The Forgotten Air Service I

Parseval-Sigsfeld “Drachenballon”

The Kite Balloon    … from the book Balloons and Airships by Lennart Ege

“Almost to the end of the nineteenth century the spherical style of free balloon was the one used for military captive balloons. Their drawback was their unsteadiness in the air, for even if only a slight wind was blowing it made the task of staying in the basket to observe very difficult – and most unpleasant to the occupants, who were apt to become violently air-sick. This was remedied by two German officers, Major August von Parseval and Captain H. Bartsch von Sigsfeld, who set themselves the task of turning out an improved type of observation balloon. The outcome was the ‘Drachenballon’, or kite balloon, so called because it combines both balloon and kite principles. Theirs was not a new idea, but they improved on previous efforts. They created an oblong envelope which was partly supported by the wind when facing it at an inclined angle of 30 to 40 degrees. It was stabilised by means of a control surface, which was later replaced by a large air bag.

Beginning in 1893 they tried different combinations and various sizes of envelopes, from 600 cu.m (21,200 cu.ft) capacity to twice that size, and by 1898 von Parseval and von Sigsfeld had arrived at the type which gradually became the standard of most European armies. By now they had added a stabilising fin on the right and left sides of the envelope to prevent the captive balloon from twisting around its longitudinal axis and, like a kite, it was further provided with a long tail to which one to five parachute-like ‘umbrellas’ were attached. Combined with the stabilising bag, these devices held the balloon facing into the wind.

The August Riedinger balloon plant in Augsburg, Germany, began a regular production of this type of kite balloon, and also supplied various styles of engine-driven motor winches on which the observation balloons were raised into the air and later hauled down again to the ground. The cruisers in the navies of several countries were also equipped with kite balloons, to detect enemy submarines and protect the cruisers against their attacks. It soon became standard practice for the kite balloon to stay completely steady in the air at altitudes ranging from  1,000 to 2,000 m, even in winds of up to 65 km/hr (40 m.p.h.)

Kite balloons were used extensively in World War 1. They soon began to appear in great numbers on the western front, where the Germans employed them to direct their gunfire and report its effects. This, combined with the proclivity of the Germans for eating large quantities of sausages, explains why these kite balloon artillery observation platforms were soon nicknamed ‘sausages’ by the Allies, who in turn copied, built and used them extensively until the French came up with the improved ‘Caquot’ type balloon.  Although the kite balloons were in fixed positions, the fighter pilots flying to attack them soon had driven home to them forcefully that this meant first running the gauntlet of a well-adjusted barrage of fire from anti-aircraft guns mounted to protect them. This meant that the kite balloons must be attacked very fast from above in a determined dive on them because they could be hauled down fast. The downing of a kite balloon therefore ranked on a par with a victory in any other air battle. The balloon observer was one up on the aeroplane pilot in one respect, in that he had a parachute hanging on the outside of the basket and could jump to save his life in case of an enemy air attack. It was not until towards the end of the war that German fighter pilots were also outfitted with a parachute in their aircraft.”

Though the world quickly became fascinated with the heroic and romantic alternate view of the war it found in the stories of fighter aces, the real value of military aviation lay elsewhere. During the war’s opening movements the airplane proved its value as a reconnaissance tool, providing critical information to both sides. Once fighting settled into the trenches the tactical situation changed. Then balloonists reemerged as an essential part of the observation chain.

The balloon is the oldest military aircraft. On June 5, 1783, more than a century before the Wright brothers flew at Kitty Hawk, the Frenchmen Joseph-Michael and Jacques-Étienne Montgolfier accomplished the first successful balloon flights. The first war-related flight took place on June 26, 1794 when forces of the Army of the First French Republic under Jean-Baptiste Jourdan raised a balloon named L’Entreprenant (Enterprise) during the battle of Fleurus to observe the movements of Dutch and Austrian troops at Maubeuge, near the Belgian frontier. L’Entreprenant was operated by the Compagnie d’Aérostiers, a new French military unit formed under the command of Jean Coutelle. The Compagnie d’Aérostiers remained in service for five years until the French government dissolved it, possibly because the balloons proved insufficiently mobile to keep up with Napoleon’s units during periods of rapid advance due to the difficulties of producing hydrogen while on the move.

