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BILLY THE BIRDMAN VC, FLYS OVER HORNCHURCH

May 21, 2014

Billy the Birdman in clouds webThis year’s Queen’s Community Musical is ‘Paper Planes’, a tribute to a young World War One Royal Flying Corp officer, flying from Suttons Farm, who was first to shoot down a German Airship on a bombing run over London.
William Leefe Robinson made history and was awarded the Victoria Cross for bringing down airship LS11 on the night of September 2 1916 which dramatically exploded killing all 15 crew members in a pyrotechnic display watched by thousands of terrified Londoners.
Written by the team who brought you ‘Lighting Up The Lane’ two years ago, the musical will run at the Billet Lane Theatre from Wednesday July 30 with five performances running to Saturday August 2.
Over the next eight weeks I will be telling you the story of our Hornchurch Hero who tragically died when 23. Along with the series detailing his history, will be reports and features on the Community Players, a 60 strong group who will be telling the story in a spectacular musical on the Queen’s stage.
The series starts with the star of the show, Tomas Martinsen-Hickman, 22, (pictured top)  playing William Leefe Robinson, Billy the Birdman.

BILLY THE BIRDMAN
BE2cs_biplaneLANDING a lead role in the Queen’s Community Musical is probably less precarious than a First World War Bi-plane, and Norwegian actor Tomas, is busy rehearsing for his solo flight.
He has been cast as William Leefe Robinson V.C. In the specially written play,.
Now a professional actor Tomas spent his early years in Cyprus, moving from Norway with his family when he was three.
His father had set up business as a Financial Advisor in the south of the island, and Tomas attended English speaking schools.
A great mimic, his easy ability led to being offered many roles in school plays and eventually professional work in theatre. He even played the Phantom of the Opera in his last year at senior school which cemented the ambition to be an actor and turned the dream into reality.
After four years spent in the UK, his career has started to blossom in theatre and commercial voice over’s and, he is earning money.
When offered the lead role in Paper Planes, the vocational side of the young actor kicked in; no money, but the chance to delve deeply into community theatre at its very best.
“I feel confident about playing Leefe Robinson,” he said. “In many respects we are very similar, brought up outside our country of birth, and enjoying a privileged early life that offered so many opportunities.
“Also I am getting the chance to play a British hero alongside a really great bunch of people.”
Paper Planes is the next in a long line of superb Community plays, written by Dave Ross, Gerry Sweeney and Patrick O’Sullivan and Dave’s skill with song lyrics, is again turning out some unforgettable music by Steven Markwick.
The story of Leefe Robinson is a true story with a huge cast of 60 local actors with ages ranging from nine to 79 filling the stage. Their unbounded enthusiasm is already known and captures eloquently the total euphoria when Robinson, flying from Suttons Farm in Hornchurch, brought down the first bombing German airship.
His bravery transformed a dispirited nation into a fighting force with one heroic act over the night-time skies of London.
Read on…….

