Destruction of a “baby killer”
In September 1916, William Leefe Robinson was awarded a Victoria Cross for destroying the German Army airship SL11 over Cuffley on the night of 3 September 1916. This blog will examine the impact the events of that night had on the German air offensive against the UK and on the life of William Leefe Robinson.
William Leefe Robinson was born in India on 14 July 1895, the son of Horace Robinson, a coffee planter, and his wife, Elizabeth Leefe. Although the family temporarily moved to England from India in 1901, as a result of competition from Brazilian plantations, they moved back again two years later. In 1909, William and his brother Harold were sent back once again to England to be educated at St. Bees School in Cumberland (Cumbria). Although William did not distinguish himself academically, he shone in school sports and was well-liked by the staff and pupils.
Just a few days after the outbreak of war in 1914, Robinson entered the Royal Military College, Sandhurst. Upon being commissioned, he was posted to the Fifth Militia Battalion of the Worcester Regiment but, quickly bored by a life of assisting in training men for the Front, he applied for a number of transfers. Ray Rimmel writes that “there seems little reason to suppose that Robinson had any great ambition for flying, the subject was never raised in correspondence, more likely the tedium of his position was such that he fired off as many applications as possible and took the first one offered him.” Thus it was that on 29 March 1915, he was posted to 4 Squadron RFC as an observer.
During a reconnaissance on 8 May, Robinson was wounded in the arm by two pieces of shrapnel from a German anti-aircraft shell. After being treated in hospital, Robinson was given a month’s leave and, on 29 June, he was posted to Farnborough to begin flying training. On 18 July he went solo for the first time and on 28 July qualified for his Royal Aero Club Certificate. At the end of September, he joined 19 Squadron, based at Castle Bromwich, where his duties included the delivery of aircraft and the taking aloft of trainee pilots and observers.
Originally intended for reconnaissance duties, the airships of the German Army and Navy were first used to bomb the UK in January 1915. During the later months of 1915, the attacks on the UK by both German airships were increasing in frequency and boldness and, as a result of public and media pressure, the government began substantially to increase the UK’s aerial defences, particularly those around London. Although the material damage inflicted by the airships was light, particularly when compared to later aeroplane raids, their nuisance value was considerably greater. Substantial numbers of aircraft, searchlights and anti-aircraft batteries were stationed around the country, as well as large numbers of personnel to operate and support them, all of which distracted from the main effort on the Western Front. Although it is the German Navy that is best remembered for the offensive against the UK, the German Army, mainly equipped with Schütte-Lanz airships, made a small contribution to the offensive.
A rival to the better-known Zeppelin, Schütte-Lanz constructed airships primarily from wood and plywood. Although other features pioneered by Schütte-Lanz were in time copied by Zeppelin, wooden construction was not a real success. Aluminium and duralumin proved to be lighter and stronger, while a wooden structure, imperfectly sealed by the airship’s envelope, was prone to moisture damage. This not only occurred when flying in wet weather but also in damp hangar conditions, which was a particular problem at naval bases. As a consequence, the German Naval Airship Division preferred Zeppelin’s products and the majority of Schütte-Lanz airships were used by the German Army.
As part of the increase in London’s defences, Robinson joined 10 Reserve Aeroplane Squadron at Joyce Green on Christmas Eve, 1915. However, due to his Commanding Officer making “…such a fuss about having me back at Birmingham…” he returned there at the end of January. Just a few days later, he was again posted south, to Suttons Farm, where a Flight of the newly-formed 19 Reserve Aeroplane Squadron was based. On 15 April 1916, as part of a large-scale reorganisation of the country’s defences, 19 Squadron was re-titled 39 Home Defence Squadron. The airfields used by the squadron were very primitive and the difficult task of landing by night was assisted only by an L-shaped flare path, made by placing petrol cans at intervals, their lids removed and the insides filled with petrol, paraffin and cotton waste. The flying itself was arduous – the patrols were long, with the pilots heavily muffled against the cold and their faces covered in whale oil to protect them from frostbite, while landing in the dark was difficult and dangerous.
Improvements were being made, however, in regard to the quality of the defences. Early attempts to attack German airships with weapons such as Hales bombs and Ranken darts were almost completely unsuccessful. The striking exception was the destruction of Zeppelin LZ37 on the night of 7 June 1915, as it returned to its base over Belgium, when it was bombed from above by Flight Sub-Lieutenant Rex Warneford. Despite this success, explosive bullets were being developed and the War Office and Admiralty had ordered large quantities of them from different inventors. Sparklet, Buckingham, Brock and Pomeroy were all used by the Home Defence squadrons from 1916, often in a mixture designed to inflict as much damage to their hydrogen-filled targets as possible. French Le Prieur rockets were also issued to RFC Home Defence units but, although they had found success against tethered kite balloons, they were of no use against airships and most RFC pilots had them removed.
