14 April 1915 – The Balloon Goes Up

Discovered unloading a cargo of Australian manure in March, British Admiralty agents hired the tramp steamer SS Manica on sight, as she is perfect for the job they have in mind. Arriving at the Greek island of Lemnos today refitted with a radio, winch, a hydrogen compressor, and a kite balloon, the Manica is an aerial observation platform unmatched by the Turkish defenders at Gallipoli. In a matter of days, spotters borne aloft from the Manica will support landings in force by reporting enemy movements, directing artillery fire against Ottoman positions in the hills, and warning the fleet of any Turkish vessels approaching through the narrows.

Manica will become so vital to the allied landings that a German submarine in Turkish service, the SM UB-8, will try and fail to torpedo her twice in August. Yet like the seaplane carrier Ark Royal, which has supported operations in the Dardanelles since February, the Manica cannot win the war all by itself. London’s decision to try forcing the strait by naval power alone first has created a strategic gap, one that Turkish War Minister Enver Pasha has filled with 100,000 men and all the guns he can scrounge. By itself, air supremacy cannot reverse the last five weeks of British miscalculation or reduce the defender’s manpower advantage.


The HMS Manica‘s kite balloon seen from below during launch (left) and ascending from its bay (right)

Nor is the Manica‘s kite balloon capable of seeing the most important changes happening inside Turkey. For example, more than eighty villages in the Province of Van have come under attack by chetes (armed criminal gangs) over the last several days, killing an estimated 24,000 Armenians and flooding the city of Van with refugees. Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) observers will not be able to watch another 32,000 Armenians dying in and around Van before the end of April as Turkish forces lay siege to the city.

They have already missed the Ottoman Army crushing Armenian resistance at autonomous Zeitun a week ago, occupying the city and then forcibly deporting or murdering tens of thousands of civilians. None of them was able to see Governor-General Hamid of Diyarbekir Province being relieved in March for refusing to follow orders of oppression. Tomorrow, the Manica’s plucky balloonists will not witness the ‘three pashas,’ who actually run the collapsing empire, issuing their secret final order to local governments commanding the systematic and deliberate destruction of subject Christian minorities.

Which is not to say that British intelligence has altogether missed the Sublime Porte’s impressive mobilization of resources and manpower in these genocidal endeavors. Concern for human rights in Asia Minor has shaped British policy for decades; London simply lacks the technology to intervene directly, reckoning instead that military defeat will destroy the Ottoman Empire and end its depredations. That’s why the Manica is here, after all.


A view from the basket of the kite balloon. Note the open forward bay for storage, inflation and launch. The RNAS officer would communicate with the ship by telephone. Targeting information was relayed to other ships by radio

Only Russian forces in the Caucasus can relieve Van, and they will have to fight their way through the Ottoman Army to succeed. Ironically, this victory will do nothing to help win the Dardanelles, allowing the Turkish regime to escape destruction and outlast the Russian Empire. The result will be a human catastrophe that inspires the noun ‘genocide’ to name the 20th Century’s most heinous chapters.

Instead of a game-changing victory that might link the allies in a logistical and commercial siege of the remaining Central Powers, Gallipoli will be a debacle. At the cost of tens of thousands of lives lost in the abysmal conditions of the peninsula, the British Empire will learn a costly lesson in the necessity of strategic surprise for joint operations. Rather than a victory through maneuver, the army currently embarking from Egypt will unexpectedly find itself re-creating the Western Front on the very edge of the Near East. The Manica‘s kite balloon is an example of this technology transfer, as it mimics hundreds of stationary ones that both sides use to direct artillery fire during battle.

The Great War is in fact giving us the phrase ‘the balloon goes up’ — a euphemism for imminent attack. Turkish soldiers learn to fear the balloon quickly, for whenever they see it go up, the Queen Elizabeth‘s fifteen inch guns are not far behind.

Copyright John Dixon

The crew and compliment of the Manica during her Dardanelles tour, including RNAS personnel. Copyright John Dixon