William Leefe-Robinson by Ivan Berryman.
Lieutenant Leefe-Robinsons BE2C, converted to single-seater night-fighter configuration, destroying the German SL11 over Hertfordshire on the night of 2/3 September, 1916. Robinson attacked the SL11 from below, raking it with incendiary fire, before turning and diving past the airship for another attack. As he did so, the airship exploded into flames and crashed into a field near Cuffley, killing all sixteen crew. For this action, Leefe-Robinson was awarded the VC.
When it came, it came in textbook manner, seen by millions of Londoners (including the author’s mother, watching from Harrow). It was the night of 2 September 1916, when there were no fewer than fourteen German naval and military airships over England (sixteen had set out). Many of them were over the London area, and so were many fighters. One of the latter was a B.E.2c flown by Lieutenant W. Leefe Robinson, of 39 Squadron. He had taken off from Sutton’s Farm just after 11 p.m. For two hours he had droned higher and higher on his patrol line between Hornchurch and Joyce Green on the other side of the Thames. Suddenly, at 1.10 on 3 September, he saw an airship held in searchlights near Woolwich. He was higher than the airship and overtaking it, until it disappeared into cloud. Frustrated, he cruised about for 43 minutes looking for it, but eventually returned to his patrol area. Seeing a glow far to the north he headed in that direction, thinking it was a fire on the ground. It was the airship! As he neared her, nose slightly down in a full-throttle chase, Leefe Robinson saw AA shellbursts filling the sky above, behind and below the airship, but none within one airship-length (about 600 feet). Flying right through the bursting shells, he pulled round in a turn about 800 feet below the monster, got it in his gunsight and emptied a drum of Lewis ammunition along the whole length. Tossed about by the AA fire, he changed drums and fired the second from bow to stern along the other side. He reported ‘I then got very close behind at about 500 feet range and concentrated the third drum on the underneath rear part. The drum was hardly finished when I saw the part I had been firing at begin to glow. In a few seconds the whole rear part was ablaze. I quickly got out of the way of the falling Zeppelin, and, having very little oil or petrol left, landed at Sutton’s Farm at 2.45 a.m.’
Leefe Robinson happened to be in the right place at the right time. His achievement was far greater than the mere destruction of an airship (which was not a Zeppelin but the almost new Army Schütte-Lanz S.L.11); it showed that it could be done, to a public wearied of the apparently complete lack of success of the defending fighters. It had a greatly encouraging effect on the other night-fighter pilots. To an even greater degree, it struck fear into the other airship crews, many of whom saw the huge fireball and knew exactly what it meant. On that night 486 bombs were dropped on England, killing a mere forty people. It was the airships’ biggest disaster yet, and while Leefe Robinson collected the Victoria Cross, the crew of S.L.11 were buried with full military honours at Cuffley, Hertfordshire.
For days the surviving airship crews were singularly thoughtful, and discussed openly whether they would rather fry or jump to their deaths. Then, on 23 September, eleven ships set out for Britain. One, L33 of the huge new R-type of almost two million cubic feet displacement, heavily bombed east London but was caught near Chelmsford by 2nd Lieutenant Brandon, also of 39 Squadron, who had been the one to fill L15 with fatal dart perforations. This time he braved the fire of possibly ten machine-guns to fire drum after drum of Lewis ammunition into the monster. Every round hit, but there was no fire. Unknown to Brandon, L33 was losing gas fast, and she hit the ground very hard near West Mersea, her crew being made prisoner. Worse (for the Germans) was to come. As he returned to Sutton’s Farm, out of ammunition, Brandon saw another of the monster R-class ships caught in searchlights. Suddenly he saw what looked like ‘liquid fire’ being injected into it. It was his brother officer from 39 Squadron, Lieutenant F. Sowrey. After a chase lasting more than 25 minutes he had finally come up with the monster, looking almost transparent against the blackness of the sky. He fired drum after drum into her, to no apparent effect. Then Sowrey saw a tongue of flame amidships, followed by a huge gout of flame at the bows. Within seconds L32 was going down like a catherine wheel near Billericay.
