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Engineer Henry Allingham, 12 Squadron, Royal Naval Air Service
The Last founding member of the RAF
In June 2009 Henry Allingham became the first British man to reach 113 years of age; he also became, for one month, the world’s oldest man. In November 2008 at the 90th anniversary commemoration of the end of the war, Henry attended a service at the Cenotaph with Harry Patch and another veteran, Bill Stone: they shared 330 years between them.
Henry was born in June 1896 in Clapton, East London. When he was very young his father died and his mother remarried, moving to Clapham. After leaving school Henry worked as a surgical instrument maker and then as a coachbuilder. In 1915, after the death of his mother, he joined the Royal Naval Air Service as an air mechanic, being posted to the east coast to work on aircraft maintenance.
Prior to the great naval engagement of Jutland, Henry joined a naval trawler HMS Kingfisher and was the last veteran who was present at the battle where he recalled seeing shells ricochet off the water. In September 1917, Henry was posted to the Western Front to join 12 Squadron near Ypres. Although a mechanic he was sometimes ordered to act as an observer and flew over the battlefields.
In 1918 he joined the forces preparing to occupy Germany for several months and, after demobilisation he returned to civilian life and work as an engineer. He married in 1918 and had two daughters, one of whom pre-deceased him. At the time of his death, Henry had fourteen great-great-grandchildren and one great-great-great-grandchild.
“You’d take off just before light in the morning. As we went up, I always had to listen to the engine; the least change of note and you would come back, if you could.
There were so many accidents. I’ve seen aircraft and they’d be going along and suddenly they’d come down, it wasn’t very pleasant – I’ve seen fellows fighting for their lives to keep control as little things go wrong. Very often the lock nuts failed, as a lot of them were poorly designed, and the plane stood no chance, bucket and a spade that’s all you’d need for the pilot.
Even when you landed safely, you had to bail out as fast as you could and leave the plane for twenty minutes. It would seem all right, then whoosh, it would be all in flames. If pilots didn’t get out quickly enough you’d see them burn alive and you had nothing to put the fire out with, nothing at all. You had to stand and watch and their arms would slowly rise into the air. There were no fire extinguishers whatsoever.
Flying over Ypres
When you were flying in the Ypres Salient, you could see our line all the way round and Jerry’s line too, but you had your job to think of, you weren’t there to daydream or sightsee. Jerry’s anti-aircraft guns would pop at you but you generally knew the height you’d need, to keep out of harm’s way.
In the air the German pilots rarely engaged unless they had the advantage. In action you had to hold your fire, and that took some nerve; then you gave them a squirt with the Lewis Gun.
The pressure was terrible and the pilots had to be rested sometimes. You couldn’t take too much; most people had a breaking point. They’d get what we called the ‘jumps’, nervous. Some could take a lot and some could hardly take any, it depended on the make-up of the individual.
The pilots would make a report when they got back and then they tried to forget the strain, didn’t think on it. You’d never stand it otherwise.
Sinking in mud
We were going forward over the battlefield as the Germans withdrew. It was getting dark and really the only safe thing to do was to stay where you were, so I got my groundsheet and got myself ready to go to sleep. Before settling down, I went to look at something and fell in a shell hole.
I couldn’t get out and it was all crumbling at the sides. I got frightened; all sorts of dead things were in there. The more I tried to get out, the more the ground crumbled and I got deeper in the shell hole. The smell was awful for as I struggled, I disturbed the water. I moved a little to the left and the ground shallowed and I dug my feet in and got my belly on the ground and wriggled out.
I sat there in the dark and waited for daylight. I didn’t even dare to find my groundsheet again, I was so frightened. Well, that night I was stinking. Heaven knows what was in there.
The poor bloody infantry
It was the men in the trenches who won the war. What they put up with, no one will ever know. I’ve seen them coming out of the line, poor devils, in a terrible state, plastered with mud.
They were like hermit crabs with all their equipment on and they’d plonk down in the middle of the road before somebody helped them up.
How did they manage?
They were at the end of their tether. They were worn out, absolutely done up. They could hardly put one foot before the other, they were done, depleted, finished, all they wanted to do was sleep, sleep, sleep.
Talbot House, Poperinge
One day a week, I had some time off and I was wondering about in the town of Poperinge with nothing much to do. As I walked up this road, I saw a chalk message on an old board, all smeared, and there was something about a meeting.
“What’s that all about?” I thought, and so I walked down the side to find an old stable that was knocked about a bit and there was old Tuby Clayton [a padre who founded Talbot House] just making up a lovely bowl of roses.
With all the trouble in the world, the sight of those flowers was a right tearjerker if you were that way inclined.
‘Aren’t they lovely?’ he said. ‘They’ve just arrived from Blightly this morning.’ I admired them, and said, ‘What goes on here?’ He was an army chaplain. ‘There are three or four other fellows in there and I’m going to have communion,’ and I said, ‘All right I’m in.’ And I went in and took communion.
The friendship in that war was something else, it really was. Everybody was your pal. The man you sat beside, you’d talk to him as if you’d known him for a thousand years, as it were, and he was a complete stranger.