Granite memorial obelisk standing in a railed enclosure, unveiled 1921, commemorating the successful destruction of German airship SL11 in 1916 by Captain William Leefe Robinson VC.
Reasons for Designation
The Captain William Leefe Robinson VC memorial obelisk, which stands on East Ridgeway, is listed at Grade II for the following principal reasons:
* as an eloquent witness to the tragic impact of world events on the local community, and the sacrifice made by members of aircrew of the combatant nations in the First World War;
* marking the first successful destruction of an airship over Britain during the First World War, a significant turning point in national morale and technical achievement.
* a tall and elegant memorial obelisk in the Classical style.
The aftermath of the First World War saw the biggest single wave of public commemoration ever with tens of thousands of memorials erected across England. This was the result of both the huge impact on communities of the loss of three quarters of a million British lives, and also the official policy of not repatriating the dead which meant that the memorials provided the main focus of the grief felt at this great loss. As well as personnel from the Army and Naval services, British losses now included members of the Royal Flying Corps and Royal Naval Air Service.
The First World War was the first conflict in which aviation played a major role for all the combatant nations involved. Prior to the Wright brothers’ achievement of controlled aircraft flight in America in 1903, the military services of various nations had used balloons and airships at war: for example, tethered observation balloons were deployed during the American Civil War (1861-1865). In Britain, the Royal Engineers became responsible for the Army’s ballooning capability in the 1860s. Despite the sceptical views of the Chief of the Imperial General Staff and the First Sea Lord expressed in 1910, an Air Battalion of the Royal Engineers was formed in 1911 and on 13 April 1912 the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) was established, formed of a Military Wing and a Naval Wing. The Admiralty’s Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) followed on 1 July 1914.
At the outbreak of war in August 1914 the RFC comprised 146 officers and fewer than 100 aircraft, whilst the RNAS counted just over 700 personnel, 93 aircraft, two balloons and six airships. By the end of the war in November 1918 the air service had expanded to some 27,000 officers and 260,000 other personnel, operating more than 22,000 aircraft across 188 squadrons. Both RFC and RNAS included servicemen from Dominion countries. Similar expansions were seen in the air services of the other armies, as the First World War provided a unique impetus to fast-track technological advances in aviation around the world.
By the outbreak of the First World War, German airship technology had been advanced through developments by two companies, Zeppelin and Schutte-Lanz. The first airship raids on Britain began in January 1915, confirming fears that Britain’s island status was no longer adequate protection from hostile airborne forces. Between 1915 and the end of the war airship raids caused 557 fatalities and injured 1,358 people: but their impact on the Home Front in terms of causing panic and fear was substantial. More than 17,000 men and some 110 aircraft were dedicated to Britain’s Home Defence by the end of 1916.
William Leefe Robinson (1895-1918) joined 39 Squadron on home defence duties in February 1916 prior to a spell flying in France. Robinson had transferred from the Worcestershire Regiment to the RFC in early 1915. Starting as an Observer, he learnt to fly at the Central Flying School, Upavon. On the morning of 3 September 1916, flying a BE2C from Sutton’s Farm aerodrome at Hornchurch, he engaged the airship SL11. Having climbed high enough to reach the airship he managed to set it on fire with new incendiary ammunition on the third attempt, shooting from below and with raking fire. SL11 crashed behind The Plough public house at Cuffley. For his bravery in achieving the first successful destruction of an airship on British soil, Robinson was awarded the Victoria Cross on 5 September. The airship wreckage was rapidly cleared by souvenir hunters who travelled to Cuffley to collect a memento of the outstanding feat.
In the face of public anxiety about the German air threat, Robinson’s heroic efforts were extremely important and publicly lauded. He was finally allowed to return to France, serving with 48 Squadron. Having been shot down on 5 April 1917 he became a prisoner of war, making three escape attempts. Robinson was repatriated in December 1918 but, in poor physical condition from his treatment in captivity, he died in the influenza pandemic on 31 December 1918. He is buried in All Saints’ churchyard, Harrow Weald (where his grave is Grade II-listed). The crew of the SL11 had been buried at Potters Bar: their bodies are now interred at the Cannock Chase German War Cemetery.
On 9 June 1921 an obelisk was unveiled near the SL11 crash site in Cuffley. It was funded by public subscription following a campaign by the Daily Express newspaper. At the well-attended ceremony it was unveiled by Captain FE Guest, Secretary of State for Air, and dedicated by Reverend FR Bonsey. The site was donated by Mrs JMB Kidston: rather than at the crash site, the memorial was placed about 80m to the north-west alongside the nearest road so that it would be more visible to passers-by.
On the advice of the Smuts Report the RFC and RNAS had been merged on 1 April 1918 to form the Royal Air Force (RAF), the world’s first air force independent of army or navy control. At the end of the First World War official figures recorded 14,166 air service casualties, of whom around 9,000 men were dead or missing in active theatres of conflict. Some 8,000 had died during training.
The Leefe Robinson obelisk was restored and re-dedicated in September 1986 for the seventieth anniversary commemorations. The memorial’s bronze sculpture of the RFC badge had fallen from the plinth, and was replaced at this time by an engraved stone plaque.
The Cornish granite memorial obelisk stands in an enclosure on the south side of East Ridgeway, Cuffley, some 150m to the west of The Plough public house. It takes the form of a tall, slender, obelisk standing on a corniced, tapering, plinth. The plinth stands on a two-stepped base. The front face of the obelisk is ornamented with a cast bronze wreath.
The front face of the plinth formerly carried a bronze sculpture of the RFC badge, lately replaced by an engraved black stone plaque*. Below this a bronze ribbon carries the RAF motto, PER ARDUA AD ASTRA. The dedicatory inscription below reads ERECTED BY READERS OF/ “THE DAILY EXPRESS”/ TO THE MEMORY OF/ CAPTAIN WILLIAM LEEFE ROBINSON, V.C./ WORCS. REGT. AND R.F.C./ WHO ON SEPTEMBER 3. 1916/ ABOVE THIS SPOT BROUGHT DOWN/ SL11., THE FIRST GERMAN AIRSHIP/ DESTROYED ON BRITISH SOIL.
An inscription to the left face of the plinth duplicates Robinson’s VC citation from the London Gazette, reading THE AWARD OF THE VICTORIA CROSS/ TO CAPTAIN ROBINSON WAS THUS ANNOUNCED/ IN THE LONDON GAZETTE OF SEPTEMBER 5, 1916/ “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 inscription to the plinth’s right-hand face reads CAPTAIN ROBINSON DIED AT STANMORE/ ON DECEMBER 31, 1918/ SEVENTEEN DAYS AFTER HIS RETURN/ FROM CAPTIVITY IN GERMANY/ HE WAS TAKEN PRISONER IN APRIL 1917. On the front face of the upper base step an inscription reads THE SITE OF THIS MONUMENT WAS PRESENTED TO THE PUBLIC/ BY MRS J.M.B. KIDSTON OF NYN PARK, NORTHAW.
The obelisk stands on a square paved area enclosed by metal posts carrying rails, with an opening to the front from the street.
* Pursuant to s1 (5A) of the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990 (‘the Act’) it is declared that the aforementioned feature, the engraved black stone plaque, is not of special architectural or historic interest.