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June 11, 2014

VC_medalPAPER planes, the story of a Hornchurch World War One fighter pilot, is taking off in a big way.
With a massive cast of more than 60 local amateur actors, The name of Leefe Robinson, nicknamed Billy the Birdman, is becoming part of the legend that precluded RAF Hornchurch.
Lieutenant William Leefe Robinson of the Royal Worcester Regiment, and Royal Flying Corp, was awarded the Victoria Cross for being the first to shoot down a German Airship, effectively ending the terror bombing campaign by Kaiser Wilhelm.
Once thought to be invincible, the hydrogen gas filled airships roamed the sky over England and particularly London, throwing out bombs on the innocent civilians below, killing and maiming thousands and doing countless damage to property.
Gerry, Steve and Patrick wThe renown Community Musicals written by Dave Ross and Gerry Sweeney have been performed at the Queen’s Theatre for decades, and the latest, Paper Planes, goes up the last week of July.
( picture left. Gerry Sweeney, Steve Markwick and Patrick O’Sullivan) Written by Dave, Gerry and Patrick O’Sullivan, the Education Manager at the theatre and director of the musical; Dave has also put pen to paper with composer and musical director, Steve Markwick, and created a number of memorable songs.
Steve’s music is a regular event at the Queen’s now and with Cut to the Chase actor and choreographer, Liz Marsh, the whole team have already spent three days a week for the past month coping with the massive task of teaching the large number of players all the steps and music, and knitting together the scenes for what promises to be a spectacular show.Untitled-1
The Community Plays started more than 12 years ago with the then Artistic Director Maria Calderone, encouraging Dave Ross, a natural story teller, to put down his memories of his time as a Docker and deep sea diver.
The result has been a phenomenal run of original and seriously funny storiesBilly w reflecting the real side of life in the east end of London and Hornchurch.
Over the past month I have been running the story of William Leefe Robinson from the official archives kept by the Royal Worcester Regimental Museum. A treasure trove of letters and wartime reports of the actions of Lieutenant Robinson and two other Hornchurch flyers, Lt Sowery and Lt Tempest, all flying from Suttons Farm airfield close to the later Battle of Britain airfield RAF Hornchurch. (picture right. Tomas Martinsen-Hickman as Leefe Robinson)
Paper Planes will run from Wednesday July 30 for five performances and finishes on Saturday August 2 with a matinee and evening performances.
Tickets are £10 to £15 with concessions and available from the box office on 01708 443333, or online at
Tickets can be booked now and it seems a lot of regulars are doing just that, so it is worth getting your seats now.

Evening_News Zepp day afterIN EPISODE THREE we read of Leefe Robinson’s triumph over the Airship LS 11 captained by Hauptmann Schramm. As the monster plunged to earth in a ball of fire, there was an explosion of relief from the watching thousands of Londoners.
After two years of being attacked and terrified almost to submission, Billy the Birdman had shown that the giant monsters of the sky could be fought and beaten.
An estimated 10,000 people travelled to Cuffley the next few days to see the wreckage of the airship in many special trains from Kings Cross.
The local pub, the Plough, had to bolt its doors after selling out every scrap of food and drop of beer. Roads leading to the crash sight were jam crammed with cars and other traffic, but still they came to gawk and collect souvenirs.
After a brief service, the charred remains of the entire crew of 15 German airmen were given a military funeral. There were protests at the respect given to the ‘baby killers’ by some, but most saw the tragedy of 15 airman suffering a terrible and agonising death while fighting for their country.
Leefe Robinson was an instant national hero and icon for the British, so the War Office took him off flying!

Lieut_Leefe_Robinson painting‘Awards followed, the first on September 5,1916, in the London Gazette announcing:
“His Majesty the King has been graciously pleased to award the Victoria Cross to the undermentioned officer, Lieutenant William Leefe Robinson,(pictured right)  Worcestershire Regiment and Royal Flying Corps. For most conspicuous bravery. He attacked an enemy airship under circumstances of great difficulty and danger, and sent it crashing to the ground as a flaming wreck. He had been in the air for more than two hours and had previously attacked another airship during his flight.”
The next three months were a carousel of tours, engagements and parties as the Hero of Cuffley was fêted in every possible piece of adulation, from postcards, portraits to a plethora of babies christened William, and reams of newspaper space.
Leefe Robinson was invested with the medal by the King at Windsor Castle and a report by the Daily Mail of September 10 read:

