Dragons over the Western Front – German Feld-Luftschiffer units in World War 1

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Why I chose the title of “Dragons” over the Western Front will become clear when you have finished reading the article..

Balloons had been in use by the military since the wars of the coalition (1792-1815). In Prussia Balloon troops were became part of the regular army on the 9th of May 1884.

In February 1915 there were only 9 Balloons on the whole Western Front. Balloon troops (Feldluftschiffer) with their cumbersome and heavy equipment were thought to be quite useless in modern, mobile warfare and there were even tries to abolish this arm completely, but after the Battle of the Marne in September 1914 the front froze to a standstill. In Spring 1915 Major Hermann Thomsen, and old and experienced balloonist, wrote an exposé on the “Condition of the field aeronautical service” (“Denkschrift zur Lage der Feldluftschifferei”) which was very well within military circles and by the Kaiser himself. It was due to this that on the 11th of March 1915, by highest order of the cabinet (Allerhöchste Kabinettsorder / AKO), a new army department known as “Chef des Feldflugwesens” (Chief of Field Air Forces) was founded to which all Air Force units, planes, airships, balloons and also the meteorological services were subordinated.

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On the 21st of February 1916 the german army opened its attack on Verdun and the fortresses in front of it. For the first time 12 balloons were used together. AOK 5 built special lines of communications for the balloon units leading to a central “Ballonzentrale” (Ballooncentral) which utilized all incoming reconnaissance reports of the attached balloon units before passing them on to High Command. As every Balloon Platoon only had a single balloon the whole unit was wiped out when the balloon was shot down or damaged. Only after receiving a new one the unit was ready to get into action again. Due to this “Feldluftschiffer-Depots” were set up behind the front which stocked spare balloons and parts to be able to replenish losses fast and efficiently. It was also during the Battle of Verdun where the german Balloon troops suffered the first severe losses when the enemy introduced incendiary ammunition (one of the first victims of this new type of ammo was the airship LZ77 which was shot down on the 21st of February 1916).

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During the Battle of the Somme (24th of June to 26th of November 1916) more than half of the total available FLAs Feldluftschifferabteilungen (Balloon units) were committed. Altogether 18 FLAs with a total of 50 Balloons. For the first time in the war each Army command (A.O.K.) had its own “Ballonzentrale” and for the first time the balloonists received the urgently needed cover by fighter planes as the enemy had finally recognised Balloons and their work as dangerous and important.
The year 1916 had firmly established the new german Luftwaffe and duly appropriated its use and tasks. The enemy aswell has the german army had recognised was Balloons and airships were able to do. On the 8th of October 1916 the german army had 53 FLA (Feldluftschifferabteilungen) with 128 Ballonzügen (Balloon platoons) and 7 Ballonzentralen (Balloon Centrals). FLAs and Balloonzüge were further divided into reconnaissance and combatgroups resulting in a massive rise of their effectiveness. When the use of german airships (Zeppelins) declined in Spring 1917, most of the now available ground personell was transfered to balloon units.  In Summer 1918 the army had 186 Ballonzüge (with 2 Balloons each). During their peak of their effectiveness the Feldluftschiffer units had to pay the ultimate price for it. Losses were brutal. As soon as a balloon was spotted it was fired upon by the enemy. The german Balloon service had risen from a unregarded arm to a much-noticed effective fighting force. Without them tactical close reconnaissance had become impossible.

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Tactical disposition of Balloon units, 1917

Recconaissance photos taken by a german Feldluftschiffer Abteilung

Recconaissance photos taken by a german Feldluftschiffer Abteilung

World War I observation crews, were the first to use parachutes on a wide scale, long before they were adopted by fixed wing aircraft. These were a primitive parachute 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 which lines from the harness attached to the main parachute in the bag. When the balloon crew 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 on a large-scale by the Germans, and then later by the British and French for their observation balloon crews.

The Germans made excellent use of observation balloons in several configurations. An early variety made by Parseval-Sigsfeldand called “Drachen” (Dragon), had a single fin, low centre, and was totally cylindrical, with rounded ends. The British called them sausages, for obvious reasons. The balloon’s shape gave it another nickname, “Nülle” or “Testicle”.

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The Caquot was tear-drop shaped, with three stabilizing fins. The Germans used a copy of a French Caquot, the designation was “Type Ae 800” for Achthundert (800) which was a reference to the cubic meter capacity English, the reason for this being the design was stolen from a captured British balloon design. The improved Caquot could ride higher, and fly in higher winds than the Parseval-Sigsfeld, so it quickly replaced the Drachen, even among the Luftschiffertruppen.

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The observer suspended in the wicker basket typically had a wireless set, binoculars and one or two long-range, cameras with him. Their job was to observe actions on the front and behind it, to spot enemy troop movements, unusual activity of any sort, and to call down artillery fire onto any worthy targets. They were targets of great importance to the British HQ, especially before any sort of infantry action, so squadrons were frequently ordered to target balloons.
This was especially risky as they were well guarded with AA guns, long-range machine guns and a fighter Screen. Getting to the balloon was easy, shooting it up was difficult and getting away was very difficult. It required good nerves, quick reactions, and an all round good pilot to fight their way through the defences, hit the balloon before it is pulled down and then get away again. It was a rule of thumb with British pilots to never go after balloons below 1,000 feet, the AA and mg fire was too dangerous. The balloons could be pulled down very quickly as they were tethered to a motorized winch, so that once a fighter was spotted the balloon could be down in under a minute.

Rare photograph taken by an officer of IR145 at the Somme in 1917, caption reads "One of our balloons under attack" - I would love to know what type of aircraft we have here.

Rare photograph taken by an officer of IR145 at the Somme in 1917, caption reads “One of our balloons under attack” – I would love to know what type of aircraft we have here. Click to enlarge

By the war’s end 241 German observation balloons had been shot down. As a sidenote, one of the last german WW1 veterans to pass away (in 2004), Arno Wagner, was a radio operator and artillery spotter serving a Feldluftschiffer unit.

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