Airman who shot down first Zeppelin

A First World War airman who received the Victoria Cross for single handedly shooting down the first Zeppelin had links with Leamington and Stratford.

Reginald (Rex) Warneford was related to the founder of Warneford Hospital in Leamington, the Rev Samuel Warneford.

Reginald was born in Cooch Behar, in the foothills of the Himalayas, India, in 1891 where both his parents served in the Colonial Service.

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He returned to England and was educated at Stratford Grammar School. He arrived at King Edward VI School in 1901. The school will mark his memory with a VC Memorial Stone (to be placed outside the medieval school entrance on June 8 2015).

Reginald’s connection with the Stratford school is recorded , but Leamington historian David Eason has discovered his little known family connection to Leamington - Samuel Wilson Warneford who founded Warneford Hospital in Leamington in 1832. Samuel left the hospital £10,000 on his death in 1855.

Reginald enlisted in the Royal Naval Air Service and passed his flying certificate on a Bristol Biplane. His station commander, R M Groves said: “This youngster will either do big things or kill himself.”.

He was posted to No 1 Wing at Veurne on the Belgian coast where he flew operations against German ground troops and aircraft.

On June 7 1915 Reginald took off for a night mission with four other Morane-Saulnier Type ‘L’ biplanes from Ghent for a midnight attack on the Zeppelin sheds at Bercham St Agathe. He lost sight of his comrades due to not having flown at night before.

He observed a Zeppelin over Ostend and decided to chase it. The airship opened up with its heavy maxim machine guns forcing him to withdraw. He gained height to 11,000 feet and switched his engine off, gliding down to 7,000 feet above it when he dropped his six 20 pound bombs onto it. The sixth hit the airship’s envelope and it exploded in a ball of fire.

The massive explosion caused his plane to spin out of control, but he managed to gain control, and having received damage was forced to crash land 35 miles behind German lines. He managed to get the plane in the air after repairing the damage before the Germans could reach him and returned to base.

Reginald’s exploits of shooting down the first Zeppelin during the war were celebrated across the Empire.

When he returned home King George V wrote and awarded Reginald the Victoria Cross. He said: “I most heartily congratulate you upon your splendid achievement of yesterday, in which you single-handed destroyed an enemy Zeppelin.”

Reginald was also awarded the Chevalier of the Cross of the Legion of Honour.

Tragically, while on his way to collect receive his Legion of Honour award, he was fatally injured while testing a new ‘Farman F27’ plane and was taken to the British Military Hospital at Versailles where he died.

Reginald was buried at Brompton Cemetery in London in a ceremony attended by an estimated 50,000 mourners. A memorial headstone over his grave was funded by Daily Express readers.