No longer could the airship crews claim that the loss of S.L.11 was mere bad luck. Britain’s night defences had at last, after two years of testing, got the measure of the Zeppelin. Henceforth airships would point their nose over the British coast at their peril, and for a week the only raids were on the Midlands and northern areas. On 1 October eleven ships set forth, and one of them, L31, headed for London. Only one commander dared to take on the British capital: Kapitänleutnant Heinrich Mathy, the most experienced and skilled of all Zeppelin captains. Even he was shocked at the intensity of the opposing searchlights and AA fire, and after releasing his bombs he turned and twisted in an effort to escape or find cloud. From fifteen miles away he was seen by yet another member of 39 Squadron, 2nd Lieutenant W.J. Tempest, who had managed to stagger up to 14,500 feet on his patrol line between Joyce Green and Hainault. The airship was held at the peak of a great white mountain of searchlight beams. Eventually Tempest reached her and, disregarding a storm of AA fire, opened up with his Lewis. Again it took drum after drum. Suddenly L31 became a mass of flames. The great ship slowed violently and plunged to the ground. Tempest, who had been below and astern, had a desperate struggle getting out of the way. He could feel the intense heat beat across through the cold night air, and heard the roaring of the flames above the sound of his own engine. What was left of L31 fell near Potters Bar. Mathy deliberately leaped out on the way down.
This knocked the stuffing out of the Zeppelin crews. They now knew that their great hope of beating England to its knees through airship attack would never succeed. Never again did airships come to London; they concentrated their efforts on northern and coastal targets. Many times they came, but seldom without loss. On 17 June 1917 four set out for Harwich, two turned back and L48 was shot down, the sole hideously injured survivor afterwards describing what it was like to fall for five minutes while being burned alive. On 19 October 1917 five huge new Zeppelins were lost out of a raiding force of eleven, and this was especially significant because all operated at their maximum altitude of just over 20,000 feet. Indeed, this major attack was known as ‘the silent raid’ because neither the airships nor the night fighters could be heard from the ground. After this catastrophe there were never again more than five Zeppelins over Britain, except for 12 March 1918 when there were six.
The 3½ years of struggle against the night airships had taught Britain a fantastic amount. The campaign could not teach so much to the airship crews except that courage of the highest order cannot compensate for an inherently vulnerable weapon. From a long period of inertia and fumbling, the British defences had grown to be formidable. Altogether the German airships made fifty-one raids on Britain, all by night, dropping 196 tons of bombs and killing 557 people. It sums up the campaign to record that most of the damage and casualties were caused in 1915 and nearly all the airships destroyed were shot down after mid-1916.
During these middle war years the towns of Kent had often been bombed by aircraft, sometimes with serious results. By day and by night a variety of small two-seaters had made brief attacks, against which the defences were almost powerless. On two occasions single aircraft had even ventured to central London. Then on 25 May 1917 no fewer than twenty-three twin-engined Gotha G II bombers took off from Belgian airfields bound for London. From then on, the big bomber presented a far worse threat than ever the Zeppelins had done. On their third major raid, in broad daylight on 13 June, one group of fourteen Gothas caused 597 casualties in central London – all in the space of a few minutes. Time after time defending fighters received more punishment than they meted out, or their guns jammed or, as in the frustrating attacks on airships, they pumped drum after drum of ammunition into the bombers without evident effect. The RFC realised it needed more speedy fighting scouts, and took squadrons from the front line in France. On 7 July 84 Home Defence aircraft of twenty-two different types searched aimlessly for twenty-two Gothas, and 2nd Lieutenant F.A.D. Grace and his observer G. Murray, flying an Armstrong Whitworth of 50 Squadron, did manage to shoot down a straggler. In a panic, the government at last took positive action, recalling Brigadier-General E.B. Ashmore from the RFC in France to form a properly organized London Defence Area covering south-east England. It was the chaotic and haphazard air defence against this major attack that, backed up by a leader in The Times and a stormy debate in Parliament, was eventually to lead to the formation of the Royal Air Force as an independent service on 1 April 1918.
Before then, however, both the Home Defence squadrons and the Imperial German Army Bombengeschwader were due to be at each other’s throats – and by night. The first night attack came on 4 September 1917, when four G IV bombers crossed the coast and one killed 130 people with two bombs that hit the RN barracks at Chatham. This kind of thing could not go on for long without public indignation spilling over. Until this time the authorities in Whitehall had been extremely restrictive in allowing aircraft to fly at night. Apart from the officially favoured B.E.2 series, and its offshoots such as the B.E.12, almost the only aircraft permitted to fly in darkness were those still in manufacturers’ hands, and thus not subject to the same rules. The caution was born of ignorance rather than stupidity. Though the RFC was a huge organisation, it had grown up with explosive rapidity. There had been no time for anyone to set up an experimental or operational research unit, other than Farnborough, the Royal Aircraft Factory, which was concerned solely with developing better aircraft. Such basic questions as how best to fly at night, and in what kinds of aircraft, had to be answered unofficially by enquiring spirits in the operational squadrons.
