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
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