Zeppelins were rigid airships, named after the German inventor Count von Zeppelin, with a metallic structural skeleton about 500 – 600ft in length, a fabric outer cover and the hydrogen in a series of individual gas bags. They were propelled by several engines mounted in gondolas. The first Zeppelin, LZ1, had its initial flight in 1900. During the Great War both the German Army and Navy operated these airships as separate organizations. The first bombing raid by an airship was carried out by LZ21 in August 1914 when it bombed Liège. This was followed by bombing raids on Antwerp and on Paris.

The German propaganda during the Great War, which involved airships, can be followed by the postcards, printed in 1914 and 1915, with images of the airships in action with either ‘Gott strafe England’ or Teuton images of German Heroes superimposed on the airships.

Zeppelins were not the only air ships designed in Germany for the Army, Schütte-Lanz airships designed by Professor Schütte and built by the manufacturer Dr Lanz were in production by 1909. These did not have a metal frame, instead the frames were made from a combination of wood and plywood. Unfortunately, these wooden frames airships were found to be susceptible to dampness when imperfectly waterproofed envelope allowed water to degrade the glued joints. The German Navy discontinued ordering airships from Schütte-Lanz and the few that remained in service were used by the Army.

Airships made over 50 bombing raids on England beginning in January 1915. After the 15 January raid was abandoned due to adverse weather conditions, two Zeppelins set off to bomb Hull and other targets along the Humber. Unfortunately, they were blown off course by strong winds and dropped their bombs along the Norfolk coast – Great Yarmouth, Sheringham and Kings Lynn were all hit.  Two RNAS aircraft were sent up to attack these airships but failed to find them. Four people were killed and over a dozen injured in this raid. As a result, the Zeppelins were labelled ‘baby-killers’ in the press, and stories of German agents signalling with car head lights spread. In May 1915 the first bombing raid on London took place.  LZ38 reached London, its companion airship LZ37 turned back due to problems over the Channel. These Zeppelins were an improved version (they were built with a more stream-lined hull) on the pre-war Zeppelins and were to be used regularly in raids on England. LZ38 dropped incendiary bombs as it flew over Stoke Newington. Over 40 fires were started, seven people were killed and over 30 were injured.

In all there were twenty Zeppelin raids on England during 1915 alone. Public perception was that they were preventable and although the military impact was small, the property damage and loss of life had considerable psychological damage. In the press the clamour was for more protection. Both the RFC and the RNAS had a similar problem – height. The Zeppelins could climb faster than aircraft and, as both Zeppelins and aircraft had similar speeds, Zeppelins could escape by outclimbing the defence. One defence, managed very efficiently in France especially in the defence of Paris, was the co-ordination of searchlights and anti-aircraft fire. Only too often, the shells exploded too low and falling shell splinters caused damage and alarm on the ground.

1916brought improvement to both Zeppelin design and to defensive systems. A new longer (Q-class) Zeppelin was introduced, it was longer with two extra gas bags which improved its ceiling and its bomb load. There was now a new problem for the Zeppelin crew – lack of oxygen. At higher altitudes, the oxygen concentration combined with the colder temperatures led to crew fatigue. More searchlights and more anti-aircraft guns improved morale, and the introduction of a mixture of explosive and incendiary bullets in the defending aircraft’s ammunition started to bring results. The ammunition was a mixture of three types – more explosive, they containing dynamite or potassium chlorate, and more incendiary (they contained pyrophoric yellow phosphorus).

William Leefe Robinson (WLR) was born in India in 1895. The inclusion of ‘Leefe’ in his name was due to his mother’s family name. After leaving India he was educated at the Dragon School in Oxford and then St Bees in Cumberland. In 1913 he was a sergeant in the school’s OTC. In August 1914 he entered the Royal Military College at Sandhurst and was gazetted into the Worcester Regiment in December. In March 1915 he went to France as an observer with the 4thSquadron of the Royal Flying Corps. Retuning to England after shrapnel injuries, he underwent pilot training before being attached to the 39th Home Defence Squadron, a night-flying squadron based in Essex.

On the night of 2/3 September 1916, WLR was flying a B.E.2c night fighter. The B.E.2c was a two-seater biplane made by the Royal Aircraft Factory (B.E. stood for Blériot Experimental), the 2c model was an improved version of the original with a RAF 1a engine which itself was an improvement on the original Renault engine, the new engine allowed a faster rate of ascent – it could climb to 11,500 ft in around 30 minutes.

WLR encountered SL11 (not a Zeppelin) approaching London as part of a squadron of 16 airships, one of the largest raids of the war so far. The encounter took place at a height of over 11,000 feet. Approaching from beneath, WLR fired two complete drums of ammunition(which included incendiary bullets). Unfortunately, this had little effect. Approaching the airship for a third time, WLR fired his third and last drum of ammunition at the airship. This time he scored hits and the airship burst into flames and crashed near Cuffley in Hertfordshire.

WLR landedhis damaged aircraft in the early hours of 3rd September and wrote his report immediately. The downing of an airship quickly became a newspaper story, thousands of curious people visited the crash site and WLR became a newspaper celebrity. Two days later he was awarded the Victoria Cross and was presented his medal by the king at Windsor Castle on September 9th.

On September 16th while taking off for another night exercise, WLR crashed his plane during take-off. WLR survived but the plane was burned out. Due to his celebrity status, WLR was grounded and took part in a number of official engagements. The method of shooting down airships from beneath using incendiary ammunition was now advocated to all defence squadrons. By the end of October 1916, seven more airships were shot down in this manner. Frederick Sowrey shot down Zepplin L32 before the end of September and Wulston Tempest shot down Zeppelin L31 in early October. Both Sowrey and Tempest were awarded the DSO for their actions.

In April 1917, WLR (now promoted to captain) was posted to France (after constant requesting) as a flight commander flying the new Bristol F2 fighter. Within days, WLR’s squadron encountered Jasta 11 (a Prussian fighter squadron) led by Manfred von Richthoven. WLR was shot down and captured. He spent the rest of the war as a POW, spending a considerable time in solitary confinement as punishment for numerous attempts to escape. His reputation as the man who shot down the first airship over London also led to poor treatment.  WLR was repatriated in December 1918 and was able to spend Christmas with his family before contracting Spanish ‘flu. He died on December 31st at the home of his sister in Stanmore, Middlesex and was buried in Harrow Weald cemetery.

WLR was not the first man to down an airship, Lt Reginald Warneford (RNAS) bombed a Zeppelin in 1915 near Ostend causing it to crash.

Report by Peter Palmer