From that time until the American Civil War, balloons saw only limited military use, and then in small campaigns. Scientific experiments on them did continue, and balloons became popular attractions at American county fairs. In the United States balloons served both sides during the Civil War, providing general reconnaissance to the armies and spotting assistance for the artillery. Balloonists John LaMountain and Thaddeus Lowe began operations early in the conflict, LaMountain making his first reconnaissance flights in July 1861. Lowe followed shortly thereafter, ascending near Washington, DC, in the balloon Union on August 28, 1861 and again on September 24, 1861 near Arlington, Virginia. The Union’s balloon group grew to number seven balloons before the government disbanded the organization due to lack of funds, but not before the aeronauts showed the potential of aerial reconnaissance. At Fair Oaks, reports from the Union balloon proved critical to the favorable outcome of the battle. The Confederacy responded with their own small aeronautical investment, eventually constructing three balloons that operated for a period of fifteen months from April 1862 until the summer of 1863.

These pioneering efforts in the United States offered sufficient promise to revive interest in ballooning among European military circles. Lieutenant George Grover, Royal Engineers, became the first member of the British military to ascend in a tethered balloon when he began experimenting in 1862. Six years later, the French used free-floating balloons as a means of escape when Paris came under siege during the Franco-Prussian War. The British Army established its first balloon school at Woolwich in 1878, and began making technological improvements to the fledgling aeronautical science aimed at developing mobile hydrogen storage containers that enabled balloons to be quickly inflated. The accuracy of observations provided by balloonists during the army’s 1889 maneuvers caused British military commanders to begin to take the balloon seriously. General Sir Evelyn Wood proved sufficiently impressed to recommend relocation of both the balloon factory and school to Aldershot so it could work more closely with the rest of the Army.

Subsequent to the first successful powered flights, fixed-wing airplanes and motorized lighter-than-air dirigibles had begun to compete with balloons for the right to fulfill British Army and Navy aerial requirements. A white paper outlining British Army estimates for 1911–1912 reported the reorganization of the Aldershot balloon factory to handle airships and airplanes, and the transfer of the Balloon School to an air battalion. At the same time, British authorities expanded opportunities for those interested in aviation service to allow officers from branches other than the Royal Engineers to serve in the air and men with compatible skills to become enlisted members of the new Royal Flying Corps. By the time war broke out in Europe in the summer of 1914, further refinements to the British aviation program had brought about a formal division between the Air Battalion’s Army and Navy Wings, giving birth to the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service. Balloons also became a casualty to the myriad changes brought on by the fascination with heavier-than-air powered flight, captive balloons all but vanishing from British as well as French Army arsenals. Military necessity would force both nations to resurrect the balloon before the war’s first anniversary.

Prior to the First World War, the spherical shape of early balloons kept them from achieving their full potential as the eyes of the artillery. Observers bouncing around in any wind stronger than a gentle breeze often became airsick and regularly found it impossible to remain focused on enemy targets. This stability problem caused the spherical balloon to nearly vanish from military service by the outbreak of the First World War. In 1896 Maj. August von Parseval and Hptm. Rudolf Hans Bartsch von Siegsfeld successfully floated the first Drachen (Dragon) balloon, an engineering advance that quickly replaced the older spherical balloon. The Drachen differed in several respects from its predecessor, with design refinements aimed at improving the stability of the observer’s platform. The most important—as well as the most visible—differences in the Drachen lay in the elongated shape of the balloon and in the addition of a stabilizing lobe to the rear of the craft. French construction of Drachen-type balloons began in October 1914 and completed balloons began arriving at the front that December. Germany had nine of the improved kite balloons in the field on the Western Front in February 1915 and by the end of the year the number of German balloon sections had increased to forty, each with two balloons.

Because the Parseval-Siegsfeld Drachen balloon had an extremely low ceiling—around 1,500 feet in an average wind—it offered limited usefulness as a reconnaissance and artillery-observation platform. German designers dealt with the low ceiling issue by making the balloon bigger, increasing its volume first to 800 cubic meters and later still to 1,000. Floating it higher in the sky did not entirely cure the Drachen’s problems. Contrary to its designer’s initial hopes, the addition of the lobe did not completely solve the stability issue and too many observers still became airsick as their craft pitched and yawed violently in moderate-to-high winds. This led to further fundamental improvement in observation balloon design, but the French engineer Albert Caquot beat the Germans to the next advance. Caquot tackled the pitch and yaw problem by adding two fins to the side of the envelope to supplement the lobe on the balloon’s underbelly, giving the tail section an appearance similar to the feathers on an arrow. These additional surfaces allowed the Caquot to ride the wind in a much calmer fashion than earlier balloons, contributing to greater crew comfort, improved morale, longer stays aloft, and better quality photographs than those taken from Drachen and the more primitive spherical types.

