OBSERVATION balloons, or "Drachen" as the Boches call them,
constitute a most valuable method of espionage upon the movements of an enemy
and at the same time are a most tempting bait to pilots of the opposing
They are huge in size, forming an elongated sausage some two
hundred feet in length and perhaps fifty feet in diameter. They hang swinging
in the sky at a low elevationsome 2,000 feet or under, and are prevented
from making any rapid movements of escape from aeroplane attack by reason of
the long cable which attaches them to their mother-truck on the highway below.
These trucks which attend the balloons are of the ordinary
sizea three-ton motor truck which steers and travels quite like any big
lorry one meets on the streets. On the truck-bed is fastened a winch which lets
out the cable to any desired length. In case of an attack by shell-fire the
truck simply runs up the road a short distance without drawing down the
balloon. When it is observed that the enemy gunners have again calculated its
range another move is made, perhaps back to a point near its former position.
Large as is its bulk and as favorable and steady a target as
it must present to the enemy gunners three miles away, it is seldom indeed that
a hit from bursting shrapnel is recorded.
These balloons are placed along the lines some two miles
back of the front line trenches. From his elevated perch 2,000 feet above
ground, the observer can study the ground and pick up every detail over a
radius of ten miles on every side. Clamped over his ears are telephone
receivers. With his telescope to his eye he observes and talks to the officers
on the truck below him. They in turn inform him of any especial object about
which information is desired. If our battery is firing upon a certain enemy
position, the observer watches for the dropping of the shells and corrects the
faults in aim. If a certain roadway is being dug up by our artillery, the
observer notifies the battery when sufficient damage has been done to render
that road impassable.
Observation balloons are thus a constant menace to
contemplated movements of forces and considered as a factor of warfare they are
of immense importance. Every fifteen or twenty miles along the front both sides
station their balloons, and when one chances to be shot down by an enemy
aeroplane another immediately runs up to take its place.
Shelling by artillery fire being so ineffective it naturally
occurs to every aeroplane pilot that such a huge and unwieldy target must be
easy to destroy from the air. Their cost is many times greater than the value
of an aeroplane. They cannot fight back with any hope of success. All that
seems to be required is a sudden dash by a swift fighting aeroplane, a few
shots with flaming bulletsand the big gas-bag burst into flames. What
could be more simple?
I had been victorious over five or six enemy aeroplanes at
this time and had never received a wound in return. This balloon business
puzzled me and I was determined to solve the mystery attending their continued
service, in the face of so many hostile aeroplanes flying constantly in their
Accordingly, I lay awake many nights pondering over the
stories I had heard about attacking these Drachen, planning just how I should
dive in and let them have a quick burst, sheer off and climb away from their
machine-gun fire, hang about for another dive and continue these tactics until
a sure hit could be obtained.
I would talk this plan over with several of my pilots and
after working out all the details we would try it on. Perhaps we could make 94
Squadron famous for its destruction of enemy balloons. There must be some way
to do it, provided I picked out the right men for the job and gave them a
After discussing the matter with Major Atkinson, our
Commanding Officer, who readily gave me his approval, I sought out Reed
Chambers, Jimmy Meissner, Thorn Taylor and Lieutenant Loomis. These four with
myself would make an ideal team to investigate this proposition.
First we obtained photographs of five German balloons in
their lairs, from the French Observation Squadron. Then we studied the map and
ascertained the precise position each occupied: the nature of the land, the
relative position of the mountains and rivers, the trees and villages in the
vicinity of each, and all the details of their environment.
One by one we visited these balloons, studying from above
the nature of the roadway upon which their mother-trucks must operate, the
height of the trees above this roadway and where the anti-aircraft defenses had
been posted around each Drachen. These latter were the only perils we had to
fear. We knew the reputation of these defenses, and they were not to be
ignored. Since they alone were responsible for the defense of the balloons, we
very well knew that they were unusually numerous and accurate. They would
undoubtedly put up such a thick barrage of bullets around the suspended Drachen
that an aeroplane must actually pass through a steady hailstorm of bullets both
in coming in and in going out.
Willie Coppens, the Belgian Ace, had made the greatest
success of this balloon strafing. He had shot down over a score of German
Drachens and had never received a wound. I knew he armed his aeroplane with
flaming rockets which penetrated the envelope of the gas-bag and burned there
until it was ignited. This method had its advantages and its disadvantages. But
another trick that was devised by Coppens met with my full approval.
This was to make the attack early in the morning or late in
the evening, when visibility was poor and the approach of the buzzing motor
could not be definitely located. Furthermore, he made his attack from a low
level, flying so close to the ground that he could not be readily picked up
from above. As he approached the vicinity of his balloon he zoomed quickly up
and began his attack. If the balloon was being hauled down he met it half-way.
