Leefe Robinson

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William Leefe Robinson
Leefe Robinson.jpg
Born 14 July 1895
Pollibetta, Coorg, India
Died 31 December 1918 (aged 23)
Stanmore, England
Buried at All Saints' Churchyard Extension, Harrow Weald, Middlesex
Allegiance  United Kingdom
Years of service 1914–1918
Rank Captain
Unit 39 Squadron
48 Squadron
Commands held Flight Commander
Battles/wars World War I
Awards Victoria Cross

William Leefe Robinson VC (14 July 1895 – 31 December 1918) was the first British pilot to shoot down a German airship over Britain during the First World War. For this he was awarded the Victoria Cross, the highest award for gallantry in the face of the enemy that can be awarded to British and Commonwealth forces. He was the first person to be awarded the VC for action in the UK.[1]

Early life

Robinson was born in Coorg, India, on 14 July 1895, the youngest son of Horace Robinson and Elizabeth Leefe. Raised on his parents' coffee estate, Kaima Betta Estate, at Pollibetta, in Coorg, he attended Bishop Cotton Boys' School, Bangalore, and the Dragon School, Oxford, before following his elder brother Harold to St. Bees School, Cumberland in September, 1909. While there he succeeded his brother as Head of Eaglesfield House in 1913, played in the Rugby 1st XV and became a sergeant in the school Officer Training Corps.[2]

In August, 1914 he entered the Royal Military College, Sandhurst, and was gazetted into the Worcestershire Regiment in December. In March, 1915 he went to France as an observer with the Royal Flying Corps, to which he had transferred. After having been wounded over Lille he underwent pilot training in Britain, before being attached to No. 39 (Home Defence) Squadron, a night-flying squadron at Sutton's Farm airfield near Hornchurch in Essex.


Leefe Robinson photographed at Suttons Farm in 1916

On the night of 2/3 September 1916 over Cuffley, Hertfordshire, Lieutenant Robinson, flying a converted B.E.2c night fighter No. 2693, sighted a German airship – one of 16 which had left bases in Germany for a mass raid over England. The airship was the wooden-framed Schütte-Lanz SL 11, although at the time and for many years after, it was misidentified as Zeppelin L 21. Robinson made an attack at an altitude of 11,500 ft (3,500 m) approaching from below and closing to within 500 ft (150 m) raking the airship with machine-gun fire. As he was preparing for another attack, the airship burst into flames and crashed in a field behind the Plough Inn at Cuffley, killing Commander Hauptmann Wilhelm Schramm and his 15-man crew.[3]

This action was witnessed by thousands of Londoners who, as they saw the airship descend in flames, cheered and sang the national anthem, one even played the bagpipes. The propaganda value of this success was enormous to the British Government, as it indicated that the German airship threat could be countered. When Robinson was awarded the VC by the King at Windsor Castle, huge crowds of admirers and onlookers were in attendance.[4] Robinson was also awarded £3,500 in prize money and a silver cup donated by the people of Hornchurch.

In a memo to his Commanding Officer, Leefe Robinson wrote:[5]

September 1916

From: Lieutenant Leefe Robinson, Sutton's Farm.
To: The Officer Commanding No. 39 H. D. Squadron.


I have the honour to make the following report on night patrol made by me on the night of the 2-3 instant. I went up at about 11.08 p.m. on the night of the second with instructions to patrol between Sutton's Farm and Joyce Green.

I climbed to 10,000 feet in fifty-three minutes. I counted what I thought were ten sets of flares - there were a few clouds below me, but on the whole it was a beautifully clear night. I saw nothing until 1.10 a.m., when two searchlights picked up a Zeppelin S.E. of Woolwich. The clouds had collected in this quarter and the searchlights had some difficulty in keeping on the airship.

By this time I had managed to climb to 12,000 feet and I made in the direction of the Zeppelin - which was being fired on by a few anti-aircraft guns - hoping to cut it off on its way eastward. I very slowly gained on it for about ten minutes.

I judged it to be about 800 feet below me and I sacrificed some speed in order to keep the height. It went behind some clouds, avoiding the searchlight, and I lost sight of it. After fifteen minutes of fruitless search I returned to my patrol.

I managed to pick up and distinguish my flares again. At about 1.50 a.m. I noticed a red glow in the N.E. of London. Taking it to be an outbreak of fire, I went in that direction. At 2.05 a Zeppelin was picked up by the searchlights over N.N.E. London (as far as I could judge).

Remembering my last failure, I sacrificed height (I was at about 12,900 feet) for speed and nosed down in the direction of the Zeppelin. I saw shells bursting and night tracers flying around it.

