The Forgotten Air Service II

CaquotType M Observation Balloon

Developed in 1916 by Albert Caquot, this design had major advantages over the Parseval-Sigsfeld “Drachenballon” then in use with most of the warring nations and by 1918 it had replaced virtually all of them. The U.S. alone for example, produced over a thousand and the same basic design was used again for barrage balloons during WW2.  They were used for the traditional tasks of artillery direction and battleground surveillance on land and at sea they became extremely important in the role of submarine spotting where height enabled the submerged u-boats to be seen.    

The Type M  was the most numerous  of various similar Caquot designs and the largest version of it (930m3) could carry up to three observers and baskets.  It was used extensively by the allied armies and navies.  Towards the end of the war it was also used (along with Type Rs) in the anti-aircraft balloon curtain barrages of Paris and London as German heavier-than-air bombers became more and more effective.

A general shortage of dyes during WW1 resulted in Caquots normally being yellow or grey, quickly made much darker by exposure to the elements!

(From available photographs  it appears that the British Royal Navy at least employedmostly Type Ms. The US Navy and Army units however, preferred the larger Type R.

Between the outbreak of war in 1914 and the American war declaration in 1917, US Army and Navy officers, serving as neutral observers, attempted to acquire access to Allied aviation information, including data on balloons. The officers detailed on these assignments were not given all the latest information and regularly denied permission to go to the front. They did learn enough, however, to realize that the United States had surrendered the lead it once enjoyed in aviation technology and capacity and now seriously lagged behind the European powers both in heavier- and lighter-than-air technology. In the year prior to American entry into the war in Europe, the punitive expedition against Mexico presented the War Department with reason to build up the US Army. This beginning provided a small foundation for the more massive increases that war in Europe would require. In November 1916, the balloon school at Fort Omaha, Nebraska, closed since 1913, reopened under the command of Commandant Charles D. Chandler. The school taught free-balloon piloting, captive balloon handling and maintenance, and the techniques employed in observation, photography, and artillery regulation.

Despite the strides made during 1916, the United States entered the European conflict seriously behind its German enemies, as well as its French and British associates. American aviation did not possess a single aircraft suitable for service on the Western Front or even in any of the less active areas that made up the war’s sideshows. The United States lagged behind the European powers in part due to the uncertainty over whether Americans would enter the war and, if so, on which side. Not sure they could trust their American counterparts, British and French military leaders had denied them access to information about progress in military aviation made during the war. This included pertinent information about balloons. When the United States did get involved in the war domestic balloon production capacity amounted to no more than two to three per month. Although the 1st Aero Squadron, an airplane unit, had seen service in the Mexican campaign, the single balloon the US Army took along on its chase after Pancho Villa made the trip largely by accident.

In addition to coming late, the US Army’s realization that balloons were necessary to its war preparations also lacked completeness, enthusiasm, and any sense of urgency. Evidence of this lack of purpose can be found in the organization of the Bolling Mission during the summer of 1917. In July 1917, in the flurry of activity that followed the American declaration of war, Congress passed the largest single appropriation up to that point in its history: $640 million for military aviation. Also in July, V.Adm. William Sims, on duty in London, informed Josephus Daniels, the Secretary of the Navy, that the British needed one hundred kite balloon sections. While Congress debated the appropriation, the group charged with responsibility for recommending what types of aerial equipment the nation might manufacture or purchase with its expected funding organized an expedition to Europe to survey the Allied air forces. Colonel Raynal C. Bolling headed the mission. In civilian life Bolling served as chief counsel at US Steel and was considered one of the nation’s foremost corporate lawyers. Bolling also had experience as a pilot, but the Army selected him for this assignment not for his aviation savvy but rather for his expertise in drafting and negotiating complex international contracts. The Army intended to bolster the mission’s depth by assigning personnel who possessed the background to make informed judgments about all America’s aviation needs. Yet, when the Bolling Mission left for Europe they departed without anyone in the group who had any knowledge of balloons. In summarizing the history of the Balloon Section following the war, Col. Charles D. Chandler wrote to the chief of the Air Service that the Bolling Mission had specifically requested the services of a balloon observer, but this request had been denied. Without an expert as part of the mission, Bolling assigned the task of reporting on balloons to Edgar Gorrell.

