The ‘Few’ and the First Battle of Britain

2020 marks eighty years since the Battle of Britain, the events of which still form an iconic image of the RAF and fighter pilots. June – September 1940 was however not the first time that the skies over England had been the site of battle between two rival nations. This first occurred 105 years ago. This is part one of a two-part blog looking at this period.

As archivist for the RAF Museum, I am naturally drawn to the documents we have on display. One caught my eye as it is a drawing by a child. It is on display in Hangar 2 as part of our First World War in the Air exhibition.

Pencil child sketch showing matchstick figures watching a Zeppelin burn.

This drawing is part of a letter by a boy aged 8, dated 3 September 1916. It marks the shooting down of SL11, a ‘Zeppelin’. This was an airship made by Shütte-Lanz rather than the Zeppelin Company. However all German airships were commonly called Zeppelins.

While investigating this in the archive collection, I discovered a contrasting image of a crashed Zeppelin.

German Navy crew member clinging on to wreckage of airship in the sea

The pencil inscription on the reverse of this postcard reads, ‘This card is much for sale in the North Sea parts. It is the King Stephen case’. On further investigation, I found this referred to the airship L19 of the Imperial German Navy. Returning from a bombing raid on England on 31 January 1916 it came down in the North Sea.

The English fishing boat the King Stephen found the wreck of the airship with the 16 German crew clinging to it in the ocean. Captain William Martin of the King Stephen refused to rescue the crew worrying that his small unarmed fishing crew would be overpowered and they would be forced to sail to Germany. Although they were promised that the crew would behave and even offered money Martin sailed away. The men clinging to the fabric of the airship placed messages in bottles to their friends and families and threw them into the sea. These would be found some six months later. The crew and the remains of L19 were never found although the Royal Navy conducted a search for them. It was later revealed that Martin was illegally fishing and had given the Royal Navy false co-ordinates. A body of one of the crew washed up on the shores of Løkken in Denmark, four months later.

Bi-plane taking off with pilot in cap and googles.

On the night of the 2-3 September 1916 2nd Lieutenant William Leefe Robinson of the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) was flying a Royal Aircraft Factory BE2c fighter which was armed with new incendiary bullets designed to set alight the hydrogen gas in the airships. He attacked and shot down the Shütte-Lanz SL11. This was part of a mass attack of 16 airships. The explosion and the fall to earth of this giant from 11,500 feet (3,505 metres) lit up London for miles around. The Zeppelin crashed in Cuffley, Hertfordshire and it burned for two hours. This was the first time an airship had been shot down over Britain. 2nd Lt. Robinson was awarded the Victoria Cross and would be instantly famous. He would be presented with the Victoria Cross (VC) by King George V at Windsor Castle on 8 September 1916.

Men in RFC uniform cheering one in their centre

Robinson was shocked by his level of fame and wrote to his parents on 22 October 1916;

‘As I daresay you have seen in the papers – babies, flowers and hats have been named after me also poems and prose have been dedicated to me – oh it’s too much.’

Items that belonged to him including his cigarette case are on display in Hangar 2 in the RAF Museum, London. 2nd Lt. Robinson’s VC was unique as it was awarded for an act of military valour in the air over Britain. The first to be awarded for action in this new area of combat over Britain.

In the drawing is captured the relief and joy that the shooting down of this ‘Zepp’ caused across the country. The awe of an 8-year-old and the sense of adventure, danger and fear of airships is also present in this simple sketch. Fear had been instilled in the British public since January 1915.

Black and white photogprah of airship flying over a crowd low to the ground.

On 19 January 1915 the way that war was viewed in Britain changed. Wars no longer happened overseas confined to designated battlefields the events of which would be read about in the newspapers of the day. War came to your doorstep in the form of bombing. In 1915 giant lighter-than-air airships, commonly known as Zeppelins (named after Count Ferdinand Graf von Zeppelin who initiated the development of airships in Germany in 1900) would deliver these bombs. Of course the Zeppelins were not designed originally for war but as passenger craft.

Men and women, some men in military uniform look out ofa Gondola window which is attached to an airship

Two Zeppelins, L3 and L4 (which were respectively the twenty-fourth and twenty-seventh airships manufactured by Luftschiffbau Zeppelin) armed with 24 bombs took off from a base at Fuhlsbüttel, Hamburg at approximately 11.30am on Tuesday January 19 1915. They arrived over the East Anglian coast nine hours later at around 8.30pm. The cover of darkness being one of their greatest weapons. This would be the first Zeppelin raid. Due to the weather conditions, the Zeppelins would bomb Great Yarmouth and Kings Lynn.

