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William Leefe Robinson: Bringing down a Zeppelin

PUBLISHED: 10:36 05 September 2016 | UPDATED: 09:57 06 September 2016

Leefe Robinson painting

Leefe Robinson painting

Courtesy of Patricia Klijn & Michael Clark archives

The battle between a small fighter biplane and a giant German airship bomber over the night skies of Hertfordshire 100 years ago this month ended with a first for the Allies and thrust a village and a pilot into the national consciousness. Michael Long describes the dramatic events of that September night

A Schutte Lanz airship under construction in Germany. Thought to be the SL13, this was a sister ship to the SL11 shot down at Cuffley. Schutte Lanz airpships differed from Zeppelins as their frames were constructed from wood and wire (The Zeppelins were aluminium), hence the enormous blaze when the SL11 was shot downA Schutte Lanz airship under construction in Germany. Thought to be the SL13, this was a sister ship to the SL11 shot down at Cuffley. Schutte Lanz airpships differed from Zeppelins as their frames were constructed from wood and wire (The Zeppelins were aluminium), hence the enormous blaze when the SL11 was shot down

Most people think of the Blitz as the German bombing of British cities and towns in the Second World War. But there was an earlier terror from the skies. It is difficult today to imagine the psychological impact that German airship raids had on the British population in the First World War. A generation before the Blitz the German airforce unleashed a new form of aerial bombardment on civilians unused to war or indeed powered flight. This month marks 100 years since Flight Lieutenant William Leefe Robinson became the first aviator to shoot down a German airship in the skies over Hertfordshire – becoming a national hero overnight.

In the early hours of September 3, 1916, 16 German Zeppelins flew high over the skies of the county and dropped bombs on Royston, London Colney, North Mimms, Essendon and Northaw. British fighters had had no success in the night skies against the huge airships but the BE2 bi-plane fighters were sent to intercept, in the knowledge no Zeppelin had ever been successfully shot down.

Those on the home front away from the terrible fighting on the continent, had not been directly engaged in the war. The Zeppelin raids from 1915 onwards dramatically changed that. When war came in 1914, the Germans had several airships, capable of dropping bombs from a height of 10,000 feet. With the military situation on the Western front in 1915 in a stalemate, the German High Command decided to deploy their airships against British towns and cities.

Zeppelin raids had been taking place infrequently since the start of 1915 with civilian casualties (835 by 1918) and damage to property. The press dubbed the airships ‘baby-killers’ and referred to all German airships as Zeppelins even though some of them were Schutte-Lanz airships, made of plywood rather than aluminium.

Zeppelin on fire, an image of the event as seen through a childrens' comicZeppelin on fire, an image of the event as seen through a childrens' comic

Shortly after 2 am on that September night a century ago, one of the British BE2 night-fighters, piloted by Lieutenant Robinson spotted an airship over north-east London following a westerly heading. He dropped to 11,500 feet, attacking the airship from below. By now he was on the eastern fringes of Hertfordshire and dropping further he sighted the airship with his machine guns - armed with incendiary ammunition.

‘I was 500 feet or less. I fired and in a few seconds, the whole rear part was blazing,’ Robinson recalled. ‘I quickly got out of the way of the falling, blazing Zeppelin.’

Robinson had become the first aviator to successfully bring down an airship over Britain.

The battle in the skies of Hertfordshire was being watched by an excited public below. The airship, which Robinson identified as a Zeppelin, was, in fact, Schutte-Lanz 11 (SL11). Moments before he attacked, it jettisoned its bombs over Essendon hitting the church and destroying houses. Two sisters, Frances and Eleanor Bamford, were killed; both had been outside watching the skies when the bombs fell. As the airship ignited, across the county, spectators looked up and witnessed its enormous death throes.

Airship shot down by Leefe Robinson at Cuffley near London, England September 1916. Illustration published c1920.Airship shot down by Leefe Robinson at Cuffley near London, England September 1916. Illustration published c1920.

A schoolboy, Patrick Blundstone was staying in a house in Cuffley on the night of the attack, and wrote to his father, ‘Suddenly a bright yellow light appeared. I rushed to the window and looked out, and – there, right above us was the Zepp... It had broken in half. It was in flames, roaring and crackling. It went slightly to the right and crashed down into a field. It was about 100 yards away from the house and directly opposite us.’

The doomed airship took a long time to fall from the sky, breaking its back before crashing in two sections into a field behind the Plough Inn at Cuffley. The wreckage continued to burn for two days despite the attention of the Cheshunt Fire Brigade. Locals rushed to the crash site, many grabbing pieces of the wrecked airship as mementos before the army could secure the area. Strewn around the debris field were the charred remains of the 16 German airmen. Their bodies were removed and buried at Hutton Lane Cemetery in Potters Bar.

Cuffley was a small village, but thousands of people descended to witness the crash site. The Great Northern Railway laid on excursion trains from Kings Cross for 10,000 people over the next two days. The area around the crash site became a muddy quagmire and village roads were congested with carts and cars. Souvenirs and photographs commemorating the event were quickly offered for sale to newly-arrived spectators.

The clamour can be seen as reaction against the news from the Front. The public wanted success given the ongoing nightmare of the Battle of the Somme, and Robinson provided it. The Mercury called it, ‘a wonderful spectacle; the sight of a lifetime.’ The newspaper described the airship’s fall to earth as being ‘graceful’ and claimed it had been witnessed by spectators 25 miles from Cuffley.

Lt Leefe Robinson in his BE2c aircraft after the event. The two ground crew are displaying the centre section of the upper plane which Robinson inadvertently shot away (Courtesy of Patricia Klijn & Michael Clark Archives)Lt Leefe Robinson in his BE2c aircraft after the event. The two ground crew are displaying the centre section of the upper plane which Robinson inadvertently shot away (Courtesy of Patricia Klijn & Michael Clark Archives)

SL11 was not the only airship over Hertfordshire that night however. Airships crossed over Tring, Berkhamsted, Markyate, Hertford and Ware, dropping bombs on St Albans, London Colney and Brookman’s Park. A farmer in Little Gaddesden wrote, ‘An enemy airship came over last night, frightened our sheep’. The raid caused great consternation in the county and Hertfordshire Police was rigorous in enforcing the blackout and shops were quick to advertise ‘Anti-Zepp’ blinds for protection.

Robinson was awarded the Victoria Cross three days after downing the airship and became a national hero, hitting the front pages of the nationals.

He died from the influenza pandemic shortly after the war ended in 1918. Today the site of the Cuffley airship crash lies under residential gardens in Cranfield Crescent and Bacons Drive. A little further away stands a memorial to the events of that night, erected in 1921.

Leefe Robinson memorial before SL11 change and original bronze RAF wings before metal theft September 1967Leefe Robinson memorial before SL11 change and original bronze RAF wings before metal theft September 1967

Centenary Cuffley airship events

September 1-3. The Cuffley VC, A musical play on the life and times of Lt William Leefe Robinson and Cuffley performed by Cuffley Operatic Society. Full details at cuffleyoperaticsociety.co.uk
September 3, around midday. There will be fly-past by a replica of the plane flown by Lt Robinson and Dekota aircraft over King George Playing Fields during Cuffley Village Day.

September 6-9, 11am-7pm. Exhibition on Lt Robinson and the ‘Battle in the sky’ in Cuffley Hall.

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