As the Army’s chief balloon officer, Charles D. Chandler had a huge task in front of him. The reactivation of balloon operations at Fort Omaha had not immediately borne fruit. Training at the school had yet to begin when the United States entered the war in April 1917. On the plus side, when the United States became an associate power of the Allies, Army requests to the British and French for information and assistance were given the attention not previously accorded American neutral observers. In the autumn of 1917, British and French advisors with sample balloon equipment arrived in the United States. For the US Army’s part, following the receipt of Gorrell’s report on Allied ballooning from the Bolling Mission in September, Maj. Frank Lahm traveled to Europe to tour British and French units as part of a more extensive study. Lahm’s report included a recommendation for the construction of an American balloon school in France, near the French school at Vadenay. The Army established this school in January 1918 under the command of Maj. Max C. Fleischman. Unfortunately, the school had just been completed and was ready to get underway training students in March when the German offensive forced its evacuation to a safer location at Camp Souge, near the French southwest coast. At Souge the American school flourished and by the end of hostilities, 199 candidates had graduated from its observer and maneuvering-officer classes, and 623 soldiers had been trained in various specialties from the operation of winch trucks to how to handle a machine gun.

Beginning with observer candidates selected exclusively from the Air Service, US Army commanders quickly learned what their allied and enemy counterparts had discovered in the winter of 1914–1915, that maximizing the value of the balloon demanded a close liaison with the artillery. Officers serving in German Balloonzüge generally had prior service with the artillery and, in January 1918, the US Army decided to divide the number of new officer trainees selected for balloon duty equally between the Air Service and the artillery. To a casual observer considering the Balloon Section at the armistice, it might have seemed as if the organization was run as a partnership between the Air Service and the artillery given that its 446 officers included 230 members of the Air Service and 216 field or coastal artillery officers. This division of responsibility made sense given the Balloon Section’s great need for observers with knowledge and appreciation of artillery operations and procedures.

The US Air Service’s decision to recruit balloon observers from the artillery also reflected earlier British experience and illustrates the close connection between aviation and the success of ground operations. British artillery officers appreciated the work of their balloon observers so much they launched a takeover attempt. Following the battle of the Somme, the British artillery advisor, Maj. Gen. J. F. N. Birch, proposed that officers from the artillery be trained for service as balloon observers as a first step towards the artillery taking control of the RFC’s balloons. British authorities approved his plan and just after the battle ended in November 1916 assigned a single artillery officer to each of the RFC’s twenty-two balloon units. The RFC observers the artillery officers relieved were sent back to England to man and train new balloon sections. The proposed artillery takeover of the balloons never materialized, but once the precedent for cross service had been established more artillery officers did find themselves serving in balloons. In February 1918 the RFC doubled the number of artillery officers in each of its kite balloon sections from one to two. In French service the compagnies d’aérostiers that handled the Army’s balloons remained part of the Aviation Militaire throughout the conflict though they maintained close liaison with the artillery. Many French balloon companies remained assigned to work with the same corps de armée from their formation in 1914 or 1915 through to the armistice, no doubt achieving strong working partnerships with those units and perhaps minimizing the need for inter-service transfers.

US Army leaders, in addition to adopting the British preference for experienced artillerists, also shared the British belief that only officers should train as observers. Effective artillery registration required ongoing liaison between battery commanders and the balloon and airplane observers adjusting their fire. Observers participating in planning conferences, generally held the day prior to the anticipated firing program, had to be able to communicate with battery commanders on an equal level to have their opinions respected. Furthermore, the observer required an understanding of the big picture in order to respond flexibly to changes in the tactical situation that necessitated alterations in the pre-set plan, a quality that developed with experience, talent, and with the wider spectrum of training given an officer. Finally, the observer needed to stand in position to assume command of his company should something happen to his commanding officer. Enlisted men, lacking in rank and trained only in specialties peculiar to their own branch, would not possess these advantages.

France’s impact on the development of the US Air Service is remembered primarily for the personnel and aircraft production recommendations contained in the Ribot telegram. On May 24, 1917, French Premier Alexandre Ribot sent a message to the United States suggesting an American aviation force large enough to field some 4,500 airplanes on the Western Front in 1918. French influence over the American aviation program eventually extended far beyond Ribot’s early suggestions. The French stamp can be seen on a broad array of US Air Service actions ranging from selection and production of aircraft types for use at the front to the choice of syllabus followed in American training centers. The proper conduct of aerial reconnaissance and observation figured prominently in French teachings. Official US Army procedures followed French guidelines in calling for three means of bringing artillery to bear during trench warfare: “direct observation from the observation post; by the map; by aid of aerial observation.” The tactical lessons American military commanders learned from their French advisors included the idea that the airplane should be reserved for reconnaissance missions either beyond the range of view available to the area balloon, or of portions of the front the local balloon could not see due to some obstruction. American commanders came to tout this division of responsibility as official policy, though they did not always effectively translate it into practice.

