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Leefe Robinson’s Action Report (Sept. 2nd/3rd 1916).

I have the honour to make the following report on night patrol, made by me on the night of the 2nd/3rd instant. I went up at 11.08 pm on the night of the 2nd, with instructions to patrol between Sutton’s farm and Joyce Green. i climbed to 10,000 feet in 53 minutes. I counted what I thought were ten sets of flares, there were clouds below me, but on the whole, it was a beautiful clear night.

I saw nothing until about 1.10 am, when two searclights picked out a Zeppelin southeast of Woolwich. The clouds had collected in this quarter and the searchlights had some difficulty in keeping with the aircraft. By this time I had managed to climb to climb to 12,900 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 its way eastward.

I slowly gained on it for ten minutes, I judged it to be 200 feet below me and I sacrificed speed in order to keep my height. it went behind some clouds, avoided the searchlights, 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 am, I noticed a red glow in the northeast of London. taking it to be an outbreak of fire I went in that direction. At about 2.05 am a Zeppelin was picked up by a searchlight over the north, northeast of London (as far as I could judge).

Remembering my last failure, I sacrificed height (I was still at 12,100 feet) for speed and made nose down for the Zeppelin. i saw shells bursting and night tracer shells flying around it. when I drew closer, I noticed that the anti-aircraft fire was too high or too low, also a good many rose 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 stern and distributed one drum along (alternate new Brock and Pomeroy) seemed to have no effect,. I then got behind it (by this time i was very close 500 feet or less below) and concentrated one drum on one part underneath.

I was then at a height of 11,500 feet, when attacking the Zeppelin. i had hardly finished the drum when 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 AA 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 very little oil or petrol left I returned to Sutton’s farm, landing at 2.45 am. On landing I found that I had shot away the machine gun wire guard, the rear part of the centre section and had pierced the rear main spar several times.


A Letter from Leefe Robinson to his parents

October 22nd 1916.

My Darling Mother and Father

I do really feel ashamed for not writing to you darling old people before, but still there it is - you know what I am.

Busy! Heavens for the last seven weeks I have done enough to last a lifetime. it has been a wonderful time for me. I won’t say much about the ‘strafing’ of Zep L11 for two reasons, to begin with most of it is strictly secret and secondly I’m really tired of the subject and telling people about it, that I feel as if I never want to mention it again, so I will say only a few words about it.

when the colossal thing actually burst into flames of course it was a glorious sight wonderful! it literally lit up all the sky around and me as well of course. i saw my machine as in the firelight and sat still half dazed at the wonderful sight before me, not realising to the least degree the wonderful thing that had happened!

My feelings? Can I describe my feelings? I hardly know how I felt. as I watched the huge mass gradually turn on end, and as it seemed to me slowly sink, one glowing, blazing mass, I gradually realised what I had done and grew wild with excitement. When I had cooled down a bit, I did what I think most people would not think to do, and that was thanked God with all my heart. You know mother and father I’m not what is popularly known as a religious person, but on an occasion such as that one must realise a little how one does trust in providence. I felt an overwhelming feeling of thankfulness, so was it strange that I should pause to think for a moment after the first ‘blast’ of excitement as it were, was over and thank from the bottom of my heart, that supreme power that rules and guides our destinies.

When I reached the ground once more, I was greeted with ‘was it you Robin’ etc etc. ‘Yes I’ve strafed the beggar this time’ I said, whereupon the whole flight set up a yell and carried me out of my machine to the office cheering like mad.

Talking of cheering. People who have heard thousands of people cheering before say they have heard nothing like it. When Sowrey and Tempest brought down their Zepps I had the opportunity of hearing something like it, although they say it wasn’t as grand as mine, which could be heard twenty and even thirty miles outside London. It swelled and sank, first one quarter of London, then another. thousands one might say millions of throats giving vent to thousands of feelings.

I would give anything for you dear people to have heard it. A moment before dead silence (for the guns had ceased fire at it) then this outburst, the relief, the thanks, the gratitude of millions of people. All the sirens, hooters and whistles of steam engines, boats on the river and munition and other works all joined in and literally filled the air, and the cause of it all, little me sitting in my little aeroplane above 13,000 feet of darkness!!, it’s wonderful!

