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Manica and the British Naval Kite Balloon service

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    Posted: 15 Jan 2011 at 12:52

The Manica and the British Naval Kite Balloon


Wing Commander Maitland was in Belgium in October 1914 in command of a detachment of captive spherical balloons spotting for the monitor Menelaus off the coast between Nieuport and Coxyde.  The spherical balloons were unstable in anything more than a light breeze, and in the autumn and winter weather, very little useful work could be done.  In January 1915 he inspected a Belgian Drachen balloon at Alveringheim and reported that further studies be made with a view to introducing the type to British service. Flight Commander Mackworth, the only fully trained British balloon observer, was sent to France to visit the balloon factory at Chalais-Meudon.  In February, Maitland submitted a long report which included technical and constructional material obtained from the French and Belgian operators.  This led to his immediate recall to England and his posting to establish a balloon training school at Roehampton.  This was opened in March 1915 with two "Type H" kite balloons, which were copies of the Drachen, a winch, cable and other accessories obtained from France, and with two French Instructors.  One balloon was sent to Vickers at Barrow-in-Furness for duplicating, and the other was put into immediate use for training.  Recruiting for the Kite Balloon Service was of course a novelty.  It appealed to certain recruits with a taste for novelty.  Preference was given to men who were thought to be well disciplined, observant and able to learn quickly, and to those who had some experience of communications and signal equipment.  Post Office telephone engineers and regular and special policemen seemed to find a particular home.  The officer vacancies seemed to attract a more than average number of extroverts, sportsmen and intellectuals.


At this time General Birdwood telegraphed to the Admiralty and the war office to request that a man lifting kite or a captive balloon be sent to the Dardanelles to spot long range artillery and to detect concealed batteries.  As almost the entire peninsula was occupied by the Turks, and all of the British and allied positions were within small arms range of Turkish positions, it was not clear where a balloon and its associated hydrogen would be based.  A ship provided a ready answer, and No.1 Kite Balloon Section RNAS was dispatched to the Dardanelles.


The Admiralty requisitioned a 3,500 ton tramp steamer ,the Manica, which was then lying in Manchester, and on 27th March, after a hasty conversion in Graysons shipyard at Birkenhead, she was dispatched with No 1 Kite Balloon Section under the command of Flight Commander Mackworth to the Dardanelles.  The Manica had previously been engaged in the somewhat prosaic task of transporting Manchester sewage down the ship canal for disposal in Liverpool bay.  Although her top speed was only 11 knots, she was a stable ship with a large open hold that provided a sheltered operating base for a balloon, and after conversion was equipped with two Drachens of 28,000 cubic feet, a gas plant and storage for 200 hydrogen cylinders in addition to accommodation for 6 officers and 83 ratings.  Only 30 trained airship ratings were available, and the numbers were brought up to strength by volunteers from the Naval anti-aircraft corps.


The first call was at Gibraltar.  As many men as possible were allowed ashore to recuperate from the violent seasickness with which many had been afflicted, and the C.O. paid his respects to the Admiral, only to incur great wrath by inadvertently flying the obsolete Blue Ensign.  However, the Admiral soon became interested in the unusual project and offered all possible assistance.  With his authority, stores were replenished and extended, and the only request that could not be met was for an anti aircraft gun.  Mackworth was content to let the matter rest and went with fellow officers to dinner on the battleship HMS Caesar.  It was well into the small hours when they returned, but Mackworth was woken at dawn to be told that the gun had arrived, and could a certain officer of the Caesar have the camera.


After calling at Malta to take on coal the Manica proceeded to Mudros, carrying out trial flights off Cape Matapan on the way.  The first trial was begun with some apprehension.  The flying deck was 90 feet by 30 feet, and the balloon was nearly 80 feet long.  This gave little spare operating room in the blustery air which generally prevailed near the surface.  Every available man was turned out, the balloon  was inflated and the nose allowed to rise to assume the normal operating angle.  The basket was toggled on and Mackworth climbed aboard.  The order to cast off was given and the balloon rose quickly into the air.  All worked perfectly and two minutes later the full altitude was reached.  Mackworth had a perfect view and the forward speed of the ship into the wind made the flight very stable.  The recovery was similarly according to the text books.  The air scoop caught the breeze and filed the ballonet, and the lateral sails flapped as they lost lift when the nose went down.  The only difficulty was with the parachute stabilisers.  These proved too stable and when the lowest hit the water fully inflated it remained open and filled with water, operating as an efficient sea anchor.  This had the effect of pulling the balloon up short by the tail and standing it on end.  Fortunately, the master of the Manica saw exactly what was happening and put the ship full astern.  This freed the parachute and the landing crew were able to hold the guys and control the balloon.  The parachute trip wires were revised and retried.  Everything worked perfectly and before nightfall all of the necessary trials had been completed.