One of the first such pioneers had been Carmichael, back in what seemed the prehistoric era of 1912–13. Now there suddenly arose another. While the Gothas were overhead on 3 September 1917 the CO of 44 Squadron sought permission of his GOC, General Higgins, to try to intercept the enemy using his Sopwith Camel. With almost any other pilot the answer would have been a curt ‘Certainly not’, and perhaps a rebuke at the suggestion. But Major W.G. Murlis-Green was a very experienced pilot (and so, at that time, was any officer who had survived with a front-line squadron longer than about ten days!) who had emerged as the undoubted ‘Ace’ on the Allied side in distant Macedonia. He was the kind of man able to bear responsibility for his own actions, and permission was given. Immediately No. 44 was electrified. The Camel was a superb fighter, but it was also the trickiest thing in the sky. Small, powerful, and able to turn on the proverbial sixpence – especially when turning right, helped by the gyroscopic effect of the spinning rotary engine – it also needed delicate judgement borne of experience. Many pupils died soon after take-off because they did not know just when, and how far, to lean off the mixture (rather like taking the choke off a car) and prevent the engine spluttering to a stop. Many stalled and spun through hamfisted turns at below 1,000 feet. Those who survived likened the Camel to a thoroughbred racehorse, with almost frightening sensitivity to the controls. They might have added it was a lopsided racehorse, always, except in a glide, under powerful torque and gyroscopic effects from the engine. Nothing less like a B.E. could be imagined, and if the Camel could be flown in the dark, so could any other aircraft.
Instantly, Murlis-Green was surrounded by all the other pilots on night duty, asking to come too. He picked Captain Brand and Lieutenant Banks, and the three quickly grabbed helmets, gloves and hand torches. Within minutes the field at Hainault Farm, in those days in open country to the north-east of the capital, was echoing to the sound of three Camels speeding out of the flickering light of the flares and into the blackness. Among the other pilots there was intense excitement, but the ground staff were – so legend has it – morose. Many were the predictions that the trio would never return; or, if any did, that they would be bound to crash on landing. But return they did, and all taxied back safely to their parking places. They had seen nothing of the enemy, but that was largely because there was no way of guessing whereabouts to look. What was more significant was that even the Camel could be a night fighter, and the news went through the Home Defence gravevine like wildfire.
Over the next few weeks the whole system of British air defence – such as it was – underwent drastic revision, as the Gothas came again and again, seemingly without hindrance. Scratching around for some way of stopping the bombers, British inventors came up with more than eighty suggestions, many of them the subject of patents. One that was actually tried was simply to site standard kite balloons east of London and around the Thames estuary. Each balloon was a gastight fabric envelope resembling a short but fat airship with (usually three) tail surfaces like the flights of a dart. The standard pattern was designed to carry an artillery observer aloft; without him the balloon could take its steel cable to 20,000 feet, but there is no record of any pre-1918 German bomber being brought down by one. (In contrast, in the Second World War the British barrage balloon [as it was called] destroyed many aircraft, a major proportion being British.) In fact possibly two of the big bombers had been shot down over the sea, and over Belgium. Several more had been lost through running out of petrol, adverse winds and landing accidents; but the British public knew nothing of this. It wanted to see aircraft being shot down, as had ultimately been achieved with the airships. But bombers were more difficult, for obvious reasons. Though London and the south-east became ringed with hundreds of searchlights, none seemed able to hold a bomber in its beam. Though there were hundreds of guns, which fired 14,000 shells on 29 September 1917 alone, often from barrels practically glowing red-hot in the darkness, and another 12,000 on the 30th, no shell hit a bomber. What was desperately lacking was any precise system of finding and tracking the raiders and quickly passing the information to gunners and night fighters. In the absence of this, thousands of shells, and thousands of hazardous night-flying hours, achieved nothing beyond causing concern to the Gotha crews. With so much hardware flying about in the night sky, someone might get hit by sheer bad luck.