Early military ballooning

Military aeronautics in Britain originated with the Royal Engineers.

As early as 1862, Lieutenant George Grover with a personal interest in ballooning approached the War Office with a proposal; that the British Army should investigate the use of the balloon as a platform for reconnaissance and observation. The War Office reaction was cool but it did allow Grover and Captain F. Beaumont to conduct balloon trials at Aldershot with the assistance of the pioneer civilian balloonist Henry Coxwell.

It was to be another fifteen years before the first official experiments with balloons were conducted in 1878 by the Balloon Equipment Store at the Woolwich Arsenal. Captain James L.B. Templer an officer in the Middlesex Militia and a keen amateur balloonist designed its first balloon. ‘Pioneer’,with its capacity of 10,000 cubic feet of hydrogen was constructed for just £71, and is considered to represent the birth of the British air arm.

Military ballooning slowly became established. Balloons were deployed to South Africa in 1884 and to Sudan in 1885 with limited success. In 1889 a balloon detachment took part in the Army Manoeuvres at Aldershot. It was so successful that a Balloon Section of the Royal Engineers was established under Lieutenant H.B. Jones in 1890. Its work and personnel were supported by a balloon factory and school.

The Army’s largest deployment of captive balloons took place during the Boer War (1899-1902) in South Africa. They achieved moderate success, although severe shortcomings were highlighted; they could only be used in very favourable weather, deployment was slow, inflation could take up to 10 hours and the balloons were difficult to transport. Nevertheless, the balloon had proved its worth and as a result of this it was decided that the Balloon Section should be expanded.

The development of powered flight in the early 1900s saw the balloon become rapidly marginalised but not obsolete. As a reflection of the changes brought about by the new technology the Balloon Section Royal Engineers became the Air Battalion of the Royal Engineers and the Balloon Factory was restyled the Army Aircraft Factory during 1911.