WWI hot air balloon hero's bravery medals sell for over £5,000

Heroics of WWI pilot who jumped from loose observation balloon at 3,000ft after deflating it mid-air to stop it drifting into enemy hands come to light as his medals sell for £5,500

  • Balloons were used in WWI to spot enemy targets and stop bombing raids
  • Lt Arthur Burbury earned bravery medals after jumping out of one at 3,000ft 
  • Burbury was straying towards German lines when a shell severed his cable
  • He deflated the balloon to prevent it from drifting into the hands of the enemy
  • Medals of the WWI hero, who died in 1959, have now been sold at auction

The amazing story of a colourful World War One hot air balloon hero whose quick-thinking prevented disaster can be told after his bravery medals sold for over £5,000.

Lieutenant Arthur Burbury, of the London Regiment, was observing from 3,000ft the British army’s assault on the Germans at the Somme when a shell severed his cable.

The balloon drifted perilously towards the German lines, seemingly destined to end up in enemy hands.

To prevent this from happening, Lt Burbury performed a daring manoeuvre to cut the balloon’s rip panel so it instantly deflated.

A World War One hot air balloon hero’s bravery medals have fetched over £5,000 at auction

He then attached his parachute and leapt out of the balloon as it dropped to the ground near Maricourt on the British side.

Lt Burbury’s medals, including a prestigious Military Cross and Croix De Guerre awarded for this action, were auctioned off by a private collector with London-based Spink & Son.

They achieved a hammer price of £4,500, with extra fees taking the overall figure paid by the buyer to £5,500.

Lt Burbury was born in Kensington, London, in 1896 and was a prodigious child boxer before enlisting with the 28th Battalion, London Regiment, at the outset of war.

Lieutenant Arthur Burbury, who died in 1959, won the medals for deflating his balloon and jumping out after the cable had been severed to stop it from drifting into enemy hands

He was seconded to the Royal Flying Corps and became a balloon officer with 3 Kite Balloon Section in October 1915, arriving in France the following month.

On September 15, 1916, he was observing the 6th Division’s assault on the Quadrangle Redoubt at 3,000ft when his balloon drifted across the line of fire of a Royal Artillery battery armed with 6ins howitzers.

A shell severed his cable and he drifted towards enemy lines in his newly introduced Cacquot balloon which was a type unknown by the Germans, meaning it would have been disastrous if it fell into enemy hands.

His Military Cross citation, in the London Gazette, read: ‘For conspicuous skill and gallantry. When observing from a balloon at a height of 3,000 feet, the cable was cut by a shell.

‘He destroyed his papers, ripped the balloon, a most difficult operation in the air, and then got down in his parachute.’

Lt Burbury subsequently began pilot training and became a flying officer with No 1 Squadron in March 1917.

That April, he destroyed an enemy balloon near Houthem, Netherlands, on a ‘special mission’ but was then shot down himself, spending the rest of the war as a POW.

Lt Burbury was repatriated at conflict’s end and posted to the North Russian Expeditionary Force to assist with the White Russians against the Bolsheviks in the Russian Civil War.

He served on the Archangel as a pilot and staff officer from June to September 1919.

An observation balloon is pictured being sent aloft during the British advance in 1916

After resigning his commission in 1920, Lt Burbury went to King’s College, Cambridge and gained a degree in modern languages – eventually becoming fluent in 24 of them.

He joined the Diplomatic Service in 1923 and became notorious for his womanising ways.

How hot air balloons were used to locate enemy targets and stop bombing raids during the First World War

Hot air balloons were first used for military reconnaissance in the late 18th century and were critical assets to both sides in World War I.

An observation balloon would float to a great height behind the front lines, where an observer could locate distant enemy targets and relay their positions to artillery on the ground.

These balloons were regularly targeted by fighter planes. If a balloon came under attack, its occupant would bail out, with a parachute automatically deploying upon leaving the basket.

Balloons were also used in a defensive capacity and were one of the methods used to defend important sites from air attacks from the Germans. They would be strung with heavy metal cables and suspended above planes’ operational ceilings to force enemy aircrafts to have to dodge colliding with them. Many bombing attempts were unsuccessful because of the balloons, which were used in great numbers to protect London.

On one occasion, he appeared before the court after being caught by a policeman romping with a woman in a car in Belgravia.

His Cambridge friend Lance Sieveking said of him: ‘As a youth, and up to the age of 23, when in 1919 he at last came up to King’s (College), he had a traditionally idealistic attitude towards sex and women.

‘This changed, and in a short space of time he ceased to imitate Sir Galahad, and adopted the attitude of Don Juan.

‘A Don Juan with a mission – to bring love and physical satisfaction into the lives of as many women as possible who might otherwise be deprived.’

Following his death in Germany in 1959, his funeral was held and Sieveking quipped: ‘The church was full of women of all ages, dating back to his youth and coming right up to the newest loves of his last year.

‘I was the only man.’

Marcus Budgen, head of the medal department at Spink & Son, said: ‘It was a privilege to sell the awards of Lieutenant Burbury for such a handsome price.

‘Having been decorated as a gallant ‘Balloonatic’ and served in supporting the White Russians in Archangel – his prodigious appetite in the bedroom made him a quite special character.’

His medal group consists of a Military Cross; 1914-15 Star; British War and Victory Medals; 1939-45 Star; Defence and War Medals 1939-45; Croix de Guerre 1915-1918.

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