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June 18, 2014

Untitled-1THIS year’s Queen’s Community Musical is based on a true story of World War One, when the country faced total war and Tmas Becky 1whundreds of Londoners were being killed by bombs dropped from German airships.
Despair and anger mixed as the brutal attacks from the sky went unhindered, until a Hornchurch based Royal Flying Corp (RFC) pilot brought down the first airship in a ball of flame over Hertfordshire.
Flying from Suttons Farm, Lt William Leefe Robinson emptied three drums of new incendiary ammunition into LS 11 Airship and created a spectacular and horrific display of pyrotechnics as the giant gas filled airship plunged to earth, killing all 15 German crew. (pictured right. Tomas Martinsen-Hickman as Leefe Robinson and Becky Smith as Joan Whipple) 
Written by Dave Ross, Gerry Sweeney and Patrick O’Sullivan, the Education Manager at the theatre and director, Dave has also put pen to paper with composer and musical director, Steve Markwick, and joining the team is popular Cut to the Chase actor and choreographer, Liz Marsh.
Rehearsals are now in full swing for the show that has its first night on July 30 at the Billet Lane theatre.
Girls 2 w - CopyThe Community Musicals 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 stories reflecting the real side of life in the east end of London and Hornchurch.
Playing the lead role of Leefe Robinson, is Norwegian actor Tomas Martinsen-Hickman, 22, and is in the process of filling out the life story of the hero airman, who was nicknamed Billy the Birdman.
(pictures left and below. The young women in full rehearsal with some stunning cheography by Liz Marsh) Though Robinson tragically died when he was only 23, the story is not only of his bravery, but the women in his life and in particular, his fiancé Joan Whipple, played by Rainham professional dancer, Becky Smith.Girls rehearsal w - Copy
With a number of duets, the story of Billy and Joan comes together as the nation celebrates his victory and the many following successful RFC attacks that finished the high loss German raids for good.
Paper Planes will run from Wednesday July 30 for five performances and finishes on Saturday August 2 with a matinee and evening performances.
Emma Prendagast - Copy(picitured left. Emma Prendergast) 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.


Lieut_Leefe_Robinson paintingAfter a celebrity tour of England, Leefe Robinson wanted to get back into action and was posted to 48 Squadron flying the new Bristol F2a fighter, with his squadron he 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 fiancé and parents, confirmed he was alive and a prisoner of war.
There was great deal of relief, but Leefe Robinson’s next 20 months were a living hell for him. Robinson_VC_Dec1918He 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. (above.  The young and handsome Leefe Robinson after shooting down the airship and right, after 20 months as a prisioner of war, his health wrecked)

Four unsuccessful attempts in as many months led to solitary confinement in the underground fortress of Zorndorf from which there was no escape.
In May 1918 he was transferred to Clausthal in the Hartz Mountains where he immediately set about another escape attempt.
The camp was run by one of the notorious German Kommandants, Heinrich Niemeyer, who with his twin brother Karl at the Holzminden camps, enjoyed a formidable reputation for badly treating prisoners of war.
Heinrich Niemeyer’s utter dislike of him led to a transfer to the other twin’s camp at Holzminden, but another escape attempt led brother Karl to administer constant cruel treatment on Leefe Robinson.
His treatment was recalled by H.G. Durnford, the British Adjutant at Holaminden in a later book. He recalled the constant checks on the prisoners as they tried to sleep:
daily_sketch_Sep1916Here I myself lay . . . and here also lay Leefe Robinson V.C. whose gallant spirit Niemeyer with subtle cruelty had endeavoured for months past to break … The handling to which Leefe Robinson was subjected was so outrageous that it was communicated to the home authorities in a concealed report (in the hollow of a tennis racket handle) via an exchange party. Robinson had come from Freiburg in Baden where he had made an attempt with several others to escape. ‘The English Richthofen’ — as Niemeyer with coarse urbanity called him to his face—was at once singled out as the victim of a malevolent scheme of repression. He was placed in the most uncomfortable room in the camp, whereas VC_medal_group_thumbhis rank entitled him the privilege of a small room; he was caused to answer to a special appeal two or three times a day; and he was forbidden under any pretext to enter Kaserne “B”. (pictured left. Leefe Robinson’s medals, the Victoria Cross on the left)
On the occasion of a visit from some inspecting General, and on the pretext of all the rooms having to be cleaned up and ready for inspection by 9 o’clock appeal, Robinson’s room was entered by a Feldwebel and sentries at 7.45 and Robinson himself was forcibly pulled out of bed and the table next to the bed upset on the floor. Two hours later, Niemeyer was introducing ‘the English Richthofen’ to the august visitor with a profusion of deaginous compliments, and four hours later Robinson was in the cells for having disobeyed camp orders.”
Despite all this cruelty, Leefe Robinson survived the war but was severely weakened and was shipped back to Scotland as soon as he was fit enough to travel. From his regiment’s base camp in Yorkshire, he was granted leave until February 1919, but he never lived to enjoy his home coming.
robinson's_funeralSpending Christmas with friends, he succumbed to the worst epidemic of influenza which killed 150,000 in Britain alone, and he died from cardiac failure on Tuesday December 31 1918 aged 23.
His funeral in January 3 in Harrow Weald attracted hundreds of mourners.
A fitting tribute was printed on the front page of the Daily Sketch on January 4, covered with pictures of the funeral and a tribute: “As unassumingly as he bore his honour, as quietly as he had come from captivity home to die, Capt. Leefe Robinson, the Cuffley V.C. – the first man to bring down a Zeppelin on English soil – was yesterday laid to rest in the cemetery of Harrow Weald. Only his relatives and a few intimate friends and chosen comrades of the air attended the hero’s body to the grave. But the women and children to whom he brought a sense of safety made an informal guard of honour.” (picture right. Leefe Robinson’s coffin being carried by members of his squadron)
robinson_vc_graveThis is a true story regaling one man’s bravery in the fight against terror and death from the sky when there appeared no hope for the civilian population. After the shooting down of LS11 and the introduction of the new Brock and Pommeroy incendiary bullets with Billy the Birdman’s tactics, the word was spread through all Home Defence squadrons. The effect was almost instantaneous and within less that a year, 77 out of the 115 German airships were shot down or totally disabled. Airship raids were discontinued in 1917, though bombing continued using aeroplanes, more than1500 British citizens had been killed in air raids by the end of the war.
There are still monuments to William Leefe Robinson dotted around some localities, but his name is being lost with the passing of time.
One tribute was a small restaurant on the Uxbridge Road, Harrow Weald, opposite his resting place in All Saints Church was named THE LEEFE ROBINSON.
Robinson_VC_innOver the years, the building was transformed from the original ‘tin shack’ into a high class silver service restaurant opened in 1954. Unfortunately a fire destroyed the building in 1962, and it was rebuilt as a Berni Inn, and enlarged twice in the 1970’s.
Whitbread plc took over control of Berni Restaurants in 1990 and re-opened the newly named LEEFE ROBINSON VC as the very first Berni to Beefeater conversion in May 1991.
Though something of a commercial consideration, it does not seem sufficient to recognise the unbelievable achievements and bravery of a flyer regarded as the epitome of King Arthur, who had vowed to return when his country needed him.
How suitable then that his name is remembered in the greatest form of tribute ascribed to anyone, a full blown Community musical theatre production by the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch, that will ensure that ‘Paper Planes’ will be rightly attributed to Captain William Leefe Robinson V.C. in the minds of generations to come.

Next week: The history of Suttons Farm airfield – Tickets for the July show are selling fast so to avoid disappointment it is best to book now.


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