Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Saturday, March 20, 2021

Sources of Frontline Intelligence: Aerial Observation from Balloons


Camera-Equipped German Observation Balloon

By Terrence J. Finnegan

With stationary warfare came an immediate requirement for continual observation from the high ground. In this case, the high ground was a man-made captive balloon. Those areas not visually accessible by balloons were covered by airplane. The balloon had an advantage over the airplane with instant telephone connection to the artillery unit or Post of Command (PC). Real-time communication greatly aided rapid targeting response. Balloon observation was dependent on the altitude of the balloon, the range, the atmospheric conditions and the terrain. Balloons were the prized resource for artillery, providing artillery-spotting precision fire against targets out of the limits of ground observation.

Balloons were assigned to support army down to divisional information level requirements. A German balloon detachment was tactically under the command of every division on the fighting front. French and British aligned their balloons units to the army echelon requiring support. American balloons assigned at the army echelon were attached to a "Balloon Group," which reallocated observation to the lower echelons. Balloons supporting divisions helped regulate divisional artillery fire as well as provide surveillance and liaison for the infantry divisions. Balloon reporting covered those targets within the visual range of the platform, to include enemy infantry and artillery activity, enemy aeronautical activity, movements on road and rail and sightings of explosions. 

The Germans created topographical sections [Kartenstelle] to complete observations of the artillery survey sections and evaluate the topographical implications of reconnaissance information from airplanes and balloons.

Source: Over the Top, February 2009

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