Military balloons 1850 - 1900
the nineteenth century, the military used balloons for three purposes. One
was for aerial bombing of military targets. The second was for aerial
reconnaissance by captive balloons. The third was for communications and
to transport personnel, mail, and equipment.
first aerial bombing was attempted in 1849 when the Austrians launched 200
pilotless, bomb-carrying hot-air balloons against forces defending Venice.
Each bomb was released by a time fuse. However, the wind sent the balloons
back over the Austrian troops. This idea was abandoned until the Japanese
revived it in World War II.
France and Austria, there was a brief attempt to use air-filled balloons (Montgolfiéres)
during the Italian campaign of 1859, but the results were unsuccessful
because the balloons would not stay aloft long enough.
Improved versions of balloons were used for bombing in various colonial
military campaigns, such as in the French capture of Dien Bien Phu near
the Vietnam-Laos border in 1884. In the early twentieth century, the
Japanese used balloons against Russian forces in Manchuria in 1904-1905,
as did the Italians in Tripoli in 1911-1912. This use of balloons for
bombing by the Japanese and Italians violated the 1899 Hague Peace
Conference that banned the "discharge of any ...explosive from balloons."
wartime use of balloons for bombing continued into modern times. Zeppelins
were effectively used during World War I. During World War II, the
Japanese turned the balloon into the first intercontinental strategic
weapons delivery system when they sent about 9,000 hydrogen-filled
balloons to the West Coast of the United States.
second use of balloons by the military was for aerial reconnaissance,
which began during the Napoleonic Wars. The U.S. military first used
balloons during the American Civil War.
Night departure of a balloon during the Siege of
Possibly the most dramatic use of balloons in the war in Europe took place
in September 1870 during the siege of Paris in the Franco-Prussian War.
When Paris became completely surrounded by the Prussians, French aeronauts
suggested to the head of the Post Office that balloons should be used to
communicate with the outside world and with the provisional government at
Tours. The Post Office accepted the suggestion, and on September 23, the
professional aeronaut Jules Durouf departed from the Place St. Pierre in
Montmartre in Le Neptune with 227 pounds (103 kilograms) of mail.
He landed his balloon safely three hours and fifteen minutes later behind
enemy lines at the Chateau de Craconville. On his way, Durouf dropped
visiting cards on the enemy position as he flew above the reach of enemy
During the Siege of Paris in the Franco-Prussian
War, 1870-1871, balloons were manufactured within railroad stations in
Paris. The balloons were used to get mail and passengers out of Paris
to the direction of the winds and the fact that balloons could not really
be steered, the stream of balloons went in only one direction—out of
Paris. So, a later balloon, La Ville de Florence, transported
carrier pigeons as well as mail. The pigeons were used by the French to
carry messages back into Paris.
Since the balloons did not make their way back to Paris, the French needed
more and more balloons and began a flurry of balloon building. These new
balloons were built with cheap materials and were often piloted by
inexperienced aeronauts. Originating from the temporarily empty railroad
stations and yards, they ferried people, as well as mail and pigeons out
of Paris. Some were barely able to reach a safe landing away from enemy
lines. On October 7, 1870, the minister of the new French government, Léon
Gambetta, made a dramatic escape from Paris by balloon, and with his chief
assistant, Charles Louis de Saulces de Freycinet, established a
provisional capital in the city of Tours.
Because the Prussians were reputed to have a special anti-aircraft gun,
the French authorities ruled that, starting in mid-November 1870, balloons
must leave Paris only by night. This added new hazards for the
inexperienced aeronauts. Balloons could not be controlled, and they landed
at unexpected locations, sometimes with fatal results when they landed in
enemy territory. On one flight, two aeronauts became lost and drifted 800
miles (1,287 kilometres) to Norway. Two other balloons were lost without a
Altogether, a total of 66 balloons left Paris during the siege, and 58
landed safely. They carried some 102 people, more than 500 pigeons, and
five dogs, which were supposed to return to Paris carrying microfilm but
who never reappeared. The balloons also delivered more than two million
pieces of mail as far away as Tours, 125 miles (201 kilometres) to the
southwest of Paris.
war contributions of the aeronauts led to the formation, in 1874, of a
"Commission des Communications Aeriennnes." On its recommendation, a
military aeronautical establishment was set up in 1877 under the direction
of Charles and Paul Renard. This organization has continued to exist into
Other countries followed France's example. Germany organized a Balloon
Corps in 1884, and Austria followed in 1893. Russia soon opened a school
for aeronautical training near St. Petersburg.
Great Britain, two officers, Captain F. Beaumont, who had served with
Thaddeus Lowe's Balloon Corps in the American Civil War, and Captain G.E.
Grover tried unsuccessfully to persuade the British military to recognize
the military value of balloons. But the first British military balloon was
not used until Captain J.L.B. Templer, an amateur aeronaut, brought his
own balloon, the Crusader, to Woolwich Arsenal in 1879 along with
another balloon, the Pioneer. The British began military balloon
training in 1880. Members of the balloon corps were trained in free flight
as well as in observations from a tethered balloon in case the tethered
balloon broke away from its cables. Templer almost died in one of these
free flights when the weather deteriorated, and a Member of Parliament who
was on the flight did die.
During this time, Templer and his associates realized that a new way of
storing the hydrogen gas that filled the balloons was needed because
generating the gas near the battlefield was too cumbersome and slow.
Compressed cylinders for the gas were suggested, and when the problem of a
gas-tight valve was solved, the cylinders came into use both in Britain
and in other countries. Storage pressures increased rapidly and, by 1890,
the French claimed they could inflate a small balloon in 15 minutes.
Templer also recognized the need for a lighter and more impervious balloon
fabric. He found a London family who had been using goldbeaters' skins
(the outer layer of the intestines of an ox used by goldsmiths) for toy
balloons and hired them to provide fabric to the British government. By
the end of 1883, they had produced their first balloon that could lift one
observer to a useful height. The balloon, the 10,000-cubic-foot
(283-cubic-meter) Heron, served in South Africa.
During the Boer War in South Africa, 1899-1902, a
balloon is used to watch for the Boers
advances in balloon technology impressed the British military, which moved
the Balloon Section to larger quarters and included it in British Army
establishments. They increased the number of balloon sections, and four
balloon sections participated in the South African War at the end of the