Henry Allingham

Henry Allingham

Henry Allingham, the son of an ironmonger, was born in Clapton, London, on 6th June, 1896. His father died when he was 14 months old and he was mainly brought up by his grandparents.

After leaving school at 16 he trained as a surgical instrument maker at St Bartholomew's Hospital. He did not like the job and he went onto work at Foden and Scammel, the car-body builder in East Dulwich Road.

Allingham wanted to join the army on the outbreak of the First World War. However, his mother persuaded him to stay with her in London. As he later explained: "So I carried on working for a while. Then, in September 1915, my mother died aged just forty-two. As soon as I lost her I joined up."

Allingham applied to join the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) and qualified as an air mechanic in September 1915. He was posted to the naval air station at Great Yarmouth. In May 1916 he was posted to the armed trawler HMT Kingfisher and maintained its Sopworth Schneider seaplane and took part in the Battle of Jutland.

In June 1917 Air Mechanic First Class Allingham was assigned to No 12 squadron on the Western Front. Over the next few months he experienced aerial bombing as his unit attempted to repair damaged aircraft.

In April 1918 the Royal Naval Air Service amalgamated with the Royal Flying Corps to form the Royal Air Force. At the end of the war he was offered a commission in the RAF but decided to leave the forces to work with an aircraft company. Later he was employed by Ford Motor Company as a coachbuilder.

Henry Allingham was too old for active service when the Second World War began in 1939. He therefore volunteered for war work as a mechanic. He later recalled: "I worked on a number of military projects. One of them was trying to find counter-measures to German magnetic mines."

Allingham retired to Eastbourne. His wife died in 1970 and he also lost his two daughters before entering a care home in 2005. His autobiography, Kitchener's Last Volunteer, was published in 2008.

Henry Allingham died on 18th July 2009. He is survived by six grandchildren, 16 great-grandchildren, 21 great-great-grandchildren, and one great-great-great-grandchild.

Primary Sources

(1) Henry Allingham, Last Post (2005)

When we were flying off the ships, we couldn't stay airborne for long because we'd run out of fuel - that was the trouble. People sometimes had to ditch their aircraft. I saw about seven ditchings. Sometimes the plane would be going up steeply, then it would stop and start going back and it would have no speed - no power. The wind was stronger than the power it had to go forward. In about twelve months they were able to overcome that with a lot more power.

We never ditched - fortunately - because if you ditched you were in big trouble. We never had any parachutes and we didn't have radio. We had pigeons which we carried in a basket - but I never had to use them. Some of our people who were adrift in the drink could be there for up to five days, and they used to let the pigeons go. They would fly back to the loft at the station, and a search party would be sent out to look for them. As a general rule, after five days of searching, they'd give up and the men were lost.

However, I met a fellow once who was on leave from the Halcyon; he was sitting beside me one afternoon by the River Dee, and he said how he'd been lucky. He'd ditched and they were about to give up looking for him when somebody thought they saw something - and sure enough, it was him. He was very lucky.

In those days you had an open cockpit and it was very cold. You had a leather jacket and a leather helmet, and you'd put Vaseline on your face, and you had gloves to protect you from frostbite. The standard issue was long johns and you had a thick shirt and a vest. Over the top of that you had a grey shirt and a tunic. Your working gear was a tunic with patch pockets, which was very useful and practical. Then you had a choice - you could have trews or you could wear britches and puttees [strips of cloth wound around the leg to form leggings], which took a while to put on. With regard to equipment, you didn't have gun mountings in the aircraft until about June of 1916. That was when we first got the Lewis gun. When I first got in the cockpit, it was my job to sit behind the pilot and defend the plane with two Lee Enfield Rifles.

Once Lewis guns were mounted on our planes, we had the problem of trying to shoot through the propeller. in the air, if you tried it, you'd just shoot the prop away. Then they developed the synchromesh gear with the engine, which synchronised the firing of the machine gun through the prop. It was amazing. We made rapid progress in the last three months of 1916, and from then on we didn't really look back. They gave us the Bristol, Sopwith, Handley Page and so on, and aircraft producers have made good progress from then on. In 1917, they started putting radios in the aircraft. They could send signals over forty miles, so the radio fellows told me, and they could receive signals over sixty. From then on we didn't need the pigeons.

