Lieutenant William Leefe Robinson and the events of 3 September 1916
The air raid on the 2/3 September 1916 saw the first successful destruction of a German airship over mainland Britain. This raid, comprising of 14 airships, was to be the heaviest airship raid conducted by Germany against Britain. On the morning of 3 September 1916 Lieutenenant William Leefe Robinson successfully engaged and shot down airship SL 11, an airship produced by Zeppelin’s rival company Schutte-Lanz.
Leefe Robinson starts his patrol
Leefe Robinson set out on patrol from Sutton’s Farm airfield, which was to become RAF Hornchurch, in his BE2c at 11pm on the night of 2 September 1916.
The site of Sutton’s Farm today-
His aircraft’s Lewis Machine Gun was loaded with a combination of the new incendiary and explosive-incendiary bullets recently accepted for service by the Royal Flying Corps. The bullets accepted for service included explosive bullets developed by John Pomeroy, incendiary bullets developed by John Buckingham and explosive-incendiary bullets developed by Flt. Lt. Frank Brock. Although individually these rounds could not ignite the Hydrogen contained within airship; firing a combination of these bullets would allow fighter aircraft to shoot down airships. The theory was that the explosive bullets would punch a hole in the airship’s skin, which in turn would let in the Oxygen needed to make the Hydrogen highly flammable, this could then be ignited by the incendiary and explosive-incendiary rounds. Leefe Robinson was able to put this theory into practice on 3 September 1916.
SL 11 starts her attack
SL 11 was the first airship that night to reach the English Coast, making landfall at Foulness. SL 11, commanded by Wilhelm Schramm, started her attack 01:20pm; dropping bombs between London Colney and North Mymms, with more bombs falling on Enfield and Southgate.
Schramm set course for central London, when at 2:00am Searchlights in Finsbury and Victoria Parks opened up, illuminating the airship. This was followed by heavy fire from the anti-aircraft gun emplaced in Finsbury Park. The Finsbury Park gun was soon joined by other anti-aircraft guns located in Victoria Park, West Ham, King’s Cross, Green Park, and Tower Bridge.
SL 11 eventually managed to evade the searchlights and withering anti-aircraft fire and resumed its bombing over Edmonton. However, the airship was once again caught in a searchlight beam at 2:15am, this sealed her fate.
Leefe Robinson intercepts SL 11
Leefe Robinson was able to manoeuvre his aircraft into position and conduct three attacks against the airship, firing Brock and Pomeroy bullets into SL 11. SL 11 burst into flames at 02:18am, crashing at Cuffley, Hertfordshire, killing all 16 of her crew. The site of the crash was the focus of much publicity and people came from miles around to see the burnt out remains of the airship.
Crash site of SL 11 at Cuffley, Hertfordshire-
Archive footage of the Cuffley crash site. Courtesy of the IWM © IWM (NTB 263-1)
The Red Cross made the wire bracing from airship SL 11 into souvenirs which they sold to raise money for the organisation and the treatment of wounded soldiers.
Lieutenant William Leefe Robinson was awarded the Victoria Cross on 5 September 1916.
How you can help Home Front Legacy
You can help Home Front Legacy by recording and mapping the sites associated with air raids during the First World War. This aspect of the war is often overlooked and many of the sites remain to be re-discovered and recorded.
Everything from Home Defence squadron airfields, such as Sutton’s Farm, through to anti-aircraft gun and searchlight positions can be recorded, along with the places bombs fell and the sites of airship wrecks. All the sites mentioned in this account remain to be researched and recorded for Home Front Legacy.
Your research and recording through Home Front Legacy can help to build up a nationwide picture of the defences constructed to intercept incoming raiders, as well as the places which were targeted by air raids.
The best place to start your research is Ian Castle’s ‘Britain’s First Blitz’ website. This website features detailed accounts of all air raids that took place during the First World War. Each account highlights the places where bombs fell and also details the locations of static defences such as anti-aircraft gun emplacements and searchlight batteries.
Street names and Pubs can sometimes offer clues to the wartime past of different areas. Robinson Close, which sits on the former site of RAF Hornchurch, was named after William Leefe Robinson.
You may also wish to record the factories producing aircraft, their components and the munitions they used, to build up a picture of the industries that supported the Royal Flying Corps. The Buckingham incendiary bullet was developed and produced in Coventry.
You can also find out more about the other types of explosive and incendiary bullet in this blog article HERE