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Category: Air support

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Inflatable Aircraft of the Great War

Allied Observation Balloon on the Western Front.
Although observation balloons were also occasionally shot down by small-arms fire, this was surprisingly difficult to achieve due to the distances and altitude involved. Ordinary rifle and machine gun bullets would pass relatively harmlessly through the hydrogen gas bag, causing damage but not immediate destruction. Hits on the balloonist’s rather flimsy woven wicker car would be an entirely different matter.

When fighter aircraft became more sophisticated, and could carry out the necessary aerobatics required to safely target the observation balloon, many attempts were made to shoot the observation balloons down. It was not until the special incendiary machine gun bullets – the so-called Buckingham Bullets, of which the flat-nosed .45 calibre was the most effective - designed to bring down the Zeppelin airships over England, became available on the Western Front in 1917, that any degree of success was achieved. Dr David Payne

Caquot Type R Obeservation Balloon Caquot Type R Observation Balloon The observation balloon most used by Americans on the Western Front in France during World War I was named for its designer, a French engineer, Lt. Albert Caquot. 

Measuring 92 ft. long and 32 ft. diameter, it could stay aloft in winds as high as 70 mph. 

The Caquot, with a capacity of 32,200 cubic ft., had sufficient lifting power for the mooring cable, basket, two passengers, and necessary communications and charting equipment when filled with hydrogen. 

In good weather, the balloon could ascend to over 4,000 ft. with operations normally conducted between 1,000 and 4,000 ft. Depending on terrain and weather conditions, balloon observers could see as far as 40 miles. During their months at the Front, American balloon observers directed artillery fire at 316 targets such as troop concentrations and supply dumps, noted 11,856 enemy airplane sightings, 1,113 instances of military traffic on railroads and roads, and 400 artillery batteries. From USAF Museum 

Very large inflatables were used in the UK to warn of and guard against Zeppelin attack.

German Inflatables

German Observation Balloon The Germans made good use of observation balloons in several configurations. An early variety made by Parseval-Sigsfeld and called "Drachen" (means either "kite" or "dragon") had a single fin, low center, and was totally cylindrical, with rounded ends.

 The British called them sausages, for obvious reasons. The balloon's shape gave it another nickname, "Nulle" or "Testicle". The one pictured above is a copy of a French Caquot design, the German designation was the "Type Ae". 

The Caquot was tear-drop shaped, with three stabilizing fins. The improved Caquot could ride higher, and fly in higher winds than the Parseval-Sigsfeld, so it quickly replaced the Drachen, even among the Luftschiffertruppen. The observer suspended in the wicker basket typically had a wireless set, binoculars and one or two long-range, cameras with him. Their job was to observe actions on the front and behind it, to spot troop movements, unusual activity of any sort, and to call down artillery fire onto worthy targets. They 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. 

The balloons could be pulled down very quickly as they were tethered to a motorized winch, so that once a fighter was spotted the balloon could be down in under a minute. The secret was to sneak up on them some how. As the balloons were filled with hydrogen they burned easily once they were pierced with tracer bullets or bullets especially designed for Zeppelins. The balloon observers were the only people routinely outfitted with parachutes, which had been available since 1915. 

  • By the war's end 241 German observation balloons had been shot down.


German "sausage" balloons and hangar

Zeppelin balloons: Germany's best known inflatables

Zeppelin pilot's hat badge.
Along with Germany's involvement in The Great War came the Zeppelin. With this, the Count von Zeppelin's dreams finally would be realized. His mammoth ships would carry their deadly cargo from far from behind the battles in France and bomb London itself. Initially, there was no defence to put against these raids. The Zeppelins would leave Germany at dusk and arrive over England by the cover of night. Cities could be easily spotted by their street lights and the bombs would be dropped. The Zeppelins would then turn for home and arrive before dawn.

Often English pilots would pursue the Zeppelins across the sky but they had little chance of catching them. The Zeppelins would be at a considerable altitude and the Zeppelin's cruising speed was often comparable to that of the aeroplane chasing it. To make matters worse, if a pilot did manage to catch up to the airship, the Zeppelins were bristling with machine guns.

Only later in the war did the tide turn against the Zeppelins. New planes with more powerful engines were built that could catch the midnight marauders. These new planes also carried a new weapon that would exploit the Zeppelins Achilles' heel: incendiary ammunition. Bullets laced with phosphorus would burn with a hot flame that could easily set the massive volume of hydrogen aflame. When a Zeppelin burned, eye witnesses said that it would light the night sky.

The Germans tried to counter this by making new high-flying, super light weight Zeppelins called "Height Climbers" and by painting the undersides black. The idea was that if a Zeppelin could fly high enough, it could exceed the operational altitude of the British planes and its black underside would be less likely to be spotted against the night sky. These were both good ideas, but by then, the time of the Zeppelin as a military front-line weapon was over.  


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Digger History:  an unofficial history of the Australian & New Zealand Armed Forces