W.L Robinson VC
The Cuffley Airship
On the damp and blacked-out night of 2/3 September 1916, a 21 year old Royal Flying Corps (RFC) Pilot, Lieutenant William Leefe Robinson crouched in the cockpit of his BE2c biplane and attacked the giant German Schutte Lanz SL11 Airship some 13,000 feet above the North London/Hertfordshire border.
Despite coming under intense machine-gun fire from the airship, Lt Robinson made two close-range attacks, raking it with incendiary bullets from his single Lewis gun, mounted to fire vertically upwards.
It was while firing his third and last drum of ammunition that he saw the monster airship, filled with highly-explosive hydrogen and driven by a petrol engine, burst into flames. According to reports on the day there was a blinding flash in the sky which could be seen as far away as Guildford.
The mission of Hauptmann Wilhelm Schramm to bomb London had ended in flames over the fields of southern Hertfordshire. The shattered airship plunged down into meadows behind The Plough Public House at Cuffley. So fierce was the blaze that the public house and St Andrews Church (then at the top of Plough Hill) were in danger of being set alight.
For ‘most conspicuous bravery’ Lt Robinson was awarded the Victoria Cross by King George V at Windsor Castle. Airship SL11 was the first enemy airship to be destroyed by an airman over Britain, and its destruction was to prove a turning point in the battle against the airship raids on Britain in World War One.
The dramatic events of that night began shortly before midnight on 2nd September when Lt Robinson, formerly Worcestershire Regiment, and now attached to Flight B, No.39 Home Defence Squadron of the RFC, took off from Suttons Farm (later to become RAF Hornchurch) in his converted single-seater biplane fighter. He and his fellow pilots were to combat 16 German Airships heading towards London.
At this time Zeppelins and similar airships like the SL11 made by Schutte Lanz, were considered to be invincible, British people called them ‘The Baby Killers’ for their seemingly indiscriminate bombing raids as they could operate from great heights which forced the low-powered RFC aircraft to climb to the limits of their capabilities so as to get close enough to fire their guns with any effect, and until this night they had been unscathed.
For the people of London and the Home Counties, who had been subjected to over a year of aerial bombardment, (the first German airship raid on London taking place on the night of 31May/1June 1915) the shooting down of SL11 was a tremendous boost to flagging spirits. As SL11 plummeted to earth, witnessed by thousands in the early hours of Sunday 3rd September, the crowds erupted, giving vent to ‘defiant, hard, merciless cheers’. People danced in the streets, hooters sounded, bells rang, and trains blew their whistles.
Later that day, crowds flocked to Cuffley. Parts of the wreckage were spread across a field near to the original tin Church of St Andrews and there was a great deal of souvenir hunting. The Plough public house was reported to have sold out of food and drink very early, such was the demand of sightseers on this momentous day which became known as ‘Zepp Sunday’.
During the day a RFC party arrived at the scene, among them Leefe (but known as Billy) Robinson who, in modest and uneasy fashion, received the adulation of the throng. Magnanimously he expressed regrets at the loss of life of the German crew of 16, all of whom died at the scene. Those sentiments were not generally shared by the public for, on the same night as SL11 met her doom, there was an attack by Zeppelin L16 on Essendon. There, bombs were dropped on the village, causing severe damage to the Church, and killing Sisters Frances and Eleanor Bamford, daughters of the Blacksmith.
The sisters’ funeral took place on 6th September, the same day as that of the crew of SL11 who were buried at the Mutton Lane Cemetery in Potters Bar. In 1962 the bodies of the airship crew were reinterred at the German Military Cemetery at Cannock Chase.
The loss of SL11 was a turning point in the intensive airship offensive against Britain. The Airships were redesigned to enable them to reach even greater heights. This was not successful and decreased the accuracy of their bombing and navigation, and also led to oxygen deficiency among the crews. More Airships were shot down and raids became more sporadic, the last airship raid over London being recorded on the night of 19/20 October 1917.
Captain Robinson VC, as he had become, died at Stanmore on 31st December 1918, shortly after the end of the War and just 17 days after his return from captivity in Germany, having been taken prisoner in April 1917. He was buried at All Saints Church, Harrow Weald, with full military honours, the bearer party being RFC comrades. He was just 23 years of age.
Remembering Lt. Leefe Robinson VC
Over the years several events of commemoration have been held in Cuffley.
- 1921 Memorial erected on East Ridgeway 9th June
- 1966 50th anniversary service in St Andrews and at East Ridgeway
- 1986 70th anniversary in the presence of Air Vice-Marshal Stear and the Central Band of the Royal Air Force
- 2016 3rd September. Commemoration stone donated by Department of Communities and Local Government, on new plinth built in Millennium Gardens. Unveiled by Mr Howard Guard, Deputy Lieutenant of Hertfordshire and Sir Freddie Sowrey retired Air Marshal of the Royal Air Force. Also ceremonies in both East Ridgeway and St Andrews Church. During the Church Service the actual Victoria Cross medal awarded to William Leefe Robinson was displayed on temporary loan from the Imperial War Museum.
A definitive account of the life and deeds of William Leefe Robinson, and the events of the night of 2/3 September 1916 are recorded in ‘The Airship VC’, a book by World War One author and historian Ray Rimell. Normally priced at £14-95, signed copies are available at £10 from the office of Northaw & Cuffley Parish Council 01707 875825.
(Although he is popularly known as ‘Leefe’ Robinson, during his short lifetime he was always known as Bill or Billy and sometimes Robin or Robbie. He signed letters to his parents as Billy. He is one of seven children and all were given the middle name of Leefe – their Mother’s maiden name. It seems he has only been referred to as Leefe Robinson since his death).
Click on an image below to see a photo gallery recording the life and memorial events to the memory of Lt William Leefe RobinsonVC.