British Air Services Memorial St Omer
Henry gets a visit from Cosford trainees
WWI veteran Henry Allingham was thrilled to receive a visit from a group of trainees from the Defence College of Aeronautical Engineering Cosford.
Henry, who served with the Royal Naval Air Service during the Great War, later transferring to the Royal Air Force, is one of only a handful of surviving WWI veterans still able to to share their memories.
Now 108 years old, Henry recently travelled to St-Omer in France to witness the unveiling of the British Air Services Memorial, the first permanent tribute to all those British Air Services personnel who served on the Western Front.
Air Commodore Peter Dye, who was behind the idea for the memorial, explained why it is so important to maintain links with distinguished veterans such as Henry.
“The qualities of loyalty, commitment and selflessness shown by Henry and his colleagues in the First World War are as important to the RAF today as they were in 1918.
“Meeting Henry has enabled our trainees to better understand these enduring values. They have all enjoyed talking with him and comparing their experiences. It has been a privilege and honour to meet a founder member of their Service and a direct link to those brave men and women who pioneered military aviation.”
Plans are now in hand to enable Henry to visit Cosford and see today’s technical training at first hand. Air Commodore Dye stressed that in shaping the RAF for the challenges of the future how important it was to build on the legacy provided by Henry, and those many veterans from both World Wars, who have served their country with such distinction.
Henry Allingham - Air Mechanic First Class (RNAS F8317 - RAF 208317)
Henry Allingham was born on 6 June 1896 in Clapham, London. His father died when he was only 14 months old and his mother and grandparents brought him up. He attended the London County Council School in South Lambert Road, leaving to work as a trainee surgical instrument maker at St Barts Hospital. However, he found the work uninteresting and soon left to join a coachbuilders specialising in car bodies for Fodens and Scammels.
Henry tried to join up in August 1914 as a Despatch Rider but his mother persuaded him that his place was at home looking after her. It was only after she died that he was able to enlist, joining the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS). He was formally rated as an Air Mechanic Second Class on 21 September 1915 and posted to Chingford before completing his training at Sheerness with 14 other recruits - including 2 Australians, a New Zealander and an American.
After graduation, Henry was drafted to the RNAS Air Station at Great Yarmouth where he was involved in maintaining a wide range of aircraft – as well as taking the opportunity to fly. He recalls bringing seaplanes from the water’s edge up and onto the slipway, although some individuals found wading in saltwater was not to their taste! He also worked further up the coast at Bacton where night flying was conducted, using rows of flares to mark the landing ground. He remembers many of the pilots with great affection, including Lts Cadbury and Woods, as well as the air station’s Commanding Officers, Lt Cdr de Courcy Ireland and, after Ireland’s death, Lt Cdr Douglas Oliver. He speaks very highly of ‘Snakey’ Oliver and recalls watching him win the DSO in June 1916 for a single-handed attack on German cruisers that were shelling Great Yarmouth. On another occasion, he helped Lt Woods tie himself into a BE2c so he could loop it – which he successfully achieved! Henry was present at Great Yarmouth on 13 April 1916 when King George inspected the Air Station and its aircraft, however, he was greatly disappointed when the King, having spoken to a number of individuals in the line of RNAS personnel assembled to meet him, turned and left just before reaching Henry’s position!
Henry was also involved in supporting anti-submarine patrols from a variety of seaplane carriers. He preferred the Brocklesbury, an old paddle steamer, as the accommodation was much better than the trawlers, where he was billeted in the fish-hold. Each patrol lasted 2-3 days and involved hoisting the seaplane onto and off the water with a deck-mounted derrick. In May 1916, he was ordered at short notice to join the armed trawler HMT Kingfisher, carrying a Sopwith Schneider seaplane. The Kingfisher was at sea during the Battle of Jutland, shadowing the British Battle Fleet. They subsequently followed the High Seas Fleet taking care to avoid the mines laid by the retreating battleships. Henry makes the point that the crew were not really aware that they had taken part in a major sea battle until they returned to Great Yarmouth on the Wednesday and were certainly unaware that it had been a ‘victory’ until the church bells rang on the Thursday! Although the trawler was not directly involved in the action, Henry can properly claim to be the last survivor of that crucial battle.
In September 1917 Henry, by now an Air Mechanic First Class, was posted to the Western Front to join No 12 Squadron (RNAS) – formed in June 1917 and equipped with a mixture of Sopwith Pups, Triplanes and Camels. The unit acted as a training squadron for the other RNAS squadrons based on the Western Front, although there is some evidence that it was also involved in operations. When Henry arrived at Petit Synthe - at the northern end of the British sector, close to Dunkirk - both the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) and the RNAS were heavily involved in supporting the Ypres offensive. He stayed with No 12 Squadron (RNAS) until 3 November 1917 when he was posted to the Aircraft Depot at Dunkirk (St Pol). He would remain with the depot for the remainder of the war, employed on repair and aircraft recovery duties - the latter experience being particularly vivid. He also has recollections of being bombed from the air and shelled from the land and sea - all at the same time! He regrets not having been given first aid training as on one occasion a pilot landed with a bullet in his thigh, bleeding badly. Although they got him out of the aircraft he did not survive the journey to the casualty clearing station.
Henry transferred to the new Royal Air Force (RAF) on 1 April 1918, being ranked as a Rigger Aero, Aircraft Mechanic Second Class, and allocated a new service number - 208317. He remained in France until well after the Armistice and had the opportunity to visit Cologne where he was surprised at how friendly the German civilians were to British troops. Henry returned to the Home Establishment in February 1919 and was formally discharged to the RAF Reserve after a Medical Board on 16 April 1919, joining Fords where he worked until retirement.
Henry had met Dorothy during his time at Great Yarmouth. They married shortly after leaving the RAF (Henry says that he preferred to get married than attend a commissioning board). Their marriage lasted 53 years and produced two daughters (Jean and Betty). He now has 5 grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren - all living in America.
During the Second World War, Henry was in a reserved occupation working on a number of projects. The most significant was probably the effort to provide an effective counter-measure to the new German magnetic mines. He was called away from his Christmas lunch in 1939 to assist in devising an effective system to neutralise the mines and open the port of Harwich that had been closed. He returned 9 days later, the task successfully completed.
On 4 August 2004 Henry and 3 other veterans of the First World War - out of a total of 23 known survivors - laid a wreath at the Cenotaph to mark the 90th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War.
As the last surviving member of the British Air Services and the last founder member of the RAF Henry was an honoured guest at the unveiling of the British Air Services Memorial on 11 September 2004. He was joined at the ceremony by a group of RAF technical trainees from Cosford. Although nearly 90 years separated them, it was clear that there was a strong bond of respect and shared professionalism. The same group has continued to visit Henry at his retirement home in Eastbourne.
There can be few that were not moved when Henry, with great care and deliberation, laid a personal wreath during the unveiling ceremony. He returned to his seat to standing applause from the audience of nearly 900. The presentation to Henry of the Gold Medal of St-Omer, marking the award of the Freedom of the Town, was a fitting end to the weekend and the reflected the considerable emotion and affection that his presence had created. It was a privilege to meet him and we were greatly honoured that he was able to join us.
18 November 04
Date Last Updated : Friday, April 29, 2005 4:05 PM
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