Martha Taylor aged 74 and Samuel Smith aged 53 would be the first two British civilians killed in an air raid. Four people would be killed in total and another 16 injured in this raid.

When these monsters of the skies appeared, Britain had no real effective form of defence although German airships had been viewed with suspicion in Britain for many years. Further incursions into British airspace would occur and attacks would mostly be confined to coastal areas as Kaiser Wilhelm was unwilling to give permission to attack London.

London would however soon be targeted as the major city. Part permission was given and London ‘east of the Tower of London’ was approved as a legitimate target by the Kaiser on 5 May 1915. On the night of 31 May – 1 June 1915, a dark moonless night, the first London focused raid took place by airships. Bombs fell from Stoke Newington to Stepney and caused 41 fires. This was due to the incendiary bombs used. The police recorded 91 incendiary devices, 28 explosive bombs and two grenades dropped.

In September 1914 Britain’s air defences had been trusted to the Royal Navy and First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill set to work in this new arena. New airfields were laid out, searchlights and anti-aircraft guns coordinated and night flying training undertaken. Civil defence measures included a partial black out. However, all these measures counted for nothing. 15 Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) aircraft were launched against the intruder but only one pilot saw the airship and he was forced to land due to engine trouble before he had a chance to gain attitude and engage.

The reality was that an airship, some 157 metres in length had dropped bombs over London for 20 minutes and then returned home. None of the airships carried navigation or bomb aiming equipment accurate enough to ensure civilian targets were not hit so this was inevitable. The victims of this London bombing were 7 killed and 35 injured. Among the dead was a three-year-old girl, Elsie Leggatt. This earned the ‘Zepps’ another title, ‘Baby-Killers’.

Illustration drawn for the Daily Chronicle, portraying a soldier looking up towards a Zeppelin, whilst a woman and child mourn a figure on the ground.

Newspapers such as The Daily News and The Daily Chronicle offered advice on what to do when the Zeppelins came and both offered free insurance against Zeppelin bomb damage if you subscribed to their paper.

A public warning poster appeared from 1915 illustrated with diagrams of both British and German airships and aircraft. The text read:

‘Public Warning: The public are advised to familiarise themselves with the appearance of British and German Airships and Aeroplanes so that they may not be alarmed by British aircraft and may take shelter if German aircraft appear. Should hostile aircraft be seen, take shelter immediately in the nearest available house, preferably in the basement and remain there until the aircraft have left the vicinity: do not stand about in crowds and do not touch unexploded bombs.’

This speaks volumes as to the novelties of air raids such as the warnings to crowds not to gather and watch and not to touch any unexploded bombs. Crowds would also be attracted to the wreckage of the enemy airships.

London would be targeted again (the Kaiser agreed to unrestricted bombing of London on 20 July 1915) along with other cities such as Hull which suffered a raid that caused 24 deaths and over 40 injuries and substantial damage.

Zeppelin Airship in Flight over a lake

The largest raid carried out by airships against Britain in the First World War took place on the 7-8 September 1915. London, Middlesbrough and Norwich were all targeted.

The log of L224, one of the airships that participated in the attack illustrates that little major precautions were being undertaken,

‘Navigation from Kings Lynn to London was straightforward because the landscape was completely dark and most of the cities were still lit up, London was still very brightly illuminated..’

(Quoted in Charles Stephenson, Zeppelins: German Airships 1900-40, Osprey Publishing, 2010)

In response to these bombings hate crimes occurred. People with German sounding names were attacked and shops with German names, particularly in the East End of London would also be targeted, robbed and windows smashed and owners beaten up. Many individuals who had German sounding names would anglicise them. Shop names would also be changed. All of this must have played a part in Captain Martin’s decision regarding the fate of the crew of L19.

In February 1916, the British Army took over the control of the Home Defence and in April No. 39 Squadron RFC was formed. Its role was specifically to defend London, it was armed with new incendiary bullets and explosive bullets. This was Robinson’s Squadron.

Poster showing airship caught in searchlights.

The shooting down of SL11 so graphically recorded by an eight-year-old proved that these airships could be destroyed. There immense size made many believe they were invulnerable. Two more airships would be shot down in the following weeks, using the techniques pioneered by 2nd Lt Robinson. The official history states that the shooting down of the airship in 1916 by Robinson, ‘was the beginning of the end of the airship menace.’

