First World War centenary: The pilots who worked to thwart the Zeppelin threat at Hainault Farm aerodrome
12:00 08 June 2014
Images of gaping bayonet wounds, blown-off limbs and the blood and mud of No Man’s Land are often what spring to mind when thinking about the First World War.
But despite the suffering of the infantry and the significance of trench warfare, the conflict also played out in the skies.
Pilots from airfields across Britain worked to thwart the threat of the German Zeppelins – including men stationed at Hainault Farm and Fairlop aerodromes.
Historian John Barfoot, 83, of Chadwell Heath, said: “Fairlop was a training aerodrome, so most of the pilots went on from there.
“Fairlop was [involved with] the Royal Navy Air Service which came under the Admiralty. They were training naval pilots.
“Hainault was Home Defence.”
Hainault Farm aerodrome, which became particularly known for its 44 Squadron, formed in 1917, became popular with residents, with people visiting on weekends “just to watch them practising aerobatics”.
But despite such spectacles, the region experienced real fears about Zeppelins.
Mr Barfoot’s book, Over Here and Over There, documents the events of August 17, 1915, when a German commander bombed the Wanstead area, mistaking it for central London.
Ten people were killed and 48 were injured.
Despite this, what is now Redbridge was relatively unscathed by attacks, but there was a close scare when pilots William Leefe Robinson and Arthur Harris, from Sutton’s Farm aerodrome, Hornchurch, attacked a Zeppelin above Seven Kings.
After firing some rounds, the aircraft escaped the pilots – which meant the wooden homes in Chadwell Heath were spared a fiery onslaught.
Mr Barfoot says in his book: “As luck would have it, Romford, in the path of the Zeppelin, had been spared the horror of a monster sized hydrogen inferno falling upon it.”
Two small bombs did fall between Goodmayes and Chadwell Heath, destroying a cottage whose owners were luckily visiting family in Ilford.
During the war, many remarkable pilots graced the region’s aerodromes.
New Zealand’s Alfred de Bathe Brandon, who had only recently finished his training, was sitting in Hainault Farm’s farmhouse on March 31, 1916 when a warning came from the War Office about German raiders.
Armed with Ranken darts – explosive missiles – in his aircraft, Brandon took off and suddenly saw searchlights illuminating a Zeppelin in the distance.
Losing sight of the aircraft, Brandon eventually managed to get within striking distance and fired off some of the darts, which he believed he heard detonate.
In his combat report, which is in the Imperial War Museum, Brandon stated: “There was a tremendous amount of machine gun fire going on.”
Mr Barfoot wrote: “Had Brandon been allowed to carry Hale bombs, no doubt Ilford would have long since named a road in his memory.”
Brandon lost the Zeppelin, but it later fell into the sea off Kent.
Despite receiving a Military Cross for his actions and, later that year, seeing a Zeppelin he targeted burst into flames, Brandon is overshadowed by William Leefe Robinson, who was the first British pilot to shoot down a German airship.
Robinson’s feat was a morale boost for local residents, with the War Office, according to Mr Barfoot, so pleased they concealed the fact the airship had not been constructed at the Zeppelin works.
But Sutton’s Farm’s fame came at the expense of Hainault.
Mr Barfoot, who wrote his 1998 book after assisting Ilford Library, now Redbridge Central Library, with an exhibition on the topic, said: “I realised how much Hornchurch had overshadowed Hainault Farm, which had a great deal to do in the First World War.
“That is the reason I wrote it.”