Henry Allingham, Elegant Survivor, Passes away at 113

Henry Allingham in June, 2009

LONDON, July 18th, 2009

Henry Allingham, the world’s oldest man and  oldest surviving British veteran from World War I, has died at the age of 113.

Henry Allingham was a founding member of the Royal Air Force.

Mr. Allingham died in his sleep at St. Dunstan’s care-home in Ovingdean, England. Born on June 6, 1896, Allingham was active until his final days, having celebrated his 113th birthday last month on the HMS President with his family.

The Guinness Book of World Records Certified Allingham as the world’s oldest man in June of 2009.

“The queen was saddened to hear of the death of Henry Allingham. He was one of the unique generation who sacrificed so much for us all. Our thoughts are with his family at this time,” Buckingham Palace declared.

“I had the privilege of meeting Henry many times,” said Prime Minister Gordon Brown. “He was a tremendous character, one of the last representatives of a generation of tremendous characters. My thoughts are with his family as they mourn his passing but celebrate his life.”

Born in London’s East End during the reign of Queen Victoria, Henry Allingham’s father died when he was a baby; he was raised by his mother and grandparents. Henry joined the Royal Naval Air Service at age 18 as an aircraft mechanic in 1915 after his mother died.

Henry Allingham at Age 18

Henry Allingham was the last known survivor of the Battle of Jutland, considered the greatest battle of World War I. He was serving aboard the armed trawler HMT Kingfisher, which was sent to join the British fleet as it fought to keep the Germans away from what is now mainland Denmark.

The Battle of Jutland holds the all-time record for the most gun-armed battleships and battlecruisers engaged in a fight, according to Britain’s Ministry of Defence.

In 1917, Henry Allingham was sent to France to support the Royal Flying Corps. His job as a mechanic was to service the aircraft and recover parts from downed planes, but pilots would often ask their mechanics to fly with them, thus Mr. Allingham would sit behind the pilot, dropping bombs or operating machine guns.

Allingham served in Flanders until that November, when he moved to the aircraft depot at Dunkirk, France, where he stayed until the war was over.

Allingham was a founding member of today’s Royal Air Force, which was formed in 1918 when the Royal Naval Air Service merged with the Royal Flying Corps.

He married his wife, Dorothy, in late 1918 and left the RAF a few months later, in April 1919.

Allingham remained a reservist, and during World War II he was called upon to find a solution to the German magnetic mines that were bottling up the English harbour of Harwich, on the Essex coast.

Henry Allingham and his team devised an effective system to neutralize the mines, after which every ship was fitted with his invention.

His dedication to the military and the memory of fallen troops never wavered. In his later years especially, Henry Allingham was often seen at memorial events, even though he could no longer walk, his eyesight was failing, and he needed a wheelchair.

“Henry was always determined to ensure that today’s generation does not forget the sacrifice of those who died on the Western Front,” a representative of St. Dunstan’s nursing home said in a statement after Allingham’s passing. “Until recently, he regularly visited schools and attended war-based events as an ambassador for his generation.”

Asked once at a memorial ceremony how he would like to be remembered, Henry Allingham demurred, saying that people should instead remember those who died in the wars. “Remember them, not me,” he said.

He was installed as a chevalier in France’s Legion of Honor in 2003 and was promoted to officer of the institution earlier this year. Awarding the honor, the French ambassador to Britain thanked Mr. Allingham, on behalf of French President Nicolas Sarkozy, for his work in protecting France during the two World Wars.

The Royal Navy celebrated Henry Allingham’s birthday last month by throwing him a party aboard the HMS President. A birthday cake and card signed by the First Sea Lord were delivered by fast-raiding craft of the Royal Marines; Mr. Allingham was given a decanter of Pusser’s Rum, his “favorite tipple,” by the Fleet Air Arm.

Henry Allingham’s wife, Dorothy, died in 1970. Their two daughters both died in their 80s.

He is survived by six grandchildren, 16 great-grandchildren, 21 great-great-grandchildren, and one great-great-great grandchild, all of whom live in the United States, said a representative of  St. Dunstan’s at Ovingdean. Since 2006, Henry Allingham had lived at St. Dunstan’s, a nursing-home for blind ex-military people on the south coast of England. He had lost his sight as a result of age-related macular degeneration.

“Everybody at St. Dunstan’s is saddened by losing Henry, and our sympathy goes out to his family,” said Robert Leader, chief executive at the home. “As well as possessing a great spirit of fun, he represented the last of a generation who gave a very great deal for us. Henry made many friends among the residents and staff at the home. He was a great character and will be missed.”