|History of World War 1||The Western Front||The Russian Front||Italian Front||The Middle East||Air Warfare||War at Sea|
THE MILITARY USES of THE CAPTIVE BALLOON
Although the captive balloon is recognised as indispensable in military operations, its uses are somewhat limited. It can be employed only in comparatively still weather. The reason is obvious. It is essential that the balloon should assume a vertical line in relation to its winding plant upon the ground beneath, so that it may attain the maximum elevation possible: in other words, the balloon should be directly above the station below, so that if 100 yards of cable are paid out the aerostat may be 100 yards above the ground. If a wind is blowing, the helpless craft is certain to be caught thereby and driven forwards or backwards, so that it assumes an angle to its station. If this become acute the vessel will be tilted, rendering the position of the observers somewhat precarious, and at the same time observing efficiency will be impaired.
This point may be appreciated more easily by reference to the accompanying diagram. A represents the ground station and B the position of the captive balloon when sent aloft in calm weather, 300 feet of cable being paid out. A wind arises and blows the vessel forward to the position C. At this point the height of the craft in relation to the ground has been reduced, and the reduction must increase proportionately as the strength of the wind increases and forces the balloon still more towards the ground. At the same time, owing to the tilt given to the car, observation is rendered more difficult and eventually becomes extremely dangerous.
A wind, if of appreciable strength, develops another and graver danger. Greater strain will be imposed upon the cable, while if the wind be gusty, there is the risk that the vessel will be torn away from its anchoring rope and possibly lost. Thus it will be seen that the effective utilisation of a captive balloon is completely governed by meteorological conditions, and often it is impossible to use it in weather which exercises but little influence upon dirigibles or aeroplanes.
The captive balloon equipment comprises the balloon, together with the observer's basket, the wire-cable whereby it is anchored and controlled, and the winding apparatus. Formerly a steam engine was necessary for the paying in and out of the cable, but nowadays this is accomplished by means of a petrol-driven motor, an oil-engine, or even by the engine of an automobile. The length of cable varies according to the capacity of the balloon and the maximum operating height.
The average British balloon is able to lift about 290 or 300 pounds, which may be taken to represent the weight of two observers. On the other hand, the French and German balloons are able to carry four times this weight, with the exception of the French auxiliaries, which are designed to lift one observer only. The balloons of the two latter Powers have also a greater maximum altitude; it is possible to ascend to a height of some 2,000 feet in one of these.
The observing station is connected with the winding crew below either by a telephone, or some other signalling system, the method practised varying according to circumstances. In turn the winding station is connected with the officer in charge of the artillery, the fire of which the captive balloon is directing. The balloon observer is generally equipped with various instruments, such as telescope, photographic cameras, and so forth, so as to be able, if necessary, to prepare a topographical survey of the country below. By this means the absence of reliable maps may be remedied, or if not regarded, as sufficiently correct they may be checked and counter-checked by the data gained aloft.
Seeing that the gas has to be transported in cylinders, which are weighty, it is incumbent that the waste of this commodity should be reduced to the minimum. The balloon cannot be deflated at night and re-inflated in the morning--it must be maintained in the inflated condition the whole time it is required for operation.
There are various methods of consummating this end. One method is to haul in the balloon and to peg it down on all sides, completing the anchorage by the attachment of bags filled with earth to the network. While this process is satisfactory in calm weather, it is impracticable in heavy winds, which are likely to spring up suddenly. Consequently a second method is practised. This is to dig a pit into the ground of sufficient size to receive the balloon. When the latter is hauled in it is lowered into this pit and there pegged down and anchored. Thus it is perfectly safe during the roughest weather, as none of its bulk is exposed above the ground level. Furthermore it is not a conspicuous object for the concentration of hostile fire.
In some instances, and where the military department is possessed of an elaborate equipment such as characterises the German army, when reconnaissance is completed and the balloon is to be removed to another point, the gas is pumped back into the cylinders for further use. Such an economical proceeding is pretty and well adapted to manoeuvres, but it is scarcely feasible in actual warfare, for the simple reason that the pumping takes time. Consequently the general procedure, when the balloon has completed its work, is to permit the gas to escape into the air in the usual manner, and to draw a fresh supply of gas from further cylinders when the occasion arises for re-inflation.
