Henry Allingham – the last survivor of the Battle of Jutland

After eighty years of silence, Henry Allingham chose to speak out about his role in the largest naval battle of the First World War.

In April 1918, the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) merged with the British Army's Royal Flying Corps to form a new service – the Royal Air Force (RAF). Just ten years before, the British government had first investigated the use of aircraft military and naval purposes. During the First World War, the duties of the RNAS included fleet reconnaissance, patrolling coasts for enemy ships and submarines, and attacking enemy coastal territory. The RNAS routinely searched 4,000 square miles of the English Channel and the North Sea for U-boats. 

Born in Clapton, London, on 6 June 1896, Henry Allingham joined the RNAS as an aircraft mechanic in 1915. In 2009, at the age of 112, he remembered his first flight with the RNAS 'like it happened yesterday': "It was 1915. I was the engineer in an Avro 504 biplane on a routine patrol over the North Sea. You used to have to smear Vaseline on your face to protect it from the cold weather, and if that wasn't available then it was whale oil or engine grease. And the long johns! They were standard issue, but I'd put on as many clothes as I could find.

"It was so noisy. I remember the deafening throb and the chap on the ground shouting: 'Chocks away!' Then we were up. The freezing wind was gushing past my face and my heart was in my stomach. It was a great adventure for a bloke like me."

Henry Allingham in 1916

Henry Allingham in 1916

The Battle of Jutland

During the First World War, Henry served as an observer and gunner searching for U-boats, Zeppelins and mines in the North Sea.

He was the last survivor of the Battle of Jutland, the significant naval action which took place between the Royal Navy's Grand Fleet and the Imperial German Navy's High Seas Fleet in the North Sea (off Denmark's Jutland Peninsula) from 31 May to 1 June 1916. The battle cost the lives of more than 8,600 Servicemen in a single day as 250 British and German ships fought for supremacy of the seas.

"I was on deck when there was a flash and the sound of thunder as a German warship unleashed its shells."

The Grand Fleet of the Royal Navy sailing from Scapa Flow heading for the Battle of Jutland

The Royal Navy's Grand Fleet sailing from Scapa Flow, en route to the Battle of Jutland

"We were in the North Sea, flying sea-planes with the RNAS. I remember when our armed trawler, the Kingfisher, came under attack. I was on deck when there was a flash and the sound of thunder as a German warship unleashed its shells. Suddenly, I spotted a shell that seemed to be coming straight for me. Fortunately, it went straight over the top of the Kingfisher and vanished into the depths of the sea. Only when we heard the church bells ring out the following morning did we know that Britain had been victorious in what was one of the largest naval encounters in history."

"People think that because you were there you knew the scale of it. You didn't."

'The Second Division at Jutland' by W L Wyllie (RA) 1851–1931 © Imperial War Museum (Art.IWM REPRO 000323)

'The Second Division at Jutland' by W L Wyllie (RA) 1851–1931 © Imperial War Museum

In addition to his Service at the Battle of Jutland, Henry served on the front line in significant battles at Ypres, Passchendaele and the Somme.

"I saw a lot of war in a little time. Really and truly, you got so used to men dying that you never mentioned them again. People think that because you were there you knew the scale of it. You didn't. The only blokes who knew anything were those who ran the war."

Henry Allingham with Dorothy before they were married

Henry Allingham with Dorothy Cator in 1918 before they were married

Henry transferred to the Royal Air Force at its inception in 1918: "That was the year I met my Dorothy. I only ever kissed one girl, and that was my Dorothy. We were married in the same year. She died in 1970. I scattered her ashes on the South Downs and in the promenade gardens at Eastbourne. She was my lifelong companion. I've been without her for 38 years now.

"So much time has passed since those days. When the 21st century dawned I was, in a way, waiting to die. Then I met Dennis Goodwin. He is the founder of the WW1 Veterans' Association. When Dennis started to visit me I lived on my own. I was a loner. My daughter Jean had just died.

"I didn't want to talk about the war. But Dennis started to introduce me to fellow veterans. These meetings with others who had witnessed similar horrors began to change my mind."

"I started talking to schoolchildren about the war. It gave me a reason to get up in the morning."

"Those who had fought in the trenches had seen more than their fair share of the horrors of war. Gradually, it seemed more disrespectful to ignore what had gone on than to talk about it. I began to welcome students and researchers into my home to talk about what had gone one. Dennis acted as my eyes and ears, as my sight and hearing were fading fast. Suddenly, my diary was full of events and I began to meet the top brass and even royalty. It seems all I heard was 'just one more question, Henry'. If only I had a pound for every time that has been said!"

MP Simon Hughes meets Henry Allingham

Henry Allingham meeting MP Simon Hughes in June 2006

In 2003, Henry was awarded France's highest military honour, the Legion d'Honneur for his Service during the First World War. In August 2004, he led Britain in the Lord's Prayer at the Cenotaph to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War.

On the ninetieth anniversary of the Battle of Jutland, in 2006, he boarded HMS Belfast on the Thames in London to remember those who were lost. A week later, he celebrated his 110th birthday.

Henry Allingham passed away on 19 July 2009, one month after becoming the oldest living man in the world.

Portrait of Henry Allingham

Henry in 2005, one of a series photos of WW1 veterans commissioned by the Legion from photographer Geoff Young 

"I don't mind if my future is long or short, as long as I do the right thing. People ask me what the secret is to a long life is. I say: 'Be good – you'll find it pays.' Though I wasn't all that good... I was fairly mischievous." Henry Allingham (1896–2009)

Henry was lucky to survive and lead a long and rewarding life but more than 6.500 British sailors lost their lives on the Battle of Jutland. You can commemorate one of those or any other casualty from the First World War on our Every Man Remembered website.

JUTLAND 100

The centenary of the Battle of Jutland is being commemorated in 2016. The Legion is encouraging communities to organise their own local commemorations to complement the National event being held in the Orkney Islands. Visit our Jutland 100 page to download a toolkit to help you arrange an event near you

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