Out of the past, August 1965

GEORGE BROOKS, from Australia, taken to Staines to see the island on which Magna Carta was signed in 1215, surprised his hosts by remarking, “Isn’t the Lagonda factory somewhere near here?”, thereby showing a marked preference for motoring rather than more remote history!

I confess that when driving about Britain or the Continent, any link with the motoring past appeals far more than the finest of cathedrals, the most impressive of ancient monuments. . . . So one Saturday morning, finding myself near Cuffley, I paused to see whether any associations remained with an historic event, admittedly of aeronautical, not automobile, significance, that forty-nine years ago put this then-quaint hamlet very much in the headlines.

For it was over Cuffley, on September 3rd, 1916, that Capt. William Leefe Robinson, Worcs. Regt. and R.F.C., after being aloft for nearly two hours in a BE2c, and having first attacked another airship, shot down L21, the first German zeppelin to be destroyed over British soil. For this heroic attack he was awarded the V.C.

The effect of this successful shooting-down of a zeppelin had a profound effect on the residents of London who had endured bombing attacks which, by their violation of our island isolation, seemed more shocking than the V1 and V2 rocket attacks which the Metropolis survived during the Second World War. From dawn on that fateful Sunday morning people tramped, cycled and drove out beyond Enfield, to Cuffley, to see the fallen invader, where the remains of the smouldering wreckage lay on the heights between Northaw and Goff’s Oak, then a wild, deserted stretch of open country.

Two miles from the field traffic came to a halt, hemmed in, a self-imposed traffic tangle in the narrow lanes. Cars slid into ditches and had to be abandoned for days. Many motorists ran out of petrol, then rationed, and if they were unable to scrounge any, also had to abandon their cars. Others had to be pushed, wheels spinning on the clay ruts that flanked the rough lanes in this part of the country, their plight not eased by the overloading that eager sightseers had brought about, many light cars carrying four, sometimes eight, people aboard.

Those who did get to the field were rewarded by the sight of a few holes made by bombs hastily flung from the zeppelin, a bigger hole where it fell, and much trampling of the turf by the crowds of sightseers. The early arrivals had been able to buy pieces of wafer-thin copper tubes from a radiator secured by an enterprising hawker, who was charging from 6d. to 2s. 6d. a length.

No wonder news of the zeppelin’s destruction had spread—its blazing hull lit up the sky as far afield as Southend, Chelmsford, Hitchin and High Wycombe.

It was to see if any reminder could be found of this historic event that I drove to Cuffley. It seemed appropriate to go on this expedition in an N.S.U. Wankel Spider, a modern German technical achievement visiting the scene of disaster for a German innovation of a past age. Going through Potter’s Bar and Northaw, where sufficient stately homes remain to disguise the fact that these places are now “on the end of the electric,” there was no sign of muddy, narrow lanes. The roads were wide and well-surfaced, and traffic was light, except where Saturday-morning shoppers had obstructed Gurney High Street. In fact, I need not have turned into it, for continuing past a new church at the T-road to Cullley station brings you first to the “Plough,” now doubtless modernised, where the inquest on the zeppelin’s victims was held, then to the tin church to which their bodies were taken, while round a sharp l.h. corner, in an enclosure entered through a gate, is a tall memorial stone in memory of Capt. Robinson. This was erected by readers of the Daily Express, on a site presented to the public by Mrs. J. M. B. Kidston of Nyn Park, Northaw. (I believe she was the mother of racing motorist Lt.-Comdr. Glen Kidston and that the house was burnt down last year.)

Leefe Robinson was taken prisoner in April 1917 and died at Stanmore on the last day of December 1918, seventeen days after his return from captivity in Germany. There were flowers on the memorial when I visited it. . . . The field nearest is surrounded by hedges but the memorial stone stands beside the road, which may well have been open country in 1916, and where the zeppelin fell. So this slice of history is well-preserved and the memory of a gallant airman not forgotten. There is confusion in various aeronautical histories as to which zeppelin he shot down and its type, but its number is given as L21 on the memorial; Count Zborowski was said to have used one of the Maybach engines out of this or another shot-down zeppelin in his “Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang I” but I think it more likely that he acquired one from German war-surplus stock.—W.B.