“A Balloon Attack” by James Norman Hall

World War I:
American volunteer pilots in the Lafayette Escadrille of the French air service target German observation balloons behind enemy lines in Hall’s wry – and, at times, beautiful – first-hand account of flying in the First World War.
-The Voice before the Void

“A Balloon Attack”

from High Adventure: A Narrative of Air Fighting in France

James Norman Hall

“I’m looking for two balloonatics,” said Talbott, as he came into the messroom; “and I think I’ve found them.”

Percy, Talbott’s orderly, Tiffin the steward, Drew, and I were the only occupants of the room. Percy is an old légionnaire, crippled with rheumatism. His active service days are over. Tiffin’s working hours are filled with numberless duties. He makes the beds, and serves food from three to five times daily to members of the Escadrille Lafayette. These two being eliminated, the identity of the balloonatics was plain.

“The orders have just come,” Talbott added, “and I decided that the first men I met after leaving the bureau would be balloonatics. Virtue has gone into both of you. Now, if you can make fire come out of a Boche sausage, you will have done all that is required. Listen. This is interesting. The orders are in French, but I will translate as I read:—

On the umteenth day of June, the escadrilles of Groupe de Combat Blank [that’s ours] will cooperate in an attack on the German observation balloons along the sector extending from X to Y. The patrols to be furnished are: (1) two patrols of protection, of five avions each, by the escadrilles Spa. 87 and Spa. 12; (2) four patrols of attack, of three avions each, by the escadrilles Spa. 124 [that’s us], Spa. 93, Spa. 10, and Spa. 12.

The attack will be organized as follows: on the day set, weather permitting, the two patrols of protection will leave the field at 10.30 A.M. The patrol of Spa. 87 will rendezvous over the village of N——. The patrol of protection of Spa. 12 will rendezvous over the village of C——. At 10.45, precisely, they will start for the lines, crossing at an altitude of thirty-five hundred metres. The patrol furnished by Spa. 87 will guard the sector from X to T, between the town of O—— and the two enemy balloons on that sector. The patrol furnished by Spa. 12 will guard the sector from T to Y, between the railway line and the two enemy balloons on that sector. Immediately after the attack has been made, these formations will return to the aerodrome.

At 10.40 A.M. the four patrols of attack will leave the field, and will rendezvous as follows. [Here followed the directions.] At 10.55, precisely, they will start for the lines, crossing at an approximate altitude of sixteen hundred metres, each patrol making in a direct line for the balloon assigned to it. Numbers 1 and 2 of each of these patrols will carry rockets. Number 3 will fly immediately above them, offering further protection in case of attack by enemy aircraft. Number 1 of each patrol will first attack the balloon. If he fails, number 2 will attack. If number 1 is successful, number 2 will then attack the observers in their parachutes. If number 1 fails, and number 2 is successful, number 3 will attack the observers. The patrol will then proceed to the aerodrome by the shortest route.

Squadron commanders will make a return before noon to-day, of the names of pilots designated by them for their respective patrols.

In case of unfavorable weather, squadron commanders will be informed of the date to which the attack has been postponed.

Pilots designated as numbers 1 and 2 of the patrols of attack will be relieved from the usual patrol duty from this date. They will employ their time at rocket shooting. A target will be in place on the east side of the field from 1.30 P.M. to-day.

“Are there any remarks?” said Talbott, as if he had been reading the minutes at a debating-club meeting.

“Yes,” said J. B. “When is the umteenth of June?”

“Ah, mon vieux! that’s the question. The commandant knows, and he isn’t telling. Any other little thing?”

I suggested that we would like to know which of us was to be number 1.

“That’s right. Drew, how would you like to be the first rocketeer?”

“I’ve no objection,” said J. B., grinning as if the frenzy of balloonaticking had already got into his blood.

“Right! that’s settled. I’ll see your mechanicians about fitting your machines for rockets. You can begin practice this afternoon.”

Percy had been listening with interest to the conversation.

“You got some nice job, you boys. But if you bring him down, there will be a lot of chuckling in the trenches. You won’t hear it, but they will all be saying, ‘Bravo! Épatant!’ I’ve been there. I’ve seen it and I know. Does ’em all good to see a sausage brought down. ‘There’s another one of their eyes knocked out,’ they say.”

