Orders, Decorations, Medals and Militaria (28 February & 1 March 2018)

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Date of Auction: 28th February & 1st March 2018

Sold for £17,000

Estimate: £10,000 - £12,000

A Great War 1917 Albert Medal in Gold for Land awarded to Air Mechanic 1st Class H. V. Robinson, Royal Naval Air Service and Royal Air Force, for gallantry in saving the lives of the crew of airship SSZ 7 following her collision with SSZ 10, just outside of RNAS Polegate, 20 December 1917. Robinson, in company with one other, rescued the pilot and two crewmen from the flames, and returned to the towering inferno to remove her bombload, suffering serious burns in the process.

Robinson’s award is 1 of only 3 Albert Medals in Gold awarded to flying personnel during the Great War, with Robinson, himself, being the last surviving recipient of the Albert Medal in Gold

Albert Medal, 1st Class, for Gallantry in Saving Life on Land, gold and enamel, the reverse officially engraved ‘Presented by His Majesty to Air Mechanic 1st. Grade Harold Victor Robinson, for Gallantry in saving life on the 20th. December, 1917’, in case of issue, extremely fine £10000-12000

Footnote

Provenance: Glendinnings, December 1969; J. B. Hayward, October 1974 and Sothebys, June 1984.

A.M. London Gazette 8 March 1918 (in a joint citation for Gold medal with Boy Mechanic E. E. Steere, R.N.A.S., and with Flight Lieutenant V. A. Watson, R.N.A.S. who was awarded a Bronze medal):

‘On the occasion of an accident to one of His Majesty’s airships which resulted in a fire breaking out on board her, Flight Lieutenant Watson, who was the senior Officer on the spot, immediately rushed up to the car of the airship under the impression that one of the crew was still in it, although he was well aware that there were heavy bombs attached to the airship which it was impossible to remove owing to the nearness of the fire, and which were almost certain to explode at any moment on account of the heat. Having satisfied himself that there was in fact no one in the car, he turned away to render assistance elsewhere, and at that moment one of the bombs exploded, a portion of it shattering Lieutenant Watson’s right arm at the elbow. The arm had to be amputated almost immediately.

Air Mechanic H. W. Robinson and Boy Mechanic E. E. Steere, on the occasion of an accident to one of his Majesty’s airships which caused a fire to break out on board her, approached the burning airship without hesitation, extricated the pilot and two members of the crew, all of whom were seriously injured, and then unclipped the bombs from the burning car and carried them out of reach of the fire. As the bombs were surrounded by flames, and were so hot that they scorched the men’s hands as they carried them, they must have expected the bombs to explode.’

Harold Victor Robinson was born in Scotland, and served during the Great War as an Air Mechanic 1st Class in the Royal Naval Air Service. He was based at the R.N.A.S. Airship Base Polegate when, ‘the weather... during the forenoon of December 20, 1917, inclined to be hazy with a small amount of sun showing through. The temperature was low, the snow which had fallen in the preceding days now lying around fairly thickly, covering everything with a frozen blanket. In these conditions five SS Zero class airships had taken off for a normal operational patrol over the approaches to the English Channel.

The ships involved in this patrol were SSZ’ 6, 7, 9, 10 and 19. However for the purposes of this account we need only concern ourselves with SSZ 7, commanded by Lt Swallow, SSZ 9, Lt. Sinclair, and SSZ 10, Lt Scott. These three ships were part of a batch delivered to Polegate during July 1917, though SSZ 7 was nearly written off in November 1917 when an explosion had taken place in her car, the cause being a spark from the w/t set igniting petrol fumes....

During the afternoon of December 20, about 1500 hours, a thick sea fog came swirling in over the snow covered Downs making visibility very poor. So the call went out from Polegate for “All ships to return to base”. This was not simple to do, as events would show.

Above the fog the five ships made their way homewards but as daylight faded hopes of making base vanished with the light. The captains aloft made a standard decision to find a suitable site to moor out for the night or to wait for the fog to disperse. SSZ 6 came down safely in a field north of Hailsham. SSZ 7 and SSZ 19 came in near Beachy Head Coastguard Station. SSZ 9 and SSZ 10 were to come down separately at Hill Farm, Willingdon.