And to think that I should be chosen to be the recipient of the thanks of all England (for that’s what it amounts to!) Dear old ‘G’ who will be with you when you receive this will tell you something of the letters and telegrams I have received. The day after I was awarded the V.C I received thirty-seven telegrams, which includes one from my colonel and one from General Henderson, who is of course the boss of the whole R.F.C.

I have had tons of interviews too; amongst which are those I have had with the Grand Duke Michael of Russia, Lord Curzon, General Sir David Henderson and heaps of others. when I went to Windsor to get my V.C the King was awfully nice, asked me all about you dear people and grandfather etc and showed me some awfully interesting photographs taken from the air over the German lines.

‘G’ will tell you all about the four days leave I had at Southbourne with her. Oh, I could go on writing for a month of Sundays, but I must cut thins short. I have of course had hundreds of invitations most of which I have had to refuse owing to duty.

I went up to Newcastle for a day and was entertained by the Lord Mayor who gave a dinner in my honour, where i was presented with a cheque for two thousand pounds by Colonel Cowen of Newcastle. They wanted to make the whole thing a grand public function, but H.Q wouldn’t let them, for which I was very thankful. I’ve had endless small presents; some of the nicest are paintings of the burning Zepp. By the by, about five artists have offered to paint my portrait for the R.A.

As I dare say you have seen in the papers, babies, flowers and hats have been named after me, also poems and prose have been dedicated to me, oh, it’s too much! I am recognised wherever I go about town, whether in uniform or mufti, the City Police salute me, the waiters, hall porters and pages in hotels and restaurants all bow and scrape, visitors turn round and stare. Oh it’s too thick!

But the most glorious thing is that Sowrey, dear old boy, and Tempest, sweet soul, the two zepp strafers who have been awarded the D.S.O’s are both in my flight!! Some flight - five officers, of which there are two D.S.O’s and a V.C and three zepps to our credit - some record!

Well you darlings I’ll close now or else I’ll go babbling on all night and I’m really tired. I’ll just tell you I’m not at present at Hornchurch, I’m somewhere else in England on a secret mission but I’m going back to dear old Sutton’s farm again.

Well, do forgive me for not writing before.

Ever your living son - Billy


Excerpt from Lieutenant Sowrey’s Action Report (23rd/24th Sept. 1916)

The weather was fine and clear with a few thin clouds at 3,000 feet. At 4,000 feet I passed another machine going in a northerly direction, I was then flying south. I continued climbing as hard as possible and at 12.10 am noticed an enemy airship in a southerly direction. It appeared to be over Woolwich. I made for the airship at once, but before I reached it the searchlights lost it.

I was at this time at 8,000 feet, there was a certain amount of gunfire, but it was not intense. I continued climbing and reached a height of 13,000 feet. at 12.45 am I noticed a enemy airship in an easterly direction. I at once made in this direction and manoeuvred into position underneath it.

The airship was now well lighted by searchlights, but there was no sign of gunfire. I could distinctly see the propellers revolving as the airship manoeuvred to avoid the searchlight beams. I fired at it. The first two drums of ammunition had apparently no effect, but the third caused the envelope to catch fire in several places, in the centre and front. All firing, was traversing fire along the envelope. Ammunition was loaded with a mixture of Brock, Pommeroy and tracer.

I watched the burning airship strike the ground then proceeded to find my flares. I landed back at Sutton’s farm. My machine was Be2c No. 4112. after seeing the Zeppelin had caught fire, I fired a red Very light.


Transcript of a 1997 Interview by Sowrey’s son Air Marshall Sir Frederick Sowrey recalling his fathers deeds.

He often spoke about the difficulties of night flying at that particular time; they were in fact the very first night fighters. There was no cockpit lighting for instruments; he had a torch hanging around his neck on a lanyard with the battery tucked into is tunic pocket. he talked about the difficulties in finding the landing ground after a patrol, no aids as such, no radio, just visual, looking over the side to identify certain landmarks by moonlight if it was a clear night or looking out for the flare path.

Pilots were very much on their own. They operated at altitudes, where these days you would use oxygen and the cold was very intense. for this, the pilot’s pay was the princely sum of ten shillings a day.

