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The Great War (1914-1918) Forum

Attacking Kite Balloons


researchingreg
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German Kite Balloons (Drachen) were targets of great importance to the British HQ, especially before any sort of infantry action, so squadrons were frequently ordered to target balloons. This was especially risky as they were well guarded with AA guns, long-range machine guns and a fighter CAP. Getting to the balloon was easy, shooting it up was difficult and getting away was very difficult. It required good nerves, quick reactions, and an all round good pilot to fight off the CAP, avoid the AA and mg fire, hit the balloon before it is pulled down and then get away again. It was a rule of thumb with British pilots to never go after balloons below 1,000 feet, the AA and mg fire was too dangerous.


These Balloons were filled with hydrogen so they should have burned easily.



There was a plan for pilots to avoid getting close to the balloons to fire tracer bullets into them, by using a different method of attack. In 1916, the idea was to bomb them with phosphorus bombs set to explode above the balloons and rain flaming phosphorus down on them. A single aeroplane could be loaded with 4 x 40lb phosphorus bombs set to explode at different heights to attack a balloon that could be at any height between ground level and 4,000ft, Ideally the bomb should explode about 700ft above the balloon and have a spread of around 250yds.



Does anyone know if there was ever such an attack and if so, did it succeed?



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You have matters in the wrong order. Bombing of balloons came first and gun attacks more prevalent later. The problem initially was that an ordinary small arms round makes a small hole in a balloon, as this is normaly at the same ambient pressure as the surrounding air the loss of gas compared to the volume of the envelope is very slow so unless you can riddle the balloon a few holes can wait until the baloon is pulled down later and the holes patched. The first bomb attacks were made in 1915 and were relatively successful provided that the aircraft could get over the top of the balloon. This was much easier with the Drachen type balloon used extensively by both sides until the end of 1916 as they had limited capacity and therefore altitude. With the introduction in 1916 of the French Caquot balloon which was copied by the Germans (the one you show is a German copy of a Caquot) this became more difficult. Alternatives to bombs were tried with varying success and rockets were used against some balloons but greatest success was found with the use of explosive and incendiary rounds. Aircrew had originally been reluctant to use these for fear they could be charged with breaking various conventions against the use of explosive bullets but it was pointed out that it was OK so long as they were fired against the balloon envelope and not the observers (it was all right to burn them alive though). I've already covered a lot of this in an earlier series of posts.

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The air ministry pamphlet no 11 published in 1918 not 1916 says that these bombs may be used against kite balloons and should be easier than other bombs to obtain a hit. They were primarily to be used against ground targets where the oprtimum effect was obtained by a fuse setting intended to burst the bomb 700 feet above the target. This also applies for use against balloons. All the accounts I have seen of balloons being bombed have smaller bombs that explode on or just after contact being used (such as those used by Warneford to bring down an airship in 1915).

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Attached is some information for the use of 40lb phosphorus bombs to attack Kite Balloons dated October 1916. (They are not very good copies but they can be read).

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I really cannot read very much of the first page but I note that it does say "suggested procedure". The second page relates to an attack on the ground not in the air. This makes sense as normally attacks on kite balloons were abandoned once the balloon had been winched down to within 500 feet of the ground as the strength of covering AA machine gun and 37mm automatic cannon fire was too great (there is an example discussed in the posts on the forum of a low level balloon attack that resulted in every aircraft in the squadron being written off) so bombing from a safe height would be more sensible. However I still await any evidence that attacks on balloons were carried out from 1916 onwards with bombs and not bullets.

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I think people get a bit too attached to the fact that these balloons were filled with hydrogen. The gas is inflammable, of course, but won't burn unless there is oxygen available and not simply that there is oxygen present but present in the right proportion. Making a bullet-hole in a kite balloon, as Centurion wrote, won't produce a strong jet of gas and, even if it did, there would have to be a source of ignition close by the envelope, outside the hole, so that the air/hydrogen mix could catch. To my mind, the objective of an attack is as much to get the balloon down from its observation altitude and to make the observers nervous so they're more likely to don their parachutes as soon as a plane appears. Disrupting observation is the ultimate aim. I'd argue that setting one on fire is something of a bonus.

Keith

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n fact SOP for both sides from about 1917 on would be for the observers to be wearing their parachute harness, attached tp the chutes on the side of the basket by a long rope. Once the ground controller said jump they dived over the side wasting no time and the conroller would tell them to jump even before they started winching down the balloon. Apart from any humanitarian issue it cost more time to train a balloon observer than it did an aircraft one and replacing them was not easy. Once a balloon crew had jumped they would normally not ascend again the same day so if you wanted to continue observations a replacement crew would have to be supplied to go up once the balloon had been winched down and the aircraft threat had gone away. Once the new crew had ascended they had to orientate themselves with the map before they could start observing.. All of this meant that an aircraft threat could blind a spot on the line for some hours - plenty of time to move a new gun into position, get a raiding party into position, resupply and/or relieve part of the line etc.

There are statistics from both sides (which I believe I've already posted) that show the most common cause of balloon loss to be aircraft attack by gun, not far behind is simple wear and tear. Many losses from aircraft attack were not a case of a flaming balloon but one found to be sufficiently bady damaged after winch down as to make repair unviable. As Keith has said simply shooting a hole in a balloon did not guarantee a flamer. Normally a mixture of bullets was needed - some to chew up the envelope enough to get a good mix of air and gas and some to ignite that mixture. However there were problems in mixing the load on Vickers and Spandau machine guns. I believe that the solution was to have one gun loaded with ball and one with incendiary or explosive.

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I think rockets were also used (Le Prieur ?)

Carl

Yes (I've already mentioned this in post 2) and yes they were Le Prieur - essentially large versions of the things that get let off on Nov 5. Under ideal conditions these worked well but because the tubes were card board the powder could easily get damp. The RNAS did trials of them as an anti Zeppelin weapon and concluded that they weren't sufficiently reliable nevertheless the French did have some sucess with them against balloons (and in at least one instance another aeroplane) but in the end the gun plus incendiariy/explosive rounds proved more the thing.

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Top balloon ace Willy Coppens apparently used a single 11 (!) mm Vickers on his Hanriot. According to his book he normally used only about 4 rounds.

Carl

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2 Gun HD1s had an inferior performance. Baron Willy had a number of modified Hanriot HD1s The one with the single larger calibre Vickers also had a larger rudder from the HD2 float plane. The large .45 Maxim was also fitted to some FE2bs for anti Zeppelin duties.. It would be interesting to know what ammunition was used. At least one 37mm cannon armed SPAD XII was used for balloon busting duties. The pilot would only get one shot off per attacking pass.

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