Hanging in our Museum is this six by three foot poster advertising the Almonte, Ontario, August 29, 1879, Balloon Ascension that features Nellie Thurston. Her story is told, along with Mme. Godard’s, in Elizabeth Gillan Muir’s book “Canadian Women in the Sky”.
Having seen the poster many times, I wondered about the place of balloons and airships in military history… this is a brief sharing of some of my discoveries…
BALLOONS ~ The first balloon flight took place in 1783. The Montgolfier brothers sent up a small smoke-filled balloon about mid-November of that year.
Just over ten years later, Jean Marie Coutelle used a balloon built for the French Army and made two 4-hour observation ascents. Coutelle and General Moriot, who acted as an observer, participated aboard L’Entreprenant. The military purpose of the ascents appears to have been to damage the enemy’s morale. It became the first serial reconnaissance vehicle on record.
In December of 1861, Thaddeus S.C. Lowe’s captive balloon Intrepid made aerial observations above Maryland, USA. The observer in the car is Colonel W.F. Small of the Federal Armies, sketching the enemy positions.
The British Army Balloon Section was formed in the Royal Engineers in 1890. It participated in the Boer War among other campaigns. The illustration shows the First Balloon Group in the field near Kroonstad in the Orange Free State.
The Parseval-Sigfeld kite-type observation balloon of the German Army was introduced in 1898. They were used in large numbers during WWI.
The French Caquot captive balloon appeared during WWI as an improvement on the German kite balloon style and was used extensively by the Allies. The observer was equipped with a parachute and jumped when his balloon was attacked by enemy aircraft.
The Caquot was also used as barrage balloons in both World Wars. The balloons shown here date from 1918. Note the barrage net comprised of long, light, vertical cables suspended underneath.
This is the Japanese ‘ Fu-Go ‘ weapon of WWII. During the last months of the war, thousands of these balloon bombs were released in Japan when the wind was favourable. The illustration at the right shows the control equipment and the mounting of its fire-bombs, percussion shells, and ballast bags. To learn more about this balloon, read Gary Brammer’s “From the Main Gallery ~ the Japanese Paper Balloon Bombs“.
AIRSHIPS ~ Airships are powered, steerable aircraft that are inflated with a gas that’s lighter than air. Often referred to as dirigibles, they can be classified as ‘rigid’ (like the Hindenburg), ‘semi-rigid’ (like the Zeppelin NT), and ‘blimps’ (like the Goodyear Blimp).
‘Blimps’ rely on internal pressure to maintain the shape of the airship. This is unlike the ‘semi-rigid’ airships that maintain the envelope shape by internal pressure, but have some form of supporting structure, such as a fixed keel, attached to it. ‘Rigid’ airships have an outer structural framework which maintains the shape and carries all structural loads; the lifting gas is contained in one or more internal gas bags or cells.
Airships were the first aircraft capable of controlled powered flight and were used most commonly prior to the 1940s; their decreased use over time was a result of aeroplanes that had capabilities that surpassed the airship.
The Italian forces were the first to use dirigibles for a military purpose during the Italo-Turkish War; the first bombing mission was flown on March 10th, 1912. It was WWI, though, that the airship had its real debut as a weapon. The Germans, French, and Italians used airships for scouting and tactical bombing roles early in the war, but found that the airship was too vulnerable for operations over the front.
Many in the German military thought they’d found the perfect weapon to counteract British naval superiority as well as to strike at Britain itself. More realistic advocates believed the zeppelin’s value was as a long range scout/attack craft for naval operations. Raids on England began in January of 1915 and peaked in the following year; because of losses to the British defences, only a few raids took place in 1917 – 1918. Zeppelins were terrifying but inaccurate. Navigation, target selection and bomb-aiming were difficult under the best circumstances and the cloud cover often encountered reduced accuracy even more. The physical damage done by airships over the course of the war was considered to be insignificant.
By the mid-1930s, only Germany still pursued airship development. The Zeppelin company continued to operate the Graf Zeppelin. Work started to build an airship designed especially to operate a passenger service across the Atlantic. The Hindenburg (LZ 129) completed a successful 1936 season that carried its passengers from New Jersey to Germany. However, 1937 began with the widely spectacular and remembered airship accident. Approaching the mooring mast just minutes before landing on May 6th, 1937, the Hindenburg burst into flames and crashed. The disaster dramatically reduced public confidence in airships, and brought an end to what some called their ‘golden age’.
During WWII, the US created an airship training base in California. From 1942 – 1944, approximately 1400 airship pilots and 3000 support crew members were trained in the military airship crew training programme and the military personnel grew from 430 to 12,400. The Goodyear factory in Ohio produced the airships and from 1942 – 1945, 154 airships were built for the US Navy.
The primary airship tasks included patrol and convoy escort near the American coastline. They served as an organization centre for the convoys to direct ship movements, and were used in search and rescue operations.
In 1944 – 1945, the US Navy moved an entire squadron of 8 Goodyear K class blimps with flight and maintenance crews to the Naval Air Station in French Morocco. Their mission was to locate and destroy German U-boats in the relatively shallow waters around the Strait of Gibraltor.
Our Library has a number of volumes related to this topic. We hope you’ll come in and have a good browse!
credit for the illustrations: Otto Frello