Napoleon's Grande Armée and air balloons. Part I
Even though far outnumbered by Napoleon’s 600,000 strong Grande Armée, the Russian forces routed the enemy in a mere six months. The Russians were outnumbered by the French at a ratio of 3 to 1 by Napoleon’s crossing of the Nieman on June 12th 1812.
The Russian army defeated the Grande Armée not because Napoleon was devastated by frosts. According to experts, the autumn and winter of 1812 were not that cold. The Grande Armée suffered a humiliating defeat because the remarkable Russian commanders who fought in the 1812 war were supported by the entire nation. Peasants joined partisan units and attacked enemy convoys with hay corks, stakes and occasionally, with firearms.
The defeat of the Grande Armée marked a remarkable chapter in Russia’s military history.
In addition to the unprecedented heroism demonstrated by Russian people on the battlefields and the exceptional skills on the part of Russian commanders, Napoleon ran into something totally unexpected. Backward as it was, Russia stunned Napoleon by its advanced methods of warfare tactics, including air attacks – a tactic of the future.
Even though the then situation did not allow the Russians to pursue the project of destroying the enemy from the air, the mere attempt at using the achievements of aeronautics for military purposes was of historical importance.
The project of attacking Napoleon’s army from the air originated in a Napoleon-controlled German princedom in 1811.
A peasant’s son, named Franz Leppich, who had an innate flair for invention and created a musical instrument with which he travelled all over Europe, went to Napoleon and presented his project of a “flying machine” – a fishlike air balloon which, he said, could fly in any direction thanks to the specially designed paddle-fins. The inventor claimed that if loaded with explosives his machine could destroy entire armies from the air.
Napoleon, suspicious of all sorts of technical innovations, dismissed the inventor.
Later, Napoleon learned that Franz Leppich had returned to Germany and begun to build an air balloon. He ordered to seize the inventor and bring him to Paris.
However, Napoleon was late. Franz Leppich disappeared without trace. As it turned out later, he had reached an agreement with a Russian envoy, was issued a passport in the name of Mr.Schmit, and left for Russia, where he secured funds for the construction of an air balloon.
The project was carried out in complete secrecy. No one, not even Moscow’s Governor-General Count Ivan Gudovich, was told about preparations for an air attack.
According to Count Gudovich’s successor in the post of Moscow Governor-General Fyodor Rostopchin, Ivan Gudovich became a toy in the hands of two bandits – his brother and Doctor Salvater, who said openly that he received 6,000 livres a year from Napoleon, which meant that he was a spy. There were a large number of spies within the Russian government’s ruling circles in those days.
In the second half of May 1812, Franz Leppich began to build an air balloon at Prince Nikolai Repnin’s estate several kilometers from Moscow. The construction site was heavily guarded and concealed from the public.