POLLIBETTA REMEMBERS COORG-BORN LEEFE ROBINSON WHO WON VICTORIA CROSS
By C P Belliappa
The first coffee estate in Coorg, named Mercara Estate, was started in 1854 by J. Fowler. By 1906 Coorg had nearly 33,000 acres under coffee, cultivated both by the English and the local landlords. Profits were good which attracted many British settlers to Coorg to take up coffee cultivation. However, planters had to face several ups and downs in the plantation industry from time to time.
One of the British couples to arrive in Coorg in 1883 was Horace Robinson and his wife Elizabeth Leefe. Horace was encouraged to take up coffee cultivation by his elder brother Dr Mark Robinson who worked briefly in Madikeri as Surgeon Major during early 1880s. Horace purchased Kaimabetta Estate near Pollibetta and both husband and wife got busy developing their new home and property.
Horace and Elizabeth were active members of Bamboo Club started in 1886, in Pollibetta. There were quite a few English families in Coorg by then. There were frequent get togethers between members of clubs in Pollibetta, Madikeri and Belur. One of the highlights used be an annual event at Madikeri lasting a week which included tennis and horse racing.
Travel used to be on horseback, tongas, waggonette, bullock coaches, horse drawn dogcarts, or in the humble bullock carts known as banddies.
Horace and Elizabeth had three sons (Ernest, Harold and William) and four daughters (Katherine, Grace, Irene and Ruth).
The youngest, William Leefe Robinson, was born in 1895. He and Harold had their early schooling at Bishop Cottons in Bangalore. In 1909 both the boys were sent to boarding school in England.
The three sons pursued careers in the armed forces. Ernest went to Sandhurst and served in the Indian Army. Harold was attached to 103rd Grenadiers (present day Maharatta Light Infantry). Sadly, Harold died in action in 1916 during the disastrous siege of Kut in Iraq.
William Leefe Robinson (Billy) entered Sandhurst in 1914. A year later he obtained a transfer to the Royal Flying Corps. His squadron was assigned to artillery-ranging duties and reconnaissance over the battle area. In a letter to his worried mother he wrote – ‘My dear, darling mother, why will you worry? I tell you I am as safe here as I ever was or would be with you at Kaimabetta. The flying corps have had very, very few casualties, about 5% I am told…’
During one of his sorties, Billy was hit in the arm by shrapnel when a shell burst close to his plane as he observed a German advance. He later discovered that a half-penny, kept in his breast pocket, had been bent, presumably when deflecting a stray shard of shrapnel! After recouping from his injuries, he underwent special training in night flying.
Germans had started the dreaded Zeppelin attacks on Britain in 1915. These raids normally took place in the night. On the cloudy night of 2 September 1916, the Germans staged a major attack with sixteen SL11 Zeppelins. SL11 had a crew of sixteen. Its size was formidable: 174 metres in length and 20 metres in diameter. It carried a payload of 21 tonnes and travelled at 92 kph, powered by four 960hp Maybach engines.
Leefe Robinson was first into the air at 23.08 hours. He had enough fuel to last him three and a half hours and three drums of ammunition. It was at 02.05 hours that Billy caught sight of an airship at 12,900 feet. He took his diminutive aircraft – one twentieth of the size of the airship – to within 150 metres of SL11. After two failed attempts he poured the contents of his last drum of ammunition into the rear of its under-side. The Zeppelin caught fire and the blazing wreck of SL11 fell in slow motion to the ground in a spectacular ball of fire visible in a radius of fifty kilometres.
The official history of the Worcestershire Regiment records the public response to Leefe Robinson’s feat:
‘For thousands of people it was without doubt one of the most memorable events of the entire war. It is difficult to imagine one man achieving anything more spectacular. The blazing wreckage of SL11 slowly fell to earth in a field in Cuffley, Hertfordshire. London was celebrating in boisterous fashion oblivious to the fact that other enemy airships were overhead. There was singing and dancing in the streets, small boys paraded up and down while their parents hugged one another or burst into patriotic song. Factory hooters and engine whistles added to the din…’
During the next couple of days nearly 10,000 people visited the village of Cuffley to see the wreckage and to collect pieces of the Zeppelin as souvenir. One of the relatives of a Coorg planter picked up a shard of wood and a piece of rope from the debris. This was later presented to Bamboo Club (see photograph with the pieces on either side of the note). These memorabilia along with a photograph of William Leefe Robinson is preserved at Bamboo Club.
The following day, Lieutenant General Henderson, the Commander of the Royal Flying Corps recommended that Billy should be awarded the highest military honour, the Victoria Cross, ‘for the most conspicuous gallantry displayed in this successful attack’.
Billy, now a well-known hero, continued to be active in the Royal Flying Corps. On 5 April 1917 he was forced down behind enemy lines in the Pas de Calais, Flanders. He was taken prisoner and was a considerable catch for the German authorities. Billy occupied his captivity as a prisoner of war with sports, theatricals and developing a library – and repeated escape attempts. The Germans were increasingly harsh on him after every attempt to escape. This took a toll on his health.
Following the Armistice in November 1918, Billy was released. He was debilitated and needed a walking stick. He quickly became victim to the 1918-19 influenza epidemic that took the lives of more people than had died in the World War itself.
In July 1995, one hundred years after the birth of Billy Leefe Robinson, the RAF invited descendants of his family to attend a memorial service at All Saints Church at Harrow Weald. Family friends from Kodagu were amongst the congregation.
Ruth was the only Robinson sibling to remain in Coorg. She married John Williamson Irwin (1865-1944), who was known as Jack, at the Church in Pollibetta in October 1912. The wedding reception was held at Bamboo Club next door. Jack owned Jumboor Estate located in north Coorg. The estate is now part of Tata Coffee Ltd. Kaimabetta changed hands after Horace and Elizabeth returned to England.
I am thankful to Koothanda P Uthappa, ex-Executive Director of Tata Coffee Ltd., for introducing me to Gabriel Irwin, grandson of Ruth and Jack Irwin. I am thankful to Gabriel, his brother Christopher and KP Uthappa for providing me material to write this article.