The four-day battle to eliminate the St. Mihiel salient marked the first time the Allies entrusted the American Expeditionary Force with its own operation. Fifteen American balloon companies and six French balloon units participated in the brief campaign. Prior to the battle, French balloon companies prepared a large-scale relief map of the sector that Brig. Gen. William Mitchell, overall commander of all Allied aviation units at St. Mihiel, used in planning the operation. Adverse weather prevented balloon-assisted artillery registration during the first two days of the attack, but during its final two days at least three of the balloon companies achieved important results. Weather did not prevent the balloons from maintaining a general program of surveillance, however, and John Paegelow, Mitchell’s balloon commander, reported “in practically every instance,” his balloons “were up at day break on the morning of the attack.” Furthermore, the balloons kept an eye on enemy activity at night throughout the attack, a capability shared by only a single American heavier-than-air squadron.

Thirteen American balloon companies took part in the war’s final campaign, the Meuse-Argonne battle, repeating the success the lighter-than-air sections had enjoyed at St. Mihiel. The ability the balloonists exhibited in keeping pace with the advances made by the infantry during both campaigns marked something of a climax in the history of military ballooning. The existence of open warfare after more than three years of static trench fighting made the American balloon crews’ wartime experience vastly different than that of their British and French colleagues. The 2nd Balloon Company, the first American balloon unit to arrive at the front, became operational a month prior to the last great German push, a point when the four-year stalemate in the trenches began to break up and opposing forces resumed a war of movement. Over the first three years of the war movement on the Western Front represented the exception. During the 2nd Balloon Company’s time in France, frequent and rapid relocations to more advanced points on the battlefield became the norm.

The US Air Service solved the mobility problem that had beguiled Napoleon by crafting detailed battle plans which laid out specific routes along which its balloons might advance or retreat prior to the attack’s anticipated zero hour. Balloon crews surveyed the actual route along which they might retreat prior to the attack and studied maps and aerial photographs of anticipated routes along which the advance might proceed. Advanced planning succeeded to the point that balloon companies detailed for the US Army’s September 12, 1918, attack on the St. Mihiel Salient were able to maintain their position in the line while walking their inflated balloons behind advancing infantry. During the Meuse-Argonne operation “balloons operated during the day and advanced at night.”

As impressive as the Balloon Section’s record appears, postwar efficiency assessments of the US Air Service’s Balloon Section suggest much room for improvement. While the balloon units solved their mobility challenges, communications presented another problem. During the fast advances of the late summer of 1918, many balloon companies were not able to keep in communication with combat units in their area using the regular telephone systems because the troops were moving quicker than new telephone lines could be added. The US Second Army found a solution in the temporary connection of a test box phone at a forward post of command with communication from there by courier. Faced with the same problem, the RAF’s No. 22 Balloon Section found a more dramatic answer to its communication challenges. The commander of the artillery battery with which the balloonists were working positioned himself at the bottom of their winch and shouted corrections to his crew using a megaphone.

American commanders occasionally asked their balloon crews to take oblique photographs. Equipment shortages prevented those requests from occurring more often, shortages so acute the government resorted to appeals through the media. Wartime newspapers and magazines in the United States carried pleas from the War Department for patriotic citizens to turn their cameras over to the war effort, particularly those with superior German lenses. A lack of qualified photographers to develop pictures also plagued the balloon companies, so much so that individual units could not set up their own photographic operations. When taking photographs proved absolutely necessary, a nearby photo section took up the task and the photographer would travel to the closest balloon to get his pictures.

A more serious challenge involved the lack of liaison between balloon companies and the corps Air Service airplane squadrons brought on by regular disputes over which targets belonged to whom. These disagreements affected the effectiveness of both balloon and airplane operations. Balloon company commanders took the position that their colleagues in the corps squadrons did not appreciate that targets visible to balloons should be assigned to balloons and airplanes should register only those targets that were more distant or hidden. Official records indicate that target assignments were supposed to be made nightly at conferences between artillery and Air Service commanders, but that such matters were generally omitted. During periods of open warfare, many targets were fugitive and thus impossible to anticipate or assign. This, as well as the general debate over the different visual perspectives of the airplane and balloon observer, likely accounted for this omission.