“Percy is right,” said J. B. as we were walking down the road. “Destroying a balloon is not a great achievement in itself. Of course, it’s so much equipment gone, so much expense added to the German war-budget. That is something. But the effect on the infantrymen is the important thing. Boche soldiers, thousands of them, will see one of their balloons coming down in flame. They will be saying, ‘Where are our airmen?’ like those old poilus we met at the station when we first came out. It’s bound to influence morale. Now let’s see. The balloon, we will say, is at sixteen hundred metres. At that height it can be seen by men on the ground within a radius of—” and so forth and so on.

We figured it out approximately, estimating the numbers of soldiers, of all branches of service, who would witness the sight. Multiplying this number by four, our conclusion was that, as a result of the expedition, the length of the war and its outcome might very possibly be affected. At any rate, there would be such an ebbing of German morale, and such a flooding of French, that the way would be opened to a decisive victory on that front.

But supposing we should miss our sausage? J. B. grew thoughtful.

“Have another look at the orders. I don’t remember what the instructions were in case we both fail.”

I read, “If number 1 fails and number 2 is successful, number 3 will attack the observers. The patrol will then proceed to the aerodrome by the shortest route.”

This was plain enough. Allowance could be made for one failure, but two—the possibility had not even been considered.

“By the shortest route.” There was a piece of sly humor for you. It may have been unconscious, but we preferred to believe that the commandant had chuckled as he dictated it. A sort of afterthought, as much as to say to his pilots, “Well, you young bucks, you would-be airmen: thought it would be all sport, eh? You might have known. It’s your own fault. Now go out and attack those balloons. It’s possible that you may have a scrap or two on your hands while you are at it. Oh, yes, by the way, coming home, you’ll be down pretty low. Every Boche machine in the air will have you at a disadvantage. Better return by the shortest route.”

One feature of the programme did not appeal to us greatly, and this was the attack to be made on the observers when they had jumped with their parachutes. It seemed as near the border line between legitimate warfare and cold-blooded murder as anything could well be.

“You are armed with a machine-gun. He may have an automatic pistol. It will require from five to ten minutes for him to reach the ground after he has jumped. You can come down on him like a stone. Well, it’s your job, thank the Lord! not mine,” said Drew.

It was my job, but I insisted that he would be an accomplice. In destroying the balloon, he would force me to attack the observers. When I asked Talbott if this feature of the attack could be eliminated he said:—

“Certainly. I have instructions from the commandant touching on this point. In case any pilot objects to attacking the observers with machine-gun fire, he is to strew their parachutes with autumn leaves and such field-flowers as the season affords. Now, listen! What difference, ethically, is there, between attacking one observation officer in a parachute, and dropping a ton of bombs on a train-load of soldiers? And to kill the observers is really more important than to destroy the balloon. If you are going to be a military pilot, for the love of Pete and Alf be one!”

He was right, of course, but that didn’t make the prospect any the more pleasant.

The large map at the bureau now had greater interest for us than ever. The German balloons along the sector were marked in pictorially, with an ink line, representing the cable, running from the basket of each one down to the exact spot on the map from which they were launched. Under one of these, “Spa. 124” was printed, neatly, in red ink. It was the farthest distant from our lines of the four to be attacked, and about ten kilometres within German-held territory. The cable ran to the outskirts of a village situated on a railroad and a small stream. The location of enemy aviation fields was also shown pictorially, each one represented by a minute sketch, very carefully made, of an Albatross biplane. We noticed that there were several aerodromes not far distant from our balloon.

After a survey of the map, the commandant’s afterthought, “by the shortest route,” was not so needless as it appeared at first. The German positions were in a salient, a large corner, the line turning almost at right angles. We could cross them from the south, attack our balloon, and then, if we wished, return to French territory on the west side of the salient.

“We may miss some heavy shelling. If we double on our tracks going home, they will be expecting us, of course; whereas, if we go out on the west side, we will pass over batteries which didn’t see us come in. If there should happen to be an east wind, there will be another reason in favor of the plan. The commandant is a shrewd soldier. It may have been his way of saying that the longest way round is the shortest way home.”

