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On This Day: Austria Drops Balloon Bombs on Venice

Last updated: February 12, 2023

On Aug. 22, 1849, Austria launched a pilotless balloon bomb attack against Venice. The attack caused little damaged, but Venice surrendered two days later.

Balloons Over Venice

The Republic of Venice had been independent for more than 1,000 years before it was conquered in 1797 by Napoleon, who ceded it to Austria later that year. In 1848, a year during which revolutions swept through Europe, Daniele Manin led a revolt against Austrian rule, declaring Venice to be a republic.

The Austrians retaliated by blockading Venice, causing starvation, disease and hunger. “Although Austrian Field Marshall von Radetsky beleaguered the city by land and sea, his siege artillery couldn’t get close enough to bear fire on the whole city because of its formidable coastal defenses and shallow Lagoons,” according to the 2005 documentary “On a Wind and a Prayer.”

A young Austrian artillery lieutenant named Franz von Uchatius hatched the idea of launching balloons carrying explosives over Venice. The first attempt, carried out on July 12, 1849, failed because the wind was not in Austria’s favor.

Time magazine provided an account from one eyewitness: “The balloons appeared to rise to about 4,500 ft. Then they exploded in midair or fell into the water, or, blown by a sudden southeast wind, sped over the city and dropped on the besiegers. Venetians, abandoning their homes, crowded into the streets and squares to enjoy the strange spectacle. … When a cloud of smoke appeared in the air to make an explosion, all clapped and shouted. Applause was greatest when the balloons blew over the Austrian forces and exploded, and in such cases the Venetians added cries of ‘Bravo!’ and ‘Good appetite!’”

Sources in this Story

In the second attempt, on Aug. 22, the balloons, measuring 5.7 meters in diameter and using “charcoal and greasy cotton as a continuous combustion source,” were released from a “stable platform at sea,” according to the documentary.

According to Monash University professor Russell Naughton, about 200 of balloons, carrying 33 pounds of explosives and armed with half-hour time fuses, were launched into Venice that day. The balloons caused minimal damage to Venice and some even blew back towards the Austrians.

“On a Wind and a Prayer,”  however, claims that the balloons did have a substantial psychological effect. Whether out of balloon-related fear or due to exhaustion and starvation, the Venetians would surrender just two days later.

Related: Japanese WWII Balloon Bombs

In a little-known 1944 campaign, Japan released 9,000 bomb-laden balloons that floated across the Pacific and were intended to cause forest fires and panic in the western United States. “Each balloon was armed with one 15 kilogram antipersonnel bomb and two incendiary devices,” and they “looked like giant jellyfish,” a book on the Fu-Go campaign says.

The only known deaths from the Fu-Go campaign occured on May 5, 1945, when a woman and five children died after discovering a bomb that had drifted to Gearhart Mountain, Ore.

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