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The value of the captive balloon for observation purposes and for defence against hostile aircraft

THE BRITISH KITE BALLOON SERVICE came into being after a report by Wing Commander (later Air Commodore) E. M. Maitland, who had inspected a Belgian kite balloon at work near Dunkirk, France, in January 1915. The first kite balloons were spherical in shape, but they were replaced, first by sausage-shaped and then by streamlined types. In the photograph a cable is being attached to a kite balloon at Larkhill, Wiltshire.

A FRENCH physicist, J. A. C. Charles, made aeronautical history when he ascended in a hydrogen balloon from Paris on December 1, 1783 (see the chapter “Romance of Ballooning”). This was the first time a hydrogen-inflated free balloon carrying passengers had taken the air. Eleven years later the first hydrogen captive balloon was evolved. This was used at the battle of Fleurus, in Belgium, during the French Revolutionary Wars, on June 26, 1794. So successful was its use that a balloon division was formed which proved its worth at Liege, Mayence and elsewhere; but the experiment was short-lived, as the balloon division was disbanded in 1799.

The pioneer work was carried out by a man named Conte, assisted by Captain Coutelle and by Lieut. de Beauchamps, who published his recollections in The Aeronauts of the First Republic, a small volume now eagerly sought.

In 1845 Archibald Douglas proposed the use of captive balloons for the British Army, but his ideas were rejected. Others, however, were experimenting with these balloons, which so far were spherical in shape. In 1896 Major von Parseval and Captain Sigsfeld produced in Germany the first “sausage”-shaped kite balloon, as we know it today. This was the Drachen (“Dragon”) type of 28,300 cubic feet and was still being used by the German Army when war broke out in 1914.

The British Army in 1905 was still experimenting with one or two spherical captive balloons. What may be termed the British Navy’s first aeronautical experiment was carried out in that year. During a visit of the Atlantic Fleet to Gibraltar a Balloon Section of the Royal Engineers, under Captain Wells, R.E., was temporarily attached to the garrison and, at the request of the Commander-in-Chief, the late Lord Charles Beresford (eventually Lord Beresford), it was arranged for the balloon section to be placed at the disposal of the Navy for experimental purposes. Lieutenant (now Captain) Kerrison Kiddle, R.N., was detailed by the Navy and, with a torpedo boat destroyer to work under his orders, was given a free hand. The balloon used was of 10,000 cubic feet, with the usual gear and hauling-down winch. Telephone communication was provided with the ship. It was found that the basket was somewhat small for two observers and so Captain Wells perched himself in the balloon netting just above.

The balloon was taken to the top of the cliffs at Europa Point, Gibraltar, and there inflated. The destroyer was then brought stern-in close to the shore. A cable was hauled up from the ship and secured to the balloon. The destroyer then steamed slowly ahead. At the right moment the balloon was let go and it went off in tow of the ship.

For the initial ascents the height was confined to 1,000-1,200 feet and the destroyer’s course was directed by telephone. The balloon was hauled down to within a few feet of the deck and the occupants clambered out down a rope. As destroyers were then coal-burning ships, great care had to be taken to prevent the hydrogen in the balloon from being ignited by sparks from the funnel. Unfortunately for these experiments, a Royal visit was pending and so there was no opportunity of spotting gunfire from the Fleet at sea. It was therefore decided to concentrate on locating submarine mines. A minefield two miles by half a mile was marked out, three or four miles off Gibraltar. The destroyer then steamed slowly along one edge of the field, the balloon being towed at a height of about 800 feet. In about three-quarters of an hour eleven out of the twelve mines had been located.

From these brief experiments Lieutenant Kerrison Kiddle and Captain Wells were of the opinion that in moderate weather it was practicable for a balloon of 10,000 cubic feet to be handled at sea in tow, that at a height of 800-1,000 feet valuable information of the approach of an enemy could be given to the Admiral, that mines could be located in fairly clear waters and that a balloon would be invaluable for spotting falls of shot at long ranges. They therefore strongly recommended that a balloon equipment should be carried in each seagoing Flagship.

The report of these two officers was forwarded to the Admiralty by the Commander-in-Chief and in due course a reply came back from their Lordships. The experiments were described as interesting but it was not proposed to take any action to establish a Naval Balloon Service, as in the event of war “balloons could be borrowed from the Army”. Apparently it was overlooked that in such an event the Army would require its balloons for its own use.