With the ability to reflect afforded by the armistice, Air Service senior commanders reconsidered their decision to recruit nearly half of their wartime complement of observers from the artillery due to the reluctance some artillery officers exhibited for aviation service. The preference these officers expressed for working with their batteries over watching the war from a balloon basket did not reflect an unfavorable opinion of the value of balloon observation. Army commanders valued the contribution balloon personnel made to the artillery’s destructive capability to such an extent that, in the postwar struggle over the future of aviation, some Air Service officers believed if they conceded control of balloons to the Army and Navy they might prevail in the contest for the Air Service’s more aggressive functions.

Evidence that the enemy respected the assistance balloons gave the artillery can be deduced from the number of attacks German airmen and artillery batteries made on balloons. American balloon observers made a total of 116 parachute descents during their relatively short time on the Western Front. Thirty-five of the balloons from which they jumped burned during the attack.101 While these numbers illustrate the continually escalating nature of aviation operations and aerial combat on the Western Front, as well as the value accorded balloons, British balloonists serving in France prior to the Americans’ arrival had also been subject to regular attacks. The 2nd Balloon Wing’s observers serving during the summer of 1917 bailed out of their baskets on an almost daily basis, reporting twenty jumps during one week, including one day on which eleven observers descended simultaneously. USAS balloon crews were in action for only 259 days on a small part of the Western Front. In comparison, the Luftstreitkräfte reported 135 German balloons lost to aerial attack and artillery fire for the whole of 1917 and on the whole of the front.

Balloon observation had woven itself so extensively into the artillery regulation process that, had the war continued to June 1919, the Air Service planned to expand its Balloon Section from 69 to 139 companies. Expansion required production and, while American manufacturers had achieved only minor results in their efforts to blacken the European skies with airplanes, their balloon construction program proved successful beyond expectations. In April 1917, American looms could turn out enough rubberized cloth to construct no more than two balloons per week. Enlisting the aid of the Goodyear and Goodrich companies, along with United States Rubber, Firestone, Connecticut Aircraft, and Knabenshue Manufacturing, enabled the Air Service to boost output to an impressive ten completed balloons per day by the November 1918 armistice. Further, Benedict Crowell, the US Assistant Secretary of War, in his comprehensive postwar report, America’s Munitions, estimated that American manufacturing would have reached fifteen completed balloons per day in 1919, sufficient to supply not just American needs, but the “whole anti-German balloon program.” While throughout its time in the war the United States had to rely on France, Great Britain, and Italy for most of its airplanes, within those same nineteen months it positioned itself to become the Allies’ chief supplier of balloons had the armistice not intervened. Just as the omission of balloons creates a misimpression of the size of the American investment in aerial reconnaissance, historians’ failure to consider American lighter-than-air manufacturing during the war tilts the scale toward a picture of a complete production failure. When the record of American balloon manufacturers is considered the record does not look nearly as dismal.

The Balloon Section’s achievement in getting its units trained and deployed also compares favorably with the heavier-than-air portion of the Air Service. Standing alongside the forty-five aero squadrons that made it to the front lines by the armistice were seventeen balloon companies. Twelve more were in various stages of training with the artillery at one of the American firing centers located throughout France or at the balloon school at Camp Souge, and another six were en route to the front. The 2nd Balloon Company had the longest record of any American aerial unit at the front, having served from its arrival at Toul in February 1918 to the armistice and with only one week out of the lines following the battle of Chateau Thierry.

After the war, an American military analyst assessing the balloon’s contribution, estimated balloon units provided an astounding “93 percent” of all observation at the front. US Assistant Secretary of War Benedict Crowell wrote the balloon “had practically displaced the airplane as a director of gun fire,” becoming “the very eye of the Artillery.” For its part, Crowell added, the artillery “reciprocated with an efficiency beyond anything known before in the history of warfare.” The Balloon Section’s statistical summaries confirm that American balloons made 5,866 ascents for a total time in the air of 6,832 hours. Of those ascents, 1,642 had been flown at the front for a total of 3,111 hours spent observing the line. American observers made 116 parachute jumps in response to eighty-nine aircraft attacks. Operationally, 12,018 enemy shell bursts were reported, four hundred enemy batteries were observed firing, and 1,113 instances of traffic on roads and railroads controlled by the German Army were reported.

The advent of an elevated observation platform had forever altered the nature of artillery operations. Gunners moved out of the front lines they had occupied in the wars of the past and switched from looking their enemies squarely in the eye to shooting at targets entirely invisible to them. Engaging in “deep battle,” by firing at points well into the enemy’s rear area enlarged the size of the battlefield and added targets previously impervious to attack. For the first time those manning a military’s rear areas had to live with the threat of attack as railroads, ammunition dumps, and manufacturing facilities all became vulnerable to regular, sometimes constant shelling, made more accurate by eyes in the sky.