The Pioneering Years






It is important for military commanders to be aware of the activities of an enemy, to direct gunfire and to attempt to establish an opponent’s hostile intentions. Before aerial surveillance this could only be gleaned from reconnaissance on the ground or by commanding the heights


Between 1862 and 1873, two Royal Engineer officers – Captains Grover and Beaumont – carried out experiments at their own expense using balloons for military purposes. Official development by the British Army began in 1878, prompted by the successful use of balloons during the American Civil War and French Revolutionary Wars. Captain (later Colonel) Templer and Captain Lee were appointed to undertake trials and were given a grant of £150 for the construction of a balloon called Pioneer.

The Balloon Establishment was initially located in Woolwich before moving to Chatham in 1882 to become the School of Ballooning. In 1890, the Balloon Section and Depot was formed and became the first air unit in the British Army. During 1891- 1892 it moved to Aldershot with the School of Ballooning.

In 1885, a detachment under Major Elsdale with Lieutenant Trollope went to Africa with the Bechuanaland Expedition and, in the same year, another detachment under Major Templer went to the Sudan. Three Balloon Sections were sent to South Africa for the Boer War (1899-1902) with thirty balloons serving in Natal, the Transvaal and the Orange Free State.

With peace, the establishment of the Balloon Branch was set at five Sections and, in 1905, their designation was changed from Section to Company. Lieutenant-Colonel (later Major-General) Capper was appointed Officer Commanding.

Observation by balloon was not wholly successful. They were fragile, vulnerable in strong winds and operated tethered to the ground from fixed locations. Although they could be moved, this was dependent on horse-drawn equipment.

Man-lifting Kites:

Man-lifting Kites provided a solution to the problems presented by balloons. The system was designed by Samuel Cody, a civilian and an American by birth, who became Chief Instructor in kiting for the Army. The kites, sometimes used in multiples for added lift, were added to the inventory of the Balloon Companies in 1906 and these composite Companies, equipped with kites and balloons, continued to provide aerial reconnaissance.


The invention of the internal combustion engine enabled the development of powered airships, with control surfaces, called “dirigibles”. These were more manoeuvrable and much more flexible than balloons but were still vulnerable to strong winds. The Balloon Factory moved to the open areas of Laffans Plain on Farnborough Common where space was available to use and develop this new form of air power for aerial observation.

The first Army airship was Dirigible No.1, named “Nulli Secundus”, and made its first public appearance in October, 1907, with Capper at the controls and Cody assisting by controlling the engine. It flew from Aldershot to London but had to land at the Crystal Palace, headwinds preventing a return to Farnborough. Eventually, it was deflated and returned by road. It was re-constructed to an improved design and re-appeared in July the following year. Army airship development continued up to 1914 and examples named Beta, Baby, Gamma and Delta appeared in successive years from 1909
By 1908 Samuel Cody had designed and built a full-scale aeroplane which was fitted with a 50hp Antoinette engine and later designated British Army Aeroplane No.1. He made the first sustained aeroplane flight in the United Kingdom on 12th October of that year and the one hundredth anniversary of that event was celebrated in 2008 when a replica of the aircraft was unveiled at Farnborough.

The War Office prohibited further experiments with aeroplanes because of the cost until it was realised that both the French and Germans were making good progress with heavier-than-air aircraft. British military aircraft trials, held at Larkhill on Salisbury Plain in July 1912, were won by one of Cody’s aircraft which was purchased for the Royal Flying Corps.

Samuel Cody:

Samuel Cody was born Samuel Franklin Cowdery in Iowa in 1867. He had a colourful life, starting out as a cowboy and Wild West performer, his adopted name being that of a well-known showman of the time.

He settled in England in 1896 where he developed his patent kites, variants of which eventually led, via a series of gliders, to his powered aeroplane. After many modifications this aircraft completed the first-ever powered aeroplane flight in Britain.

In August 1913 Cody was testing another of his aeroplanes which broke up in the air, killing him and his passenger. Such was his public esteem that he was given a ceremonial funeral in Aldershot.

You can learn more about the battles the Royal Engineers Balloon Section took part in here.