When war came, however, the Navy had the balloons and the Army had none. By 1918 every fourth ship when at sea had a kite balloon up.

Twenty Ascents in Ten Days

At the outbreak of war, captive balloons used in the French Army for observation purposes were spherical. Only fortified towns in the east of France had these balloons, which were intended for the defence of the fortresses. Within a month of the outbreak of hostilities a German Drachen was captured and this was at once sent to Chalais-Meudon for a study of its construction. Four months later the first French Drachen was sent to the front and in April 1915 the French “sausage” could reach a height of 4,950 feet.

The German, French and Belgian armies now had stabilized kite balloons observing their gunfire and watching the movement of enemy troops and convoys. The British Army, fighting in the same field, had still no such equipment. On October 17, 1914, the first balloon detachment, now under the Navy, left Farnborough, Hampshire, for France. The balloon detachment was commanded by Wing Commander (later Air Commodore) E. M. Maitland, other officers being Squadron Commander C. M. Waterlow and Flight Commander (later Colonel) J. D. Mackworth. They worked from the neighbourhood of Dunkirk and observed for the naval guns.

Three skin balloons, each of 13,000 cubic feet, were used; but, as there was no horse transport, they were confined to the roads near the coast. The weather was against them, for it was generally windy or foggy. Despite the weather conditions, during the ten days the detachment was overseas twenty ascents were made and, although the party came under heavy fire, the balloons survived and only one man was wounded.

A number of hostile batteries were discovered and their whereabouts made known by flag signals and wireless. Wing Commander Maitland in his report stated that it was impossible to use the balloons in wind over 18 miles an hour and that they could work on an average of only two days a week; but he suggested that another attempt should be made.

FIRST PRODUCED IN GERMANY by Major von Parseval and Captain Sigsfeld in 1896 the Drachen was a sausage-shaped balloon

FIRST PRODUCED IN GERMANY by Major von Parseval and Captain Sigsfeld in 1896, the Drachen (“Dragon”) was sausage-shaped and had a capacity of 28,300 cubic feet. The Drachen was an advance on the spherical shape of kite balloon and the type was used by the German Army at the beginning of the war of 1914-18. The French soon captured one of these balloons and a French Drachen was sent to the front early in 1915. In April 1915 the French version was able to reach a height of 4,950 feet.

In January 1915 Maitland inspected a Belgian kite balloon which was working near Dunkirk. Day after day this balloon had been up, while the British craft had been earthbound, because of the weather. Maitland sent for Flight Commander Mackworth and this officer made his first ascent in a kite balloon on February 3. A favourable report was made and Mackworth, with Maitland and Flight Lieutenant (later Colonel) Delacombe, went to Paris to obtain kite balloons.

Maitland sent in a vigorous report to the Admiralty. In this report he stated that, after having had four months’ experience spotting for artillery in Belgium, he had come to the conclusion that captive spherical balloons were too much handicapped by weather and by the problem of safe housing to be “suitable for the exigencies of a campaign like the present one”.

The kite balloon, however, which was being used by the Germans and the Allies had none of these limitations and was in every way a reliable and practical means of observing artillery fire. Maitland then went on to say that, having seen these balloons in action in high winds and in the worst possible conditions of rain and mud, he had no doubt of their efficiency. He recommended the formation of kite balloon sections and the training of personnel. So there came into being

the British Kite Balloon Service as it exists today.

Air Commodore Maitland became head of the British Airship Service and in 1921 he was killed in the disaster to the airship R 38.

The first kite balloons, properly so called, to go overseas went to the Dardanelles under the command of Squadron Commander Mackworth (as he then was). Four other sections went to France under Squadron Commander the Hon. Claude Brabazon, in May 1915. At the end of that year kite balloons operating with the Army were taken over by the Royal Flying Corps.

Protected by Guns and Aeroplanes

The French engineer Captain Caquot, working on the construction of kite balloons, produced a model which soon became known in France and among the Allies. It differed from the Drachen by being streamlined and having a different arrangement of fins. This made it much more stable.

One of these balloons broke adrift from a British section and, driven by an east wind, came down behind the enemy lines. The Germans quickly copied it and this model was used by both sides without important alterations up to the end of the war.

