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William Leefe Robinson, VC

At the age of twenty-one Robinson was the first pilot to bring down an enemy airship in Great Britain


HIS SUCCESSFUL ATTACK on the German raider over London during the night of September 2-3 1916, won the VC for Robinson. After a long watch Robinson saw the German airship SL 11 in the beams of searchlights. At his third attack the airship burst into flames and fell near Cuffley, Hertfordshire. The following year Robinson was taken prisoner after a forced landing behind the German lines. He died of influenza at the end of 1918.

IT is just eleven o’clock at night on September 2, 1916. The towns and villages of Great Britain seem to be sleeping, yet beneath each roof there is a certain alertness mingled with wonderment. The prevailing question is: “Will they come to-night?”

It is foolish to deny that there is apprehension; for, if they do come, there are women and children who may not live to see another dawn.

Great Britain is at war and no longer impregnable against the invader, for death now flies on swift wings and destruction may come suddenly from the sky - with little, if any, warning.

There is an atmosphere of drama in every home. At any moment the anti-aircraft guns may break the quietness of the night, stir the weary to wake-fulness and rock the walls of England’s homes.

It is a clear night, with but few clouds. The stars look down with cold aloofness.

Somewhere in England there is a young man belonging to the 39th Squadron of the Royal Flying Corps. He is only twenty-one years old, and his name is William Leefe Robinson. He is standing by his aeroplane waiting for the engine to warm up. At eight minutes past eleven he opens the throttle, takes off and climbs. He is looking eagerly for enemy aircraft over England, over London. For a long while he seeks in vain.

At ten minutes past one the search-lights pick out an airship near Woolwich, in the south-east of London. The young pilot makes for the airship; but clouds have begun to collect in this quarter, and the long cigar-shape ship seeks refuge in them and escapes.

About an hour later William Leefe Robinson catches sight of the S.L.ll, one of the Schiitte-Lanz type of airship. This airship is one of a fleet of thirteen sent by Germany to attack London and the industrial districts of the Midlands. Only three of those thirteen airships succeed in getting anywhere near London. Two are driven off. The third provides one of the most dramatic moments in the history of air warfare.

It is William Leefe Robinson’s hour. It is London’s hour. Millions of people are awake, watching and waiting. At an altitude of 11,500 feet a B.E.2C aeroplane is flying. Young Robinson is at the controls. Two other machines are near, but it is Robinson who is to have the privilege of making history by bringing down the first enemy airship in Great Britain.

Having seen the airship, he manoeuvres his craft and flies about eight hundred feet below the gasbag from bow to stern, trying to fire a drum into its belly. To no avail. Then another drum is distributed along its side, but still the airship rides on with something near to dignity.

William Leefe Robinson does not despair. He merely changes his method of attack. Having dropped behind the enemy and got close below, more determined than ever to succeed, he lets another drum into the underside of the stern. He is scarcely able to finish firing before a red glow is seen to be creeping stealthily along the belly of the ship. No longer do the searchlights play on the craft. No longer do the anti-aircraft guns thunder. There is no need, for the S.L.ll is doomed. The commander and his crew are marked for destruction. In a few moments the whole of the rear of the airship becomes a blazing furnace. The sky is crimson with the flames. Never has London seen such an amazing spectacle as this.

Soon the airship begins to break up and fall. William Leefe Robinson speedily dodges the blazing mass as it roars down to earth. The young English pilot, overwhelmed with excitement and victory, fires off a few red Very lights and drops a parachute flare to add a little more colour to the event.

Down below strange things are happening. Millions of voices cheer themselves hoarse as the enemy airship sweeps earthwards like a fantastic comet. Then comes the stampede.

Where did the ship fall? The question is on everyone’s lips, and soon it is known that the final stage of the disaster is taking place near the village of Cuffley, in Hertfordshire.

For two hours the S.L.ll burns, and during that time all roads lead to the scene. Thousands of people, on foot and in every kind of vehicle, make their way to Cuffley.

Meanwhile William Leefe Robinson, now running short of fuel, alights at Sutton’s Farm Aerodrome, two miles from Hornchurch, in Essex, his work done. It is a quarter to three on the morning of September 3, 1916.

For his achievement Robinson received many gifts of appreciation, and two days later King George V awarded him the Victoria Cross.

But he was not long to survive. On April 5 in the following year he was leading a formation of six Bristol machines of No. 40 Squadron, and during battle with the enemy his engine was disabled and he was compelled to land. He was taken prisoner.

He spent the rest of the war period in various German prisons, including Holzminden, where for a time he was kept in solitary confinement.

He died on December 31, 1918. The courageous young man who gave London its most dramatic spectacle made no spectacular exit himself from this life. He died of influenza and was buried at All Saints, Harrow Weald, Middlesex.

[From Part 19, published 12 July 1938]

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“Evolution of the Fighter”,

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