Today (September 5) in London History – “tumult in the clouds”

On September 5, 1916 Captain Leefe Robinson was awarded the VC. For shooting down the first enemy airship to be brought down on British soil. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

When I found out about Leefe Robinson, Yeats’ Irish Airman immediately came to mind. 

Captain William Leefe Robinson wasn’t Irish – he was very English. Indeed, he was a son of the empire. He was born in India. His father was an owner and planter of coffee estates. Yeats’ poem is about an Irish airman – so there’s a stretch of the poem that doesn’t apply at all to William Leefe Robinson. But the bookends of the poem, it seems to me, do speak, eloquently, to Captain Robinson’s life. And death.

So we’ll start with the poem. Its full title is: An Irish Airman Foresees his Death.

The poem goes like this:

I know that I shall meet my fate

Somewhere among the clouds above;

Those that I fight I do not hate,

Those that I guard I do not love;

My country is Kiltartan Cross,

My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor,

No likely end could bring them loss

Or leave them happier than before.

Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,

Nor public men, nor cheering crowds,

A lonely impulse of delight

Drove to this tumult in the clouds;

I balanced all, brought all to mind,

The years to come seemed waste of breath,

A waste of breath the years behind

In balance with this life, this death.

Now as it happens, Captain Robinson didn’t meet his fate somewhere among the clouds above.

He made a German airship meet its fate – perhaps in the clouds above, certainly on the ground below when it crashed and burned. The SL Zeppelin he shot down burned for two hours after striking the ground. The flames could be seen 40 miles away.

That tumult in the clouds took place on September 3rd, 1916.

Two days later – today – September 5th, 1916 – Captain Robinson was awarded the Victoria Cross. That award is why this is his podcast.

Why did he get the VC? Why was what he did singled out that way? The Zeppelin Captain Robinson shot down was the first enemy airship to be brought down on British soil. It marked the beginning of the defeat of the airship as a raiding weapon.

Captain Robinson’s engagement with the Zeppelin – the tumult in the clouds – was witnessed by thousands of Londoners. 

And how dramatic it must have been. Captain Robinson was on night patrol. The battle was fought in the light of searchlights.

It was a near-run thing. Captain Robinson’s sortie was nearing its end – he’d already been in the air for more than two hours when he spotted the SL11. It was one of 16 Zeppelins carrying out a raid against London. Captain Robinson had already mounted an unsuccessful attack against one of the SL11’s sister ships.

On his first pass he raked the wooden airship with two drums of the infant RAF’s newly developed explosive and incendiary ammunition. The Zeppelin was proof against that first attack. Captain Robinson tried again. The second time he came up from underneath the Zeppelin, took aim at the rear of the hull, and emptied his final drum into it. The Zeppelin burst into flames and nose-dived into a field.

Captain Robinson peeled off and landed at Harrow Weald. He was running on empty – he had barely half a gallon of fuel in his tanks when he landed. 

That lonely – or not so lonely – tumult in the skies was a page turned in the air war. 

Up until then the Zeppelins seemed proof against anything the English threw against them – the anti-aircraft fire, interception by fighters. It felt like they could fly over, drop their bombs and turn around and fly back – and there was nothing that could be done about them. Captain Robinson shot down that terrible state of affairs. He proved that the German airships were vulnerable, could be brought down. It allayed public anxiety about bombing raids no end. 

The Victoria Cross he was awarded spoke to the government’s relief. And to public sentiment. 

For the record, his VC was sold in 1999. It fetched £99,000. 

The VC wasn’t Captain Robinson’s only honour. If you go to Harrow Weald look out for the Leefe Robinson VC pub. It’s across the way from All Saints’ Church, where Captain Robinson was buried with full military honours on January 3rd, 1919.

And speaking of buried – a final touch – the sixteen Germans who perished in the destruction of the Zeppelin were buried the next day in the cemetery at Potter’s Bar. The commander’s coffin was carried by six RFC – Royal Flying Corps they called them then – the commander’s coffin was borne by six RFC officers and buried in a separate grave. The coffins of the 15 crew members were borne by men of the RFC and buried together in a single large grave. The service was conducted by a military chaplain and buglers sounded the “Last Post.”

Now back to Captain Robinson. And that Last Post note sounds, I’m afraid, the right note. Captain Robinson served in England until late March, 1917. He was then sent back to France – he’d already done one tour of duty there – sent back to France as a flight commander. Just a couple of weeks after he was back in France he led a six-strong formation on an offensive patrol. They were attacked by five Albatross Scouts led by the great German ace, the Red Baron, Manfred von Richthofen. Four of the British fighters were shot down, including Captain Robinson’s. He and his observer, Lieutenant E.D. Warburton, were captured, unharmed.

Captain Robinson got over the wall – or under the wire – three times. Three escape attempts. On the second of which he nearly made it to the Swiss frontier.

Those attempts – and his high profile as a VC holder – didn’t do him any favours. The camp commandants decided to make an example of him. He came in for – in the euphemistic phrase of his biographer – unusually harsh treatment. At the end of the war he was repatriated to England in a very bad way. The rough treatment – the torture – left him a physically broken young man. He was 23 years old. Two and a half weeks later – on New Year’s Eve 1918 – the Spanish flu epidemic did for him. In his severely weakened state he didn’t have a chance. 

And you’ll certainly have guessed the Today in London recommendation. Yes, it’s the Royal Air Force Museum. Their collection is mostly World War II and post-World War II but they do have some very fine World War I pieces – the RAF in its infancy, the RAF that Leefe Robinson VC knew. And graced.

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. See ya tomorrow.

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