Siege of Ladysmith (Boer War)


Anniversary of the Siege of Ladysmith – 2 November 1899

Early in the Second Boer War (1899-1902), the British won had two small battles in the state of Natal, South Africa. However, rather than pushing forward, they instead retired to the town of Ladysmith, abandoning vast amounts of captured stores, arms, ammunition and even 30-40 Boer prisoners, who were simply left to wander back to their units. Seizing this opportunity, nearby Boer forces began to slowly surround the town. The Royal Engineers No. 2 Balloon Section arrived at Ladysmith on 27 October 1899, joining the garrison just before the town was completely cut off by the encircling Boer troops.Ladysmith, situated around 200 miles southeast of Johannesburg, was the ideal place for a peacetime supply depot but not an easy place to defend. It sat at the centre of a small plain surrounded by hills that were too far away to be included in a defensive perimeter, but close enough for an enemy to mount guns on. The first shell landed in Ladysmith on the morning of 30 October, and shelling continued daily from then on. However, it was relatively ineffective; of the nearly 600 deaths during the siege, only 59 were from shelling. Early the same morning, two advances were made by British troops in an attempt force the Boer artillery away from the heights that surrounded the town.One force was sent to take Long Hill, a rise five miles to the northeast of Ladysmith. As dawn broke, the British force found itself on Lombard’s Kop, another hill, halfway between Ladysmith and their objective. Out of position, the British troops came under fire from Boer muskets and artillery from the surrounding heights. One balloon was quickly inflated and used to direct artillery fire in reply, which successfully silenced the Boer guns for most of the morning. Hours of confusion and miscommunication followed and eventually, with no chance of a successful attack on Long Hill, the British troops retreated back towards the town. However, on the plain between Lombard’s Kop and Ladysmith, the troops again came under heavy fire from the Boer artillery, and the retreat became a full-blown rout.A second force had been sent out during the night towards the heights at Nicholson’s Nek, north of Ladysmith. However the Boers capitalised on the ponderous nature of this advance, and occupied the higher ground before sunrise to leave the British outmanoeuvred and outgunned once more. Heavy fighting ensued and the British steadily lost men throughout the morning. They were eventually overcome as they ran out of ammunition, suffering around 150 casualties, and with over 800 men taken prisoner.The siege of Ladysmith began in earnest on 2 November, with around 8,000 British troops inside the town. No. 2 Balloon Section operated continuously for the next 27 days, providing valuable reconnaissance information and directing artillery fire onto Boer positions on the surrounding hillsides. An officer of the garrison, Colonel Rawlinson, commented that:“I went up in a balloon to 1,600 feet and got a splendid view… the Boers seem to be scattered all over the country around us, and not in any great numbers anywhere. [The Boer] camp is visible about half a mile behind Pepworth Hill.”The Section only ceased balloon operations when they ran out of hydrogen gas for their balloons. Without the ability to replenish their stores, they reverted back to a standard Royal Engineer unit and worked on the defences on Platrand Ridge, to the south of Ladysmith.It was on Platrand Ridge that the only major attempt to capture Ladysmith occurred. The two-and-a-half mile ridge was manned by only 1,000 men and, early on 6 January, the Boers attacked in force. Fierce fighting raged over the slopes throughout the morning and British reserves had to be sent up from Ladysmith to help the defences hold. A heavy rainstorm eventually ended the attack, with the British suffering 417 casualties, while around 100 Boers lay dead. It was the last major offensive operation of either side during the siege.General Sir Redvers Buller’s relief column had set out from Cape Town the previous November to lift the siege and, having fought four major battles en route, eventually broke through in late February. The vanguard rode into Ladysmith just before sunset on28 February, with Buller’s relief of the town coming at the cost of nearly 2,000 of the men under his command. Contentiously, the Boer forces were allowed to simply slip away unchallenged after the siege, and within a week Ladysmith had returned to life as a small, sleepy provincial town.

Battle of Magersfontein (Boer War)


