A shower of balls

Patrick Cockburn has an interesting historical take on targeted killing by drones at the Independent:

‘In 1812, the governor of Moscow, Count Rostopchin [right], devised a plan to get a hot-air balloon to hover over the French lines at Borodino and drop an explosive device on Napoleon. The source for this is the memoirs of the French writer, traveller and politician Chateaubriand and I have not read it anywhere else, but the story illustrates how, from the first moment man took to the air, he has seen it as a means of assassination.

‘President Barack Obama thinks much the same way as Rostopchin did 200 years ago. The enhanced and secret use of unmanned drones is one of the most striking features of his foreign policy.’

What Chateaubriand actually wrote was this:

[Rostopchin’s] vengeance promised to drop from heaven: a huge balloon, constructed at great expense, was to float above the French army, pick out the Emperor among his thousands, and fall on his head in a shower of fire and steel. In trial, the wings of the airship broke; forcing him to renounce his bombshell from the clouds…

Quite how the balloon was to ‘pick out the Emperor among his thousands’ was not disclosed – it’s still a problem for today’s remote operators – but Chateaubriand may have taken the account from Count Philippe de Ségur‘s History of the expedition to Russia, first published in two volumes in 1824 and translated into many European languages:

At the same time a prodigious balloon was constructed, by command of [Emperor] Alexander, not far from Moscow, under the direction of a German artificer. The destination of this winged machine was to hover over the French army, to single out its chief, and destroy him by a shower of balls and fire.

Ségur accompanied the expedition so this was an eyewitness account, of sorts, composed years after the event: Mark Danner has a beautiful essay on Ségur’s memoir – and some of its other modern echoes – here.

There’s also a modern and more detailed version of the story from Lee Croft, first as a blog comment:

Tsar Alexander’s secret project to construct a hydrogen-filled, rotor-wing-powered, aerostat (balloon) from which to drop timed-fuse explosives on Napoleon and his army … [was] entrusted to the administration of Moscow Governor-General Fyodor Rostopchin, and through Rostopchin to German physician George Anton Schaeffer, was designed by a mysterious German-speaking “balloon master” named Franz Leppich (1776-1818), who had actually tried previously, in 18ll, to sell the project to Napoleon. The killer balloon, which was shaped to resemble a shark, failed to ascend on the day of the Battle of Borodino (August 26 on the Russian Calendar, September 7 on the French, 1812) and was evacuated to Nizhnii Novgorod to the east on the Volga using over 130 confiscated Moscow city fire carts and horse teams, thus severely handicapping attempts subsequently to manage the destructive Moscow fire.

You can find a more detailed version in Croft’s self-published book earlier this year, George Anton Schaeffer: Killing Napoleon from the air (Lulu, 2012) (I’m no marketing expert, but I suspect switching title and subtitle could only boost sales).

Napoleon was no stranger to balloons in his military adventures –  he used balloons for observation during the Italian campaign in 1796 and had the balloon corps accompany him to Egypt in 1798 but their equipment was destroyed by the British at Aboukir; later  the French launched a hot air balloon in occupied Cairo, but the Egyptians were conspicuously unimpressed and dismissed it a child’s toy.

All that said, I don’t think the lines of descent are quite as direct as Cockburn makes out, but it’s an arresting start to an essay that otherwise treads familiar ground. Balloons have a long history of military applications, but after the first attempts at bombing from aircraft in the Italian-Turkish war of 1911-12 most of the early military uses for the new flying machines focused on reconnaissance and surveillance (and spotting for artillery): more on this soon!