A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Over a Hertfordshire field, a ‘kill’ that made history as a German airship is shot down

'Zepp Sunday' was a crucial breakthrough, based on scientific ingenuity, in the struggle to make the UK’s skies safe from German airships

On the afternoon of Saturday 2 September 1916, a fleet of 16 airships armed with a load of 32 tons of incendiaries and explosives took off from Germany and headed for England in what would be the biggest night-time air-raid of the war.

Each of the Zeppelins had a crew of 16 men – machinists, gunners, an “elevator” man and a “bomb” man, officers and a Captain. Among the Zeppelins was an airship of a slightly different design that came from the Schütte-Lanz factory at Leipzig – but it was no less deadly than those made by the Zeppelin Company.

Bigger than ocean liners, these aerial leviathans floated with some stealth through the night sky, frequently appearing without warning before releasing their deadly cargo. This fleet approached London from the north, passing over Royston and Hitchin in Hertfordshire. At about 11pm, the Home Defence squadron was put on alert, after radio messages from the airships had been intercepted. Ten aircraft were sent up to meet the incoming airships. First to take off from the Sutton’s Farm airfield in Essex was BE2c 2963, piloted by Captain William Leefe Robinson, 21, who was armed with three drums of mixed Brock and Pommeroy ammunition and enough fuel for three-and-a-half hours’ flying time.

Leefe Robinson disappeared into the foggy night in search of his quarry. Higher up, the sky cleared, and at about 1am on 3 September he spotted a German airship, lit up by air-defence searchlights as it dropped bombs over what it took to be the London docks while being heavily engaged by the guns of the Dartford and Tilbury defences.

In fact, experience over the previous two years indicated that, at 13,000ft, the airships were well out of range of the anti-aircraft batteries. Nor had anyone successfully shot down an airship from the air.

But that was about to change. Leefe Robinson made his approach, then lost his quarry in the clouds as he tried to gain height. Half an hour of fruitless searching led him to another target: a Schütte-Lanz airship known as SL11, which was wreaking havoc over north London. The searchlights at Finsbury and Victoria Park had lit up SL11 over Alexandra Park, forcing the airship’s commander to head north, where he was sighted by Leefe Robinson.

This time, he flew directly to his target to lessen the risk of losing it– despite the danger of being struck by the intense “friendly fire” bursting around him from the ground.

Captain William Leefe Robinson received the VC for his courage (Getty) Captain William Leefe Robinson received the VC for his courage (Getty) Flying alongside it, he riddled the airship’s entire length with bullets – a mix of Brock and Pomeroy ammunition – from his Lewis machine gun. Each manufacturer had used slightly different designs for the incendiary bullets, and, as it was not clear which was better, it was decided that the ammunition should be mixed.

Each bullet was designed to puncture the airship’s hydrogen-filled bags, so that the gas would mix with oxygen in the air before bursting into flames with the help of the incendiary element of the bullets. Each was effectively a contact explosive, built to ignite on contact with the fabric of the airship, and not from the shock of being fired from the gun. This was supposed to ensure that the hydrogen and oxygen would mix and burst into flames.

In fact, the release of a whole drum of ammunition on the first pass had no effect. Leefe Robinson fitted his second drum and raked the length of the vessel, but again with no effect. On his third attempt, using his final drum, Leefe Robinson concentrated all his fire on one part of the airship – the underside rear.

“I hardly finished the drum before I saw the part fired at glow,” he said in his night patrol report written later that morning.  “In a few seconds the whole rear part was blazing.”

The airship, which was later identified as a Schütte-Lanz rather than a Zeppelin, crashed into a field near Cuffley in Hertfordshire – the first German airship to be shot down in the war. The day became known as “Zepp  Sunday”, and Leefe Robinson became a national hero, later awarded a VC for his bravery – although sadly he died at the end of 1918 of Spanish flu.

By the time they ended, in 1917, the air raids had killed 1,500 British citizens – but some 77 out of 115 German airships had been shot down.This was quite a turn-around in a technical battle which for a long time the Germans had looked like winning.

Ordinary guns had proved remarkably futile against the airships’ fabric, puncturing them with tiny holes, many of which could be repaired in flight. The Germans had perfected a technique of making the remarkable material of the gas bags out of the tough but supple skin of a cow’s appendix (known as “gold-beater’s skin” because of its use in making gold leaf). So many cow’s intestines were needed – up to 12 million animals a year – that Germany banned sausage-making in the countries it occupied to make sure it had the 500,000 gut skins it required for each airship. 

Meanwhile, scientists in England had devised a way of listening for the engines of approaching Zeppelins, using “sound mirrors”: concrete dishes 20ft in diameter. An operator would sit beside each “mirror” with a horn on the end of a pole attached to a stethoscope, moving the pole around in the hope of detecting the hum of a Zeppelin’s Maybach engines and passing on the coordinates to nearby anti-aircraft batteries. This was of limited use, though, given the short range of shells fired from the ground, and the resilience of the airships’ skins against bullets fired from the air..

Finally, in the early hours of Sunday 3 September 1916, a young man flying a small, single-engine biplane made history by successfully bringing down the first German airship of the war, over a farmer’s field in Cuffley.

‘Moments’ that have already been published can be seen at  independent.co.uk/greatwar

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