On 9th April Manica arrived in Mudros Bay on the island of Lemnos.  As she entered the anti submarine boom a signal was received requesting her commanding officer to report to the Queen Elizabeth at once.  At the subsequent briefing Admiral  de Robeck explained that the Turkish defenders could fire comfortably at the fleet from the high and broken ground of the peninsula.  However, from sea level the fleet could not identify concealed batteries.  Trials with the cruiser Bacchante took place off Lemnos on 15th April.  It was found that if the Manica kept close to the battleship on the side opposite the target, signals could be repeated to other ships by semaphore.  Mackworth reported that  "The observation is in many respects not inferior to that obtained from aeroplanes, the communications are incomparably better and more reliable, and the chances of a breakdown very much less."  The first active combat was on 19th April when under direction from Manica, Bacchante shelled a Turkish camp just as dawn was breaking.


Mackworth's report conveys something of the drama of the occasion which was typical of the early days of the campaign in which the balloon was a new and secret weapon having the ability to change the balance of power.


"The enemy were not aware of the presence of the balloon ship, and had taken no special precautions against being overlooked.  The consequence was that when Manica put up her balloon, the first sight which greeted the observers was a sleeping camp, neatly arranged in a dip in the ground, out of sight of Bacchante but within easy range of her guns.  Through their excellent field glasses  they could see an occasional dot moving about, but for the most part the camp was not yet astir.  If there were sentries, they doubtless regarded the distant balloon hanging in the sky as a harmless form of amusement for jaded British officers, and saw no connection between it and the long guns of the Bacchante which were nuzzling round towards them.  But the boom of the cruiser's forward turret opened their eyes and a rude awakening followed when the top of a hillock some hundred yards beyond the camp was hurled into the air.  No reveille ever blown commanded so instant a response.  Every tent burst into life, and the ground was soon swarming with running specks.  A second shot burst on the northernmost fringe of the camp, and a third right in the midst of the tents.  Bacchante  had the range to a nicety, and began to fire salvoes of 6-inch.  A scene of indescribable confusion followed.  Tents were rent to pieces and flung into the air, dust spouted in huge fans and columns, and brightly through the reek could be seen the flashes of bursting shells.  Like ants from an overturned nest, the little brown dots swarmed and scattered.  Across the plain galloped a few terrified mules, and in an incredibly short time the wreckage was complete.  Of the once orderly camp, nothing remained but torn earth and twisted canvas, and when the smoke cleared away, no movement was to be seen.  The trial was simple but convincing. Manica signalled "Cease Fire", and lumbered home behind her consort, metaphorically wagging her tail."


A naval gunnery officer had been lent to Manica on her arrival in the Aegean in order to instruct the crew in naval signals and fire observation.  Squadron Commander Mackworth remained the only trained observer for some months until additional observers had been trained at Roehampton.   The ease of telephone communications, coupled with the endurance and stability of the balloon as an observation platform, gave excellent results and in fine weather, near perfect fire control. This so impressed the Admiralty, that approval was given for the completion of six additional balloon ships.


The landing at Gallipoli could not be far off.  De Robock was not prepared to risk the balloon in minor operations, and the next week passed in preparations.  As it was clear that there would now be close combat with the Turks, the loyalty of the Muslim Lascars in the Manica’s crew was thought to be suspect, and they were replaced.  Naval signalmen joined the crew, and an observer officer posted from the Queen Elizabeth  On the evening of 23rd an apparently endless line of warships and transports assembled and moved towards the peninsula.  The Manica's balloon observed for ships covering the ANZAC landings on 25th April 1915.  The balloon, with two observers, went up at 5:21am, and fourteen minutes later discovered the Turkish Battleship Turgud Reis in the narrows.  The position was reported to HMS Triumph, which opened fire causing the battleship to retreat.  This encounter was witnessed by the American reporter Raymond Swing, who noted that

"The first salvo directed by the balloon struck at least 1000yards away, the second 500 yards away. The third passed through the rigging and burst 50 feet away.  She did not wait for any more."

At 9.00 she returned and began to pour fire onto the transport ships from which troops were being landed.  This caused an interruption to the disembarkation, which as only resumed when Triumph, again guided by Manica, drove the battleship out of range.  The balloon was hauled down at 2:05pm, marking the end of nearly nine hours of close and effective co-operation with Triumph.


On 26th April, seven ascents were made during the day to spot for the Triumph and Queen Elizabeth.  The latter was directed onto a magazine at Kojadere in the afternoon, which was blown up with spectacular results.  On the following day, Queen Elizabeth was directed onto two Turkish transports coming from Constantinople.  One was the Scutari, a British steamer which had been detained in Constantinople at the outbreak of war.  It was hit at a range of seven miles and sank in a few minutes.  So successful were the observations over the following days that two more balloons were ordered, and in the meantime an old spherical balloon which had seen service in the South African war was mounted for service on the tug Rescue, however, the wind was too strong for satisfactory observation and the trials were discontinued after a few days.


