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Kite Balloons over Canadians during the First World War

Kite Balloons over Canadians in France,

First World War

Barrage balloons are attached to cables fixed to the ground or vehicles for observation and to provide an obstacle to attacking aircraft.  Kite balloons have a "bomb-like" appearance  that reduces drag and are more stable in high winds.  During the First World War, the armies of England, France, Germany and Italy made extensive use of barrage balloons.  In some cases, such as in the defence of London, steel cables were hung from several balloons connected to form a "barrage net" that could be raised as high as (4.5 km or roughly 15,000 ft), effective against the bombers of the era.

These balloons were primarily employed as an aerial platform for intelligence gathering and artillery spotting.  The First World War kite balloons were fabric envelopes filled with hydrogen gas.  Unfortunately, the flammability of the gas led to the destruction of hundreds of balloons on both sides.  Observers manning these observation balloons frequently had to use a parachute to escape when their balloons were attacked.  To avoid the potentially flammable consequences of hydrogen, observation balloons after the First World War were often filled with non-flammable helium.  As will be seen in the following photos, balloons were usualy tethered to a steel cable attached to a winch that reeled the gasbag to its desired height (usually 1,000-1,500 metres) and retrieved it at the end of an observation session.

Canadian soldiers would often see Kite balloons in use for observation over their sector of the Western front.  A number of these balloons were photographed for the record, with a few of them presented here from the Library and Archives Canada files.

Data current to 20 May 2020.

"The balloon's going up!" was an expression for impending battle.  It is derived from the fact that an observation balloon's ascent likely signaled a preparatory bombardment for an offensive

(Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 3395330)

Kite balloon behind Canadian lines at Vimy Ridge, France, Dec 1917. 

(Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 3395204)

Kite Balloon over the Western Front, Oct 1916. 

(Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 3405554)

Kite balloon being prepared for launch with a Canadian Kinematographer on board, May 1917. 

(Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 3405555)

Kite balloon with Canadian Kinematographer and Observer, May 1917. 

(Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 3395244)

Kite Balloon operators donning parachutes and checking cameras before ascending, May 1917. 

 (Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 3395176)

Kite balloon pilot and observer, Sep 1916.  

(Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 3395184)

Kite balloon observer testing his telephone before ascending, Sep 1916. 

(Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 3395241)

Kite Balloon in operation over the Western Front, France, May 1917. 

(Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 3521909)

Kite balloon pair over Canadian lines, Apr 1917. 

 (Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 3395253)

Kite balloon windlas and crew, fixing the 500' flag to a cable, May 1917.  

 (Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 3404749)

Kite balloon view of the windlass and crew at work on ascent, Oct 1916.

 (Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 3404754)

Kite balloon view of the windlass and crew at work on ascent, Oct 1916. 

 (Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 3522065)

Kite balloon view of the trench lines around Arras, Nov 1917.  

 (Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 3395177)

Kite Balloon in operation over the Western Front, France, Sep 1916.  

(Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 3395332)

Kite balloon being moved to a launch site, Dec 1917. 

(Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 3395174)

Kite balloon being brought out for launch, Sep 1916. 

(Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 3395251)

Kite balloon gas bag feing filled, May 1917. 

(Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 3194241)

Kite balloon being overhauled on the Western Front, France, Oct 1916. 

 (Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 3395194)

Kite balloon being repaired prior to ascent, Oct 1916.  

 (Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 3395197)

Kite balloon being repaired prior to ascent, Oct 1916.  

(Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 3395196)

Kite balloon landing behind Canadian lines, Oct 1916. 

(Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 3395207)

Kite balloon being launched on the Western Front, Oct 1916. 

(Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 3404934)

Kite balloon being lowered as Canadian Artillery moves by, East of Arras, Sep 1918. 

(Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 3404935)

Kite balloon being lowered as Canadian Artillery moves by, East of Arras, Sep 1918.

 (IWM Photo, Q11901)

A Caquot kite balloon ready to ascend, near Metz, France on 25 Jan 1918.  A motor winch and infantrymen are hauling on ropes to hold the balloon down. 

 (IWM Photo, Q27466)

Two Caquot Kite Balloons in the air, seen from underneath.

 (Australian War Memorial Photo, E01254)

An observation balloon ready to ascend over Ypres, France, 31 Oct 1917.

 (IWM Photo, Q11892)

A Caquot kite balloon with the basket at ground level. In the foreground a field kitchen can be seen, and behind it an RE cable cart, behind which can be seen the men hauling on the ropes to keep the balloon down. Near Ypres, France, 5 October 1917, during the Battle of Passchendaele, July-Nov 1917.