When I drew closer I noticed that the anti-aircraft aim was too high or too low; also a good many shells burst about 800 feet behind-a few tracers went right over. I could hear the bursts when about 3,000 feet from the Zeppelin.

I flew about 800 feet below it from bow to stem and distributed one drum among it (alternate New Brock and Pomeroy). It seemed to have no effect;

I therefore moved to one side and gave them another drum along the side - also without effect. I then got behind it and by this time I was very close - 500 feet or less below, and concentrated one drum on one part (underneath rear). I was then at a height of 11,500 feet when attacking the Zeppelin.

I had hardly finished the drum before I saw the part fired at, glow. In a few seconds the whole rear part was blazing. When the third drum was fired, there were no searchlights on the Zeppelin, and no anti-aircraft was firing.

I quickly got out of the way of the falling, blazing Zeppelin and, being very excited, fired off a few red Very lights and dropped a parachute flare.

Having little oil or petrol left, I returned to Sutton's Farm, landing at 2.45 a.m. On landing, I found the Zeppelin gunners had shot away the machine-gun wire guard, the rear part of my centre section, and had pierced the main spar several times.

I have the honour to be, sir,

Your obedient servant,
W. Leefe Robinson, Lieutenant
No. 39 Squadron, R.F.C.

The propellor from the plane Leefe Robinson was flying when he shot down the airship is on public display in the Armoury[6] of Culzean Castle in Ayrshire. It was given to the Marquess of Ailsa in thanks for letting his land at Turnberry be used for an RFC flying school.


William Leefe Robinson's grave at All Saints' Church Cemetery

In April 1917, Robinson was posted to France as a Flight Commander with No. 48 Squadron, flying the then new Bristol F.2 Fighter. On the first patrol over the lines, Robinson's formation of six aircraft encountered the Albatros D.III fighters of Jasta 11, led by Manfred von Richthofen, and four were shot down. Robinson, flying Bristol F2A A3337, was shot down by Vizefeldwebel Sebastian Festner, and was wounded and captured. He was not well treated by the Germans. He made several attempts to escape but all failed, his health was badly affected during his time as a prisoner. He was imprisoned at Zorndorf and Holzminden, being kept in solitary confinement at the latter camp for his escape attempts.


Robinson died on 31 December 1918 at the Stanmore home of his sister, the Baroness Heyking, from the effects of the Spanish flu pandemic to which his imprisonment had left him particularly susceptible. He was buried at All Saints' Churchyard Extension in Harrow Weald.[7] A memorial to him was later erected near the spot where the airship crashed. This was renovated in 1986 and again in 2009, the latter occasion being to correct movement of the obelisk and surrounding footpath caused by subsidence.

An additional monument was erected in East Ridgeway, unveiled on 9 June 1921,[8] and by a road named after him (Robinson Close) in Hornchurch, Essex on the site of the former Suttons Farm airfield. A short segment of a wartime newsreel survives although the location and date of the recorded event being unknown.[9]

He was commemorated by the name of the local Miller & Carter steakhouse just south of the cemetery, the Leefe Robinson VC on the Uxbridge Road, Harrow Weald.[10]

In April 2010, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Great Northern Route extension that connects Grange Park to Cuffley, the First Capital Connect rail company named a Class 313 train Captain William Leefe Robinson VC.[11]

See also

Reginald Alexander John Warneford – another VC awarded for bringing down a Zeppelin.


  1. "Captain William Leefe Robinson", The RAF Hornchurch Project, citing Cooksley, P. 1999. VC's of the First World War<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. An Exhibition of the Victoria Cross Group to Captain William Leefe Robinson, Royal Flying Corps together with other medals and related memorabilia Christie, Manson & Woods Ltd London 1988 p.7
  3. The London Gazette: no. 29735. p. 8704. 5 September 1916. Retrieved 28 May 2015.
  4. Martin Gilbert The First World War
  5. Empire Productions The Story of the VC
  6. Picture showing the propellor on display in the Armoury of Culzean Castle
  7. Lieut. Leefe Robinson (1895–1918), findagrave.com<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. "Memorial to Robinson, V.C.", British Pathe newsreel film<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. British Pathe video newsreel film The Late Captain Leefe Robinson V.C.
  10. Leefe Robinson pub name restored in Harrow Weald
  11. First Capital Connect

Further reading

  • Bills, Leslie William (1990). A Medal for Life: the biography of Captain William Leefe Robinson, VC. Tunbridge Wells: Spellmount. ISBN 0946771561.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Gunby, David (2011) [2004]. "Robinson, William Leefe (1895–1918)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/35804.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles> (subscription required)
  • Rimell, Ray (1989). The Airship VC: the life of Captain William Leefe Robinson. Bourne End: Aston. ISBN 0946627533.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

External links