William Leefe Robinson
Lieut_Leefe_Robinson paintingWE are quite partial to our heroes in Britain, and one Victoria Cross winner in particular from the First World War, is being featured in a musical in Hornchurch in July.
Captain William Leefe Robinson ( pictured right) is not perhaps a name that trips off the tongue easily, but he was very special to Hornchurch.
His short life and heroic act that stunned the nation is being featured in a remarkable new musical at the Queen’s Theatre in July.
Paper Planes is another in the long running and popular Community Musicals at the Queen’s and again penned by Dave Ross, Gerry Sweeney and Patrick O’Sullivan.
Patrick is the Education Manager at the theatre and is directing the musical, which he describes as an important piece of history in our borough.
Everyone has heard of RAF Hornchurch, but not of Suttons Farm Airfield. It was a small airfield and adopted by the Royal Flying Corps in 1915 where William Leefe Robinson was stationed.
He was the youngest of seven children and born in Tollidetta in Southern India in 1895, where his father Horace, had a coffee estate in Kaima Betta in Pollibetta.
William had a happy childhood, particularly being the youngest member of a well to do and close knit family.
His early years were described in the family chronicle as full of fun: ‘ He was always up to jokes and at lessons asking the governess the most awkward questions. With his brother Harold, the pair were constantly up to pranks.’
With an education that was best described as ‘patchy’ William spent a year at the Dragon School, Oxford between the years 1901/1903, after which four years at the Bishop Cotton School in Bangalore, before being sent to the formidable St Bees College in Cumbria in 1909.
His early carefree life came back to haunt him at St Bees. He wrote home: ‘I often wonder if I will make a mess of my life in the way I keep failing exams. But if I do mother dear, remember that I will be competing with boys who will have had nine and ten years of sound schooling and I have barely had five.’
1913 was a watershed year for many of Britain’s young men as the threatened war in 1914 dismissed any further concerns about education.
He was an accomplished athlete, winning the house cap for football, played Hockey and enjoyed sculling. He thoroughly enjoyed the outdoor life and took every advantage to escape the classroom.
His well attached family name brought plenty of favour, particularly sharing days with many aristocratic families.
In the 1912 autumn term at St Bees he spent his time with days filled going to the theatre, boating trips and apparently an ever growing circle of young women admirers. He even reached the rank of Sergeant in the school’s Officer Training Corps (OTC).
His plan was get into the Indian Army via entrance to Sandhurst.
2Lieut_RobinsonHowever, 1914 scrapped his future plans, though his time in the OTC did get him into the army.
He entered Sandhurst in August 1914 and in December was gazetted as a 2nd Lieutenant to the Worcester Regiment and posted to Cornwall. (pictured left 2nd Lieutenant Leefe Robinson)
He wrote home about his duties as an orderly officer about not being off duty till midnight. And some duties causing him further discomfort by being made responsible making sure the guards were awake as well as supervising the digging of fresh trenches between two forts.
The first few months of service were boring the young active man and he applied to a subalterns job in West Africa. The pay was £25 a month plus other allowances, but being under 21, he was not considered, so he applied for the Royal Flying Corps.
Having gone through the basic flying training, in which he was considered a natural, and joined No 4 Squadron at St Omer, as an observer in BE2c’s flying over enemy lines on reconnaissance patrols.
His fascination with flying showed in letters home, describing the ‘beauty of flying above the cloud,’ to his mother. He was injured in the arm in May 1915 while flying a patrol over Lille.
He was sent home and resumed his pilot training at Farnborough in June. Qualifying for his Royal Aero Club Certificate, he had only 230 minutes of tuition. But after a further flying course, he gained his wings in September and was appointed Flying Officer and seconded to 19 Squadron at Castle Bromwich.
He wrote to his mother: ‘Ever since I got my wings I’ve been acting as a Flight Commander, a Captain’s place, and second in command of the squadron. I have plenty to do with that alone what with five machines and about 35 men under me. I am also squadron photography officer and wireless officer, added to which my machines are the only ones carrying machine guns so they and their fittings have to be looked after.
over London Bridge publicityAs a result of his piloting skills, he was delivering aircraft and instructing observers and trainee pilots. In further letter to his mother his enthusiasm for flying is mixed equally with the highly educated young man becoming more mature. He wrote: ‘I have delivered and brought machines to and from Farnborough, Northolt and various other places, and in between times I manage to have a peep at the Towns. Whenever I do, I have a simply ripping time. I landed for lunch near Banbury the other day and was immediately surrounded by people offering cars, lunch, tea, bed and lord knows what. My last landing was at Kenilworth, and we had the time of our lives, Talk about autograph books and cameras. By gad, I was positively sick of seeing and signing my own signature. I swore I would never sign another book, then a girl caught hold of my machine and said she would not leave go until I signed. So after an amusing argument, I place my filthy hand on a page and wrote ‘the mark of an aviator, W.L. Robinson’ over the top of the hand mark. my hand was dirty with engine oil. I liked her best; she was a sweet little Flapper of 17 called Kathleen Lennox for whom I drew our aeroplane. A girl lent me her camera and I took a photograph which she has just sent me’.
Up until then he had not seen action, though by Christmas 1915, Robinson had all the qualification necessary and was loaned to No 10 Reserve Squadron, part of the increasing London defence squadrons created specifically for ‘Strafing Zepps’.
His last letter to his mother of 1915 wishing her: ‘hearty wishes of luck and happiness throughout 1916. With love to all, I remain your ever loving son, Billy the Birdman.

TO BE CONTINUED NEXT WEEK

Reference: Royal Worcester Regiment Archive.

 

 

 

 

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