He was elated when he had shot down a Zeppelin, as was his friend Bill Robinson, who had done the same earlier in the month. At twenty three years of age, he was embodied with the spirit of emulating his fellow pilot. My father, Robinson and Tempest all belonged to the same flight in No. 39 Squadron; in fact they broke the back of the German airship campaign. the effect of their better L class airships being shot down in flames, in sight and sound of the previously dispirited population of London, did two things; it lifted the morale of Londoners sky high, and it made the German Naval Airship Service think twice about the kind of losses it could sustain in a protracted campaign.

He was very appreciative of his ground crew, and insisted that when the photographs of himself were taken by his aircraft, the morning after the Zeppelin was shot down, the crew were photographed as well. they looked a bit embarrassed about being in the limelight, but he wanted them to share some of the glory, which he had achieved, to rub off on them as well.

He often talked about his great friend Bill Robinson; relationships in the First World War were very different to what they were later on. People didn’t have the inhibitions in expressing their friendships, men would walk arm in arm, as some of the pictures of the time show, five or six Royal Flying Corps officers walking in a line. He received many hundreds of letters and poems from well wishers thanking him for what he had done; he wisely kept all these for the future, and they are now kept at the RAF Museum, Hendon, where they can be seen by future historians.


Excerpt from Lieutenant Tempest’s Action Report (Oct 1st/2nd 1916)

As I drew up to the Zeppelin, to my relief I found that I was quite free from Anti-Aircraft fire, for the nearest shells were bursting some three miles away. the Zeppelin was nearly 12,700 feet high and climbing rapidly. I therefore started to dive at her, for though I felt I had a slight advantage in speed, she was climbing like a rocket and leaving me standing.

I accordingly gave a tremendous pump at my petrol tank and dived straight at her, firing a burst into her as I came. I let her have another burst as I passed under her and then banking my machine over, sat on her tail, and flying along underneath, pumped lead into her for all I was worth. I could see tracer bullets flying from her in all directions, but I was too close under them for them to concentrate on me.

As I was firing I noticed her go red inside, like an enormous Chinese lantern, then a flame shot out of the front part of her, and I realised she was on fire. She then shot up about 200 feet, paused, and then came roaring straight down on me before I had time to get out of the way. I nose-dived for all I was worth with the Zepp tearing after me, and i expected any minute to be engulfed in flames.

I put my machine into a spin, and just managed to corkscrew out of the way in time as she shot passed me, roaring like a furnace. i righted my machine and watched her hit the ground in a shower of sparks. I then proceeded to fire off dozens of green Very lights, in the exuberance of my feelings.

I glanced at my watch and I saw it was about 12.10 am. i then commenced to feel very sick, giddy and exhausted, and had considerable difficulty in finding my way to the ground through the fog; in landing I crashed and cut my head on my machine gun.


Entry in Station Diary. April 30th 1940

During the last month, a determined drive has been made by the station commander to make the station a pleasanter and more attractive place. Roads and paths were cleared up and edges whitewashed, grass verges and lawns were cut. A number of bulbs, plants and rose trees were planted, and every squadron and section was given tools to cultivate their own part of the camp.

In consequence, the main road to headquarters and the ground around the hangars and workshops are gay with spring flowers and should be gayer still when thesummer comes.


Signal from 11 Group HQ to Hornchurch and other airfields. June 4th 1940

Air Officer Commanding sends the following message to pilots and all personnel of the Fighter Stations, Sector Stations and Forward Airfields.

The admiralty reports that the Dunkirk operations were completed this morning.

During the last two weeks our Fighter Squadrons operating over France hav eshot down a total of 527 German bombers and fighters, 371 of which have been confirmed as destroyed, for a loss of 80 of our pilots.

By their successes in air combat our squadrons have protected the Army during retreat, have enabled the Navy to embark the army from Dunkirk and the beaches, and also protected our bombers and reconnaissance aircraft and established moral ascendancy over the German bombers and fighters.

The Air Officer Commanding congratulates the pilots on their magnificent fighting and highly commends the technical and administrative personnel whose work made it possible for the pilots to succeed.

It is hoped that we shall now be given a short respite in which to re-organise, refit and train new pilots in order to inflict yet heavier casualties on the German fighters and bombers when they attack this country and coastwise shipping.


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