Henry Allingham was born in 1896 in Clapton, London to Henry Thomas and Amy Jane (Foster) Allingham. His father died of Tuberculosis when Henry was just 14 months old, and after a period of time spent living with her parents and brother in Walthamstow, Amy remarried and the family moved to Clapham. At the age of six, Henry remembered witnessing the return of Boer War soldiers.
After leaving his London Council School, Henry attended a polytechnic then went to work firstly as a trainee surgical instrument maker at St Bartholomew’s Hospital, then for a coachbuilder making bodies for cars. He was extremely interested in all things mechanical and indulged as often as possible in his passion for motorcycles.
When war broke out in 1914, Henry wanted to enlist as a despatch rider but his mother, who was critically ill at the time begged him not to leave her. She died the following year and Henry joined the Royal Naval Air Squadron as an air mechanic second class. He witness the Battle of Jutland in 1916 from on board HMT Kingfisher, a naval trawler equipped with a Sopwith Schneider Seaplane which was used to patrol for German fleet. Henry’s responsibilities included maintaining the aircraft and assisting its launch from the vessel. He later joined the joint RNAS and RFC operation in the third Ypres offensive in 1917 and instrumented the first aircraft camera.
In 1918, when the Royal Flying Corps amalgamated with the Royal Naval Air Squadron, to form the RAF, Henry transferred to join them. He was part of the original 2 squadron, 1 squadron being balloons at that point according to his biography. Following the war he worked for a series of manufacturers including Vickers and Ford.
When war broke out again in 1939, Henry was working in a reserved occupation, however he was called away and tasked with designing a counter-mining instrument for the German magnetic mines which were causing a passage problem for the Naval fleet particularly in the port area of Harwich. He completed the task effectively within just nine days.
As the number of Great War veterans decreased, Henry was a vigorous advocate for teaching the younger generations about the Great War, using his own experiences. He toured schools and other institutions giving talks. For his 112th birthday, he was given a lunch in his honour at RAF Cranwell, with a Battle of Britain flypast. For his 113th he was guest of honour aboard HMS President. In 2008 he made a request for, and was granted, a tour of BAE systems, and a guided tour of a Typhoon jet.
In 2008, on Remembrance Day, Henry along with Harry Patch and Bill Stone, was present at the Cenotaph commemorations, to lay wreaths. Each representing one of the three military forces to which they had served in the Great War, it would be the last time the remaining UK veterans would be present at the event. Bill, who served in the Royal Navy died the following January, aged 111.
For around a month prior to his death, Henry was confirmed as the world’s oldest man, a title he received following the death of Japanese Tamoji Tanobe. Henry died on July 18th 2009, aged 113, the last surviving member of the original RAF airmen. A week later on July 25th, Harry Patch passed away aged 111, he was the last remaining UK Army veteran of the Great War. In February 2012, Florence Green aged 111 died. She was the last remaining member of the Women’s Royal Air Force, which also began its inception on 1st April 1918, as a separate force to that of the RAF. Florence was also the last remaining veteran of the Great War in the world, following the deaths of 110 year old American Frank Woodruff Buckles a year earlier, Canadian John Babcock who died in February 2010 aged 109 and Australian Claude Choules who passed away in May 2011 aged 110. With their deaths, the Great War from an eye-witness perspective officially passed out of living history, into History.
We shall remember them.