The Great Air Raid on England. September 3rd, 1916.

  • Rare souvenir pamphlet celebrating the first destruction of a German airship on British soil: the SL 11, brought down by Lieutenant William Leefe Robinson in September 1916.

    Few First World War technologies loom as large in the imagination as the zeppelins that appeared as otherworldly shapes in the night skies of England beginning in 1915. The threat they posed to civilians on British soil was unprecedented, and the public was well aware of the danger. “The publicity and propaganda surrounding the development of Germany’s fleet of airships spread far and wide, and the spectre of these great leviathans of the air sowing the seeds of death and destruction in the streets of London suddenly became very real” (Castle, London 1914-1917: The Zeppelin Menace, p. 6). The first airship raid against a British target came on the night of January 19, 1915, and later that summer a series of devastating attacks hit London and southern England. “Strategic aerial bombing had never been used before and its novelty was shocking. It was viewed as terrorism rather than a legitimate act of war. It caused panic and outrage far in excess of the death and material loss that was inflicted and its psychological impact was as great as that produced by the far more devastating Blitz of the Second World War” (Fegan, p. 9).

    But the British rapidly improved their response. They established coastal defences to spot incoming zeppelins and alert pilots based in the interior. New weapons, including a flaming bullet, were developed, and the experimental BE2c was developed into an “excellent night-flying anti-zeppelin platform” (Castle p. 13).

    It was in a modified BE2s that Lieutenant William Leefe Robinson was patrolling on the evening of September 3rd, 1916, when sixteen airships were spotted over London and the southeast. It took Robinson almost an hour to reach their altitude of 3km, and he made multiple passes and used up three magazines of incendiary bullets before the airship finally caught light. The dogfight was lit by searchlights and the flaming ship could be seen for more than thirty miles, including in central London. Robinson described his triumph in a letter to his parents: “When the colossal thing actually burst into flames it was a glorious sight. It literally lit up all the sky around and me as well of course - I saw my machine in the fire-light and sat still half-dazed staring at the wonderful sight before me. As I watched the huge mass gradually turn on end and, as it seemed to me, slowly sink, one glowing, blazing mass, I gradually realised what I had done and grew wild with excitement” (BBC website, "Leefe Robinson: The Man Who Shot Down a Baby Killer", September 3rd, 2016). Robinson became a celebrity overnight and was awarded the Victoria Cross two days later.

    SL 11 crashed into a field at Cuffley, Hertfordshire, and thousands visited the site, some even taking souvenirs from the wreckage. Photos and postcards of zeppelins floating over English cities were already top sellers, and newspaper and souvenir accounts of Robinson’s feat became popular. This example includes eleven illustrations from photographs, including two images supposedly taken of the zeppelin in the sky “just before bursting into flame” and then “falling to earth in a mass of flame”, though it is unclear if these are composite photographs, as First World War cameras had difficulty with these types of shots. The other photos depict Lieutenant Robinson and the wreckage being investigated and cleared up by military officials.

    This booklet, being very fragile, is uncommon. WorldCat locates only one institutional copy, at the British Library. We have seen a few other copies for sale, but they are rare seen in such nice condition. An evocative piece of ephemera from the short-lived reign of the zeppelin.

  • ...Souvenir Photographs of the Wrecked Zeppelin. Also photograph of Lieut. William Leefe Robinson, V.C., Worcester Regiment & R.F.C., who attacked the Zeppelin under circumstances of great difficulty and danger, and sent it crashing to the ground as a flaming wreck.

    London: St. James’s Press (T. U.), [1916].

    16 page pamphlet, stapled. 11 illustrations from photographs. Pencilled ownership inscription to the lower cover. Short closed tear to the upper cover, covers a little rubbed. very good condition.

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