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Shooting down a Zepplin over London

Shooting down a Zeppelin over London




The Zepp Strafers, Suttons Farm 1915-1917

It was Sunday 3rd October 1915 when a military airfield was first set up for the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) at Hornchurch. The site had been chosen by military surveyors as being flat at an ideal distance from central London, and across the path of raiders making their way up the Thames estuary or by way of the coasts of Kent, Essex or Suffolk. The new landing ground was set up next to the farm buildings at Sutton's Farm on the northern periphery of the later World War II airfield. The land was owned by New College, Oxford and farmed by a local farmer, Tom Crauford.

The original facilities were crude and comprised two canvas hangars, to house the two BE2c aircraft and a stretch of mown grass to fly from. To aid with night landings the landing ground was provided with a simple flare path reliant on cans stuffed with petrol soaked cotton waste. The pilots, the first of whom belonged to No. 13 Squadron, were put up in the local pub, the White Hart while the other ranks were billeted on local farms or in bell tents erected on the landing ground.. In April 1916 the facilities at Sutton’s Farm were improved with the construction of prefabricated timber hangars, brick accommodation blocks and a station office made from aircraft packing crates. The complement of aircraft was also increased to six BE2c’s, comprising a single flight from No. 39 squadron.

The principal threat which the new landing ground at Suttons Farm was to counter was that to London by bombing from German airships (known collectively as Zeppelins). This bombing was undertaken predominantly during the hours of darkness. Flyers from Suttons’ Farm would, therefore, be amongst the first pilots in history to attempt flying and more pertinently fighting at night.

The bravery and brilliance of those early flyers from Suttons Farm should be considered at this point. Those early flyers, such as Leefe Robinson, Sowery and Tempest flew planes made predominantly from wood and canvas and powered by small and relatively unreliable engines. The pilots had no radios to communicate with the ground and were expected to fly solo at night without radio navigation aids and using at best only a compass and a map to find their way. Once aloft they were alone in open, unheated cockpits with no parachute in case of emergency. Even finding their own airfield could be difficult or even impossible should there be mist, too much cloud or no moon to light their way. Even during daylight one of the commonest causes of injury or death to a pilot was crashing on landing, imagine how much worse it was on a dark night.

Further misadventure awaited in the air. The Zeppelins, which they stalked, typically operated at speeds of c 70 mph and at altitudes of c 12,000’ which was the maximum operating altitude of the BE2c with which the Suttons Farm flyers were initially equipped. At that altitude the Suttons Farm flyers were forced to fly on the verge of stalling their under powered aircraft whilst also concentrating on first finding then shooting at (or even dropping bombs on) their massive adversaries. The BE2c also had only a 20 mph edge in speed over its prey, which itself often carried defensive machine guns. The flyers also risked being hit not only by anti-aircraft fire being directed at a Zeppelin but also the burning wreckage of a crippled Zeppelin as it plummeted to the ground.

The Zeppelins did, however, have two Achilles heels: Firstly they were huge, and if illuminated by moon or searchlights easily seen. Secondly, they were kept airborne by hydrogen gas which is exceedingly flammable if exposed to oxygen. It was, however, not until 1916 that the guns of RFC planes were equipped with explosive and incendiary ammunition with which they could more easily set the Zeppelins alight.

The first of the Hornchurch firsts occurred on the night of October 13th 1915 when Lieutenant John Lessor made the first interception of a German Zeppelin (L.15) over England. Lessor attempted to make a number of attacks but had no guns with explosive ammunition and so was forced to resort to attempting to drop explosive darts on the leviathan. The action was inconclusive and L.15 finally slipped away into the mist. It was to be almost a year until any success was to be had against the Zeppelin threat. During this year the British public came to believe that the Zeppelins could roam with impunity in Britain’s night skies raining destruction and terror in their wake. It was, however, flyers from Hornchurch that would finally take the lead role in bringing this Zeppelin reign of terror to a fiery end.

The next of the Hornchurch firsts and the subsequent successes against the Zeppelin raiders led to the Sutton’s Farm flyers becoming national heroes. On the night of 2nd/3rd September 1916, Lieutenant William Leefe Robinson was instructed to take to the air to intercept the German Airship SL.11 (Schutte-Lanz 11). Leefe Robinson successfully caught the airship after it had been illuminated by searchlights and after two attacks with machine guns using the new explosive ammunition caused the airship to catch fire and crash in flames near Cuffley in Hertfordshire. The airship’s Captain, Wilhelm Schramm and his 15 crew were all killed in the awful conflagration.

The spectacular and fiery demise of SL. 11 could be seen for miles and people in the streets of London, Staines and Southend stopped to gawp, cheer and sing the National Anthem. The destruction of SL. 11, the first enemy aircraft to be downed over British soil, made Leefe Robinson a hero almost over night. On September 5th he was awarded Britain’s highest military award, the Victoria Cross (The only Hornchurch flyer to be so honoured whilst serving there). The wreck site of SL. 11 briefly became a magnet for day trippers with special trains having to be arranged to take an estimated 10,000 sightseers from London alone.

On the night of 23rd/24th September 1916 Lieutenant Frederick Sowery took on the Super Zeppelin L. 32 which dropped bombs in the Aveley, Hornchurch and Purfleet areas. One bomb appears to have actually hit the landing ground at Sutton’s Farm. Sowery engaged the airship as it turned for home and his guns set it alight to crash in flames near Billiericay in Essex. Again all the crew were killed. The body of L 32’s captain, Werner Peterson, was found some distance from the wreck after he had jumped to escape the flames. The Zepplelin’s wreck again became a popular attraction for sightseers.

Just over a week later, on the night of 1st/2nd October 1916, Lieutenant Wulstan Tempest intercepted a second Super Zeppelin L. 31. Tempest’s interception was achieved despite his plane suffering a fault in its fuel pump that required Tempest to manually crank fuel at the same time as flying his plane and firing his guns. Finding the Zeppelin as it was illuminated by searchlights Tempest successfully set the Zeppelin alight and it crashed in flames near Potter’s Bar in Hertfordshire. Again all its crew including the famous Zeppelin commander Captain Heinrich Mathy perished. Lieutenant Tempest was himself lucky to escape with his life on two accounts that night. firstly his plane was almost caught by the plummeting and burning wreck of L. 31 and secondly Tempest crashed upon his return to Sutton’s Farm in fog. The wreck of L 31 again briefly became a local tourist attraction with the 2d entrance fee to the crash site raising money for the Red Cross

Leefe Robinson, Sowery and Tempest were all soon national heroes. Leefe Robinson was awarded £3,500 for his exploit as well as his VC. Sowery and Tempest were both awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO). All three were presented with commemorative silver cups by the local council who were very proud of their local heroes. All three were also splashed across newspaper headlines and their faces adorned mementos, including post cards. Their fame and the interest taken by the public in their lives at the time can rightly be compared with the modern day interest generated by celebrities and sports stars.

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