This ability proved itself in an account of a “free balloon” flight taken by Capt. F. H. Cleaver, commanding officer of the RFC’s No. 1 Kite Balloon Section on October 27, 1915:

The speed and direction of the wind was tested and found to be 15 m.p.h. by the air meter. The balloon was then let up and marched for 300 yards to the winch; it was easily controlled by the balloon party. The winch was shackled on and I and Lieut. Beaufort ascended; the wind appeared to be increasing, the speed was again taken from the balloon and found to be 30 m.p.h. The guy of the right sail carried away, which caused the balloon to oscillate considerably, thus increasing the strain on the cable and rigging. On this an order was immediately given to haul down. The winch, whose power is only 6 horse failed; the wind was rapidly increasing in strength and on again being tested the speed was found to be 40 m.p.h. Fortunately for the occupants of the balloon the cable then parted, had it not done so the rigging most certainly would have gone. The valve rope was immediately pulled and as soon as the end of the cable or any part of it touched the ground, the balloon in spite of the loss of gas naturally was lightened owing to being relieved of the weight of a portion of the cable, and ceased to descend and at times rose; this coupled with the heat of the sun causing the gas to expand and the balloon to become still lighter, was responsible for what might appear to be a long flight, which owing to the speed of the wind was carried out at 40 m.p.h. A perfect landing was effected in 45 minutes without any damage to the balloon, occupants and instruments.

These qualities quickly proved the Caquot to be the best balloon design on the Western Front and all the combatant nations eventually adopted it. General Ernst von Hoeppner, commander of the German Luftstreitkräfte freely admitted that German balloons put in service after 1916 were patterned after a captured British example. Caquots and their German copies eventually served on all fronts and with naval forces operating in the Atlantic and Mediterranean.

Balloon crews on both sides of the lines shared more than the stability problem. Suspended by ropes in a basket underneath the bag and tethered anywhere from a few hundred to around seven thousand feet above their station, balloons were connected to a horse-drawn or a motorized winch that allowed the craft to be raised or lowered quickly. Lowering the balloon in a hurry proved essential in response to an attack by hostile aircraft. Generally balloon sections were stationed a few miles behind the front line near one or more of the artillery units with which they worked. When the balloon company needed to relocate in response to changing battle conditions, if time allowed, the bag could be deflated and moved by truck, but if the situation did not allow that, the crew could “walk” the inflated balloon to its new base. Walking the balloon was difficult at best, involving dodging trees and temporarily moving telephone wires. In the war’s final months relocation became a regular feature of the lighter-than-air units’ daily activities. Between August 8, 1918, when No. 6 Balloon Section, RAF, arrived at Boves Wood for the last Somme battle, the section “moved forward almost daily keeping about 5000 yards behind the Infantry” until the unit made its final move to Avesnes the day before the armistice.

While balloon mobility had certainly improved by the First World War, artillery battery commanders believed the telephone in the basket constituted the most important enhancement. Telephone lines ran directly through the cable connecting the balloon to the winch. Balloonists, like observers in airplanes, were initially limited to dropping message bags or sending light or sound signals to communicate with the artillery. German balloon observers also experimented with wireless transmission both from the basket and from stations erected adjacent to the winch. The successful use of kite balloons equipped with telephones by the Royal Naval Air Service in its 1915 campaign in the Dardanelles demonstrated the advantages of a direct link between the artillery and the aerial observer. Army commanders learned that the balloon observer’s ability to talk directly to the battery commander made him at least the equal of ground-based forward observers. His ability to more clearly communicate also marked his chief claim to superiority over his counterpart in an airplane, who frequently found his work hampered by the lack of a reliable direct link to the batteries. Telephone-equipped British balloons were reported on the Western Front for the first time on January 9, 1916 when No. 2 Kite Balloon Section, RFC, registered fifteen targets and maintained “constant communication … with the 2nd Army heavy artillery group.”