 (IWM Photo, Q11893)

A Caquot kite balloon after being hauled down by its winch.  Air mechanics are hauling on ropes to keep the basket on the ground.  Near Ypres, France, 5 October 1917.

 (IWM Photo, Q12026)

The basket of a kite balloon, showing the observer's parachute attached to it, and the parachute harness attached to the officer. Photograph taken on 2 May 1918, Gosnay, France.

 (IWM Photo, Q12027)

Two observer officers in the basket of a kite balloon. Note the telephones, map rest, parachute and parachute harness. Photograph taken in Gosnay, 2 May 1918

 (IWM Photo, Q11909)

A British Caquot kite balloon falling down in flames after having been attacked by an enemy aircraft. Boyelles, France, 3 February 1918.

...and on the other side:

 (Christoph Herrmann Photo)

German Parseval-Siegsfeld type balloon at Équancourt, France, in September 1916.  The rear "tail" fills with air automatically through an opening facing the wind.

 (Australian War Memorial Photo collection, H13497)

A German observation balloon fitted with a long distance camera about to ascend with one observer in the basket. The observer's escape parachute can be seen attached to the outside of the basket.

 (Australian War Memorial Photo collection, H13483)

 A German soldier jumping from his observation balloon. German observers followed this procedure when their balloon was attacked by Allied aircraft. 

Because of their importance as observation platforms, balloons were defended by anti-aircraft guns, groups of machine guns for low altitude defence and patrolling fighter aircraft.  Attacking a balloon was a risky venture but some pilots relished the challenge.  The most successful were known as balloon busters, including such notables as Belgium's Willy Coppens, Germany's Friedrich Ritter von Röth, America's Frank Luke, and the Frenchmen Léon Bourjade, Michel Coiffard and Maurice Boyau.  Many expert balloon busters were careful not to go below 1,000 feet (300 m) in order to avoid exposure to anti-aircraft guns and machine-guns.

First World War observation crews were the first to use parachutes, long before they were adopted by fixed-wing aircrews.  These were a primitive type, where the main part was in a bag suspended from the balloon, with the pilot only wearing a simple body harness around his waist, with lines from the harness attached to the main parachute in the bag.  When the balloonist jumped, the main part of the parachute was pulled from the bag, with the shroud lines first, followed by the main canopy.  This type of parachute was first adopted by the Germans and then later by the British and French for their observation balloon crews.

Barrage Balloons in service during the Second World War

During the Second World War, Britain established a Balloon Command to protect cities and key targets such as industrial areas, ports and harbours.  The balloons were designed to defend against German Stuka dive bombers operating at altitudes of 1.5 km/5,000 feet with the aim of forcing them to fly higher and into the range of concentrated anti-aircraft fire.  By the summer of 1940 there were 1,400 barrage balloons in service, with a third of them protecting London.  By 1944, there were 3,000 in use in the UK.  They proved to be moderately effective against the V-1 flying bomb, which usually flew at an altitude of 600 metres/2,000 feet or lower, although these early cruise missiles had wire-cutters on their wings to counter balloons. 231 V-1s are officially claimed to have been destroyed by balloons.

In 1942 Canada and the USA conducted joint operations using barrage balloons to protect the sensitive locks and shipping channel at Sault Ste. Marie on the Great Lakes to deter potential air attacks.  Between Aug and Oct 1942, severe storms caused some of the barrage balloons to break loose, and the trailing cables short-circuited power lines causing serious disruption to mining and manufacturing.  In particular, the metals production vital to the war effort was disrupted. Canadian military historical records indicate that the "October incident, the most serious, caused an estimated loss of 400 tons of steel and 10 tons of ferro-alloys.  Following these incidents, new procedures were put in place, which included stowing the balloons during the winter months, with regular deployment exercises and a standby team on alert to deploy the balloons in case of attack. (Wikipedia)

 (Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 4950991)

Members of the Women's Royal Canadian naval Service (WRCNS) visiting a barrage balloon site with The Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) operating the balloons inthe UK, 1944.

Post War

After the war, some surplus barrage balloons were used as tethered shot balloons for nuclear weapon tests throughout most of the period when nuclear weapons were tested in the atmosphere.  The weapon or shot was carried to the required altitude slung underneath the barrage balloon, allowing test shots in controlled conditions at much higher altitudes than test towers.  Project Mogul saw the use of high-altitude observation balloons to monitor Soviet nuclear tests.