(2) Henry Allingham, Last Post (2005)

In September 1917, we were sent to France to support the Royal Flying Corps. I joined No. 12 Squadron RNAS at Petit Synthe, near Dunkirk. The squadron had been formed in June 1917 and was equipped with a mixture of Sopwith Pups, Triplanes and Camels. The first thing I did when I got to Calais was to have a nice plate of egg and chips. My job was to service aircraft and to rescue aircraft parts from any machine that crashed behind the lines of trenches. As mechanics, we had to keep the aircraft flying using anything we could. The pilots liked to take their mechanics up in the plane with them, because that way they knew the mechanics would service the plane properly. I used to sit behind the pilot and drop out bombs. If the enemy appeared, I used to open fire with the Lewis gun.

We used to keep more or less with the same pilot, because we became a team. Some of the pilots - you'd hear them come back from flying over the lines and hear some of the stories they used to spin. We had one fellow, Muellock, a Canadian, and he had a Sopwith Triplane with synchronised Lewis guns on board. He did his flying as a loner, and he went over time and time again, but he never had any luck. There was another fellow named Charlie, who used to go over in a group of five - one leading, two on one side and two behind. He was the tail bloke and that made him miserable so he decided to go out alone and he got one the very first time. Yet Muellock tried for months while I was there, and got nothing. That's how it went.

When we moved, we put our gear on lorries - we had fifty-odd lorries and it was very slow going. One lorry would get through and the next one would get stuck in the mud. Then we started joining rubber tyres together and we'd put them down and tow the lorrie's over them.

Once when we were moving forward on the Ypres Salient to support the offensive, we got to this particular place just as it got dark. It was a strange place and we hadn't been cleared to go forward by the Canadian engineers. There was a lot of fighting in the area and you couldn't walk about as it was too dangerous. It was safest to stay put, so I stuck where I was. I put my groundsheet and blanket down on a bit of concrete and I went to sleep. You didn't have a pillow. You put your boots together and you'd sleep with your head on them. I got up in the night, took a couple of paces and I fell straight into a shell hole. It was absolutely stinking. There was everything in there, you name it - dead rats, no end of rats. You know what they fed on in this hole? The bodies of the boys listed as missing. So there I was, in this filthy great big hole. I decided to take a chance and I moved to the left. If I'd gone to the right, I don't know what would have happened. It was shallow and I managed to get to my feet, and I tried to climb out. I tried several times, but no joy. Somehow though, and I don't know how, I heaved my belly up on to the side, and I could just pull myself out. I was soaking wet, right up to my armpits, but I had to stay where I was until daylight. I didn't dare move again. I wore that kit until it dried off on my body.

(3) Henry Allingham, Last Post (2005)

We all got lice in our clothes. We used to run the seam of the shirt over a candle flame to get rid of them. Of course, you'd wash your shirt if you could - and when you did wash it, you'd hang it on a bit of line. Next thing you'd see was the lice crawling along the line.

(4) Henry Allingham, Last Post (2005)

When the Royal Naval Air Service merged with the RFC to form the RAF on April 1 1918, I was behind St Orner high over the lines. We looked down and we could see the line, right the way round. Trenchard, who was boss of the RAF, thought he was going to have all the air resources but the Admiralty wouldn't have that, of course. We navy fellows had about nine months when we didn't know what we were, really, RN or RAF. There was a bit of argument, but we were eventually merged into the RAF.

(5) Henry Allingham, Last Post (2005)

When the war ended I was in Belgium. Naturally, everybody went mad - but I didn't. I took to my bed and had a good night's sleep. There were a good many men who never saw the morning because they all went crazy. If they had a rifle and bullets, they'd shoot, just to make a noise. The Very lights (a coloured flare fired from a pistol) went up all around, and people went crazy. I wasn't going to do that. I thought I'd get a good sleep while I could. When the rest came in the morning they were all over the place - but I was alright. We were supposed to move at eight o'clock but we didn't get away until eleven, because chaps were coming in in dribs and drabs. Then we got under way and we went through Belgium and into Germany, to the Rhine, and I got to Cologne. I remember going into the hotel opposite the cathedral. I spoke to the chef, who had worked in London for eight years before the war. He offered me something to eat; it was black and a bit smaller than an Oxo cube. Goodness knows what it was but it gave me indigestion for two hours afterwards.

(6) The Daily Telegraph (18th July 2009)

He later confessed that he did not realise what war meant when he signed up, but his experiences at the Third Battle of Ypres, widely known as Passchendaele, resulted in his naïve enthusiasm for battle and glory that gave way to a passion for peace.

He once told the BBC: "War's stupid. Nobody wins. You might as well talk first, you have to talk last anyway."

The scenes he witnessed of soldiers waiting to go over the top at Ypres have stayed with him ever since.

"They would just stand there in 2ft of water in mud-filled trenches, waiting to go forward," he said. "They knew what was coming. It was pathetic to see those men like that. I don't think they have ever got the admiration and respect they deserved."