This historic newsreel compilation “Nieuports and Balloons” shows footage of balloon busters, military pilots known for destroying enemy observation balloons. These pilots were noted for their fearlessness. Seventy-seven flying aces in World War I were each credited with destroying five or more balloons, and thus were balloon aces.
An observation balloon was both a vulnerable and a valuable target: the balloon was moored in a stationary position and was lifted by flammable hydrogen gas, whose use was necessitated by the scarcity of helium reserves among European powers. The observer, suspended in the wicker basket beneath, typically had a wireless transmitter, binoculars and/or a long-range camera. His job was to observe actions on the front-line and behind it, to spot enemy troop movements or unusual activity of any sort, and to call down artillery fire onto any worthwhile targets. Balloon observers were consequently targets of great importance to both sides, especially before any sort of infantry action or offensive, so individual pilots, flights or whole squadrons were frequently ordered to attack balloons, either in an attempt to destroy them or at least disrupt their observation activities. Pilots on both sides tried to attack from a height that could enable them to fire without getting too close to the hydrogen and pull away fast. They were also cautioned not to go below 1000 feet in order to avoid machine gun and AA fire.
Due to their importance, balloons were usually given heavy defenses in the form of machine gun positions on the ground, anti-aircraft artillery, and standing fighter patrols stationed overhead. Other defenses included surrounding the main balloon with barrage balloons; stringing cables in the air in the vicinity of the balloons; putting machine guns in gondolas for observers to use; and flying balloons booby-trapped with explosives that could be remotely detonated from the ground. These measures made balloons very dangerous targets to approach.
Although balloons were occasionally shot down by small-arms fire, generally it was difficult to shoot down a balloon with solid bullets, particularly at the distances and altitude involved. Ordinary bullets would pass relatively harmlessly through the hydrogen gas bag, merely holing the fabric. Hits on the wicker car could however kill the observer.
One method employed was the solid-fuel Le Prieur rocket invented by Frenchman Lt. Yves Le Prieur and first used in April 1916. Rockets were attached to each outboard strut of a biplane fighter aircraft and fired through steel tubes using an electrical trigger. The rockets’ inaccuracy was such that pilots had to fly very close to their target before firing.
It was not until special Pomeroy incendiary bullets and Buckingham flat-nosed incendiary bullets became available on the Western Front in 1917 that any consistent degree of success was achieved. Le Prieur rockets were withdrawn from service in 1918 once incendiary bullets had become available.
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This film is part of the Periscope Film LLC archive, one of the largest historic military, transportation, and aviation stock footage collections in the USA. Entirely film backed, this material is available for licensing in 24p HD and 2k. For more information visit http://www.PeriscopeFilm.com