Early in 1915 there were only nine balloons on the Western Front. As they were operated by hand winches it took one hour to bring a balloon down from 3,000 feet. By the end of 1918 the number had increased to 300 on this front, the capacity of each had increased to 35,000 cubic feet and motor winches brought them down in a few minutes.

About the middle of 1916 the introduction of the incendiary bullet fired by enemy aeroplanes caused the destruction of large numbers of balloons and severe loss among observers. A doubt arose as to the further utility of the kite balloons, but by this time they had proved their value in directing artillery fire on important objects, such as assemblies of forces, artillery in the course of installation and so forth. Moreover, means had been found to protect the balloon and safeguard the personnel.

The adoption of the parachute saved many lives in this section of the Forces, and by the middle of 1918 kite balloons were so well protected by guns on the ground and often by aeroplanes in the air that it became difficult to shoot them down. This difficulty still appears to exist, even with modern aircraft.

One of the captive balloons designed for anti-aircraft aprons round London and other cities

A BALLOON BARRAGE SCHOOL has been formed by the Royal Air Force, at Cardington, Bedfordshire. The photograph shows one of the numerous captive balloons designed for anti - aircraft aprons round London and other cities.

From a brief study of aerostatics it will be realized that the kite balloon has a limited ceiling, partly because of the weight it must lift and partly because of its volume. We know that when a balloon gains altitude the exterior atmospheric pressure becomes less, while the gas with which it is inflated expands.

To prevent this disadvantage, the kite balloons were fitted inside the envelope with a small compensating ballonet, not inflated at the time of ascent. As the balloon was rising, the hydrogen would expand and open a valve through which the gas would escape into the air. On descending, when the pressure from outside was increasing and therefore contracting the gas, the air would penetrate into the small ballonet by a pipe so that it would fill the void of the envelope. Having reached the ground, the balloon was reinflated with hydrogen; during this operation the small ballonet was emptied of air.

For reasons of stability of the balloon during the descent, it is not possible to give to the small compensating ballonet a large volume, and for that reason the altitude of that type could not be great. In 1917, however, the Italians discovered the principle of the expanding balloon.

Their first trials were undertaken in a spherical balloon. All round its “equator”, the envelope was fitted with a double pleat fixed by a lacing made of rubber cords. As the balloon was ascending, the envelope could increase its volume as much as the open pleat permitted, the rubber lacing giving way to the expanded gas.

These results were extremely encouraging. By slightly altering the shape, the Italians were able to fit stabilizing fins. This balloon, known as the A.P., combined the best qualities of the spherical with the stability of the streamline balloon.

As these balloons tould be flown in winds up to 55 miles an hour, the Italians used them from 1917 onwards to defend Venice against enemy aircraft attacks. Great Britain and France immediately followed suit and proceeded to adapt their kite balloons for use against attacking aircraft.

Defence of London

For the defence of London it was proposed to have twenty balloon aprons, 7,000 to 10,000 feet high with wires 1,000 feet deep over 20,000 yards. Each apron was to have five “Caquot” balloons and the twenty aprons were to be on a line Tottenham—Ilford— Barking—W oolwich—Lewisham.

By the middle of January 1918 three aprons were in operation; each had its Caquot kite balloons 500 yards apart, with a horizontal wire from which were suspended wires 1,000 feet long and 25 yards apart. Five months later the Air Council cut down the scheme to ten aprons.

At the end of the war there were eight aprons in use from Edmonton to the Thames and two from the Thames to East Wickham, in Kent. The balloons were of three types: the Caquot, of 33,000 cubic feet; the Caquot, of 40,000 cubic feet; and the Italian balloons, of 37,000 cubic feet, which would attain 11,000 feet. Before the scheme was curtailed, the authorities were considering the construction of balloons capable of reaching 15,000-20,000 feet.

In France the position was different. The French were not satisfied with the Italian balloon and so they designed and built an oblong expanding kite balloon of their own. This was the work of Commandant Letourneur. The first model, called “Type N”, was able to reach the theoretical altitude of 8,250 feet and was therefore of undoubted efficiency, as this altitude was the given “ceiling” of the bombers then in use.

OPERATING THE WINCH which raises and lowers captive balloonsOPERATING THE WINCH which raises and lowers the captive balloons of a balloon barrage. The latest type of winches bring the balloon down quickly. In recent years the ceiling of a bomber has considerably increased- It has therefore become necessary to increase correspondingly the altitude of a kite balloon. The defensive kite balloon can now rise higher than 19,000 feet.