daily_sketch_Sep1916The King decorated Lieutenant William Leefe Robinson, of the Royal Flying Corps, with the Victoria Cross yesterday at Windsor Castle. The motor-car of the Zeppelin-slaying hero broke down at Runnymede and he arrived late for the investiture. The royal carriage that had awaited him in the yard of Windsor Station had gone away. “In a fearful fright,” as he remarked to a friend, he motored into the palace yard. After affixing the Victoria Cross and very warmly congratulating Lieutenant Robinson on his gallant feat, the King, interposing constant questions which displayed his keen technical interest in aviation, extracted from him a long and detailed account of how he brought down the Zeppelin. His Majesty produced a fine collection of photographs, taken from aeroplanes in France, which have been sent to him by the Prince of Wales. After talking long and warmly of France and the French air service, the King expressed the opinion that the British and French airmen are infinitely superior to those of the enemy. The King asked Lieutenant Robinson questions about his father and grandfather, and recalled that his grandfather Mr. William Braham Robinson, was once chief constructor at Portsmouth Dockyard.
And then the midnight mid-air Zeppelin slayer, who was “fearfully frightened,” had to face the crowd outside the castle. Even Royal Flying Corps ruse and celebrity could not escape them. They swarmed round the car and let loose their pent-up ovation. Windsor had been keeping vigil for this moment. It takes much to move townsmen suckled on pageantry, weaned to the sound of huzzas, who have seen all the world’s great achievers pass up and down that steep, short roadway from the station to Windsor Castle. It was a monstrous crowd for unemotional Windsor, a sign of the affection and hero-worship that is thrilling all his country for the man who had been first to bring down one of the raiders on English soil. ( Below Leefe Robinson on his way to Windsor)
Robinson_VC_investiture windsor_1916“God bless you — God take care of you sir,” the people cried out. “More power to your elbow,” roared a voice that might have come from a descendant of Windsor’s Falstaff. “Take care of yourself,” called out some of the people. “Don’t be reckless,” cried another in a fever of loving solicitude.
Then the grateful nation showered their hero with gifts of money amounting to thousands of pounds. The people of Hornchurch clubbed together and presented him with a silver cup that 200 subscriptions had raised and a gold watch by members of the Overseas Club.
He was riding on a wave and even bought a brand new Vauxhall car to go with his promotion to Captain.
In among the hectic schedule, the good son wrote home a letter of many pages: My darling Mother and Father.
When the colossal thing actually burst into flames of course it was a glorious sight—wonderful! It literally lit up all the sky around and me as well of course—I saw my machine as in the fire light—and sat still half dazed staring at the wonderful sight before me, not realizing to the least degree the wonderful thing that had happened!’
and continued;
Girls blur wTalking of cheering, they say it was wonderful to hear all London cheering—people who have heard thousands of huge crowds cheering before say they have heard nothing like it. When Sowrey and Tempest brought down their Zepps I had an opportunity of hearing something like it, although they say it wasn’t so grand as mine, which could be heard twenty and even thirty miles outside London.Lads
It swelled and sank, first one quarter of London, then another. Thousands, one might say millions of throats giving vent to thousands of feelings. (above rehearsals are in full swing by the younger members of the team)
I would give anything for you dear people to have heard it. A moment before dead silence (for the guns had ceased to fire at it) then this outburst—The relief, the thanks, the gratitude of millions of people. All the sirens, hooters and whistles of steam engines, boats on the river, and munitions and other works all joined in and literally filled the air—and the cause of it all—little me sitting in my little aeroplane above 13,000feet of darkness!!—its wonderful—!
And to think that I should be chosen to be the recipient of the thanks of all England! (For that’s what it amounts to!)’
He finished;
‘Well you darlings I’ll close now or else I’ll go babbling on all night and I’m really tired.
I’ll just tell you I’m not at present at Hornchurch, I’m somewhere in England on a secret mission but I’m going back to dear old Sutton’s Farm again.
Well, do forgive me for not writing before.
Ever Your loving son

Ever the hero and getting bored with travelling round in a merry go round of adulation, the modestly shy William Leefe Robinson, applied for another posting to France.
He was posted to 48 Squadron and flying the new Bristol F2a fighter, flew to Bertangles on March 18 1917.
In his first flight over enemy territory, Billy the Birdman’s luck deserted him, and he was shot down by pilots from The Red Baron’s circus.
Lieutenant Manfred Freiherr von Richthofen’ s twin gunned Albatross D111 fighters from Jagdstaffel II.
His loss stunned the British nation believing he had been killed, but a letter to his beloved fiancé Joan Whipple and his parents, confirmed he was alive and a prisoner of war.
There was a great deal of relief, but Leefe Robinson’s next 20 months were a living hell for him. He appeared to be the butt of maltreatment of British prisoners, not only because of his V.C. but also because he turned out to be an inveterate escaper.
NEXT WEEK: Billy the Birdman’s many escape attempts and his incarceration that finally broke his health.


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