One hundred years ago a feat deemed impossible was achieved on the 2nd of September 1916. The nightmare of the British Home Front was fought and defeated for the first time. The tremendous noise of thousands of cheering Londoners accompanied the fiery descent of the Zeppelin. Initially the German airships sent over Britain were for reconnaissance missions, but they were soon turned into bombers. They bombed up and down the east coast of Britain causing physical and psychological damage to the Home Front. In order to combat these raids the Royal Flying Corps was ordered to patrol and defend the nation. Nevertheless it was a forbidding challenge for the young pilots, as the Zeppelins appeared indestructible.
Lieutenant William Leefe-Robinson was born 14 July 1895 in South Coorg, India. He joined the Worcestershire Regiment until March 1915, after which he served in the 39 Squadron, The Royal Flying Corps. By September he had progressed from being an observer to a member of the Home Defence Squadrons. Leefe-Robinson had his first opportunity to strike against an airship in April 1916, but he failed. However another chance arose on the night of the 2nd/ 3rd of September. The Lieutenant was flying a BE2c aircraft from Sutton’s Farm airfield in Essex on a routine patron operation. The first couple of hours were uneventful until the Lieutenant sighted a German airship over Woolwich and he pursued it. The thick cloud obscured it, but the searchlights over Finsbury in North London highlighted more of the enemy. Targeting one of sixteen German aircrafts on a mass raid, he gave chase despite being desperately short on fuel. He had to push his plane beyond its usual height ceiling, flying over eleven thousand feet in order to attack. After the German aircraft had dropped it bombs, Leefe-Robinson emptied two drums of ammunition into the sides of the enemy airship to no avail, it remained impregnable. Breaking off he decided to attack from astern, emptying his last drum into the twin rudders. A faint glow bloomed within before it burst into flames, and the first Zeppelin (or Shütte-Lanz SL11) was finally defeated over Cuffley in Hertfordshire.
The young and exhausted Lieutenant was lifted shoulder high upon his return to base, and that night was dubbed ‘Zepp Sunday’ after his achievement by the locals. Two days after the fall of the Zeppelin he was awarded the Victoria Cross Medal, the first man to receive a VC in or above the United Kingdom. He became a national hero, with his story and photograph printed in national newspapers and magazines. As a result of this he received over four thousand pounds in donations from well-wishers. Nonetheless his fighting career was not over and he was sent to fight over France. Unfortunately in April 1917 his Bristol fighter plane was shot down and he was captured by the Germans. On account of his famous identity he suffered brutal conditions in the prison camp until his release after the war. Although he survived the war he was severely weak from captivity, and he no longer had the strength to fight off the influenza. At the age of twenty-three William Leefe-Robinson passed away on New Year’s Eve 1918. One of the nation’s most recognised heroes in the First World War was buried in All Saints Churchyard in Harrow Weald, Middlesex.
The teak propeller from Leefe-Robinson’s BE2c plane now resides in the armoury of Culzean Castle. The propeller was presented to Archibald Kennedy, 3rd Marquis of Ailsa by the No.1 Fighting School based at Turnberry aerodrome in 1919. It was given as a gesture of gratitude, since the airstrip was part of the Kennedy landholdings used during the war.
The propeller is part of our nation’s history, and if you have an interest in military history then why not visit and see it for yourself!
A Fighter Pilot’s Day
By Kirstie Bingham
Climbing higher than the birds can reach,
Neither peace nor mercy do we beseech.
For the time has come to enter the fray
To prevent our homes from becoming prey.
A dead dance as we swoop through the air
Abandoning all personal thought or care.
Bombs and bullets mar the sky,
Obliterating any chance of a last goodbye.
A Hit! Golden red flames suddenly bloom
Signalling my enemy’s moment of doom.
This perilous bout is over, I can descend,
A friend, a comrade will shortly ascend.
Whirling blades do gradually slow
Allowed to rest in the eternal glow,
Of a grateful nation’s heart.
Blog written by Kirstie Bingham, Castle Guide
Photographs by Gordon Nelson, Collections Care Officer
Poem, inspired by the many poems written after the Zeppelin was shot down, in honour of Lt. William Leefe Robinson, written by Kirstie Bingham.