First World War centenary: The pilots who worked to thwart the Zeppelin threat at Sutton’s Farm aerodrome

14:10 10 June 2014

Sopwith Pup aircraft 189 from night flying squadron at Sutton

Sopwith Pup aircraft 189 from night flying squadron at Sutton's Farm


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.

Historian Richard Smith, 57Historian Richard Smith, 57

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.”

William Leefe Robinson.  [Picture: Hornchurch Streets of Heroes by Richard Smith]William Leefe Robinson. [Picture: Hornchurch Streets of Heroes by Richard Smith]

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.

Frederick Sowrey.  [Picture: Hornchurch Streets of Heroes by Richard Smith]Frederick Sowrey. [Picture: Hornchurch Streets of Heroes by Richard Smith]

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.”

Wulstan Tempest. [Picture: Hornchurch Streets of Heroes by Richard Smith]Wulstan Tempest. [Picture: Hornchurch Streets of Heroes by Richard Smith]

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.”

Latest News Stories

Yesterday, 16:10
Recorder reporter Hayley Anderson with her national journalism award

Recorder reporter Hayley Anderson was highly commended in a national journalism awards evening in Birmingham last night.

Yesterday, 15:45
Time FM Steve Allen will host the chat with the Recorder's Chris Carter and Laura Burnip

A swan that got police in a flap, term-time holidays and Havering’s mirocpub were the topics covered on today’s Recorder paper review on Time 107.5FM.

Yesterday, 13:29
Ryan Machin and his mother Michelle Bennett at their home in Romford after Ryan took the last British Airways flight back from Sharm el-Sheikh to London

A 17-year-old who worked in a hotel in Sharm el-Sheikh was one of the last passengers to be repatriated to the UK and calls on people not to be afraid to return to the holiday resort.

Yesterday, 11:28
Two fire engines attended a house fire at an address in Park Lane, Hornchurch on Wednesday evening and a man was rushed to hopistal where he was treated for smoke inhalation

A man was rushed to hospital for smoke inhalation after firefighters were called at a flat in Hornchurch on Wednesday evening.

Yesterday, 10:57
Boys born in Cranham will live healthily for 17 years longer than those in Harold Hill

New statistics show the inequality in expectations for our children

Yesterday, 07:00
A woman was tied up in a burglary

A mother-of-two feared for her life as masked burglars forced their way into the family home and tied her up while her young children played in the living room.

Thu, 16:30
Last night's full council meeting saw decisions being made on the release of £83million to build new affordable homes and the expansion of at least five primary schools

Councillors have agreed to release £83million to provide affordable housing in the borough, expand at least five primary schools to ease the shortage of school places and pledged to ensure more work opportunities for adults with autism in last night’s full council meeting.

Thu, 14:27
Police were called at 12.58pm in the proximity of the Brewery shopping centre in Romford

Trains stopped going through Romford station after police reported a suspicious vehicle in proximity of The Brewery.

Most read news

News from your area


Click on the banner above for full coverage of the centenary commemorations of the outbreak of the First World War.


MAC Makeup

MAC are renowned for their flawless, fabulous make up that is used worldwide by the stars. You too can have the chance to have the perfect makeup to suit your needs with £1,000 to spend on all the glam goodies you like!


You are never far from an Argos, wherever in the country you may be. They are like a magical cavern where whatever you need they seem to have it out the back behind the counter. So why not put them to the test with this great MyOffers competition to win £1000 to spend in-store.

Digital Edition

Read the Romford Recorder e-edition today E-edition
Family Notices 24

Local business directory

Our trusted business finder