31st December 1918

Captain William Leefe Robinson VC died of cardiac arrest resulting from influenza. He died at Lavender Cottage, Harrow Weald, Middlesex after serving throughout the war.

He was born in India on 14th July 1895, and was the youngest of seven children. His was educated at St Bees College, Cumbria 1909-1914, and extracts from letters to his mother show he hoped to gain entrance to Sandhurst after leaving school and obtain a commission in either the Indian Army or British Army.

He entered Sandhurst on 14th August 1914 and was gazetted to the Worcestershire Regiment in December 1914. He was posted to Cornwall, joining the 5th Militia Battalion, which involved training men for the Front. Longing to be more directly involved in the war, he requested a transfer to the Royal Flying Corps, and was posted to No. 4 Squadron in St Omer in April 1915. He qualified for his Royal Aero Club Certificate in July 1915 and gained his wings on 15th September 1915.

William Leefe Robinson VC Copyright: © IWM

On 20th September 1915, he arrived at 19 Squadron at Castle Bromwich, where his duties included the delivery of aircraft and the taking up of trainee pilots and observers.

On Christmas Eve, 1915, he joined 10 Reserve Aeroplane Squadron at Joyce Green, near Dartford. This was an air defence base, intended to protect London from Zeppelin bombing raids, which had been increasing throughout 1915. However, he returned to Castle Bromwich at the end of January 1916 after his Commanding Officer made “such a fuss” about having him back.

A few days after returning, he was posted to Suttons Farm (later known as RAF Hornchurch), which had been opened as an RFC base in October 1915. For more than a year, no one from the airfield had been able to shoot down a German airship – normal bullets had no effect, as they just punctured the shell and, whilst gas did escape, the airship was still able to travel across the North Sea back to its base in Germany. Explosive Ranken darts needed to be dropped on the target from above, which was not always possible to do.

With the development of incendiary bullets, the War Office ordered large quantities of explosive ammunition for use in machine guns. Interestingly, the “Buckingham Incendiary Bullet” was developed by James Frank Buckingham, an engineer and racing driver from Elmdon. On the outbreak of war he shut down his factory and invented the tracer bullet.

When William Leefe Robinson took to the skies shortly after 11pm on 2nd September 1916, his aeroplane was equipped with a combination of Brock and Pomeroy bullets.

It took him 53 minutes to climb to 10,000ft and, at 1.50am he spotted the Schütte-Lanz SL 11 airship – one of 16 which had left Germany to carry out the largest airship raid on England. He made two runs, strafing it from below and along the side before he finally set the airship alight on his third run, attacking from the rear. The remains of the aircraft crashed to the ground in Cuffley, Hertfordshire, killing all the crew on board.

The attack was witnessed by thousands of people on the ground and the cheering in London was reportedly heard 30 miles away. William Leefe Robinson became an overnight hero and was awarded the Victoria Cross just 48 hours later – the fastest issue of the medal, and the first VC to be awarded for action in Britain.

In March 1917, he became engaged to Mrs Joan Whipple, widow of Captain Herbert Connell Whipple. The following month, after he had repeatedly asked for a transfer to the Front to escape the adulation his action had prompted, he was posted to France. Unfortunately, he was wounded and captured during his first patrol, and spent the rest of the war as a prisoner. Having tried to escape, he was kept in solitary confinement, and his health was badly affected by his treatment.

He returned to England in December 1918 and was able to spend Christmas with his friends and family, but he succumbed to the Spanish ‘flu and died on New Year’s Eve 1918.

If you have any further information, please let us know.

Heritage & Local Studies Librarian

tel.: 0121 704 6977
email: heritage@solihull.gov.uk



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