The Turkish defenders at Helles rallied on 28th April and despite the attentions of Manica and Queen Elizabeth on the right flank, brought up several batteries of field guns and began to shell the troops furiously.  From sea level nothing could be seen, but to the observer at 3,000 feet all was revealed.  The Queen Elizabeth’s secondary armament was brought to bear on them and the six inch guns  soon took a toll of the batteries.  However, the Turkish guns were well sited and continued firing in spite of some losses.  The 15 inch guns were brought into action, and in five minutes all Turkish firing had ceased as the whole area around the batteries was pulverised.


During the next two months the balloon observed for many warships, although was most often associated with the Queen Elizabeth.  The accuracy of fire control improved dramatically, and the worth of the balloon came to the attention of the Turks, who daily sent one of their few serviceable aircraft to attempt to bomb the Manica.  In spite of Turkish attentions, the ship was only in serious danger on one occasion.  Manica was spotting for the Prince George in the mouth of the Dardanelles when the observers noticed that two howitzers were being brought up on the Asiatic shore.  At that moment the daily air raid began and five bombs were deposited around Manica, which replied with the anti aircraft gun acquired from Caesar.  Within minutes the howitzers opened fire and bracketed Manica which made rapid preparations to weigh anchor only to find that a fluke had fouled a submarine cable, which lifted but refused to part.  The engines were put full astern as the ship strained on the hawser, which tightened like a bowstring under the ten ton anchor and the full engine power.  The next howitzer shot fell very close.  The resourceful Naval observer officer took a rifle and lying on the forecastle parted the steel hawser in seven perfectly accurate shots, and the Manica was free.


Several excursions were made to the northern edge of the Aegean, usually with the battleship Lord Nelson, in order to bombard the docks at Gallipoli on the other side of the isthmus.  Several villages were shelled in order to hamper the reinforcement of the peninsula, and the town of Maidos was all but obliterated after burning for three days following a shoot directed from Manica. 


One day the Queen Elizabeth vanished.  It was then known that the rumours were true and that the U boats had arrived.  The most valuable ships in the fleet could no longer be risked.  A few days later a torpedo was seen approaching the Manica amidships.  It passed under the ship and continued to strike the Triumph which capsized and sank quickly.  This changed the whole position of the fleet which henceforth was kept in the harbours of Mudros and Imbros, only venturing out for specific operations and returning as soon as the shooting was completed.


On 9th July, the Hector arrived at Mudros. This was the second balloon ship, a coaster of 4,660 tons, built in the 1890’s, which had been converted in a similar way to the Manica.  In mid September, the Manica was withdrawn for refitting, and on 2nd October the third Dardanelles balloon ship, Canning arrived.  At 5,375 tons, Canning was the largest balloon ship to date. She had been converted from merchant service at Birkenhead between June and September 1915, and could carry a fully inflated balloon in the hold.  This was such an obvious advantage that it was decided that the Manica was not suitable for further balloon service, and she became a sea plane carrier seeing service in support of the East African campaign.  The Canning was in the Aegean until December when she assisted in the evacuation from Gallipoli, before moving to Salonika where she  remained until May 1916 when there was no profitable role for sea based observation.  The balloons were unloaded and the portable gas plant was mounted on a wagon for shore service.  The Canning sailed for home, carrying with her the wreckage of the Zeppelin LZ 85.  After a six month refit at Birkenhead, she served as a balloon depot for the Grand Fleet until finally being decommissioned in January 1919.


Menelaus was a sister ship to Hector and was similarly converted for use as a balloon ship, being assigned to the Dover Patrol in July 1915 and seeing service in the channel and off the Belgian coast.  In March 1916 she was joined by City of Oxford which remained until being assigned to the Battle Fleet at Scapa Flow in August.  The emphasis in coastal operations moved away from the dedicated balloon ship to the use of balloons on warships.  Thus the converted balloon ships were required as servicing and depot ships rather than as operating bases. and this posting was followed by her becoming the balloon depot ship for the Battle Cruiser force at Rosyth.


By 1917 there were no opportunities for sea borne balloons to direct naval gunfire on shore targets, and a report on Air Requirements by the Grand Fleet Committee reported on 5 February 1917 that continued investment in Balloon ships was unproductive.  It proposed that the ships be reconverted for merchant use which would be of more value to the war effort.  Manica had by this time become a sea plane carrier and City of Oxford was similarly converted, seeing service off the Eastern Mediterranean coast.  The open hold of Menelaus was put to service as an ammunition carrier.  Canning remained as a depot ship.


