The Boer War

The first large scale use of balloons by British forces took place during the Boer War in 1899 when three balloon sections were despatched to South Africa. No. 1 Section under Captain H.B. Jones arrived in Cape Town on 22 November with 3 officers, 34 NCOs and other ranks, three wagons, eleven balloons and equipment for the generation and storage of hydrogen.

On 5 December the section was ordered north to make observations on the front line in time for Lord Methuen’s attack at the Battle of Magersfontein. Methuen was impatient however and did not wait for the balloons to arrive. He committed his forces without making a proper reconnaissance of the Boer positions, with disastrous results. If he had waited a day the balloon observations could have changed the battle’s outcome. As it was, the balloon was operated during the battle: Lord Methuen mentioned in his despatch to the London Gazette that

‘Captain Jones, Royal Engineers, and Lieutenant Grubb were with the balloon section, and gave me valuable information during the day. I learnt from this source, at about 12 noon, that the enemy were receiving large reinforcements from Abuttsdam and from Spytfontein.’

The unit diary offers a first-hand record of the Section’s involvement. It notes that the enemy position ‘was so well taken up that it was impossible to locate it or to estimate the number of the enemy. About 2pm the wind freshened too much for observing’. The diary goes on to note that on 15 December ‘Lord Methuen stated that he considered the reports sent from balloon while up in the camp as most valuable & gave the Officer Commanding Balloon Section free hand to make ascents at all times within the outpost line.’

The Section then moved up with General Sir Redvers Buller’s forces for use in what became known as the Battle of Tugela Heights, in an effort to relieve the besieged town of Ladysmith. The diary records on 26 February

‘Ascended at dawn & made other sketches of position to keep, photos taken. In afternoon the balloon directed fire of 3 field batteries on the river banks. Signalling directed from balloon to guns observed about 6 hours during day. Rifle fire from Boer trenches was very heavy at the balloon & she was hit..’

An Australian officer serving with the Boers noted in 1902

‘The Boers took a dislike to the balloons; they had artillery superior for the most part to, and better served than, that of the English; they had telegraphic and heliographic apparatus; but the balloons were a symbol of a scientific superiority of the English which seriously disquieted them.’

Two days later Ladysmith was relieved, ending a siege of 118 days in which approximately 3000 British soldiers had died.

The Section then participated in the advance on Pretoria, making ascents in an effort to try and locate Boer positions. The diary notes on 27 May just a week before Pretoria fell that

‘the balloon was emptied, she had been full 22 days and marched 165 miles from the Vet River’.

This was to be the last major action that No. 1 Balloon Section would be involved in. The section advanced with the 11th Division in the Eastern Transvaal until August, when its transport was withdrawn and the men transferred to other units. The diary records for 2 and 3 August that

‘In the evening [we] received orders to hand over all oxen and transport generally to O/C Transport;… paraded at 5.30am & took stores and fittings off ox wagon. O/C 5″ guns sent over for 10 oxen & he was given 10 of the best. 16 were put in the ox wagon and in all a total of 94 were handed over.’

The balloon sections now found themselves more or less redundant and were ordered home in November 1900. This was largely as a result of the Boers changing their tactics and undertaking guerrilla warfare having realised that they would be unable to beat a colonial army in conventional continental warfare.