The advantages of voice communication being obvious, commanders on both sides sought to develop the same capacity for their airplanes by equipping them with radios. Weight restrictions dictated transmitters only for artillery aircraft. Wireless sets also required a trailing antenna rolled up on a spool that had to be reeled out behind the aircraft before transmission could begin. Several feet of trailing wire did nothing to enhance the already minimal performance of most early two-seat observation aircraft and presented a definite hazard if the airplane came under enemy attack prior to the antenna being retracted or if the crew neglected to reel it in prior to landing. German observer Hanns-Gerd Rabe recalls feeling “a jolt to the aircraft, as if it had grazed an obstacle,” just before his LVG C.VI touched down following his last wartime mission, a consequence of having forgotten to take in his antenna. Two-way communication would have to wait for the next war. Airplane observers could send corrections to batteries, but the receipt of follow-up requests or other instructions required flying back to the battery to look for signal panels on the ground, a process that took them away from the target. With fuel supplies dictating two- to four-hour missions, the constant flight back and forth to the target area limited the aircraft’s usefulness. Balloonists, on the other hand, could remain focused on their targets for hours at a time, spending all day in the service of a particular battery or working with two or more artillery crews throughout their long shift. Captain Alastair Geddes, commanding officer of No. 13 Balloon Section, RFC, won the Military Cross for what must have been an exhausting fourteen-hour stint in his balloon observing for the artillery over Fricourt Wood during an attack on Thiepval.

Whether from prescience or strictly by accident, German forces went to war ahead of the British and French in their lighter-than-air observation capability. When the German Army took to the field in the summer of 1914 it did so equipped with balloons. From the German perspective, maintaining balloons prior to the war might have been a simple outgrowth of the nation’s pride in its position as the world leader in airship development. Since Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin launched his first rigid airship at the turn of the century, Germany had competed with France for the lead in lighter-than-air technology. Keeping pace with both heavier- and lighter-than-air developments made sense given the infant status of military aviation. No contemporary army or navy commander in 1914 could have done more than guess whether the airplane, airship, or balloon would emerge as the most important form of aerial weaponry. Of course the airplane would eventually triumph, though even in the early twenty-first century at least one nation’s military has retained the balloon as part of its forces. But a sense of the balloon’s status as transitional technology in most countries’ military arsenals, a link between a romantic age of lancer units engaged in cavalry charges and the hard reality of modern warfare, can be found in the equipment list of Germany’s 1914 balloon companies: German balloons were pulled to their stations behind the battlefield in horse-drawn wagons.

Through the war’s opening weeks, as German troops quickly maneuvered for position in compliance with the Schlieffen Plan, their balloons kept pace with the advance, but did not see much action. The opposing forces moved in a series of thrusts and parries throughout France and Belgium, fighting their way to the North Sea by October 1914. Out of room, they began to dig the first of a complex network of trenches in which they would remain largely stalemated until March 1918. In an effort to break through their opponents’ defensive network of trenches, machine-gun emplacements, and barbed wire both sides made heavy use of artillery. Observation from the air became critically important.

Once part of the action, balloon crews constituted the second tier of a three-tiered artillery-observation process. They offered a more elevated oblique view than that enjoyed by battery spotters stationed on high ground but not as close or vertical as the view from an airplane. Throughout the war, German forces occupied most of the high ground along the Western Front. Consequently, German artillerists frequently had the benefit of ground-based observers, more so than their Allied counterparts. But when visual observation by both sides’ ground spotters proved inadequate because of insufficient range or exposure to enemy fire, commanders in search of intelligence turned to the balloon.

When the war on the Western Front settled into the trenches, indirect artillery fire began to dominate the battlefield and artillery commanders needed a view of the target to verify the distance at which the long-range fire became effective.34 Distant barrages softened up the enemy prior to infantry attacks, broke the barbed wire in front of enemy trenches so that friendly forces could advance, and kept opposing troops pinned down during assaults and in bunkers during quiet periods. The prospect of a protracted artillery duel quickly made apparent the advantage of possessing balloons. French commanders reinstated their balloons almost immediately, fielding a dozen companies by the end of 1914, each with three balloons. German forces put twenty-three balloon sections in the field upon mobilization. The commander of the British Expeditionary Force, Sir John French, requested the addition of kite balloons to observe for the artillery in March 1915. Because the Army had abandoned its balloons, the Royal Navy, which that same month had begun balloon training with equipment received from the French, offered to loan a kite balloon section that arrived at Boulogne under the command of Major Brabazon on May 8, 1915 and went into action with the V Corps near Poperinghe on the 25th. Naval balloons continued to make up a significant part of the Army’s balloon support until March of the following year. Over the next three and a half years, balloon units formed an integral part of the artillery registration systems on both sides of the Western Front.40 The Royal Flying Corps’ 2nd Balloon Wing report of a record 286 targets ranged during one week in 1917 illustrates the strength of the bond that came to exist between the artillery and its aerial partners in the second half of the war. Their effectiveness sometimes made balloons unpopular with neighboring units due to their tendency to attract artillery fire. Troops very much liked to dish it out, but taking it proved to be another matter entirely.