The success of Balloons providing accurate fire registration was due to their ability to observe the same spot for prolonged periods and to report directly to fire controllers via the telephone without needing to resort to signals or codes.  In both respects, they easily out performed aircraft.  The fact that they could also be operated from a point on a moving ship without the requirement for a landing area or the stationary recovery from the sea made them attractive for operations with the Grand Fleet.  Admiral Sir David Beatty, commander of the Battle Cruiser Fleet recommended balloons for tactical and strategic reconnaissance with the fleet in the summer of 1915, and when this was seconded by Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, the commander of the Grand Fleet, a balloon section was sent to Rosyth where trials were conducted with the sea plane carrier Engadine.  Flawless communications were maintained at 22 knots in rough seas with a balloon flying at 3,000ft which was able to report on a 60 mile horizon.  Beatty and Jellicoe advocated the provision of a special balloon ship for service with the fleet.  However in the face of demands for large fast ships in the merchant fleet it was decided to use the Battle Fleet’s aviation ship Campania instead


The Campania was a former Cunard liner which had once held the coveted Blue Ribband for the fastest Atlantic crossing.  Although she was undoubtedly past her best by the time that she was taken into naval service as a seaplane carrier in 1914 she was still fast and large.  A platform was fitted over the foredeck for the launching of trolley borne float planes, but this was soon not large enough for the increasing size of aircraft.  While the Campania was being remodelled to provide an increased launching area a screened balloon deck was built aft, and when she rejoined the fleet in April 1916 she carried the navy’s first “m” type Caquot.  This proved so superior to the previous drachen derivatives that they were rendered obsolete overnight.  Although the experiments and test flights were successful, the Campania missed her only two chances to deploy balloons in action.  She failed to receive the signal to join the fleet on the eve of Jutland, and in August when the fleet sailed to counter the sortie of the High Seas Fleet, Campania was under repair.


Fleet balloon operations were dogged by an argument as to whether the presence of a balloon might give away the position of the fleet before the observers could report any thing of value.  This dispute came to ahead early in 1917 after Jellicoe became First sea Lord and Beatty succeeded him as Commander in Chief Grand Fleet.  Exercises were inconclusive, but the balance was tipped in favour of balloons by the lack of long range airships and the difficulty of operating aircraft with the fleet.  In May 1917 balloon winches were installed in nine battleships, two battlecruisers, the large light cruisers Glorious and Courageous, four light cruisers and three destroyers.  By November 1918 an additional fifteen battleships and three light cruisers had been fitted with balloons for fire registration and control.


In mid 1917 a new role emerged from the recconaisence function of the balloon.  The routes followed by U boats in the North Sea were increasingly well documented due to extensive British signals intelligence.  “Hunting Sweeps” were carried out by destroyers, but although there were frequent sightings, the submarines usually had sufficient warning of the destroyers approach to escape.  Beatty believed that the key to success lay in increased aerial observation and formed a destroyer based Kite Balloon Force to experiment in new hunting methods.  The first operation was carried out over the four days beginning 5 July 1917.  Several sightings were made at great distance, but the attacks could not be pressed home.  The next sweep began on 11 July, and early on 12 July the balloon observer of the destroyer Patriot sighted a submarine on the surface twenty eight miles away.  As the destroyer closed it submerged, but resurfaced to make more speed, only to dive again when Patriot opened fire.  The balloon observer was able to direct a successful depth charge attack on what was later identified as U69.  This was to be the only definitively documented U boat sinking, as with the introduction of the convoy system in 1917 U boat tactics changed to longer loitering patrols and the British signals intelligence advantage became less important.  Balloons were used extensively for convoy escort duties, and although their success was difficult to evaluate, captured U boat crews and post war accounts indicated that they had had a significant deterrent impact.  In preventing submarines from running on the surface they deprived them of speed and range.  The very presence of the balloons always carried the threat of depth charges and this often seems to have prevented U boats from being able to move into positions from which attacks could be launched.  Over one hundred and fifty small ships of various types were converted to carry balloons for escort work.  Many remained in service on mine spotting duties until well after the war was over.



AIR 1/15/1/44 Report on No1 KBS operations from HMS MANICA

AIR 1/148/83 ff. HMS MANICA. Operations in the Dardanelles

AIR 1/148/15/83/2 HMS MANICA reports of operations. Dec 1915-May1917

AIR 1/48/15/82 HMKBS MENELAUS. Correspondence and reports.

AIR 1/637/17/122/143 Attachment of MENELAUS to the Grand Fleet.

AIR 1/436/15/283/1 Fitting of CITY OF OXFORD as a KB ship.

AIR 1/636/17/122/136 Movements of CITY OF OXFORD Feb-Jun 1916.


H.A. Jones, The War in the Air  (various volumes especially vol.2.)

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