Harrow and its local area has produced a number of heroes over the years, but few have quite as dramatic a story as William Leefe Robinson. Until very recently, you might well have heard of his name thanks to the local pub in Stanmore which had taken it up in commemoration of his deeds. A pilot in the First World War, Robinson was a national hero for his time, and one that, like so many others, lost his life in service of the war that gave him his fame. His tale is another example of the fascinating, tragic stories which still linger in the local area.
The First World War ushered in the age of total war – the kind of war that would predominate the century it kicked off – of conflicts spilling over from the front to the home, a loss of life inevitably following. In the First World War, this primarily manifested itself in the air ship attacks that Germany launched against Britain. At first inadequate to deal with the air ship threat, the initial raids were costly, causing great damage and an equally great loss of life.
Yet with Britain having been largely unaffected by war before thanks to its island borders, the experience was made even more shocking. A war had finally come to the British isle, bringing with it all the death and destruction that wars inevitably entail. As the air ships’ reign of terror continued, the morale of the British people dropped further and further, and soon the desperate need for a victory of some kind became all-too apparent. Leefe Robinson was to prove decisive in delivering this.
Robinson, whose wartime home was at Lavender Cottage in Stanmore, was attached to No. 39 Home Defence Squadron, a night-flying squadron based out of Essex. It was whilst out on one of these flights in September 1916, over Hertfordshire, that Robinson came upon a German air ship in the night sky. Robinson gave chase, only to lose it amidst the clouds and instead find another – the Schütte-Lanz SL 11 – looming over Victoria Park in Hackney. Robinson engaged, unloading his ammunition into the airship. For a moment, his attack seemed to have no effect – but then, in a display seen from miles around, the air ship burst into flames and came crashing to the ground.
Though not the first air ship to have been downed, it was certainly the most visible – and in this, the exact victory that the British people needed. A burning air ship, falling from the cradle of the night sky. It was clear and it was unambiguous: the air ships could be beaten – Leefe Robinson had proven it.
Quickly rising to fame, Robinson became a national hero and reaped the rewards of his efforts – including the Victoria Cross awarded to him by the King at Windsor Castle, and the gifts from his public admirers which totalled over £4,000. Yet Robinson was not to enjoy this fame nor its perks for very long. A mere few months after his moment of glory, Robinson was shot down whilst flying over France, and forced to land in Douai – the French town which now, curiously enough, is Harrow’s twin town on mainland Europe.
Landing in enemy territory, Robinson was quickly captured and taken to a prison camp under the watch of Hauptmann Karl Niemeyer. Here Robinson paid the price of his fame – with reports indicating that Niemeyer had been a personal friend of SL 11’s commander. Robinson was subjected to particularly harsh conditions – in one instance to a solitary confinement cubicle in which he could not sit nor stand comfortably, an especially cruel punishment considering his 6ft stature – and though he made a number of escape attempts, he remained in captivity until war’s end in 1918.
Following his release, Robinson returned home to Stanmore – yet the treatment he had endured in the years past had taken its toll. Robinson was in poor health, and as a result caught quickly the Spanish flu that was sweeping through Europe at the time. On 31 December 1918, Leefe Robinson succumbed to the influenza – though his fiancée Joan Whipple at the time insisted to the Harrow Observer that it hadn’t been the flu that had killed him, but rather Niemeyer, who, she claimed, had ‘employed every instrument of cruelty against him.’
Nonetheless, regardless of the cause, on that News Year’s Eve of 1918, Britain, and the Harrow area, lost a hero. His grave can still be found in All Saints, Stanmore, and though the name was recently changed to Miller and Carter Harrow, for years a steakhouse just south of the cemetery bore his name also.
One of the many soldiers to have fought and died in the First World War, and not to mention the deliverer of hope at a time of increasing hopelessness, Leefe Robinson is a local hero of the Harrow area worth remembering, and worth celebrating.
Written by Harry Turner.
Image Credit: Warfare History Network