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  • Air Mines on the Salonika Front May 22, 2011

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary , trackback

    It has been a while since Beachcombing has added anything to his weird wars tag – though past ww posts including Bats Fight Japan, the Last Scalping in History and the Soccer War of 1969 have been among his most popular. Today, in any case, he thought he would pay tribute to the balloonatics, the Great War pilots who were responsible for taking down enemy observation balloons and a curious encounter with an air mine on the Salonika front.

    First, though, some background.

    The Great War, it is often said, was the only war in history where generals had not the slightest idea what was going on. In prior wars battles had been on a small enough scale that a quick trot on horseback would tell a general what was happening. Later battles were fought with good radio technology so messages could be rapidly transmitted from units to headquarters. But, in the first World War, the various High Commands often had to give orders before they knew what was actually happening – British high command believed, for example, that the Battle of the Somme had been a triumph through most of the first day of the conflict.

    Given this, giant observation balloons proved ‘the ears and eyes’ of the commanders, as they moved their pins enthusiastically backwards and forwards across maps and, consequently, they were the prime target of the world’s first airforces, zipping  over the trenches.

    Typically, the plane would swoop in, use incendiary bullets to explode the balloon in question and then whisk back to kill any observation staff – a gutsy breed – who had jumped from their fragile baskets with parachutes. Note that this wasn’t always necessary as these early parachutes were very bad and often killed their users without any outside assistance (another post, another day).

    But then sometimes the balloon operators fought back…

    On the Salonika front the greatest balloonatic of them all was the superb Rudolf von Eschwege, a 22 year old German pilot who made a mockery of Allied attempts to watch what the Central Powers were up to. He destroyed 18 balloons before the British employed the most unchivalrous means to bring him down from the clouds.

    The solution was a 60 gallon galvanised iron tank with 500 pounds of ammonal sealed within! A charge was placed at one end, the iron tank was hoisted into an unmanned balloon basket and then the firing switch was put on the ground and connected to Rudi bait, an obsolete balloon, by a three thousand foot cable. The British had invented an air mine that could be remotely detonated.

    (119) ‘At 10.40 AM [20 Nov 1917] precisely [Rudi] put the DIII into a long shallow dive which placed him nicely 650 yds from the bag. Speeding up steadily, he held  down the triggers until he was level with the basket at 50 yds… In that instant perhaps Eschwege knew. His machine jerked into a climb, engine surging. Its tail was 100 yds away when 2nd Lieut. Riley clicked the switch. The concusion was echoing across the Valley as the Albatross emerged from the ammonal smoke. Eerily, the machine looked intact. Then, wearily, it slipped on to the left wing-tip, teetered into an increasingly fast sideslip, half came out, fell away into a dive, and then, spinning inexorably, crumpled. Eschwege lay beside part of the fuselage a quarter mile from the silent winch.’

    Those British cads! At least, they treated Rudi’s body with respect.

    ‘It was a triumph that was regarded as sad, shameful and inevitable. A note was written: ‘To the Bulgarian-German flying Corps in Drama. The officers of the Royal Flying Corps regret to announce that Lieut von Eschwege was killed while attacking the captive balloon. His personal belongings will be dropped over the lines some time during the next few days.’ With the effects went photographs of the German’s coffin on the shoulders of six British flyers.’

    Any other weird war stories involving flight? drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com


    24 May 2010: Ricardo R writes in with some aeronautical combat curiosities – ‘the bombing of Hanoi with a piece of porcelain generally located in the WC by the Americans during the Vietnam war comes to mind… or the desperate French bomber during the Phoney War that in a gesture of impotence threw his own shoes out the bomb bay against a German city… for balloon bursting I would look into the Belgian ace Willy Copens balloon busting was one of the most dangerous mission of WWI by the way… but, now I remember, for weird stories on WWI flyers… none the better of the russian guy that used a suspended hook to rip off over German airplanes…’ Thanks Ricardo!

    26 May 2010: Brett from Airminded writes in with ‘Through no very logical chain of thought, your question about weird war stories involving flight made me think of the wooden bomb tales, then the first (?) foo fighter and the stealth dirigible. Though I only remember them because I’ve written about them :)’ Thanks Brett!!