Our Spads were ready after luncheon. A large square of tin had been fastened over the fabric of each lower wing, under the rocket fittings, to prevent danger of fire from sparks. Racks for six rockets, three on a side, had been fastened to the struts. The rockets were tipped with sharp steel points to insure their pricking the silk balloon envelope. The batteries for igniting them were connected with a button inside the car, within easy reach of the pilot. Lieutenant Verdane, our French second-in-command, was to supervise our practice on the field. We were glad of this. If we failed to “spear our sausage,” it would not be through lack of efficient instruction. He explained to Drew how the thing was to be done. He was to come on the balloon into the wind, and preferably not more than four hundred metres above it. He was to let it pass from view under the wing; then, when he judged that he was directly over it, to reduce his motor and dive vertically, placing the bag within the line of his two circular sights, holding it there until the bag just filled the circle. At that second he would be about 250 metres distant from it, and it was then that the rockets should be fired.

The instructions were simple enough, but in practicing on the target we found that they were not so easy to carry out. It was hard to judge accurately the moment for diving. Sometimes we overshot the target, but more often we were short of it. Owing to the angle at which the rockets were mounted on the struts, it was very important that the dive should be vertical.

One morning, the attack could have been made with every chance of success. Drew and I left the aerodrome a few minutes before sunrise for a trial flight, that we might give our motors a thorough testing. We climbed through a heavy mist which lay along the ground like water, filling every fold and hollow, flowing up the hillsides, submerging everything but the crests of the highest hills. The tops of the twin spires of S—— cathedral were all that could be seen of the town. Beyond, the long chain of heights where the first-line trenches were rose just clear of the mist, which glowed blood-red as the sun came up.

The balloons were already up, hanging above the dense cloud of vapor, elongated planets drifting in space. The observers were directing the fire of their batteries to those positions which stood revealed. Shells were also exploding on lower ground, for we saw the mist billow upward time after time with the force of mighty concussions, and slowly settle again. It was an awe-inspiring sight. We might have been watching the last battle of the last war that could ever be, with the world still fighting on, bitterly, blindly, gradually sinking from sight in a sea of blood. I have never seen anything to equal that spectacle of an artillery battle in the mists.

Conditions were ideal for the attack. We could have gone to the objective, fired our rockets, and made our return, without once having been seen from the ground. It was an opportunity made in heaven, an Allied heaven. “But the infantry would not have seen it,” said J. B.; which was true. Not that we cared to do the thing in a spectacular fashion. We were thinking of that decisive effect upon morale.

Two hours later we were pitching pennies in one of the hangars, when Talbott came across the field, followed solemnly by Whiskey and Soda, the lion mascots of the Escadrille Lafayette.

“What’s the date, anybody know?” he asked, very casually.

J. B. is an agile-minded youth.

“It isn’t the umteenth by any chance?”

“Right the first time.” He looked at his watch. “It is now ten past ten. You have half an hour. Better get your rockets attached. How are your motors—all right?”

This was one way of breaking the news, and the best one, I think. If we had been told the night before, we should have slept badly.

The two patrols of protection left the field exactly on schedule time. At 10.35, Irving, Drew, and I were strapped in our machines, waiting, with our motors turning ralenti, for Talbott’s signal to start.

He was romping with Whiskey. “Atta boy, Whiskey! Eat ’em up! Atta ole lion!”

As a squadron leader Talbott has many virtues, but the most important of them all is his casualness. And he is so sincere and natural in it. He has no conception of the dramatic possibilities of a situation—something to be profoundly thankful for in the commander of an escadrille de chasse. Situations are dramatic enough, tense enough, without one’s taking thought of the fact. He might have stood there, watch in hand, counting off the seconds. He might have said, “Remember, we’re all counting on you. Don’t let us down. You’ve got to get that balloon!” Instead of that, he glanced at his watch as if he had just remembered us.

“All right; run along, you sausage-spearers. We’re having lunch at twelve. That will give you time to wash up after you get back.”

