First World War centenary: The pilots who worked to thwart the Zeppelin threat at Sutton’s Farm aerodrome
14:10 10 June 2014
Images of gaping bayonet wounds, blown-off limbs and the intermingling of blood and mud in No Man’s Land are what spring to mind when considering the First World War.
But despite the suffering of the infantry and the significance of trench warfare, the conflict also played out in the skies.
Pilots from airfields across Britain worked to thwart the threat of the German Zeppelins – including men who were stationed at Sutton’s Farm aerodrome in Hornchurch.
Historian Richard Smith, 57, said: “The War Department set up reconnaissance parties to find suitable grounds to start up home defence systems and obviously one of the parties was sent to Hornchurch.
“It was then requisitioned to use as an air base.”
The aerodrome was officially opened on October 3, 1915, and, a few days later, two aircraft arrived with their pilots.
During the war, the site was home to squadrons of the Royal Flying Corps such as 39, 46, 78 and 189.
The first to be stationed at Sutton’s Farm, 39 Squadron, was home to a man who became the most famous pilot in Britain.
William Leefe Robinson was on duty on the night of September 2-3, 1916, when he was alerted to a Zeppelin raid and ordered to fly between Hornchurch and Joyce Green in Kent.
After climbing to a height of 11,500ft and closing in within 500ft, Robinson fired off all the ammunition from his Lewis gun, repeating the attack after changing his empty drum.
Seeing no impact, he was about to fire again when the airship – a wooden-framed Shutte-Lanz rather than the usual duralumin metal Zeppelin – suddenly burst into flames and crashed in a field in Cuffley, Hertfordshire.
Robinson’s feat meant he was the first British pilot to shoot down a German aircraft during the war.
In his book Hornchurch Streets of Heroes, Mr Smith, from Rainham, wrote: “The scene was witnessed by thousands of people within London and the surrounding areas; they cheered and sang as the airship descended in flames.”
Robinson became a national hero and was awarded the Victoria Cross by King George V at Windsor Castle. But he was not the only pilot at Sutton’s Farm to achieve success.
On the evening of September 23, Frederick Sowrey was ordered to patrol towards Joyce Green.
While flying at 13,000ft, he saw a Zeppelin and fired incendiary bullets from his Lewis gun.
As Sowrey broke away, he witnessed the airship becoming engulfed in flames, before it hit the ground in a field at Great Burstead, near Billericay.
William Leefe Robinson
■ William Leefe Robinson was born in Coorg, India, on July 14, 1895
■ On August 14, Robinson began training at the Royal Military College at Sandhurst
■ He was given a commission as a 2nd lieutenant to join the Worcester Regiment
■ Robinson transferred to the Royal Flying Corps and was posted to 4 Squadron at St Omer, France, in 1915
■ During a patrol in Lille on May 8, an anti-aircraft shell exploded nearby, with the shrapnel wounding his arm
■ Robinson received pilot training and was posted to 39 Squadron in early 1916
■ The 2nd lieutenant, sent to France as a flight commander with 48 Squadron in 1917, vanished after his aircraft was damaged
■ Robinson was held at Freiburg prisoner of war camp and had five failed escape attempts
■ He caught Spanish influenza and died on December 31, 1918, aged 24
■ Hundreds of people attended his full military funeral
Weeks later, on the night of October 1-2, Wulstan Tempest received a call ordering him to take off. Despite having a broken fuel pump, Tempest flew to meet the Zeppelin above Hertfordshire and set it alight after firing his machine gun.
The airship crashed at Potters Bar.
Due to fatigue from pumping the fuel, Tempest crashed upon landing but emerged with only a minor cut to his head.
Both Tempest and Sowrey were awarded the Distinguished Service Order.
“The people of Hornchurch were really excited,” said Mr Smith. “A fund was set up by the parish council to have three special silver cups awarded to the pilots.”
Sutton’s Farm was closed in 1919, when the land was given back to farmer Tom Crawford.
Mr Smith, who is publishing a pictorial history of Sutton’s Farm’s role in the war, added: “There were lots of flying accidents and things used to go wrong with the engines.
“There were probably more people killed training than in action.
“But compared to what the soldiers went through, the pilots had an easy time of it really.”