On the night of 25 April, Robinson was among the members of 39 Squadron who spotted LZ97, a German Army Zeppelin commanded by Hauptmann Erich Linnarz, while over London. Two pilots attacked the airship: future AOC-in-C of Bomber Command, Captain Arthur Harris made an ineffective challenge with his B.E.2c’s machine gun and, as his aircraft was unable to climb above the Zeppelin, his attempt to use Ranken Darts was equally hopeless. The other assailant was Robinson, who in fact attacked LZ97 before Harris. In his combat report, Robinson wrote: “I fired at the Zeppelin three times (each time almost immediately below it); the machine gun jammed five times, and I only got off about twenty rounds. When the Zeppelin made off in a ENE direction, I followed for some minutes, but lost sight of it.”
Some four months later, after 39 raids almost without loss, the German Naval and Army Airship Commands ambitiously launched their first combined operation against London. It was to be the largest airship raid of the war and, in the words of Cole and Cheeseman, “an utter failure.”
From midday until around 3.30 in the afternoon of 2 September 1916, twelve Naval and four Army airships rose slowly from their bases and began to climb over the North Sea. In Room 40 of the Admiralty, intercepted wireless messages from the German airships began to pour in and it was apparent by 5 o’clock that afternoon that a large raid was imminent. The weather, however, was not favourable: rain covered much of the UK during the morning and a light mist crept down from the Wash to cover London during the afternoon and evening. Worse, a strong wind from the south east actually compelled some of the German airships to return to base, as ice, forming on the hulls, threatened to bring them down through sheer weight. Zeppelin LZ53 turned back over Norfolk, while the commander of LZ97 aborted while still over the North Sea. The strong winds caused the rest of the raiders to scatter their bombs over the south-east of England during the night without causing significant damage. Only one airship, the Army’s Schütte-Lanz SL11, commanded by Hauptmann Wilhelm Schramm, “penetrated to within seven miles of Charing Cross.”
At around 11.10pm, the aircraft of 39 Squadron were “scrambled” from their airfields, with Robinson detailed to patrol between Hornchurch and Joyce Green. LZ98 had bombed the area around Dartford and Tilbury, when, shortly afterwards, it was sighted by Robinson. The Zeppelin, considerably lightened after dropping its bombs, easily evaded the B.E.2c. Robinson wrote: “I very slowly gained on it for about ten minutes – I judged it to be about 800 feet below me, and I sacrificed my speed in order to keep the height. It went behind some clouds, avoided the searchlights and I lost sight of it…” By this time, Robinson had actually exceeded his allotted patrol time but, perhaps in frustration, he flew out of his assigned patrol area and towards London, hoping that the capital’s searchlights would illuminate another target.
Meanwhile, Schramm’s SL11 had circled London from the east, in preparation for an attack on the capital from the north. The airship dropped numerous high explosive bombs across north London before it was detected and held over Alexandra Palace by the searchlights in Finsbury and Victoria Park. Thousands of Londoners watched as the Finsbury guns began to fire at the airship which, while turning evasively, was seen by three 39 Squadron pilots: 2/Lt Mackay, 2/Lt Hunt and Robinson. As Schramm turned over Tottenham, Robinson found himself catching SL11; after disappearing into a cloud, it reappeared, nearer than ever and, with the capital’s anti-aircraft gunners still enthusiastically engaging the airship, he signalled with a red Very light, at which the fire from the ground ceased. Moments later, he attacked the SL11 head-on:
I flew about 800 feet below it from bow to stern and distributed one drum along it (alternate New Brock and Pomeroy). It seemed to have no effect; I therefore moved to one side and gave it another drum distributed along its side – without apparent effect. I then got behind it (by this time I was very close – 500 feet or less below) and concentrated one drum on one part (underneath rear). I was then at a height of 11,500 feet when attacking the Zeppelin.
I 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’s lights and dropped a parachute flare.
The burning airship crashed into a field outside Cuffley at approximately 2.20am on the morning of 3 September. All sixteen on board were killed.
The structure of the SL11 was constructed from wood and plywood, rather than the metal employed by Zeppelin and much of this was burnt during the airship’s descent. One eyewitness who arrived at the scene shortly after the SL11 came down remarked that “…there wasn’t much of a wreck there for an airship – only about twenty-five square yards of it…” Yet thousands of sightseers, enthused by the destruction of one of the much-hated “baby-killers”, were soon flooding towards Cuffley to view the remains. The authorities referred to the wreck as L21, possibly in order to prevent public confusion between Schütte-Lanz and Zeppelin airships.
