The Australian Boer War Memorial
Anzac Parade Canberra

Air Craft in the Boer War

With the benefit of hindsight there are many ways in which the Boer War in South Africa was a rehearsal for WW1. One was the tactical use of balloons.

Balloon technology had been developed well prior to the Boer War. In 1794 French Revolutionaries used hydrogen balloons to observe movements of Royalist troops. Though successful, the venture was short lived because of the logistical problem of producing enough hydrogen.

Union troops in the American Civil war flew their first balloon on 28 August 1861. Designed and built by Prof Thaddeus Lowe and inflated with coal gas, it was named The Union. President Abraham Lincoln authorised the military experiment to tether it above rifle fire range a little over 305 metres above Washington DC to observe the movements of approaching Confederate troops.

Three weeks later a second balloon with electric wires running up its tether-cable ascended to 305 metres in Virginia. An artillery officer, observing Confederate troops three miles away, directed Union guns by observing the fall of shot, the first recorded use of the telegraph to adjust fire onto targets over-the-horizon from the gun position. Four larger Lowe balloons were then constructed.

A different balloon maker, La Mountain, demonstrated to Union senior officers the advantages of free flight balloon for reconnaissance.

British Army Engineers were quick to see the military possibilities. From 1862 experiments were conducted on balloon envelope fabrics and cheaper ways to produce large volumes of hydrogen in the field quickly.

All existing fabrics allowed hydrogen to escape through microscopic pores. The Royal Engineers found that the fabric used to make children's toy balloons was the least porous. Called 'goldbeaters skin' it was the outer layer of cattle intestines and so called because goldsmiths used it for a bench covering as they hammered gold leaf. The most difficult part was to stitch and cement the skins together for the huge envelopes needed to lift at least one man, his telescope, rangefinder, compass, binoculars and signalling equipment as well as food and water.

The twin problems of storing hydrogen for safe transport in large, high-pressure cylinders and making an effective valve were overcome by 1890.

In 1892 the Royal Engineer's School of Ballooning and the Balloon Factory were set up on the Basingstoke Canal near Laffan's Plain. Before the Boer War broke out on 11 October 1899 the Royal Engineers had established a fully functional balloon centre at Aldershot with Specialist Balloon Sections able to go to South Africa immediately. About 100 balloons were used over the three years of the war.

The 2nd Balloon Section (Major GM Heath) was sent to Ladysmith. They had scarcely arrived when Boer troops besieged the town (on 30 October 1899) trapping them, and preventing supplies of hydrogen and the means of making it. While stocks lasted balloons were tethered at 915 metres and the intelligence about Boer movements was used to bolster the town's defences. In these first days of the war the observer used the heliograph mirror signal system to flash information to the ground. Colonels Knox and Rawlinson, acting on this source of intelligence, were active in reinforcing their defences and attempting sorties against the Boers.

Balloon sections were also sent to the towns of Mafeking and Kimberley after the sieges at both were relieved. All three Balloon Sections then functioned in the field for the duration of the war. They were especially useful in the battles of Modder River and Magesfontein and to locate camps and examine troop dispositions between December 1899 and March 1900. One of their most important but less published roles was to improve the very poor maps the British had at the outbreak of war, to sketch Boer camps and battle dispositions and take the earliest aerial photographs. Often two balloons were sent up within site of each other to provide more accurate survey calculations as well as extend the field of view. They were easily able to communicate with each other and the ground crews.

The first sightings of balloons by Boer soldiers caused fear that they may be used to drop bombs on them. A telegram received at Boer Headquarters only two weeks after the war began read "Balloons – yesterday evening two balloons were seen at Irene [near Pretoria] proceeding in the direction of Springs. Official telegraphists instructed to inform the CIC about any objects seen in the sky." (Lee, 1985 p36)

As a countermeasure the Boers quickly acquired German-made powerful searchlights to scan the night sky.

