We would like to thank Seamus Bovaird, Chairperson of the Inishowen Maritime Museum, for kindly sharing his knowledge and expertise with the TIDE project!
Margaret Storey | TIDE Project Officer at Donegal County Council
Donegal Partners in the TIDE project are working on a Virtual Reality experience with Devon (England) & Derry (Northern Ireland) partners that will give users an experience dating back to the First World War!
With a service station based in Rathmullan, Kite Balloons (or drachens) were used as part of the convoy of armed trawlers & anti-submarine patrols. The towing destroyer or sloop along with the convoy escort would depart Buncrana, pick up a Kite Balloon from Rathmullan and attach same onto the towing destroyer. It took several men to tow the Kite Balloon and they kept the balloon 5-10 feet high above the ground while towing it.
They would launch the balloon on a wire up to 500 feet on a widget (using hydrogen to inflate). They used a telephone to communicate with the deck & the telephone was connected by an umbilical cord! The men in the Kite Balloon stayed on duty all day from morning and used a sea faring binoculars to keep an eye out. Their task was to act as a lookout and increase the field of vision over the ocean for the convoy escort ships. They could trace a submarine longer than those on the bridge and had great advantage following the submarine if it had a leakage of oil!
During high winds, there would be a serious loss of hydrogen so a lot of topping up required where on a calm day there was hardly any loss and required very little re-inflating.
Their primary function was a look out for Uboats or floating mines. The escorts would be a mix of war ships, small hunters and the vessel carrying the kite balloon often zig-zagged close to the convoy in extended patrol positions. Kite Balloons were also often used by trawlers as they sought mine fields. When the convoy was finished, they would travel inbound for land, along the Swilly and leave the Kite Balloon at Rathmullan for servicing to get ready for another convoy!
Rathmullan had a four balloon station which was set up initially with quarters for up to 125 men, also workshops, garage, oil & petrol stores, guard hut, Sergeants’ Mess, men’s dormitories, power house etc. on a site of 14 acres! In 1918, it was part of a huge expansion part of 500 Officers, 4,435 men, 163 balloons at 10 bases! Some of the vessels fitted for kite balloon duties serving Lough Swilly included destroyers HMS Martial, HMS Mindful, HMS Mystic & HMS Nicator. Also sloops HMS Poppy, HMS Buttercup, HMS Ard Patrick, HMS Gladiolus & HMS Rosemary!
For over a year, the US Navy set up a US Naval Air Station at ‘Lough Foyle’ based in Ture - they had 7 ‘large Americas’ flying boats operating from Lough Foyle to support and supplement the patrols carried out by the RNAS Sea Scouts. With an American Admiral in charge, they would take off from Ture and circle West towards Tory Island to Clyde on anti submarine patrols. They radio communicated amongst themselves with the US Naval Air Services at Malin Head.
The challenge of the TIDE Partners will be to give a display and demonstrate the tasks of a Kite Balloon during World War 1 on a VR/AR experience. Watch this space!