On Aug. 22, 1849, Austria launched a pilotless balloon bomb attack against Venice. The attack caused little damaged, but Venice surrendered two days later.
The Republic of Venice had been independent for more than 1,000 years before it was conquered in 1797 by Napoleon, who ceded it to Austria later that year. In 1848, a year during which revolutions swept through Europe, Daniele Manin led a revolt against Austrian rule, declaring Venice to be a republic.
The Austrians retaliated by blockading Venice, causing starvation, disease and hunger. “Although Austrian Field Marshall von Radetsky beleaguered the city by land and sea, his siege artillery couldn’t get close enough to bear fire on the whole city because of its formidable coastal defenses and shallow Lagoons,” according to the 2005 documentary “On a Wind and a Prayer.”
A young Austrian artillery lieutenant named Franz von Uchatius hatched the idea of launching balloons carrying explosives over Venice. The first attempt, carried out on July 12, 1849, failed because the wind was not in Austria’s favor.
Time magazine provided an account from one eyewitness: “The balloons appeared to rise to about 4,500 ft. Then they exploded in midair or fell into the water, or, blown by a sudden southeast wind, sped over the city and dropped on the besiegers. Venetians, abandoning their homes, crowded into the streets and squares to enjoy the strange spectacle. … When a cloud of smoke appeared in the air to make an explosion, all clapped and shouted. Applause was greatest when the balloons blew over the Austrian forces and exploded, and in such cases the Venetians added cries of ‘Bravo!’ and ‘Good appetite!’”
In the second attempt, on Aug. 22, the balloons, measuring 5.7 meters in diameter and using “charcoal and greasy cotton as a continuous combustion source,” were released from a “stable platform at sea,” according to the documentary.
According to Monash University professor Russell Naughton, about 200 of balloons, carrying 33 pounds of explosives and armed with half-hour time fuses- they are also said to have used fuses electrically activated via signals fed up trailing copper wires, were launched into Venice that day. The balloons caused minimal damage to Venice and some even blew back towards the Austrians.
“On a Wind and a Prayer,” however, claims that the balloons did have a substantial psychological effect. Whether out of balloon-related fear or due to exhaustion and starvation, the Venetians would surrender just two days later.
Scientific American, March 1849 “The Presse, of Vienna, Austria, has the following: ‘Venice is to be bombarded by balloons, as the lagunes prevent the approaching of artillery. Five balloons, each twenty-three feet in diameter, are in construction at Treviso. In a favorable wind the balloons will be launched and directed as near to Venice as possible, and on their being brought to vertical positions over the town, they will be fired by electro magnetism by means of a long isolated copper wire with a large galvanic battery placed on the shore. The bomb falls perpendicularly, and explodes on reaching the ground.”