Anniversary of the Battle of Magersfontein11 December 1899

The Royal Engineers No. 1 Balloon Section landed at Cape Town on 22 November 1899, and was the second Balloon Section to arrive in South Africa during the Second Boer War. Equipped with 11 balloons, mostly of the ‘T’ 10,000 cubic feet class, they were ordered north on 5 December to join up with the British 1st Division.The 1st Division, under the command of Lord Methuen, was advancing towards the town of Kimberley in an attempt to relieve the siege which had begun there on 14 October. They were following the Cape-Transvaal railway and, in an attempt to delay the advance, the Boers destroyed the bridge at the Modder River, some 16 miles from Kimberley. While the British constructed a pontoon bridge, the Boers had time to reinforce and entrench themselves across the road and railway at Magersfontein, on the north side of the river.No. 1 Section arrived on 9 December, just as Methuen was completing the plan for his attack. Poor weather meant that no balloon ascents were made before the assault. Communication with the garrison at Kimberley indicated that there was no immediate rush, as the town was not in danger of falling, so to wait for the weather to clear the next morning and use the balloons to reconnaissance the enemy positions would not have come at any cost. However Methuen had little faith in his light cavalry or his new balloons, and didn’t perform any reconnaissance at all, simply estimating the enemy numbers and guessing their likely positions.Assuming the Boers had taken up defensive positions on the crest of the hills at Magersfontein, a two hour British bombardment began late on 10 November. This was assumed to be successful in both demoralising Boer troops and severely damaging their positions. In actuality, the Boers had entrenched at the base of the heights, rather than the usual positions on the crest of the hills. The Boer commanders knew this would protect their troops from the expected artillery bombardment, and also give them the element of surprise when faced with the standard British advance under cover of darkness.In the early hours of 11 December, the Highland Brigade moved off in the rain towards the hills at Magersfontein. The Highlanders advanced in a dense rectangle of 4,000 men, with the plan to disperse their ranks when they approached the Boer positions. However this order was never given and the Highlanders were still groping in the half-light of dawn when the Boers opened fire at close range from their concealed positions. The results were disastrous, and in the following chaos the Boers poured rapid-fire into the British lines, decimating the Brigade. As the fierce fighting continued into the morning, many British troops decided it was safer to stay in position than try and withdraw.At 11:00, the weather cleared and the balloon Titania was ordered up as the Gordon Highlanders advanced to support the remnants of the Highland Brigade. Titania noted the Boer positions and trenches at the base of the heights, but it was too late to prevent the Gordons suffering much the same fate as the first assault.No. 1 Section continued with observations and direction of artillery fire throughout the day, even identifying Boer reinforcements coming up from Abon Dam and Spyfontein in time for the British to react accordingly. The value of this work by No. 1 Section was even begrudgingly acknowledged in Methuen’s dispatches after the battle.However, the battle at Magersfontein was effectively lost before it began, and the British fell back to their camp at Modder River in disgrace the following morning. The total British casualties were 971 men.The week of the 10-17 December became known as ‘Black Week’; as well as the defeat at Magersfontein, the British also suffered heavy losses at the battles at Stomberg and Colenso. These defeats led a large amount of reinforcements being sent to South Africa in an attempt to salvage the situation. Kimberley was eventually relieved on 15 February 1900, and a major Boer army was defeated and forced to surrender at Paardeberg on 27 February. This was largely due to the pounding the Boers had taken from British artillery, which had been directed by the balloons of No. 1 Section.

Battle of PAADERBERG DRIFT (Boer War)


Anniversary of the Battle of Paardeberg Drift18 February 1900

During the Second Boer War, the town of Kimberley was besieged by Boer troops for 123 days. This siege was finally lifted on 15 February 1900, when British cavalry under General John French forced their way into the town after an audacious charge through the Boer lines. The Boers forces that had encircled the town began to retreat northwards, and the 5,000 Boers that were also dug in at nearby Magersfontein also decided to withdraw; their position had served to delay the main British force from reaching Kimberley and had fought them to a standstill the previous December. This force of 5,000 Boer commandos and their families were led by Piet Cronjé, and they began to head east, up the Modder Valley, to blockade the route to the town of Bloemfontein in the north.By 17 February, Cronjé’s force had reached Paadeberg Drift, some 30 miles from Magersfontein, and the only nearby crossing of the Modder River. While still on the northern bank, the Boers came under unexpected attack from French’s cavalry. After a brief rest at Kimberley, French had been ordered to head off the Boers heading east. Although outnumbered four-to-one, the British cavalry’s surprise panicked the Boers, and allowed them to contain them on the banks of the Modder until the main element of the British force arrived at nightfall. The following morning, Cronjé elected to dig in, and began earthworks and trenches to create a defensive line some two miles long. Wagons were drawn up near the drift itself to create a laager (a ‘wagon-fort’) in the centre, as a defensive centre point and an enclosure for the animals that were travelling with the Boer force.The commander of the British Forces, Field Marshal Lord Roberts was taken ill before the engagement began in earnest, so command passed to his Chief-of-Staff, Lord Kitchener. Kitchener’s belief was that the capture of laager would allow him to crush the Boer forces trapped at the Drift; he ordered that it was to be taken at all costs. By the end of a day of bitter and exhaustive fighting in the dust and the heat, both sides were exhausted and had taken heavy casualties. Hundreds of dead oxen and horses lay in the laager, which had been pummelled with artillery fire and wave after wave of the British assault, but which had eventually held out. The British had suffered nearly 1,300 casualties, with over 300 men killed or mortally wounded. These were the greatest losses suffered by Imperial forces on a single day during the entirety of the war.Kitchener wanted to renew the assault the next day but Roberts, appalled with the losses and wishing to preserve the lives of his remaining men, reassumed command and decided to pound the trapped Boers into submission with barrage after barrage of artillery. He offered Cronjé the chance to surrender and, when that was refused, the British artillery began its assault. Nearly fifty guns were trained on the laager and the Boer trench works along the river bank, while the Boers only had five to reply with.The Royal Engineer No. 1 Balloon Section arrived at Paardeberg Drift early on 22February, and set up on the south bank of the Modder River, around 1,000 yards from the enemy trenches. The next morning the Duchess of Connaught balloon was filled with hydrogen and, although high winds prevented any ascents until the afternoon, a series of sketches were made of the Boer positions from which a fire plan was made. Over the following days, many more ascents were made, with the observers continually sketching the enemy positions and the directing artillery fire onto them. Communication with the ground was made via signal flags, and No. 1 Section’s observations pinpointed the fire of the guns to ensure direct hits were made whenever and wherever possible. The diary of a Boer in the laager stated that “… [the balloon] is all up, they will now be able to find out every hole and position we are in and will pour in a hell of shells.”Ascents were usually made under rifle fire, and on 26 February the Duchess of Connaught was punctured by enemy gunshots and began to leak badly. By this point, conditions in the laager had become unbearable; the dead animals and men were polluting the river, so disease was rife and food was scarce. Cronjé eventually declared that he would surrender, and did so with the 4,000 remaining Boers on the morning of 27 February. It was their first major setback since the fighting began, and the work of No. 1 Section had helped secure an important victory for the British Forces in South Africa.

