Observation balloon in Switzerland

Balloons have been in the news a lot recently here in North America.  The idea of “spy balloons” may seem amusing today, but observation balloons have long been used for military purposes, most notably during the First World War.  The postcard photo above may have been taken near the end of the war, or it may have been taken after the war ended.  The balloon is a Caquot type, named after its French inventor, Albert Caquot.  Caquot dirigibles were used by the Allies during the war, including the United States.

Switzerland was neutral during WWI, but Swiss forces patrolled the nation’s borders to prevent incursion by any of the combatants.  This balloon might therefore have been used for defensive surveillance.  Beyond that, there are things about the photo I can’t explain.  Why does this company need a rake, pitchfork and scythe?  Why do they have a large bag which appears to say Postes suisses?  Have a look at the detail images below and see what you think:

Swiss balloon unit 3

Swiss balloon unit 4

Swiss balloon unit 5

Only one man is holding a gun (far right, above).

Here’s a close-up of the Postes suisses bag.  Just behind and to the right is a rangefinder of some kind:

Swiss balloon unit 8

You might be able to see the images better in this gallery:

The back of the postcard has a Satrap trademark, which means the paper was made by the company Schering AG, based in Berlin:

Swiss balloon unit 6

Swiss balloon unit 7b


Feel free to share your thoughts about the photo or about anything else balloon-related!

Swiss balloon unit 2


Update: a visitor the blog, Michael, identified the motorcycle in the photo.  He commented:

The motorcycle helps to date to photo to about 1918 – 1921. It is a Swiss made ‘Motosacoche’ combination (i.e. with a sidecar). The exhaust pipes coming out of the V Twin engine are very distinctive. Here is one in a Spanish Museum:


Thank you, Michael!

Post updated February 17, 2023.


54 thoughts on “Observation balloon in Switzerland

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  1. That’s very interesting indeed. Thanks for sharing. Is it possible that those agricultural tools are simply necessary to keep the lawn where the balloon was kept/dealt with? After all every airport needs to take care of weeds along the runway, even nowadays.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Yes, that seems like the best explanation. It’s kind of funny that the guys would hold those tools for the photograph, but there was a tradition of military servicemen posing with tools they used in their service. Usually it was weapons, but not always. I suspect these men found it a little bit amusing to pose with farm tools as well.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I agree that the implements were used to keep the landing area trim and clean. If that is a rangefinder, then probably used for taking aerial photos. I wondered if it was a pump or something. Well, if you’re going to be covering some territory for surveillance, might as well deliver mail while you’re at it! I expect the bag might contain something else and is just to disguise it. The camera apparatus?

    Liked by 1 person

  3. My first thought was that the rake and such were used to keep the landing area tidy. I’m used to thinking of blimps that move from place to place, but from what I read about this sort of craft, they remained tethered while being raised; the Caquot could remain in place at about 4,000 feet, and in 70 mph winds. The presence of a postal bag suggests that the balloon/dirigible went from place to place, but it might simply have been an extra bag that was used to hold other supplies. I got a kick out of parts of the balloon; they look almost quilted.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I suspect you’re right that the mail bag was used for something else. Maybe they included it here simply as a way to identify that they were Swiss.

      As I’m sure you read, serving in balloons during the war was very dangerous, as they were often shot down. For that reason, balloonists were the first airmen to use parachutes. (I planned to include additional links in the post, but my WP editor was acting up and wouldn’t let me.)


  4. Another fascinating photo with lots of detail !

    The motorcyle helps to date to photo to about 1918 – 1921. It is a Swiss made ‘Motosacoche’ combination (i.e. with a sidecar). The exhast pipes coming out of the V Twin engine are very distinctive. Here is one in a Spanish Museum :


    Regarding attacks on this type of balloon – the best first person account I have read is by your own Eddie Rickenbacker. His memoir is freely available online.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Fantastic research, Michael! Are you into motorcycles, or are you just a really good detective? It makes sense that these guys had a Swiss-made bike. I’ve never heard of Motosacoche.

      I’ll update the post tomorrow with the new information. It seems likely that this is a post-war photo, although I guess we still don’t know for sure.

      Thank you for the tip about Eddie Rickenbacker. I found an interesting article from 2017 about the experience of balloon observer Jimmy Higgs.


      1. No particular motorcycle expertise, this find arose from an image based search.

        My take on the odd props in this photo – perhaps the conscripts just want something to represent their professions or hobbies in ‘real life’. So we may have some farmworkers, and a guy who is an amateur racing cyclist ?

        Liked by 1 person

  5. I looked at the photo and I thought “they’re having a laugh”! I think it’s a jokey photograph, and the farm implements have nothing to do with them, they just grabbed them from a passing farmer to include them for fun. Likewise the postbag, and possibly the bicycle, too. Look at the pretend-cycling by the two chaps on the right, and the barely suppressed giggles all round. I might be wrong about this, but that’s the “vibe” I’m getting from this picture.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I like your theory! The only thing I might add would be that a bicycle and motorcycle make sense from a logistical point of view, as a balloon company might be stationed some distance from a base, and would therefore need to have various means of transportation at its disposal. But you’re right, they were certainly having a bit of fun with the photo.


  6. There is a saying that a picture is worth a thousand words, and I have read all of yours. I agree with Little Sparrow: This is not a serious photo – when the war was in it’s last year or post war. The participants (Swiss Militia) may be feeling some relief and are having a good time. Perhaps they just picked up “props” which were handy (and nonsensical?) – for all of the reasons previously mentioned. The predecessor to “photo bombing” was goofy gestures – but not too goofy if you are in your country’s militia uniform. Stewart

    Liked by 1 person

  7. The first thing that came to my mind was hot air balloons, I’ve not heard of observation balloons until this. They seemed to be having fun though. Commenting on this post to let you know I sent a postcard but am not sure if I still got the right address

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Your postcard arrived two days ago! It was such a delightful surprise! I’m so glad you’ve been able to visit your Walden again. I know how much it means to you. Someday, when you live there, maybe I’ll come visit and you can show me your favorite spots. In the meantime, thank you so much for the postcard! 😊

      Liked by 1 person

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