William Leefe Robinson VC

b. 14/07/1895 Coorg, India. d. 31/12/1918 Stanmore, Middlesex.

William Leefe Robinson (1895-1918), the youngest of seven children of Horace Robinson, a coffee planter on the Kaima Betta Estate at South Coorg, India, was born at Tollideta, South Coorg on 14th July 1895. He was brought to England as a baby, he returned to India with his family at the age of seven where he received his elementary education at the Bishop Cotton School. At 14, he once more returned to England and, with his brother Harold, entered St Bees School in Cumberland in September 1909.

William L Robinson VC

At St Bees, he became a popular figure, and in the course of the next five years there, became Captain of Eaglesfield House, Captain of the Rugby XV, a prefect and a Sergeant in the school’s Officer Training Corps. Leaving St Bees, he enrolled at the military college at Sandhurst on 14th August 1914, and on 16th December 1914 was commissioned as Second Lieutenant in the 5th Battalion of the Worcestershire Regiment. Three months later, on 29th March 1915, he transferred to the Royal Flying Corps as an observer for flying duties.

Immediately following his transfer, he was posted to France, where he joined No 4 Squadron RFC at the St Omer depot; a BE2c army co-operation unit commanded by Major C.A.H. Longcroft. His stay with No 4 Squadron was brief, for on the 9th May, during a routine reconnaissance over Lille, he was wounded in the right arm, and invalided home to England. Recovering from his injury quickly, he applied for pilot training, was accepted, and reported to South Farnborough to commence training on 19th June 1915.

Making his first solo flight on 18th July, Robinson qualified for his Royal Aero Club Certificate, No 1475, on 28th July. A further course of “advanced” instruction at the Upavon Central Flying School resulted in the award of his RFC “wings” on 15th September 1915. On 2nd February 1916 he joined his first operational unit as a pilot when he travelled to Sutton’s Farm airfield in Essex, base for 39 (Home Defence) Squadron. The airfield stationed six BE2c aircraft to undertake night missions against German Zeppelins.

Robinson’s first encounter with a German Zeppelin came on the night of 25th-26th April 1916. He was fortunate enough to sight and close in on a Zeppelin. The airship was the LZ97, flying at about 10,000 feet. Only able to climb to 8,000 feet, he caught up with the LZ97 overr Seven Kings and opened fire from below at extreme range. The airship released part of its ballast, and rose swiftly, away from Robinson.

The following four months were frustrating for Robinson and 39 Squadron with many attempts failing to intercept raiding airships. This would change on the night of 2nd-3rd September 1916, when a total of 16 German airships set out with one common objective – London. Over Cuffley, Hertfordshire, Lieutenant Robinson, flying a converted B.E.2c night fighter, sighted a German airship – one of 16 which had left bases in Germany for a mass raid over England. The airship was the wooden-framed Schütte-Lanz SL 11, although at the time and for many years after, it was misidentified as Zeppelin L 21. Robinson made an attack at an altitude of 11,500 ft (3,500 m) approaching from below and closing to within 500 ft (150 m) raking the airship with machine-gun fire. As he was preparing for another attack, the airship burst into flames and crashed in a field behind the Plough Inn at Cuffley, killing Commander Wilhelm Schramm and his 15-man crew.

Robinson was an instant celebrity as many had witnessed his exploits from the ground, and with it came the swift announcement, on 5th September (just three days later), of the immediate award of the Victoria Cross. In all, Robinson received over £4,200 in “prize” contributions, and used some of this cash to purchase a new Vauxhall “Prince Henry” automobile. On 8th September 1916, he attended a special investiture at Windsor Castle, where he received his VC from King George V. The constant public attention was an embarrassment to a modest man like Robinson, who pleaded with the RFC higher authorities for duties in an less public area.

He was posted to 48 Squadron at Rendcombe, with the rank of Captain. The new unit was in the process of forming for operational service in France, and was first to equip with a new design; the Bristol F2A fighter two-seater. On 8th March 1917, the squadron moved to France and took up quarters at Bertangles. Its first operational sortie was on 5th April and met near-disaster. Led by Robinson, with Lieutenant Warburton as observer, six F2A’s crossed the trench lines and were almost immediately set upon by five Albatross DIII’s from Jagsdstaffel 11, led by Germany’s leading fighter pilot, Manfred von Richthofen. Of the six F2A’s, four were shot down within minutes; Robinson was brought down intact by Sebastian Festner near Mericourt. Robinson and Warburton, who were not wounded, were taken to Douai, there to await transportation to a regular POW camp.

For the rest of the war, Robinson suffered imprisonment in a series of POW camps. Going initially to Freiburg-in-Briesgau, he became one of a four man team attempting to dig an escape tunnel under the outer defences – despite his crippling fear of claustrophobia. The tunnel escape came to nothing, but on 18th September 1917, Robinson and a companion managed to escape in broad daylight, and set off towards the border. Four days later, they were re-captured and returned to Freiburg. Robinson was court-martialled and sentenced to 1 month’s solitary confinement in the fortress at Zorndorf. He was then moved to Clausthal, then to Holzminden where he was singled out for harsh treatment. When the armistice was signed on 11th November 1918, Robinson was a very sick man, and he was finally repatriated to England on 14th December 1918.

Desperately ill, he became a bed patient in the home of a colleague, Captain Noel Clifton, in Stanmore, Middlesex. He then contracted the influenza virus which was sweeping the country. With his fiancée, Joan Whipple, and a sister by his bedside, he died on 31st December 1918, due to heart failure, brought on by the influenza. On 3rd January 1919, with full military honours, he was buried in a quiet corner of All Saints Churchyard Extension in Harrow Weald, Middlesex. In addition to his VC, he was awarded the 1914-15 Star, British War Medal 1914-20 and Victory Medal 1914-19 with Mentioned in Despatches oakleaf. The medals were held privately until November 1988 when at an auction at Christie’s in London, Michael Ashcroft purchased the medal group for £92,000 (£99,000 including commission) and they are now part of the Ashcroft Collection in the Imperial War Museum.