Although the familiar spherical balloon has proved perfectly adequate for reconnoitring in the British and French armies, the German authorities maintained that it was not satisfactory in anything but calm weather. Accordingly scientific initiative was stimulated with a view to the evolution of a superior vessel. These endeavours culminated in the Parseval-Siegsfeld captive balloon, which has a quaint appearance. It has the form of a bulky cylinder with hemispherical extremities. At one end of the balloon there is a surrounding outer bag, reminiscent of a cancerous growth. The lower end of this is open. This attachment serves the purpose of a ballonet. The wind blowing against the opening, which faces it, charges the ballonet with air. This action, it is claimed, serves to steady the main vessel, somewhat in the manner of the tail of a kite, thereby enabling observations to be made as easily and correctly in rough as in calm weather. The appearance of the balloon while aloft is certainly curious. It appears to be rearing up on end, as if the extremity saddled with the ballonet were weighted.
British and French captive balloon authorities are disposed to discount the steadying effect of this attachment, and, indeed, to maintain that it is a distinct disadvantage. It may hold the vessel steadier for the purpose of observation, but at the same time it renders the balloon a steadier target for hostile fire. On the other hand, the swaying of a spherical balloon with the wind materially contributes to its safety. A moving object, particularly when its oscillations are irregular and incalculable, is an extremely difficult object at which to take effective aim.
Seeing that even a small captive balloon is of appreciable dimensions--from 25 to 33 feet or more in diameter--one might consider it an easy object to hit. But experience has proved otherwise. In the first place the colour of the balloon is distinctly protective. The golden or yellowish tinge harmonises well with the daylight, even in gloomy weather, while at night-time it blends excellently with the moonlight. For effective observations a high altitude is undesirable. At a height of 600 feet the horizon is about 28 miles from the observer, as compared with the 3 miles constituting the range of vision from the ground over perfectly flat country. Thus it will be seen that the "spotter" up aloft has the command of a considerable tract.
Various ways and means of finding the range of a captive balloon have been prepared, and tables innumerable are available for committal to memory, while those weapons especially designed for aerial targets are fitted with excellent range-finders and other instruments. The Germans, with characteristic thoroughness, have devoted considerable attention to this subject, but from the results which they have achieved up to the present this guiding knowledge appears to be more spectacular and impressive than effective.
To put a captive balloon out of action one must either riddle the envelope, causing it to leak like a sieve, blow the vessel to pieces, or ignite the highly inflammable gas with which it is inflated. Individual rifle fire will inflict no tangible damage. A bullet, if it finds its billet, will merely pass through the envelope and leave two small punctures. True, these vents will allow the gas to escape, but this action will proceed so slowly as to permit the vessel to remain aloft long enough to enable the observer to complete his work. A lucky rifle volley, or the stream of bullets from a machine gun may riddle the envelope, precipitating a hurried descent, owing to the greater number of perforations through which the gas is able to escape, but as a rule the observer will be able to land safely.
Consequently the general practice is to shatter the aerostat, and to this end either shrapnel, high explosive, or incendiary shells will be used. The former must explode quite close to the balloon in order to achieve the desired end, while the incendiary shell must actually strike it, so as to fire the gas. The high explosive shell may explode effectually some feet away from the vessel, inasmuch as in this instance dependence is placed upon the terrific concussion produced by the explosion which, acting upon the fragile fabric of the balloon, brings about a complete collapse of the envelope. If a shrapnel is well placed and explodes immediately above the balloon, the envelope will be torn to shreds and a violent explosion of the gas will be precipitated. But as a matter of fact, it is extremely difficult to place a shrapnel shell so as to consummate this end. The range is not picked up easily, while the timing of the fuse to bring about the explosion of the shell at the critical moment is invariably a complex problem.
