The Pilot Whose Act Of Bravery Was An Aviation First

By Mark Amies Last edited 12 months ago
The Pilot Whose Act Of Bravery Was An Aviation First

The name Leefe Robinson won’t mean much to most people. However, you may have seen a Miller & Carter steakhouse bearing the name of the pilot on Uxbridge Road near Harrow Weald.

In fact he made aviation history: on 3 September 1916 he was the first to shoot down an airship, over London.

His actions a century ago led to him being awarded the Victoria Cross.

German airships had been causing havoc in the British Isles since the first attack occurred in 1915. Their bombing methods were crude, but were having the desired effect from a propaganda level. The fear engendered by the enormous silver cigar-shaped monsters was very real. The British population had never experienced bombardment from the sky before.

The UK's aerial force was, in the early years of the first world war, rather limited. Given that the first powered flight had only been 12 years previously, the aeroplanes were somewhat crude.

Initially they were armed only with hand-held firearms, and found it hard to get anywhere near the height at which the airships flew. Any aircraft able to reach its target could only take pot shots, most of which would merely pass through the airship’s skin without causing damage to the hydrogen-inflated spheres inside.

As with all problems, the British strategists rose to the challenge, and they came up with explosive shells that would burst on impact.

On 2-3 September 1916, the Germans mounted their largest raid of the war, comprising 12 airships from the Navy and four from the Army. The task force was scattered by storms, but a Schütte Lanz type, SL-11, an Army airship on its first mission, pressed on to London.

As reports of sightings came in, the 21-year-old Lt William Leefe Robinson took off from Suttons Farm airfield, near Hornchurch.

The best account of the attack is given by Leefe Robinson himself, in a report to his commanding officer:

From: Lieutenant Leefe Robinson, Sutton's Farm.
To: The Officer Commanding No. 39 H. D. Squadron.

Sir:

I have the honour to make the following report on night patrol made by me on the night of the 2-3 instant. I went up at about 11.08 p.m. on the night of the second with instructions to patrol between Sutton's Farm and Joyce Green.

I climbed to 10,000ft in 53 minutes. I counted what I thought were 10 sets of flares - there were a few clouds below me, but on the whole it was a beautifully clear night. I saw nothing until 1.10am, when two searchlights picked up a Zeppelin SE of Woolwich. The clouds had collected in this quarter and the searchlights had some difficulty in keeping on the airship.

By this time I had managed to climb to 12,000ft and I made in the direction of the Zeppelin — which was being fired on by a few anti-aircraft guns — hoping to cut it off on its way eastward. I very slowly gained on it for about 10 minutes.

I judged it to be about 800ft below me and I sacrificed some speed in order to keep the height. It went behind some clouds, avoiding the searchlight, and I lost sight of it. After 15 minutes of fruitless search I returned to my patrol.

I managed to pick up and distinguish my flares again. At about 1.50am I noticed a red glow in the NE of London. Taking it to be an outbreak of fire, I went in that direction. At 2.05 a Zeppelin was picked up by the searchlights over NNE London (as far as I could judge).

Remembering my last failure, I sacrificed height (I was at about 12,900ft) for speed and nosed down in the direction of the Zeppelin. I saw shells bursting and night tracers flying around it.

When I drew closer I noticed that the anti-aircraft aim was too high or too low; also a good many shells burst about 800ft behind — a few tracers went right over. I could hear the bursts when about 3,000ft from the Zeppelin.

I flew about 800 ft below it from bow to stem and distributed one drum among it (alternate New Brock and Pomeroy). It seemed to have no effect;

I therefore moved to one side and gave them another drum along the side — also without effect. I then got behind it and by this time I was very close — 500ft or less below, and concentrated one drum on one part (underneath rear). I was then at a height of 11,500ft when attacking the Zeppelin.

I had hardly finished the drum before I saw the part fired at, glow. In a few seconds the whole rear part was blazing. When the third drum was fired, there were no searchlights on the Zeppelin, and no anti-aircraft was firing.

