The first large scale use of balloons by British forces took place during the Boer War in 1899 when three balloon sections were despatched to South Africa. No. 1 Section under Captain H.B. Jones arrived in Cape Town on 22 November with 3 officers, 34 NCOs and other ranks, three wagons, eleven balloons and equipment for the generation and storage of hydrogen.
On 5 December the section was ordered north to make observations on the front line in time for Lord Methuen’s attack at the Battle of Magersfontein. Methuen was impatient however and did not wait for the balloons to arrive. He committed his forces without making a proper reconnaissance of the Boer positions, with disastrous results. If he had waited a day the balloon observations could have changed the battle’s outcome.
As it was, the balloon was operated during the battle: Lord Methuen mentioned in his despatch to the London Gazette that: ‘Captain Jones, Royal Engineers, and Lieutenant Grubb were with the balloon section, and gave me valuable information during the day. I learnt from this source, at about 12 noon, that the enemy were receiving large reinforcements from Abuttsdam and from Spytfontein.’
The unit diary records on 26 February 1901:
‘Ascended at dawn & made other sketches of position to keep, photos taken. In afternoon the balloon directed fire of 3 field batteries on the river banks. Signalling directed from balloon to guns observed about 6 hours during day. Rifle fire from Boer trenches was very heavy at the balloon & she was hit..’
An Australian officer noted:
‘The Boers took a dislike to the balloons; they had artillery superior for the most part to, and better served than, that of the English; they had telegraphic and heliographic apparatus; but the balloons were a symbol of a scientific superiority of the English which seriously disquieted them.’
When the Boers changed tactics and began their guerrilla warfare campaign, having realised that they would be unable to beat a colonial army in conventional warfare, the balloon sections found themselves more or less redundant and were ordered home in November 1901.