The account that follows is based on a description given by Mr Nelson Burtenshaw who was a boy of twelve at that time. His father was the carter to Hill Farm and around 1600 hours the boy was helping him to tend to the horses. The sound of engines overhead was not unusual but this time it seemed to be a lot lower so father and son left the stables to see what was afoot. SSZ 10 came in very low and a crew member was able to slip over the side of the car and ask for directions. It was decided to secure the ship for the night and, with the aid of several farm implements, this was achieved. In view of the very cold weather it was considered advisable to keep the Rolls Royce Hawk engine ticking over. Accordingly a watch was set on the ship to maintain security. Lt. Scott was anxious to contact Polegate to report his position and asked for the nearest telephone. This proved to be at a public house, the Eight Bells, roughly 15 minutes walk away. Mr Nelson Burtenshaw was to be the guide and the pair set out along the footpath. They had not travelled far when the sound of another engine overhead made them turn in their tracks. SSZ 9 was coming in slowly to the farm. She was soon moored approximately 70 yards from SSZ 10 and again the pair set out to report the location of the two airships.’

Contact was made with the base at Polgate, and the positions of the two airships reported. Scott and Burtenshaw returned to the farm, and ‘Burtenshaw was sent off to bed but the attraction of these strange men and their even stranger talk was too strong. Creeping down to the bottom of the stairs he sat there listening to their tales.

Gradually the fog began to clear and the airship crews started thinking of setting out once more for Polegate. A temporary mooring for the night was not the best of things especially if the wind should freshen. Back at Beachy Head the fog started clearing a little earlier and Lt Swallow of SSZ 7 felt he stood a chance of making base. Accordingly he set out, but kept close to the ground, and made use of his Aldis signalling lamp to pick out details of the land just ahead. By sheer chance Lt Swallow’s course home brought him directly over Hill Farm. He failed to spot the bulk of SSZ 10 until too late to take effective avoiding action. The action he could take was to no avail and in the ensuing collision the tail surfaces of SSZ 7 ripped open the envelope of SSZ 10; the exhaust flames ignited the escaping gas and the two ships were ablaze.

The sound of another engine and the warning cries of the man on watch brought the men from the cottage. The sight that met them, and the Polegate party who chose this moment to arrive, was that of SSZ 10 burning fiercely and SSZ 7 drifting away, also ablaze, at about 400 feet. She crashed shortly after, about 500 yards away, killing the captain instantly and badly injuring the two crewmen. The engineer A/M E J Hughes was in great pain and A/M 2nd Class V Dodd suffered broken wrists, ankles and pelvis.

Two men from the Polegate party raced to get the crew clear from the wreckage of SSZ 7. They were pulled away from the flames by A/M 1st Class H V Robinson and Boy Mechanic E E Steere. After the survivors were safe these two returned to the ship to remove the bombload and in so doing suffered severe burns from the fire and near red hot bombs. The explosives could well have detonated at any time but they were removed without further incident. Meanwhile Lt V A Watson, who was the Senior Officer present, rushed up to the car of SSZ 10 under the impression that the crew were aboard. His arrival coincided with the detonation of one of the bombs - his right arm was shattered at the elbow and had to be amputated almost immediately. The kitchen which a short while before had held a happy gathering now became a surgery. Surgeon Lt Greave-Robinson, from the base at Polegate, now had a room full of casualties. Many of the airmen had received burns: the explosion of the bomb had also caused burning fragments to set alight one of the hayricks. Fortunately for the farm the loss was confined to one rick. Cars from Jevington duly arrived and the men who had been injured were conveyed to Eastbourne Hospital. The other airship, although moored a little way off, was partially deflated and moved further away to a safe distance.

The wreckage of the two ships was collected during the next day and put into a barn. As the roads were difficult for the passage of heavy vehicles, it remained there for a week until conditions had improved enough to allow for its removal by farm cart and lorry. Mr Nelson Burtenshaw has a circular allow fitment from one of the two ships. (article by R. Slocombe included in the lot refers)

After the war Robinson emigrated to Australia, and he died at Kangaroo Point in October 1969.