Lieutenant William Leefe Robinson (1895-1918) was part of the Royal Flying Corps in the First World War. He was awarded the Victoria Cross (VC) after a dramatic aerial pursuit of a German airship.

William was at Sandhurst in August 1914, and became an officer in the Worcestershire Regiment. He later transferred to the Royal Flying Corps.

The First World War saw the first aerial bombing campaigns against British civilians. German Zeppelins, or airships, carried out more than 50 raids on Britain, killing over 500 people.


Lieutenant William Robinson

Portrait of Lieutenant William Leefe Robinson RFC who was awarded the Victoria Cross for the destruction of the SL11 airship. This was the only VC awarded for action in Britain.
© IWM (Q 66470)

Lieutenant William Robinson, received the fastest Victoria Cross ever rewarded, 48 hours after he successfully shot down a German SL11 air ship. This was the only VC awarded for action in Britain.

On 2 September 1916, the Germans sent 16 airships to launch the heaviest raid of the war. William was part of the fighter squadron defending London. He spotted an airship at 2am and chased it through anti-aircraft fire. William’s aircraft was slow and it took almost an hour to climb the 1000 meters to the airship.

At first the special flammable bullets in his machine gun had no effect, so William concentrated his bullets in one place. This started a small fire which spread until the whole airship burst into flames and fell out of the sky. The crew were all killed.

Searchlights from the ground had lit up William's plane as he chased the German airship and thousands of Londoners came out to watch his pursuit. The following day, hundreds travelled to see the wreckage at Cuffley, Hertfordshire.

William's very public destruction of the German airship made him a national hero. He was the first person to shoot down an airship over Britain and had delivered a morale boost to the civilians who had been suffering under German bombardment. Within 48 hours, he was awarded the Victoria Cross, the fastest ever awarded. After receiving it, he was mobbed in the streets, received standing ovations in theatres, letters from school girls, and photographs from actresses. William was embarrassed by his new fame and celebrity and asked to go on active service in France.

On his first patrol, 5 April 1917, he and his men were surrounded by German aircraft, led by Manfred von Richthofen, 'the Red Baron'. They were all shot down and William was taken prisoner. He was held in three camps throughout the rest of the war. As the famous 'Zeppelin destroyer', he was badly treated and spent months in solitary confinement. He made several attempts to escape but his health suffered and he became very weak.

After the war, he caught the flu virus that killed millions between 1918-1919. Already in poor health, William died on 31 December 1918, aged 23.

You can see Lieutenant William Robinson’s VC in the Lord Ashcroft Gallery at IWM London.

This article was edited by Gemma Lawrence. Other IWM staff members contributed to writing an older version of this piece.

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