Miller, of course, had to have a parting shot. He had been in hiding somewhere until the last moment. Then he came rushing up with a toothbrush and a safety-razor case. He stood waving them as I taxied around into the wind. His purpose was to remind me of the possibility of landing with a panne de moteur in Germany, and the need I would then have of my toilet articles.

At 10.54, J. B. came slanting down over me, then pulled up in ligne de vol, and went straight for the lines. I fell in behind him at about one hundred metres distance. Irving was two hundred metres higher. Before we left the field he said: “You are not to think about Germans. That’s my job. I’ll warn you if I see that we are going to be attacked. Go straight for the balloon. If you don’t see me come down and signal, you will know that there is no danger.”

The French artillery were giving splendid coöperation. I saw clusters of shell-explosions on the ground. The gunners were carrying out their part of the programme, which was to register on enemy anti-aircraft batteries as we passed over them. They must have made good practice. Anti-aircraft fire was feeble, and, such of it as there was, very wild.

We came within view of the railway line which runs from the German lines to a large town, their most important distributing center on the sector. Following it along with my eyes to the halfway point, I saw the red roofs of the village which we had so often looked at from a distance. Our balloon was in its usual place. It looked like a yellow plum, and no larger than one; but ripe, ready to be plucked.

A burst of flame far to the left attracted my attention, and almost at the same moment, one to the right. Ribbons of fire flapped upward in clouds of black oily smoke. Drew signaled with his joy-stick, and I knew what he meant: “Hooray! two down! It’s our turn next!” But we were still three or four minutes away. That was unfortunate, for a balloon can be drawn down with amazing speed.

A rocket sailed into the air and burst in a point of greenish white light, dazzling in its brilliancy, even in the full light of day. Immediately after this two white objects, so small as to be hardly visible, floated earthward: the parachutes of the observers. They had jumped. The balloon disappeared from view behind Drew’s machine. It was being drawn down, of course, as fast as the motor could wind up the cable. It was an exciting moment for us. We were coming on at two hundred kilometres an hour, racing against time and very little time at that. “Sheridan, only five miles away,” could not have been more eager for his journey’s end. Our throttles were wide open, the engines developing their highest capacity for power.

I swerved out to one side for another glimpse of the target: it was almost on the ground, and directly under us. Drew made a steep virage and dived. I started after him in a tight spiral, to look for the observers; but they had both disappeared. The balloon was swaying from side to side under the tension of the cable. It was hard to keep it in view. I lost it under my wing. Tipping up on the other side, I saw Drew release his rockets. They spurted out in long wavering lines of smoke. He missed. The balloon lay close to the ground, looking larger, riper than ever. The sight of its smooth, sleek surface was the most tantalizing of invitations. Letting it pass under me again, I waited for a second or two, then shut down the motor, and pushed forward on the control-stick until I was falling vertically. Standing upright on the rudder-bar, I felt the tugging of the shoulder-straps. Getting the bag well within the sights, I held it there until it just filled the circle. Then I pushed the button.

Although it was only eight o’clock, both Drew and I were in bed; for we were both very tired, it was a chilly evening, and we had no fire. An oil lamp was on the table between the two cots. Drew was sitting propped up, his fur coat rolled into a bundle for a back-rest. He had a sweater, tied by the sleeves, around his shoulders. His hands were clasped around his blanketed knees, and his breath, rising in a cloud of luminous steam,—

“Like pious incense from a censer old,
Seemed taking flight for heaven without a death.”

And yet, “pious” is hardly the word. J. B. was swearing, drawing from a choice reserve of picturesque epithets which I did not know that he possessed. I regret the necessity of omitting some of them.

“I don’t see how I could have missed it! Why, I didn’t turn to look for at least thirty seconds. I was that sure that I had brought it down. Then I banked and nearly fell out of my seat when I saw it there. I redressed at four hundred metres. I couldn’t have been more than one hundred metres away when I fired the rockets.”

“What did you do then?”

“Circled around, waiting for you. I had the balloon in sight all the while you were diving. It was a great sight to watch from below, particularly when you let go your rockets. I’ll never forget it, never. But, Lord! Without the climax! Artistically, it was an awful fizzle.”

