Balloons at war

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When asked about what aircraft were used at war, most people would not think of balloons. However, over the last century, balloons of various forms have been vital in aerial observation, defence and attack roles.

Hot air balloons were one of the earliest forms of aviation and were first used for military reconnaissance in the French Revolutionary Wars during the 18th century, as well as being deployed in numerous conflicts during the 19th century.

Australia’s first contact with military ballooning occurred during the Sudan campaign of 1885 and they were used again during the Second Anglo Boer War of 1899-1902.

The First World War was the high point for the military use of balloons which were extensively deployed by both sides as critical assets.

One man sitting on the side of a hot air balloon basket surrounded by many other soldiers

An unidentified officer entering the basket of an observation balloon prior to ascending near Ypres (AWM E01175).

Newly developed dirigibles, which were more manoeuvrable and hardy than traditional hot air balloons, were also a constant sight above the trenches of the Western Front. Although the term dirigible is often associated with large German airships such as the Zeppelin, the word comes from the French verb “œdiriger” (“to steer”) and refers to any aircraft which is steerable.

Observation balloons were typically floated to a great height behind the front lines or tethered to the ground to spot enemy troop movements and collect intelligence to benefit operations. This allowed artillery on the ground to take advantage of the balloons increased range of sight.

The presence of enemy balloons could even alter attack plans. Australia’s Official War Correspondent, Charles Bean, noted in 1918 that Brigadier General W.R. McNicoll of the Australian Imperial Force was so impressed by the danger of German balloons in sight that he delayed the march of his troops.

Balloons became a target for both sides during the war and were therefore typically heavily defended by ground based anti-aircraft emplacements and patrolling fighter aircraft.

Allied Forces, including the Australian Flying Corps used incendiary ammunition such as ‘Buckingham’ bullets to shoot down German balloons and prevent intelligence collection prior to major offensives. These bullets ignited the flammable gases within the balloons causing them to erupt into fire balls.

A balloon burns on the ground after a German aerial attack.

A balloon burns on the ground after a German aerial attack (Getty images).

Being an observer in a balloon or dirigible was risky business, not only could you be shot down by the enemy – you could also be mistakenly shot down by your own side.

First World War balloon observation crews were the first to use parachutes, long before they were adopted by fixed wing aircrew. If a balloon came under attack, its occupants only chance of survival would be to bail out with a parachute deploying upon leaving the basket. Often occupants escaped and landed unscathed but on many occasions their escape was too late or their parachute caught fire.

A German soldier jumping from his observation balloon on the Western Front in 1918.

A German soldier jumping from his observation balloon on the Western Front in 1918. German observers followed this procedure when their balloon was attacked by Allied aircraft (AWM H13483).

At sea, tethered observation balloons were also used, including by the Royal Australian Navy. Balloons were tethered to vessels such as HMAS Parramatta in order to more easily spot, pursue and sink enemy submarines.

Balloons continued to be used throughout the Second World War— quite notably in the defence of Britain during German bombings. The British used thousands of balloons, including barrage balloon, to defend important sites, including London. These balloons consisted of a large balloon filled with hydrogen, attached to a steel cable and anchored to the ground.

Balloon aprons (pictured below) were also used. Similar to the Barrage Balloon, these included three balloons 500 yards apart joined together by a heavy steel cable with a net in between. These denied the enemy access to low-level airspace because of the hazard they posed to pilots if they exploded, therefore decreasing bombing accuracy and surprise.

A balloon apron is suspended to defend London from air attacks.

A balloon apron is suspended to defend London from air attacks (Getty images).

Balloons continue to be experimented with and used in variety of military functions. At Woomera between 1956 and 1957 balloons were used to monitor the radar homing characteristics of ground to air missiles. 

Today, military observation balloons are harnessed to modern communication technologies to collect counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism intelligence by Australia’s allies in Iraq and other locations.