carried away by the wind up to an altitude of 10 - 12,000 m. When the inside pressure became much higher than the external, the balloon blew and the leaflets were falling like rain. The smaller, pillow-shaped plastic balloon was carrying the leaflets in a carton underneath. When the balloon reached a high altitude, expansion of gas triggered a leaking mechanism; thus the balloon leaked gas and soft landed with the carton hanging underneath. Below the carton there was dry ice, as ballast. When it evaporated, the carton containing the leaflets overturned dropping them. To disperse the propaganda leaflets to specific populous urban centers a clever system was designed; it took into account the weight of the dry ice, the quantity of gas in the balloon, the weight of the leaflets and the direction and intensity of the prevailing winds. These balloons were first used for Hungary since the country was too far for the simpler latex balloons to reach it.
 Leaflet release mechanism (photo from  Psywarrior 
 Operations PROSPERO, VETO, FOCUS, and SPOTLIGHT followed. Three large installations were set up in Bavaria, West Germany; balloons were launched from there on a 24 hour basis. Operation PROSPERO commenced in the summer of 1953 when 6,500 balloons carrying 12 million leaflets were launched to Czechoslovakia in just 4 days, starting on July 15. The communist authorities announced that the citizens had to give them whatever propaganda material had collected. This violent reaction showed that Operation PROSPERO yielded very satisfactory results. Operation VETO started in April 1954 as a combined propaganda campaign with balloons and radio transmissions. Over 41 million leaflets were launched between May and August 1954. Operation FOCUS started on October 1, 1954. Balloons aiming Hungary were launched from southeastern areas of West Germany, near the Austrian border. They had to cross the air space of a neutral country in order to reach Hungary. When FOCUS terminated, over 16 million leaflets were sent to Hungary [
note 1
] Having gained valuable experience now, Committee for a Free Europe started Operation SPOTLIGHT on February, 12, 1955, launching more than 260,000 leaflets to Poland. Weather conditions were not so helpful; no launching was done in April and the operation ended in May. Balloon operations stopped because they came of age; RFE had now large antennas and  powerful transmitters in Portugal to reach its Eastern European audience. Another reason was  probably the crash of a Czechoslovakian passenger plane in 1956. It was never proved that the  balloons were the reason for its crash; nevertheless it was a fact that their flight path crossed with
the plane‟s course. It was the time for Eastern European propaganda to
exploit the incident. Maybe this contributed to persuade the Committee for a Free Europe to cease balloon operations
[note 2]

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