I quickly got out of the way of the falling, blazing Zeppelin and, being very excited, fired off a few red Very lights and dropped a parachute flare.

Having little oil or petrol left, I returned to Sutton's Farm, landing at 2.45am On landing, I found the Zeppelin gunners had shot away the machine-gun wire guard, the rear part of my centre section, and had pierced the main spar several times.

I have the honour to be, sir,

Your obedient servant,
(Signed)
W. Leefe Robinson, Lieutenant
No. 39 Squadron, R.F.C.

Of course, this is a rather clinical official report for the benefit of Royal Flying Corps records. It does not capture the true extent of what happened in the sky, as it was witnessed by normal Londoners as they gazed into the night sky. First world war aviation historian David Marks gives a good account of the events of that night and what happened afterwards:

“SL11 caught fire and, in full view of the Metropolis, the giant raider fell in a roaring mass of flame, striking the ground at Cuffley. The crew of 16 died as millions of Londoners cheered the unknown hero who had been the first to shoot down an airship over mainland Britain.

"Railway whistles blew, factory hooters were sounded, whilst people poured on into the streets, singing and dancing. People broke out into spontaneous renditions of God Save the King and Rule Britannia.

"Robinson landed safely at Suttons Farm with little petrol and oil left in his machine’s tanks. The exhausted pilot was borne shoulder-high in triumph from his biplane.

"On 3 September, which was later referred to as “Zepp Sunday”, news of Robinson’s victory spread with incredible speed.  Over the next two days 10,000 people travelled to the tiny village and police and troops were called in to control the crowds, who clamoured for souvenirs of the wreck. 

"For shooting down SL11, Robinson was now the most famous pilot in the country and could not go without official recognition for long. On 9 September 1916, King George V handed him the Victoria Cross at Windsor Castle.

"When SL11 was shot down, it was described officially and in the press as Zeppelin L21. This misidentification persisted for decades and was probably deliberately done so for propaganda purposes."

We think nothing now of high speed interceptors taking off and attaining incredible altitudes within seconds. In 1916 men were flying aircraft made of wood and canvas, with engines with only tens of horse-power and small capacity fuel tanks. Maximum heights would have been not much over 10,000ft and it would take many minutes to get there. There was one advantage - the airships they were hunting were fairly sluggish.

We are also talking about one man, in control of a low powered and often unreliable aeroplane, at night with no electronic navigation aids, just a canvas backed map and a compass. Then you need to appreciate that Leefe Robinson was buffeted by cold air in an open cockpit, with a leather helmet and a thick and bulky sheepskin lined outfit. He had no radio and had to fire his often unreliable machine gun by hand.

After achieving his feat of aerial prowess Leefe Robinson was hailed as a war hero and became the guest of many dignitaries across the grateful nation. Unfortunately this acclaimed pilot was forced down behind enemy lines in 1917, and when the German forces found out who he was, his treatment in the military prison was harsh.

Leefe Robinson was released, a broken man, returning to England on December 14, 1918. He stayed with his sister at her home in Stanmore, Middlesex (now part of the London Borough of Harrow).

Things did not get better for William as he had contracted the infamous Spanish Flu (an epidemic which tore through Europe at the time). He died on New Years Eve 1918, aged just 23. He is buried in the corner of All Saints' Churchyard Extension (just across the road from the Miller and Carter restaurant). If you want to find out more about the man, a number of his personal belongings are on display at the Royal Air Force Museum in Colindale.

A special exhibition about William Leefe Robinson’s feat will run at Cuffley Hall from 5-9 September 2016.  The exhibition is a celebration of the life of the pilot and the displays of original accounts and memorabilia from 1916 will include numerous examples of the importance of this event, which took place during one of the most critical periods of the war.

With thanks to David Marks for his assistance.

Last Updated 02 September 2016