Balloon Overboard

HMS Benbow & balloon 1916 AWM P02418.003.jpeg
“England. c. 1916. A partially inflated observation balloon is tethered to the deck of the battleship HMS Benbow. Amongst the naval personnel viewing the balloon during the feasibility trials are members of the Royal Naval Air Service.”

Battleships & Balloons Allied ships rarely towed barrage balloons in WW1, because there was only a minimal (at most) heavier-than-air threat. 

While there was a balloon barrage deployed over the London area, it functioned in a different manner than that employed in WW2. There is actually a cable barrage strung BETWEEN the individual balloons (with the barrage cables trailing below the linking cables). It was cumbersome, and very dependent on all (or most) of the balloons being maintained on station.

The Battle of Jutland by Hadrian Jeffs

For obvious reasons, such a barrage was impractical at sea.

WWI kite observation balloon

On a moving vessel, observation balloons were tricky beasts, requiring large handling parties, and reacting badly if the ship maneuvered violently. 

They were also susceptible to all kinds of weather conditions, and not just high winds. 

Thunderstorms were an obvious danger, and not just to the basket party; any electrical build-up in the air would naturally earth down the mooring/telephone cable, particularly if the envelope had got wet. 

May be an image of outdoors and text that says 'Photo # NH 45440 USS Nevada at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, with a 'Kite" balloon, 1919'

The envelopes were particularly prone to generating a static charge, not least because of the various techniques employed to make them as gas tight as possible.

Doubtless some executive branch officers thought balloons were another way to keep the lower decks physically fit (provided that they didn’t lose fingers or break bones). Of course, even more doubtless the lower decks had their own views on the subject, expressed in that second language in which all British seamen are fluent; Vernacular Profanity sotto voce.

No photo description available.
A kite balloon. Used for watching out for U-boats. Basically a sea-going version of a Cacquot-type.

Balloons & Fleet Action

The kite balloon would have been of very limited value in a fleet action, as balloon and ship would have posed more a threat to each other than there would have been a value to be obtained from the arrangement.

First and foremost, the presence of the balloon would have restricted (unpredictably) the firing arc of the aft guns, while being vulnerable to flash and concussion.

For shore bombardment, when the ship might be expected to maintain enough seaway to keep the balloon stable, then there would have been more obvious benefits.

It still would have been unpleasant for the balloon and winch crews if there was return fire (the winch had no protection), not least with dozens of gas cylinders lying around. Even so, the purpose of spotting from above, is that the spotters be above the target, so they can observe the fall of shot clearly, rather than above the ship firing.

Written by Hadrian Jeffs

No photo description available.

Battleships & Balloons