Battle at Fourteen Streams (Boer War)


Anniversary of the Battle at Fourteen Streams24 April 1900

The final Royal Engineers Balloon Section to arrive in South Africa was No. 3 Section, which disembarked at Cape Town on 30 March 1900. By this time the town of Mafeking, far to the north, was the only town still under siege by Boer troops.While the main British force advanced towards Johannesburg, a column of troops under the command of Lord Methuen was detached to move northwards along a branch of the South African railway which led to Rhodesia. This railway line also passed through the besieged Mafeking. No. 3 Section caught up with Methuen’s column on 23 April at Warrenton, where the railway crossed the VaalRiver at a place called Fourteen Streams. Here, around 180 miles southwest of Mafeking, the column was being temporarily held up by a considerable force of Boer commandos that were occupying the opposite bank.At 06:00 the following morning, the balloon Thrush was sent up on the first of many ascents. The observer reported the positions of the enemy artillery and also the reassuring statement that there was no sign of any enemy attempts to mount an attack on the British flanks. The weather gradually improved throughout the day, and Thrush was able to continue observing until the setting sun and the falling darkness brought its ascents to a close. This pattern continued over the following days, with the balloon constantly reporting on the movement of enemy troops. The observers also commented on the extent of the damage to the bridge across the Vaal, which was information that scouts on the ground had been unable to obtain.Artillery played a major role at Fourteen Streams, and No. 3 Section rendered valuable assistance by directing the fire of the British guns. A six-inch gun mounted on a railway wagon was brought up from the south to provide increased firepower and an extended range of seven-and-a-half miles. Two of the targets chosen for its attention were not visible from the ground, so its fire was directed exclusively by the balloon. The wagon was drawn up alongside so the observer could shout down to the battery commander any adjustments when the shots fell short.The next day, the gun and balloon were moved a mile forward, which brought them within range of the Boer artillery. With the balloon acting as a clear target marker, the gun itself came under direct fire. However, the balloon immediately identified the positions of the enemy guns responsible, and a dozen rounds from the six-incher suppressed the Boer guns for the day. The duel recommenced the following morning, but the same approach was adopted, this time silencing the Boer artillery for good.As the action at Fourteen Streams was unfolding, a flying relief column was assembled under Colonel Bryan Mahon at Barclay West, some 40 miles to the southwest. On4 May, this force rode out to specifically relieve Mafeking. A few days later the column passed to the west of Fourteen Streams, and later reporting that they could see the balloon aloft and hear the shelling from the six-incher.On 7 May, the Boer positions at Fourteen Streams were attacked in force and by the end of the day the resistance had collapsed and the Boers were in full retreat. With no prospect of any further immediate action, the balloon was deflated on 9 May, and the engagement at Fourteen Streams was concluded.On the evening of 16 May, a patrol of ten men from the flying column rode into Mafeking; the siege was lifted the next day as the main body of Mahon’s force marched into town. In all, 212 people had been killed during the siege, with a further 600 wounded, although the cost to the Boer troops had been much higher, at around 2,000 casualties.The relief of Mafeking followed those of Ladysmith and Kimberley, and was the cause of great rejoicing back in the United Kingdom. The war, however, dragged on for another two years and, with a shift to guerrilla warfare, the Balloon Sections became less effective in the latter stages. They had, however, proved their value, and highlighted the advantages of aerial observations and fire control to the troops on the ground in the heat of battle.

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