Boer fear quickly turned into disgust. A Boer soldier, John Lane wrote about the unsporting British use of balloons at the battle of Paardeberg in mid February 1900:

'I have not been able to have a wash since last night, I ventured down to the river. I had just pulled my shirt over my head, happening to look up, my eye caught sight of a big black thing, at first glance it seemed to be right on the top of me, I said, Oh my God, and fell flat on my stomach, thinking it would explode. I then got my senses about me and looked up, and Lo and behold, it was the balloon, appears for the first time since lying around Magersfontein... Some fellows shouted to me to hide away, "Poets kernel" [take cover] they shouted, it does not much matter now, it 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. The balloon kept up for about three hours, it looks very close, but is far out of range. Lots of our men kept firing at it. It is amusing to hear the talk of some of our Burghers such as "do you call this fair play" that damnable big round thing, spying our positions, we would not be so mean to do a thing like this'. Smurthwaite, David: The Boer War 1899-1902: Hamlyn History: London: 1999: p.165.

Sydney Morning Herald War Correspondent Banjo Paterson mentioned balloons three times, (Droogleever, RWF. 2000. From the Front – AB (Banjo) Paterson's Dispatches from the Boer War. Macmillan Australia) p183 (on the same page that he reported Lt Gideon Grieve's death) 23 February 1900 leading up to the British attack at Paardeberg:

"The war balloon has just gone by on a cart swaying in the wind, and as soon as its report comes in we may see another attack on [General] Cronje. p184 on 25 February 1900, as the attack on the Boers at Paardeberg was faltering due to the number of casualties mounting:

"As our [NSW Army Medical Corps] ambulances went along we passed miles of troops, all camped around this one little spot of wagons in the middle of the plain, but none venturing near him [Gen Cronje's 2,000 Boer troops in a laager at Koodoesrand Drift on the Modder River]. The balloon went up as we passed, and rose to about 60 metres in the air, Cronje's men sniping at it vigorously without effect. The man in the balloon telegraphs down a wire directions about the gunnery, and the shells are fired accordingly." p331 on 12 May 1900, describing General French's move across the Zand River on the way to an expected battle at Kroonstad

"Then we heard heavy cannon firing on our right and saw the balloon go up, and knew that there must be a good big engagement close by. ... Our own forces were further back, almost behind us, and we couldn't see much of them except the balloon, which was near the ground and appeared in the distance to be some gigantic vegetable growing out of the veldt."

For transport the Balloon Section needed seven wagons, each with six eight or ten draught horses, to move the Section as a whole. In action the inflated balloon was lashed to a wagon and trundled to a secured launch site. The tether cables, complete with signal wires carrying a small electric current from the bank of Obach cells, unwound as the balloon with its payload of observers and equipment in the basket dangling below it gently rose to the required height with the wagon providing the secure point.

The original unsprung wagons brought from England proved unsuitable in the South African bush, causing damage to delicate Marconi electrical equipment as well as the risks to the balloon envelope. The Royal Engineers built wagons to the Australian pattern, as used in the NSW Army Medical Corps for its ambulances, which featured sophisticated suspension. Within months the Royal Engineers began balloon-to-ground wireless telegraphy and even experimented with voice exchanges, the forerunner of modern air-ground and air-to-air signals.

The Balloons were less useful as the nature of the war changed from full-scale set-piece battles into a guerrilla conflict. Small forces of highly mobile Boers struck strategic targets such as railways and supply convoys. Their intelligence kept them informed where the Balloon Sections were and so largely avoided them.

Despite setbacks, many of the possibilities of warfare in the air had been clearly established in the 1899-1902 Boer War. It would be only some five years until the Wright brothers' extended controlled flight of a powered, fixed-wing, heavier-than-air machine that would continue the evolution, making possible tak-ing warfare into the new dimension.

With their experiences of the uses of balloons in warfare one wonders how many Australian Boer War soldiers went on to join the Central Flying School when it opened at Point Cook in 1912 and took to air warfare with the Australian Flying Corps in German New Guinea at the beginning of WW1. It is quite probable that Boer War veterans served not only in the AFC but continued on to become members of the RAAF when it was formally set up in 1921.


British Army Royal Engineers Balloon

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Keith Smith 28 July 2009

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RUSI of NSW Boer War Battlefields