The success of this balloon was such that in September 1917 it was possible to create the first section of kite balloons for defence. At the end of the war there were fifteen sections of fifteen balloons, each forming a barrage. In the same period London had mustered a barrage of thirty balloons. In fifteen months 2,700 of these balloons came out of the Workshops of Chalais-Meudon. To this must be added the miles of steel cables, winches and other accessories. The system of arranging balloons in lines of five or six, with a distance of 990 feet between them, and supporting gigantic nets of steel cables, forming meshes 132 feet high, gave no results and was therefore abandoned. The stability of a kite balloon is most delicate, being strictly established for each unit in particular. The stability becomes endangered if several balloons are joined together by a system of cables, necessarily weighty and apt to submit the whole line of balloons to efforts sometimes contradictory.

Commandant Letourneur conceived the idea of placing the balloons in different positions. To increase the altitude, he decided to make two balloons rise in tandem. As the superior balloon had more expansion, the barrage now reached a theoretical height of 14,850 feet and an effective height of 13,860 feet.

This system of defence balloons was first used in August 1917, for the protection of the factories of Neuve-Maisons, nine miles south of Nancy and close to the front. The enemy aeroplanes had made ceaseless efforts to destroy these steelworks, which were particularly well equipped for the defence of the country. Scarcely had the section of defence balloons been, organized than the attacks by air stopped, and until the Armistice not a single bomb was dropped on to the factories. Paris was for the first time protected by kite balloons in March 1918. From that date up to the Armistice Paris was subjected to fifteen raids, each carried out by from sixty to seventy enemy aeroplanes. In other words, about 900 to 1,000 machines attempted to reach the city. Only one succeeded. All the others turned back without entering the zone which was known to be protected by kite balloons.

Charts of aerial attacks on Paris show that before March 1918 enemy aeroplanes crossed Paris in all directions. After that date charts show the approach of the aeroplanes and their flight long before they reached the suburbs of the city.

Terror of the Cables

It is frequently asked, and especially today, “What does the protection given by a section of kite balloons consist of?” The answer is, only in the presence of the cables. Yet few enemy aeroplanes crashed against the cable of a defence balloon — one near Dunkirk, two in London, another near Nancy.

Theoretically an aeroplane can pass through the deadly cables, but the chances of avoiding them are small. The terror becomes so great that, in spite of all his courage, scarcely any aviator can force himself into the defended zone.

In the past twenty years the ceiling of the bomber has considerably increased and so it has been necessary to increase correspondingly the altitude of the kite balloon. The problem of altitude has been solved in two ways: first, by increasing the dilatability of the envelope and, second, by trying all possible means of reducing the weight of the balloon.

The modern defensive kite balloon can rise higher than 19,000 feet and it is possible without trouble to use it in an extremely strong wind.

Today the old observation kite balloon has also advanced and now flies under its own power to any point which may be required. This means a considerable saving in time, labour and equipment.

The motor kite balloon has been adopted with success in France, America and many other countries. The French motor balloon has a cubic capacity of 35,000 feet, carries a crew of two and, with a 60 horse-power Salmson engine, has a speed of forty-five miles an hour for three hours. The envelope is dilatable and fitted with six rigid planes, two of which carry the rudder controls; the elevators are on the detachable car. This car can be removed and the observation basket attached to the same suspensions in ten minutes. The balloon is then let up on a cable from a winch and, with the airship type of planes, is far steadier than with the old inflated stabilizers.

The latest type of winches bring the balloon down quickly and a rudder can now be manipulated from the basket. Thus the balloon is made to swing about in all directions, making it harder for aeroplanes to succeed in their attack.

A FRENCH MOTOR KITE BALLOON. The basket is being detached from the envelope, for the attachment of a car with engines, so that the balloon may fly under its own power. The standard French motor kite balloon has a cubic capacity of 35,009 feet and carries a crew of two. With a 60 horse-power Salmson engine, the balloon has a speed of forty-five miles an hour for three hours.

[From Part 23 & Part 24, published 9 & 16 August 1938]

You can read more on “British Airships”, “The Flight of the Eagle” and “Romance of Ballooning” on this website.

Kite Balloons