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British Kite Balloons - An Introduction

The British military began experimenting with balloons at Woolwich Arsenal in 1878 when they formed a balloon section. This section participated in the manoeuvres held at Aldershot in 1880 and 1882. Following the success of the deployment a Balloon Equipment Store was established by the Royal Engineers at Woolwich with the roll of training in ballooning and to act as a Depot. It was subsequently transferred to Chatham in 1883 and was also renamed the Balloon School and Factory. A balloon factory was established at Farnborough in 1905 and in April 1911, the Air Battalion of the Royal Engineers was formed. No.1 Company was established at Farnborough and it was equipped with airships and commanded by Captain Edward Maitland. No.2 Company then followed and this was commanded by Captain John Fulton and was based at Larkhill on Salisbury Plain and this was equipped with the first fixed wing aircraft. In January 1914 it was agreed that airships had primarily maritime role and they, along with the balloon units, were transferred to the Royal Navy.

WW1 - The Ypres Salient Battlefields, Belgium
IWM Q 11900 A Caquot kite balloon leaving the ground. Note a motor winch and infantrymen hauling on ropes. Near Metz, 25 January 1918

In 1915 the army wanted balloons for observation purposes and they had to borrow balloons from the French or from the Royal Navy. As result the RFC formed Kite Balloon Sections and these were grouped into balloon squadrons. It is worth pointing out that up to this point all balloons used wither by the Royal Navy or the Army to train airship pilots or for observation had simple spherical envelopes. The kite balloon was different in that it was elongated, had stabilising fins, and had a more complicated rigging. The British kite balloons were initially a copy of the Germans Drachen however, by 1916 these had been replaced by the French designed Caquot Type M. They looked like the barrage balloons used in the Second World War.

It was not until 8 May 1915 that the first operational RNAS unit, No.2 Kite Balloon Section, arrived in France. In July it was proposed by Major-General Sir David Henderson, Director of Military Aeronautics that all military ballooning should be transferred to the War Office. This process was begun in August and further recruitment from within and a Royal Warrant of early November recognised the addition of ‘a Kite Balloon Section to our Royal Flying Corps (Military Wing)’ and this was effective from mid-October 1915. The RFC continued to be dependent on the RNAS for the supply of balloons, gas making plant, winches, and other technical equipment for many months.

Organisation of the Kite Balloon Sections

From the beginning the Kite Balloon sections were grouped into Kite Balloon Squadrons with a balloon wing incorporated into each RFC Brigade and comprised an HQ with a varying number of companies, two sections provided one balloon, with one company for each Corps in the army. A balloon wing was commanded by a Lieutenant colonel and a company by a Major or a Captain. A balloon section comprised six officers and 106 Other Ranks. From 1916 one officer was from the Royal Artillery and from 1918 it was two officers. A company HQ had three officers and twenty-one Other Ranks. A balloon wing had four companies and forty-seven officers and 814 Other Ranks. Balloon pilots and Equipment Officers were trained at Roehampton or Richmond Park the two training schools which provided tactical training in artillery observation and the technical instructions of NCOs and Other Ranks. These two schools were augmented by training observers in France.

WW1 - The Ypres Salient Battlefields, Belgium
IWM Q 12025 Two artillery officers acting as observers in RAF kite balloons, fixing on their parachute harnesses.

Balloon Officers

The grade of Balloon Officer was introduced in October 1915. The balloonists were specialists they were not pilots but they were aviators. Pilot wings as a form of recognition was considered but this was rejected, the RNAS recognised its balloonists as pilots, and the use of an observers winged-O was rejected by Brigadier-General Trenchard as cheapening it. The War Office overrules Trenchard and in February 1916 the winged-O was authorised and men qualified as pilots of free balloons and who were certified as being observers from their training at Roehampton could wear it. Trenchard, who had the authority to certify locally trained aeroplane observers in France and Flanders claimed the right to certify balloon observers trained there. He was overruled once again as these trained observers were not qualified to fly free balloons. This arguing went on until February 1917 when Trenchard argued that free ballooning was of little use and pointed out the pay differential between officers who were qualified and those who were not qualified. He also pointed out that he could not afford to send men back to Roehampton from France to be trained and certified. He won the day and all certified Balloonatics were graded Balloon Officers by the time of the Armistice there were over a thousand of them.

WW1 - The Ypres Salient Battlefields, Belgium
An observation balloon ready to ascend over Ypres, France, 31 Oct 1917. (Australian War Memorial Photo, E01254)

Role of the Observer

Originally balloon observers had filled a similar role to that of the aircraft observer to gather intelligence by surveying the enemy and to direct artillery fire. However, as the wear progressed their roles diverged as their operating environments significantly changed ad their different perspectives of the battlefield also changed which meant they had very little in common. One of these differences was that a Balloon was a fixed position offering a very restrictive field of view, around six miles, compared to the aircraft observer. On the plus side of the Balloon observer was that being in a fixed position meant that he had an in-depth knowledge of the battlefield he was surveying. Another difference was that the balloonist worked exclusively with the artillery and communicated with them via telephone landlines and they became expert in projectiles, times of flight, and they understood ballistics.

WW1 - The Ypres Salient Battlefields, Belgium
Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 3405554 Kite Balloon

The Balloon Observer in Action

The Kite Balloon and the observer stayed aloft for ten hours at a time at a height of 3,000 feet with the observer suspended in a wickerwork basket beneath 28,000 cubic feet of highly inflammable hydrogen and was swung around wildly in windy conditions. The balloons and their observer were also vulnerable to marauding German fighters and were also at risk from their own anti-aircraft guns that were supposed to protect them. Balloon observers were unique among the RFC observers in that they were equipped with a parachute. In ‘Memoirs of an Old Balloonatic’ Goderic Hodges, who was a balloon observer in the Ypres Salient, recounted the procedure when a balloon breaks free: ‘If a balloon should break away, losing the great weight of the steel cable which is rigged below the bow of the balloon, the nose turns upwards, the balloon stands on end, the basket with its independent rigging bashes against the rudder, and it becomes impossible to use a parachute attached to the back of the basket. For this reason, if there are two observers in the basket, they are given three parachutes, two in front, one astern. The fellow at the back hitches himself onto the stern parachute. If the balloon breaks free, he can quickly unhitch himself and transfer himself into the spare front parachute.’ He also recounted the procedure to follow when a balloon was struck by an incendiary bullet: ‘Between the moment at which the balloon was struck and the moment at which it fell, there was just time for two people to leave the basket and break their parachutes free. There must be no hesitation. There was tale that farther south someone had taken up a Brigade-Major. Almost at once, before the poor major – who had never been off the ground before – had had time to settle down and look around, they were attacked and set on fire. The balloon man said ‘Jump!’ but the poor major just could not face it. He hesitated. The balloon officer knocked him out and threw him overboard.’ In his book ‘Balloonatics’, Alan Morris noted that 106 parachute incidents were made between June 1916 and June 1917 within 2nd (Balloon) Wing alone, 2nd Lieutenant S Jolly making five (of an eventual total of seven) jumps in the course of 97 hours of airborne time in May-June 1917.

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