My great-uncle Arthur grew up on Box Hill in Surrey, and was therefore blessed with a head for heights. And so, when World War One broke out, he naturally signed up for the Air Balloon Battalion of the Royal Engineers. What follows is a true story.
Great-uncle Arthur, to whom you have been introduced, was quickly trained by the Royal Engineers to be a rear gunner and assigned to a reconnaissance balloon. Such balloons would fly high above the front lines so that its crew could keep an eye on the Hun, and, by means of a telephone wire connected to an instrument on the ground, inform the lads below of any goings-on. A balloon’s cabin crew comprised a pilot, an observer, a field-telephone operator (FTO) and a rear gunner. Given that the basket was round it was difficult to decide which part of the cockpit was at the rear, and there was always some debate with the sergeant as to precisely where Uncle Arthur should sit. Moreover, in even the lightest breeze, the balloon would gently rotate about its own axis, adding to the uncertainty. In the end it was decided that provided Uncle Arthur had his back to the pilot he would be complying with King’s Regulations. The FTO and observer were assigned respectively to the port and starboard, according to where they thought each was at any given time. A great deal of moving to and fro was involved.
Rather than unreel the telephone wire as they ascended, the crew would lower it to the ground once they had reached a suitable height. Thus they permitted themselves a little leeway in order to get the best vantage point – especially as the pilot’s house was just across the Channel, and by unofficially using a pair of War Department Field Binoculars (For Official Use Only. To Be Directed Towards The Enemy) he was able to keep an eye on his runner beans. Anyway, on one occasion, just as the balloon had reached the right altitude, a thick fog rolled in from the sea and obscured the crew’s view. Certain only of the direction of the ground, the FTO lowered his telephone cable to its full length, hoping it would be spotted by his opposite number in the trenches below.
Whilst waiting to be connected, the crew would normally chat among themselves, the main topic of conversation being the size of the pilot’s turnips. But on the day in question, ribald banter was replaced by an eerie silence – punctuated only by the occasional sound of gunfire many hundreds of feet below, and the distant susurration of incoming waves, oblivious to the terror beyond the tide.
Eventually the crew heard a click, indicating that a connection had been established and moments later the bell on the balloon’s telephone jangled. Lifting the receiver, the FTO said: ‘Hello…Balloon Two here. To whom am I speaking? Post Office trained, he had been taught always to announce a telephone number clearly and distinctly, and always to be polite. Expecting to hear the familiar tones of his oppo on the ground, the FTO was surprised when a strange voice filled the instrument’s earpiece: ‘Guten Tag, Balloon Zwei’.