Monday, August 22, 2016

Nothing New Under the Sun—Drone Balloons Bomb Venice

This probably fanciful depiction of the balloon bombing of Venice show bombs carried by multiple balloons exploding over the city raining shrapnel down on the population.

It fell to—and on—the unlucky people of Venice to be the first targets of bombs dropped from the air in war.  It was on July 15, 1849 and the lovely old city of canals was under siege by the Austrians who were upset that romantic rebels had proclaimed the Republic of St. Marks to establish independence from Hapsburg dominance.  The proud old city, once a world power on its own that nearly dominated the Mediterranean and challenged the mighty Ottomans, defiantly was holding out against a tightening noose in the vain hope that other Italian cities and principalities would rally to her side.  But few of the dynastic houses of Europe had any sympathy for any republic after the wave of uprisings and rebellions that swept the continent the year before.
Of course lighter than air military aviation was not entirely new.  It took the French less than ten years from the time the Montgolfier brother’s elaborate hot air balloon first carried passengers over Paris for the edification and entertainment of King Louis XVI in November 1783 and Jacques Charles and the Robert brothers demonstrated a hydrogen balloon a couple of weeks later for them to deploy balloons for military purposes.  Jean-Marie-Joseph Coutelle, Captain of the Aerostatic Corps successfully flew an observation balloon in Flanders during the War of the First Coalition in 1792.  The intelligence gathered from the flight was credited with the French victory in the Battle of Fleurus.
But despite other successful operations when Napoleon Bonaparte he dismantled the enemy’s movements at Waterloo history may have taken a very different turn.
In the years since the end of the Napoleonic Wars there was tepid interest in ballooning for observation, but no other nation developed an operational unit.  Some dreamed of using balloons to drop bombs, but the problems of unreliable craft at the mercy of the winds made such applications untenable.
Austrian inventor and artillery officer Franz von Uchatius.

Enter Franz von Uchatius an extremely clever Austrian engineer  and artillery officer.  In his career he developed stronger alloys for cannon, worked on smokeless powder, and in order to lecture students on ballistics developed a type of animation projector in 1853.   Uchatius  38 years old and a senior artillery commander when he began to apply his singular analytic mind and perhaps even more important computational skills to solving the vexing problem of  guidance and control. 
First, he discovered that the wind in Venice blew reliably from the sea about 90% of the time.  That meant balloons carrying bombs would have to be launched from ships offshore.  That, in turn, ruled out using balloons large enough to carry a human crew from the limited deck space of a ship.  He would have to use small, unmanned balloons.  That led to the problem of how to release the bombs when they got over the target.  And frankly, we don’t know exactly how he did it.  No detailed notes or drawings have survived.  We have only a couple of paragraphs after the surrender of the city on August 22 in the British Morning Chronicle:
The Soldaten Freund publishes a letter from the artillery officer Uchatius, who first proposed to subdue Venice by ballooning. From this it appears that the operations were suspended for want of a proper vessel exclusively adapted for this mode of warfare, as it became evident, after a few experiments had been made, that, as the wind blows nine times out of ten from the sea, the balloon inflation must be conducted on board ship; and this was the case on July the 15th, the occasion alluded to in a former letter, when two balloons armed with shrapnels ascended from the deck of the Volcano war steamer, and attained a distance of 3,500 fathoms in the direction of Venice; and exactly at the moment calculated upon, i.e., at the expiration of twenty-three minutes, the explosion took place. The captain of the English brig Frolic, and other persons then at Venice, testify to the extreme terror and the morale effect produced on the inhabitants.
A stop was put to further exhibitions of this kind by the necessity of the Vulcan going into docks to undergo repairs, which the writer regrets the more, as the currents of wind were for a long time favourable to his schemes. One thing is established beyond all doubt (he adds), viz., that bombs and other projectiles can be thrown from balloons at a distance of 5,000 fathoms, always provided the wind be favourable.
We do not know the size of the balloons or the weight of the explosive delivered.  Most importantly we do not know what kind of timer was used to either drop the bombs or detonate in the air, only that the device had to be adjustable to precise calculations of wind speed at the time of launch from the deck of a ship that had to maneuver to be in an ideal position. 
Secondary accounts supposedly based on observation in Venice claim that as many 200 balloons were launched in two separate operations.   That would indicate small balloons and grenade size bombs.  But it would seem to be at odds with the account authored by Uchatius in the British press.  However, some historians believe that the account in the Chronicle was garbled and referred to two sorties of swarms of small balloons, not just two single balloons.
That would also mean that the little balloons could not carry enough explosives to do much damage to buildings and property.  Instead the use of shrapnel meant the bombs were anti-personnel weapons designed to indiscriminately kill and maim the civilian population of the city.  It was terror bombing pure and simple.
We can also credit Uchatius with the first use of drones in combat.
However terrified the Venetians were of the appearance of death from the sky, it was not enough to break their will.  The balloon bombs had no effect on the outcome of the siege.  But shortly the Austrians brought up massive heavy artillery and began pounding the city, which was already suffering from starvation and cholera epidemics, with more than a thousand rounds a day.  The old city had no ultimate choice but to surrender.

Inflating a Union Army Balloon during the Civil War.  Photo by Mathew Brady.

The aerial bombardment was quickly forgotten.  Neither Austria nor any other European powers followed up with development.  The next military use of balloons was by the Union as artillery observation platforms in the American Civil War.  During the Franco-Prussian War and Siege of Paris in 1870 they were also used to ferry personnel, messages, and supplies over enemy lines.
The first aerial bombardment from heavier than air craft was launched by the Italians in 1911 in the Italo-Turkish War, essentially hand dropping grenades.  A year later in the First Baltic War the Bulgarians developed the first modern aerial bomb with improved aerodynamics, X-shaped tail stabilizers, and an impact detonator as well as an aircraft specifically designed as a bomber.  On October 16, 1912, dropped two of those bombs were on the Turkish railway station of Karağaç.  The Bulgarians sold plans for their bomb to the Germans which used them throughout World War I.
As for Venice, it once again came under Austrian bombing on May 24, 1915 when Italy switched to the Allies in the Great War.

Modern drone attacks are more efficient--victims of an American drone attack in Yemen may or may not have been actual combatants.

Since those first bombs fell relatively ineffectively on Venice, untold millions of tons of explosives have wrecked death and destruction from the air all around the world.


  1. Is it ok if I use the image of the Austrian Balloons as part of a research essay? Thank you.

  2. I don't own the image. I found it in public domain in a Google search, so feel free to use it.