Robinson’s recognition was not long in coming and a recommendation from Sir David Henderson for the awarding of the Victoria Cross was made shortly afterwards. By 5 September, newspapers were headlining the award of the VC to the “Hero of Cuffley”, the promulgation of which, some 48 hours after the action, made it “one of the quickest bestowals in the medal’s history.” The investiture took place at Windsor on 9 September. Robinson would also be rewarded with several thousand pounds from companies and individuals as the first airman to destroy a German airship over the UK.
The destruction of SL11 was swiftly followed by two more successes for the defences when Frederick Sowrey destroyed L32 on 24 September and Wulstan Tempest downed L31 on 2 October. The loss of three valuable airships within a month effectively broke the back of the airship offensive against the UK. Despite new and improved versions, known as the “height climbers” being deployed later in the war, they had little effect and the Leader of Airships, Peter Strasser, would meet his end in just such a craft, L70, during the last airship raid on Britain, when it was shot down on 5 August 1918.
Following the loss of SL11, the Army Airship Service made no further effort to attack the UK. The disastrous three months endured by Strasser at the end of 1916, persuaded the German Army Air Service, in Cole and Cheeseman’s words, that “successful airship attacks on London were no longer possible.” When the German Luftstreitkrafte (Combat Air Force) was formed shortly afterwards, its new commander, Wilhelm von Höppner, immediately stated: “Since an airship raid on London has become impossible, the Air Service is required to carry out a raid with aeroplanes as soon as possible.” The results of this realisation were the far more lethal Gotha raids which began on London in June 1917 and continued, although nocturnally, into 1918.
Meanwhile, Robinson desired a posting to a more active role, preferably on the Western Front and, on 9 February 1917, his wish came true when he received orders to join 48 Squadron, which was in the process of equipping with the new Bristol F.2a. This aircraft, which in modified form became the much-respected F.2b, (better known as the Bristol Fighter), was to suffer a disastrous combat debut. One of the new aircraft’s teething problems was the icing up of the guns at altitude. The squadron blamed this on the oil freezing, to which Robinson’s solution was to remove the oil altogether, a decision which was to remain controversial for obvious reasons. The squadron arrived in France on 18 March and, the following month, which became known to the RFC as “Bloody April” made its first sortie. This was a patrol of six F.2as led by Robinson in the vicinity of Douai, well-known to be the home of Jasta 11, equipped with the formidable Albatros D.III, under the command of Manfred von Richthofen. The patrol was duly intercepted by five pilots of Jasta 11, including von Richthofen, just as it was beginning to turn back for the British lines. Four of the six Bristols were swiftly shot down, including Robinson’s aircraft. Although early newspaper reports claimed that Robinson had been killed, he had in fact been captured. Many argue the disaster was due to the squadron’s inexperience with the new aircraft, while others have pointed out that many of the guns on the squadron’s aircraft were rendered useless by the lack of lubrication.
During the rest of 1917, Robinson attempted to escape four times, once, with two companions, even managing to evade capture until within four miles of the Swiss border. Eventually, Robinson found himself at Clausthal PoW camp, which was commanded by Heinrich Niemeyer, brother of Karl, commander of Holzminden. Both camps and both brothers (who were in fact twins) were infamous for their treatment of prisoners. In July 1918, Robinson was transferred to Holzminden, where he “suffered ceaseless and deliberate persecution”.” A failed escape attempt made Robinson’s standing with Karl Niemeyer even worse, who allegedly “swore to avenge the death of Wilhelm Schramm, whom he falsely claimed to have known well, going out of his way to make life difficult for Robinson.” Robinson was singled out for treatment which, it seems, was designed to gradually break his morale, including a requirement to answer roll calls three times a day and confinement to the most insalubrious cells in the camp. In memoirs published in 1919, the Norwegian pilot Trygve Gran, a fellow prisoner in Holzminden, recalled that on one occasion, “Robinson was taken to a cell and, for disobeying an ‘order’, was whipped to the point of collapse.”
Following the Armistice, Robinson was repatriated to the UK, landing on 14 December. Friends who saw him in England were shocked by his appearance, for the eighteen months of confinement had left Robinson seriously weakened. Shortly after Christmas, he contracted influenza, a pandemic of which was sweeping across Europe.
Captain William Leefe Robinson succumbed quickly, passing away on 31 December 1918. He was 23 years old.