Oct 5, 2015
'Venice is being bombarded with balloons. . . ' Sounds like something out of a Jules Verne novel, doesn't it? Wrong! That's what the Presse of Vienna announced, according to Scientific America in August of 1849. Believe it or not, the history of balloons in military operations predates the Austrian reconquest of Venice by hundreds of years.
Almost predictably, when technology is used somewhere else centuries ago, you can assume that it was first used in China. Way back in the Han Dynasty, floating lanterns about one to six feet wide were used by the Han army fighting the army of what would become the Wei Dynasty. Granted, these balloons weren't made for attack. Rather, these balloons were used by the Han general to call up for a rescue after he was surrounded by the Wei, but it does mark the first recorded use of balloons in war.
It wasn't until 1782 that man first flew on his own when the Montgolfier Brothers took flight in the first hot-air balloons over France. These early balloons were giant cotton & silk spheres used more for entertaining than as dastardly war machines. The balloon's first manned appearance in war was twelve years later during the height of the French Revolution. The French Revolutionary forces used balloons while fighting a coalition of British, German, and Dutch forces at the Battle of Fleurus. The French balloon, l'Entreprenant, was used as an observation platform to direct artillery bombardments. Napoleon wasn't a huge fan of war balloons, though, and ditched the balloon troops five years later. The French wouldn't use balloons again until 1870 when French citizens would use them to escape the Prussian siege of Paris during the Franco-Prussian War.
Shortly after the War Between The States broke out in 1861, President Abraham Lincoln Balloonist and Scientist Thaddeus Lowe as Chief Aeronaut of the United States, and placed him in charge of the fledgling Union Army Balloon Corps. Lowe and his Aeronauts were used for aerial reconnaissance and as artillery observers to help Union canoneers direct their fire. During the Peninsula Campaign of 1862, Lowe used converted coal barge George Washington Parke Custis as a floating platform on the Potomac River to observe the campaign as it moved inland. Unfortunately, some Union generals didn't care for the Balloon Corps, and by 1863, it was disbanded.
While American interest in military aeronautics was diminishing, British interest was just beginning to be piqued. At first they thought it would be too expensive, but by the 1880s, the British Army began deploying its own observation balloons. They played an active role during the Boer Wars in Africa as artillery observers.
Now, if I told you that the First World War was the high-water mark for military ballooning, you might expect that I'm referring to dirigibles. Wrong! Technically, dirigibles are rigid or semi-rigid, which means they have an internal skeleton or framework. The aerostats in this article are all non-rigid. Still, aerostats (a fancy name for balloons) played a vital role in their traditional roles. By the time of the Great War, artillery could fire miles away, and the importance of observers to direct the artilleriests' aim was critical. This made balloonists a primary target of fighter pilots who eyed the lazily-drifting balloons as tempting targets.
The age of observation balloons petered out during the Second World War. Aside from both sides using unmanned balloons to drop fire bombs, the major use of aerostats was as barrage balloons. These low-flying, unmanned 'blimps' were used to deter air strikes.
Since the end of World War II, balloons have generally been replaced with high-altitude spy planes, satellites, and drones.
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