Robinson did not wish to rest on his fame and wanted to be an active fighter pilot and was soon in action in France. While leading a reconnaissance flight in March 1917, he encountered a flight led by Leutnant Manfred von Richthofen, ‘The Red Baron’ and was shot down. It took several weeks for it to be confirmed that he was still alive and was a prisoner of war for the rest of the war, where he was badly treated as he was known to have been the pilot who shot down the airship. He attempted to escape on numerous occasions but was unsuccessful. When the armistice was signed on 11 November 1918, 2nd Lt. Robinson VC was released. He returned to Britain in December 1918. Robinson would fall victim to the flu pandemic that would kill 50 million people worldwide due to his weakened state. This was an enemy that he could not out fly. He died on New Year’s Eve 1918 at the age of 23.

1915 and 1916 saw the peak of airship raids although they carried on throughout the First World War. In total German airships flew some 208 missions over Britain, causing some 528 deaths and 1,156 wounded, although these figures vary. London was attacked a total of 9 times (although 26 had targeted the capital) with the majority of the raids taking place between 1915 – 1916 causing 181 killed and 504 people injured. Twenty airships were destroyed by British forces during the First World War and their aircrews, who could be as many as 28 on one airship killed. This was war at its rawest.

German airship crew in uniform posing, 1916

There is one more important figure to mention when investigating the ‘Zepps’ and that is the lesser known figure of Flight Sub Lieutenant RAJ Warneford of the RNAS who was responsible for shooting down the first airship in the air. This occurred during an operation to bomb Zeppelin sheds known to be located at Evere in Belgium on 6-7 June 1915. Sometime before Robinson’s encounter, Warneford flying a Morane Saulnier saw an airship in flight, LZ37 and released his bombs above the airship, one exploded causing the airship to burst into flames and crash.

Burning Zeppelin diving towards the ground through clouds, with a monoplane in the background.

The explosion caused Warneford to lose control of his aircraft which flipped out of control. He had to land it behind enemy lines and effect repairs, mainly on his fuel line, restart the aircraft (which usually took three men) and finally return to his base. He was awarded the Victoria Cross.

Morane Saulnier Type L Parasol, port front view on the ground, ca. 1915

Sadly Warneford would not have any time to enjoy his fame and is very much forgotten today. A memorial to him can be found in Brompton Cemetery as he was killed less than ten days later in an accident when demonstrating a Farman biplane in Paris. His first test flight went well but he then agreed to give a joy ride to an American journalist, by all accounts a thrill ride. The Illustrated London News reported that the aircraft made ‘several large circles and several rapid descents’. It then broke up in the air and the men fell to the ground to be killed instantly. He was the same age as Robinson, 23.

man in uniform in framed portrait in case

More then 50,000 went to Warneford’s funeral at Brompton Cemetery in 1915. Such was his fame at the time. One of the largest floral tributes was from the officers and men of the British Hospital in Paris in the shape of an aircraft. Warneford is one of 13 holders of the Victoria Cross buried there.

White stone grave of Sub-Lieutenant R A Warneford VC

Those who crewed the ‘Zepps’ are also resting in England. In the German Military cemetery at Cannock Chase, Staffordshire, the remains of the crews of the airships SL11, L31, L32 and L48 are buried. Twenty-two men are named on the memorial.

Detail of grave showing Zeppelin crashing to the ground in flames.

The fame that the men who shot down the airships achieved at the time reflected the threat of these seemingly behemoths of the skies who could rain down chaos, death and destruction on to the innocent. War was no longer confined to armies in the field. Airships were first seen as invincible, coming silently in the night and causing death and destruction, seemingly without discrimination. Pilots would at first rarely detect them and if they did would be unable to climb to their attitude to attack.

By shooting these down, the men of the RNAS and the RFC had shown that the new battlefield, the sky, was defendable. For the first time, but not for the last, the ‘Few’ had seen off a threat. The next menace they were to face was to come in March 1917 in the shape of an aircraft 40 feet long and with a wing span of 77 feet. This was the bomber the Gotha G. IV. The ‘Few’ would be called on again. This will be the subject of my next blog post.

With thanks to Peter Devitt, Curator, RAF Museum for sharing his expertise knowledge in this subject.

About the Author

Gary Haines: Archivist

Gary is honoured to be the archivist for RAF Museum London and part of the Archive & Library team. Gary has a lifelong interest in military history, research and writing and is published in the fields of social, cultural and military history. He enjoys telling stories that have been forgotten which can be discovered in the archives. If you hear someone going wow that will be Gary in the archives.