One favourite method of finding the range of a balloon is shown in the accompanying diagrams. The artillery battery is at B and the captive balloon, C, is anchored at A. On either side of B and at a specified distance, observers O1 and O2 respectively are stationed. First a shell is fired at "long" range, possibly the maximum range of the gun. It bursts at D. As it has burst immediately in the line of sight of B, but with the smoke obscured by the figure of the balloon C, it is obvious to B that the explosion has occurred behind the objective, but at what distance he cannot tell. To O1 and O2,however, it is seen to have burst at a considerable distance behind C though to the former it appears to have burst to the left and to the second observer to the right of the target.
Another shell, at "short" range, is now fired, and it bursts at E. The explosion takes place in the line of sight of B, who knows that he has fired short of the balloon because the latter is eclipsed by the smoke. But the two observers see that it is very short, and here again the explosion appears to O1 to have occurred to the right of the target, while to O2 it has evidently burst to the left of the aerostat, as revealed by the relation of the position of the balloon to the bursting of the shell shown in Fig. 3.
A third round is fired, and the shell explodes at F. In this instance the explosion takes place below the balloon. Both the observers and the artillery man concur in their deductions upon the point at which the shell burst. But the shell must explode above the balloon, and accordingly a fourth round is discharged and the shell bursts at G.
This appears to be above the balloon, inasmuch as the lines of sight of the two observers and B converge at this point. But whether the explosion occurs immediately above the vessel as is desired, it is impossible to say definitely, because it may explode too far behind to be effective. Consequently, if this shell should prove abortive, the practice is to decrease the range gradually with each succeeding round until the explosion occurs at the critical point, when, of course, the balloon is destroyed. An interesting idea of the difficulty of picking up the range of a captive balloon may be gathered from the fact that some ten minutes are required to complete the operation.
But success is due more to luck than judgment. In the foregoing explanation it is premised that the aerial vessel remains stationary, which is an ex tremely unlikely contingency. While those upon the ground are striving to pick up the range, the observer is equally active in his efforts to baffle his opponents. The observer follows each successive, round with keen interest, and when the shells appear to be bursting at uncomfortably close quarters naturally he intimates to his colleagues below that he desires his position to be changed, either by ascending to a higher point or descending. In fact, he may be content to come to the ground. Nor must the fact be overlooked that while the enemy is trying to place the observer hors de combat, he is revealing the position of his artillery, and the observer is equally industrious in picking up the range of the hostile guns for the benefit of his friends below.
When the captive balloon is aloft in a wind the chances of the enemy picking up the range thereof are extremely slender, as it is continually swinging to and fro. While there is always the possibility of a shell bursting at such a lucky moment as to demolish the aerial target, it is generally conceded to be impossible to induce a shell to burst within 100 yards of a balloon, no matter how skilfully the hostile battery may be operated.
The value of the captive balloon has been demonstrated very strikingly throughout the attack upon the entrenched German positions in Flanders. Owing to the undulating character of the dunes the "spotters" upon the British monitors and battle ships are unable to obtain a sweeping view of the country. Accordingly captive balloons are sent aloft in some cases from the deck of the monitors, and in others from a suitable point upon the beach itself. The aerial observer from his point of vantage is able to pick up the positions of the German forces and artillery with ease and to communicate the data thus gained to the British vessels, although subjected to heavy and continuous hostile fire. The difficulty of hitting a captive balloon has been graphically emphasised, inasmuch as the German artillerists have failed to bring down a solitary balloon. On the other hand the observer in the air is able to signal the results of each salvo fired from the British battleships as they manoeuvre at full speed up and down the coastline, while he keeps the fire of the monitors concentrated upon the German positions until the latter have been rendered untenable or demolished. The accuracy of the British gun-fire has astonished even the Germans, but it has been directly attributable to the rangefinder perched in the car of the captive balloon and his rapid transmission of information to the vessels below.
The enthusiastic supporters of aerial navigation maintained that the dirigible and the aeroplane would supersede the captive balloon completely. But as a matter of fact the present conflict has established the value of this factor more firmly than ever. There is not the slightest possibility that the captive balloon sections of the belligerents will be disbanded, especially those which have the fruits of experience to guide them. The airship and the aeroplane have accomplished wonders, but despite their achievements the captive balloon has fully substantiated its value as a military unit in its particular field of operations.