A reconnaissance balloon launched from USS George

Washington Parke Custis above Potomac River in

November 1861 near Budd’s Ferry.

first time, performed admirably,” commented

Lowe on the first sailing.

Not everything went according to the plans,

as a Union General Fitz John Porter learned.

He was aware of the balloons’ value, so he

joined Lowe to try the new reconnaissance

device. During the operations the balloons

were always anchored to the ground to prevent

them from drifting away. On this flight however,

Porter decided to use the single anchoring

rope to speed up the ascending balloon as

opposed to three or four ropes suggested by

Lowe. This single rope broke, and the balloon

silently drifted over the Confederate territory.

Consequently, it was fired upon, but the crew

remained calm and indeed they managed to

make several sketches of the enemy positions.

Miraculously the balloon then descended back

to the Union positions. The whole event must

have looked like one of Baron Munchhausen

stories. In the middle of 1862 Lowe got infected

with malaria in the swampy terrain and had

to rest to recover. After his return he learned

that all the equipment and resources to operate

the balloons were handed over to the Army. In

May 1863, after disputing his salary followed by

a fall off favor of the Union Army, Lowe left the

Balloon Corps. Brothers Allen were given the

management of the Corps, but they were not

able to lead the unit as effectively as Lowe and

before the year 1863 ended the Balloon Corps

was disbanded.

Photo: archive

very successful and after many modifications

she served as a hydroplanes’ mother ship.

Nevertheless, during WWI she served as

a submarines’ dock. Before the end of the

century several isolated military conflicts took

place. One of those was a continuous push of

the Ottoman Empire troops out of the Balkans.

In 1876, thanks to the Russia’s contribution,

the Turks were pushed out of Bulgaria. In 1878

Austria-Hungary was victorious over BosniaHerzegovina and the Ottoman Empire forces

were withdrawing in other territories except of

Europe. In 1881 Egypt fell under the Great Britain

control. Italians did not want to fall behind. Long

time ago they had set their sight on the north

coast of Africa, Tripoli, and Cyrenaica areas,

nowadays forming most of Libya. The war broke

out on September 29, 1911, and according to the

Italian account went smooth. The fact that in the

beginning of 1912, Bulgaria, Monte Negro, Serbia

and Greece joined Italy certainly contributed to

the success.

So, the Ottoman Empire, in order not to

completely loose its influence in Europe, chose

the lesser evil and gave up Tripoli, Cyrenaica

and Cyprus. The short war, in which Italy lost

1500 soldiers, was the first to feature the

deployment of the modern equipment such

as airships, airplanes and balloon ships. The

first air bombing raid took place as well when

on November 1, 1911, the Italian Lieutenant

Giulio Gavotti, bombed, if it can be called that

way, Tagiura (Jagiura) oasis and the Osman

military camp in Ain Zara. He flew Etrich

Taube monoplane on the raid and used in total

four Cipelli grenades held in the leather sack.

Once he reached the target, he screwed the

detonators in and threw grenades the size of

a grapefruit on the target. Lt. Gavotti was

credited with another first ever mission when

on March 4, 1912, he flew the first night mission,

again in Libya.

The Italian balloon ship Volta, a rebuilt

personal steamer Europa, operated at the

Libyan coast. The special feature of this ship

Giulio Gavotti, Italian aviation pioneer.

was a substructure which could house the

inflated balloon. The naval operations between

Italian and Turkish Navy were fully under the

Italian control. In then Albanian port of Preveza

five Italian destroyers sank four Turkish ones

and on the top of it the Italians captured an

auxiliary vessel. On November 7, 1912, in Kufuda

bay in the Red Sea, Italians destroyed seven

Turkish gun boats and practically eliminated

the Ottoman Navy in the Red Sea. On the top of

it, in the port of Beirut, the Italians destroyed

the old Turkish armored ship Avnillah, torpedo

launcher Angora and six supply tugboats. The

balloon ships did not prove their value and

their role changed from reconnaissance to

defense. They became the floating platforms

for the barrier balloons protecting the ports,

ship convoys or military ships. They formed a

passive defense against the airships’ attacks,

as we will speak about later.

Airplanes arrive on the scene

If we realize the fact that the first flight of

a machine heavier than air is considered a 279

Photo: Touring Club Italiano/Marka

Illustration: via NHHC


Balloon ships

In 1895 French were the first to build the ship

designated specifically for the reconnaissance

balloons. Her name was Foudre, had 6000

tons displacements and could carry two

anchored and one free balloon. She was not


INFO Eduard

Italian Etrich Taube in Libya. Giulio Gavotti flew this type on his “bombing” raid.

July 2023