All depended upon the quickness of his attack, and the sureness of his aim.
On June 25th, 1918, my alarm-clock buzzed me awake at 2:30
o'clock sharp. As I was the instigator of this little expedition, I leaped out
of bed with no reluctant regrets and leaned out of my window to get a glimpse
of the sky. It promised to be a fine day!
Rousing out the other four of my party, I telephoned to the
hangars and ordered out the machines. The guns had been thoroughly overhauled
during the night and straight incendiary bullets had been placed in the
magazines. Everything was ready for our first attack and we sat down to a
hurried breakfast, full of excitement and fervor.
The whole squadron got up and accompanied us to the hangars.
We were soon in our flying suits and strapped in our seats. The motors began
humming and then I felt my elation suddenly begin to leak out of me. My motor
was stubborn and would not keep up its steady revolutions. Upon investigation,
I found one magneto absolutely refused to function, leaving me with but one
upon which I could rely! I debated within myself for a few seconds as to
whether I should risk dropping into Germany with a dud motor or risk the
condolences of the present crowd which had gathered to see us off.
The former won in spite of my best judgment. Rather than
endure the sarcasm of the onlookers and the disappointment of my team, I prayed
for one more visitation of my Goddess of Luck and gave the signal to start.
At 4:30 o'clock we left the ground and headed straight into
Germany. I had decided to fly eight or ten miles behind the lines and then turn
and come back at the balloon line from an unexpected quarter, trusting to the
systematic discipline of the German army to have its balloons just beginning to
ascend as we reached them. Each pilot in my party had his own balloon marked
out. Each was to follow the same tactics. We separated as soon as we left the
field, each man following the direction of his own course.
Passing high over Nancy I proceeded northward and soon saw
the irregular lines of the trenches below me. It was a mild morning and very
little activity was discernible on either side. Not a gun was flashing in the
twilight which covered the ground and as far as my eye could reach nothing was
stirring. It was the precise time of day when weary fighters would prefer to
catch their last wink of sleep. I hoped they would be equally deaf to the
sounds of my early humming Nieuport.
Cutting off my motor at 15,000 feet over the lines, I prayed
once more that when the time came to switch on again my one magneto would prove
faithful. It alone stood between me and certain capture. I could not go roaring
along over the sleeping heads of the whole German army and expect to preserve
my secret. By gliding quietly along with silent engine as I passed deeper and
deeper within their territory I could gradually lose my altitude and then turn
and gain the balloon line with comparatively little noise.
" Keep your Spunk UpMagneto, Boy! " I sang to my
engine as I began the fateful glide. I had a mental vision of the precise spot
behind the enemy balloon where I should turn on my switch and there
discoverliberty or death! I would gladly have given my kingdom that
moment for just one more little magneto!
At that moment I was passing swiftly over the little village
of Goin. It was exactly five o'clock. The black outlines of the Bois de Face
lay to my left, nestled along the two arms of the Moselle River. I might
possibly reach those woods with a long glide if my motor failed me at the
ultimate moment. I could crash in the treetops, hide in the forest until dark
and possibly make my way back through the lines with a little luck. Cheery
thoughts I had as I watched the menacing German territory slipping away beneath
And then I saw my balloon! The faithful fellows had not
disappointed me at any rate! Conscientious and reliable men these Germans were!
Up and ready for the day's work at the exact hour I had planned for them! I
flattened out my glide a trifle more, so as to pass their post with the minimum
noise of singing wires. A mile or two beyond them I began a wide circle with my
nose well down. It was a question of seconds now and all would be over. I
wondered how Chambers and Meissner and the others were getting on. Probably at
this very instant they were jubilating with joy over the scene of a flaming bag
of gas !
Finding the earth rapidly nearing me, I viraged sharply to
the left and looked ahead. There was my target floating blandly and
unsuspiciously in the first rays of the sun. The men below were undoubtedly
drinking their coffee and drawing up orders for the day's work that would never
be executed. I headed directly for the swinging target and set my sights dead
on its center. There facing me with rare arrogance in the middle of the balloon
was a huge Maltese Cross the emblem of the Boche balloons. I shifted my
rudder a bit and pointed my sights exactly at the center of the cross. Then I
deliberately pressed both triggers with my right hand, while with my left I
snapped on the switch.
There must be some compartment in one's brain for equalizing
the conflicting emotions that crowd simultaneously upon one at such moments as
this. I realized instantly that I was saved myself, for the motor picked up
with a whole-soured roar the very first instant after I made the contact. With
this life-saving realization came the simultaneous impression that my whole
morning's work and anguish were wasted.
I saw three or four streaks of flame flash ahead of me and
enter the huge bulk of the balloon ahead. Then the flames abruptly ceased.