The German approach to organizing its Balloonzüge (balloon sections) illustrates the strength of the partnership achieved between observation balloonists and ground units. As part of the reorganization of Germany’s aviation program in the last months of 1916, balloons became the joint responsibility of the Kommandierende General der Luftstreitkräfte (commanding general of the Air Force, abbreviated Kogenluft) and the Inspektion der Luftschiffertruppen (inspector of Airship Troops, abbreviated Iluft). Below this overall command structure, a Staboffizier der Luftschiffertruppen (staff officer of Airship Troops, abbreviated Stoluft) provided balloon staff support at each German Army headquarters. Within each army, balloon detachments at the division level managed three to five individual Balloonzüge, each with an active and a reserve balloon working with artillery units assigned to the corps.

Despite their key role in the evolving war, historians have paid little attention to the work of balloonists. Segregating lighter-than-air operations from those that took place using heavier-than-air equipment, several sources have noted the different characteristics, capabilities, and uses of balloons and airships. Technical books especially have narrowly focused their profiles of wartime aircraft, frequently detailing the design, development, and operational career of a single type. Apart from being unsuited to fighter operations, lighter-than-air craft performed much the same reconnaissance and observation activities as their heavier-than-air counterparts, simply operating under different conditions and frequently in different venues. Within these broad categories, balloonists performed a variety of valuable tasks. In addition to ranging the artillery, army balloons provided photographic reconnaissance, mapped enemy and friendly positions, and relayed signals from the front lines, while naval balloons located mines and submarines, and performed general scouting duties; in one incident a British balloon observer relayed a request for rifle grenades from a group of British troops engaged with a German bombing party. Balloon observers regularly proved their worth to ground commanders during important operations and by spotting significant targets of opportunity. Suspending a balloon proximate to the front lines offered advantages that airplanes could not always match.

By focusing on heavier-than-air operations (and even more narrowly on fighter operations or bombing campaigns), historians have minimized the importance of reconnaissance and observation by failing to capture the valuable contributions made by those manning lighter-than-air craft. When lighter-than-air units are included in assessments of aviation strength the proportion of aviation devoted to observation and reconnaissance becomes demonstrably weightier and the contribution aviation made to the overall war effort expands as well. The status of the US Air Service at the time of the armistice, for example, is commonly reported as forty-five squadrons on the Western Front, with twenty pursuit squadrons, seven day- and night-bomber units, and eighteen corps- and army-observation squadrons (including the single night observation unit). Considering these airplane squadrons alone makes the USAS appear slightly top-heavy in fighter units. Add in the seventeen balloon companies serving on the Western Front on November 11, 1918—units devoted solely to observation—and that perspective changes dramatically in favor of observation. Include the twenty-seven US Navy air stations sprinkled around the French and British coastlines, nineteen of which were engaged primarily in the search for U-boats, and the conclusion that commanders counted on their airmen for aerial intelligence more than anything else becomes inescapable. The same point applies to the French Aviation Militaire, which boasted seventy-six compagnies de aérostiers serving alongside its 364 airplane escadrilles by the armistice in 1918. The British Expeditionary Force included forty-nine balloon sections in its order of battle at the end of the war, along with ninety-nine airplane squadrons. The Royal Air Force organized these sections into balloon companies, each company controlling two or three sections. Three or four companies made up a balloon wing. One hundred eighty-four German Balloonzüge (more than double Germany’s ninety fighter squadrons) opposed these Allied units in support of their own artillery. Omitting balloons from the count of aerial units or isolating those units into a separate category makes it easy to dismiss their contribution to the air war.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.