There was no denying this. A balloon bonfire was the only possible conclusion to the adventure, and we both failed at lighting it. I, too, redressed when very close to the bag, and made a steep bank in order to escape the burst of flame from the ignited gas. The rockets leaped out, with a fine, blood-stirring roar. The mere sound ought to have been enough to make any balloon collapse. But when I turned, there it was, intact, a super-Brobdingnagian pumpkin, seen at close view, and still ripe, still ready for plucking. If I live to one hundred years, I shall never have a greater surprise or a more bitter disappointment.

There was no leisure for brooding over it then. My altimeter registered only two hundred and fifty metres, and the French lines were far distant. If the motor failed I should have to land in German territory. Any fate but that. Nevertheless, I felt in the pocket of my combination, to be sure that my box of matches was safely in place. We were cautioned always to carry them where they could be quickly got at in case of a forced landing in enemy country. An airman must destroy his machine in such an event. But my Spad did not mean to end its career so ingloriously. The motor ran beautifully, hitting on every cylinder. We climbed from two hundred and fifty metres to three hundred and fifty, four hundred and fifty, and on steadily upward. In the vicinity of the balloon, machine-gun fire from the ground had been fairly heavy; but I was soon out of range, and saw the tracer bullets, like swarms of blue bubbles, curving downward again at the end of their trajectory.

No machines, either French or German, were in sight. Irving had disappeared some time before we reached the balloon. I had not seen Drew from the moment when he fired his rockets. He waited until he made sure that I was following, then started for the west side of the salient. I did not see him, because of my interest in those clouds of blue bubbles which were rising with anything but bubble-like tranquillity. When I was clear of them, I set my course westward and parallel with the enemy lines to the south.

I had never flown so low, so far in German territory. The temptation to forget precaution and to make a leisurely survey of the ground beneath was hard to resist. It was not wholly resisted, in fact. Anti-aircraft fire was again feeble and badly ranged. The shells burst far behind and above, for I was much too low to offer an easy target. This gave me a dangerous sense of safety, and so I tipped up on one side, then on the other, examining the roads, searching the ruins of villages, the trenches, the shell-marked ground. I saw no living thing; brute or human; nothing but endless, inconceivable desolation.

The foolishness of that close scrutiny alone, without the protection of other avions, I realize now much better than I did then. Unless flying at six thousand metres or above,—when he is comparatively safe from attack,—a pilot may never relax his vigilance for thirty seconds together. He must look behind him, below, above, constantly. All aviators learn this eventually, but in the case of many new pilots the knowledge comes too late to be of service. I thought this was to be my experience, when, looking up, I saw five combat machines bearing down upon me. Had they been enemy planes my chances would have been very small, for they were close at hand before I saw them. The old French aviator, worn out by his five hundred hours of flight over the trenches, said, “Save your nervous energy.” I exhausted a three-months reserve in as many seconds. The suspense, luckily, was hardly longer than that. It passed when the patrol leader, followed by the others, pulled up in ligne de vol, about one hundred metres above me, showing their French cocardes. It was the group of protection of Spa. 87. At the time I saw Drew, a quarter of a mile away. As he turned, the sunlight glinted along his rocket-tubes.

A crowded hour of glorious life it seems now, although I was not of this opinion at the time. In reality, we were absent barely forty minutes. Climbing out of my machine at the aerodrome, I looked at my watch. A quarter to twelve. Laignier, the sergeant mechanician, was sitting in a sunny corner of the hangar, reading the “Matin,” just as I had left him.

Lieutenant Talbott’s only comment was: “Don’t let it worry you. Better luck next time. The group bagged two out of four, and Irving knocked down a Boche who was trying to get at you. That isn’t bad for half an hour’s work.”

But the decisive effect on morale which was to result from our wholesale destruction of balloons was diminished by half. We had forced ours down, but it bobbed up again very soon afterward. The one-o’clock patrol saw it, higher, Miller said, than it had ever been. It was Miller, by the way, who looked in on us at nine o’clock the same evening. The lamp was out.

“Asleep?”

Neither of us was, but we didn’t answer. He closed the door, then reopened it.

“It’s laziness, that’s what it is. They ought to put you on school régime again.”

He had one more afterthought. Looking in a third time, he said,—

“How about it, you little old human dynamos; are you getting rusty?”

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