Flashing bullets were cutting a living circle all around me
too, I noticed. Notwithstanding the subtlety of my stalking approach, the
balloon's defenders had discovered my identity and were all waiting for me. My
guns had both jammed. This, too, I realized at the same instant. I had had my
chance, had shot my bolt, was in the very midst of a fiery furnace that beggars
description and thanks to a benignant providence, was behind a lusty motor that
would carry me home.
Amid all these conflicting impressions which surged upon me
during that brief instant, I distinctly remember that only one poignant feeling
remained in my brain. I had failed in my mission! With the fairest target in
the world before my guns, with all the risks already run and conquered, I had
failed in my mission merely because of a stupid jamming of my guns.
Automatically I had swerved to the right of the suspended
gas-bag and grazed helplessly by the distended sides of the enemy Drachen. I
might almost have extended my hand and cut a hole in its sleek envelope, it
occurred to me, as I swept by. The wind had been from the east, so I knew that
the balloon would stretch away from its supporting cable and leave it to the
right. More than one balloon strafer has rushed below his balloon and crashed
headlong into the inconspicuous wire cable which anchors it to the ground.
I had planned out every detail with the utmost success. The
only thing I had failed in was the expected result. Either the Boche had some
material covering their Drachens that extinguished my flaming bullets, or else
the gas which was contained within them was not as highly inflammable as I had
been led to believe. Some three or four bullets had entered the sides of the
balloonof this I was certain. Why had they failed to set fire to it ?
Later on I was to discover that flaming bullets very
frequently puncture observation balloons without producing the expected blaze.
The very rapidity of their flight leaves no time for the ignition of the gas.
Often in the early dawn the accumulated dews and moisture in the air serve so
to dampen the balloon's envelope that hundreds of incendiary bullets penetrate
the envelope without doing more damage than can be repaired with a few strips
of adhesive plaster.
As I doggedly flew through the fiery curtain of German
bullets and set my nose for home I was conscious of a distinct feeling of
admiration for the Belgian Willie Coppens. And since he had demonstrated that
balloon strafing had in fact a possibility of success, I was determined to
investigate this business until I too had solved its mysteries.
Then I began to laugh to myself at an occurrence that until
then I had had no time to consider. As I began firing at the sausage, the
German observer who had been standing in his basket under the balloon with his
eyes glued to his telescope, had evidently been taken entirely by surprise. The
first intimation he had of my approach was the bullets which preceded me. At
the instant he dropped his telescope he dived headlong over the side of his
basket with his parachute. He did not even pause to look around to see what
danger threatened him.
Evidently the mother-truck began winding up the cable at the
same time, for as the observer jumped for his life the balloon began to descend
upon him. I caught the merest glimpse of his face as I swept past him, and
there was a mingled look of terror and surprise upon his features that almost
compensated me for my disappointment.
On my way homeward I flew directly towards a French
observation balloon that swung on the end of its cable in my path. Without
considering the consequences of my act, I sheered in and passed quite close to
the Frenchman who was staring at me from his suspended basket.
Suddenly the Froggy leaped headlong from his perch and
clutching his parachute rope with his two hands began a rapid descent to earth.
And not until then did I realize that coming directly at him, head on from
Germany as I did, he had no way of reading my cocards which were painted
underneath my wings. He had decided that I was a Boche and did not care to take
any chances at a jump with a blazing gas-bag about his ears.
Fortunately for me, the French gunners below could read my
bright insignias from the ground and they suffered me to pass, without taking
any revenge for the trick I had played upon their comrade.
Arriving at the aerodrome at five-forty-five, I found that I
was the last of my little party of balloon strafers to land. The other four
were standing together, looking rather sheepishly in my direction as I walked
" Well, what luck? " I enquired as I came up to them. Nobody
spoke. " I thought I saw a big blaze over in your direction, Jimmy! " I went
on, addressing myself to Lieutenant Meissner. " Did you get him? "
" No! " replied Jimmy disgustedly. " The balloon was not up
in the air at all. I didn't get a sight of it. I didn't even see where they had
" Did you get yours, Reed ? " I asked, turning to Chambers.
" H--- , no! " retorted Lieutenant Chambers emphatically. "
I shot the thing full of holes, but she wouldn't drop."
The other two pilots had much the same stories. One had
failed to find his balloon and the other had made an attack but it had brought
no results. All had been subjected to a defensive fire that had quite reversed
their opinions of the Archibald family.
" I suppose you burned yours all right, Rick? " said Reed
Chambers rather enviously as we walked up to the mess together. " What do you
think of us fellows anyway ? "
" I think, Reed," replied I, " that we are the rottenest lot
of balloonatical fakers that ever got up at two-thirty in the morning. But I am
happy to discover," I added, thinking of my one puny magneto, " that none of us
had to land in Germany."
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