Henry Botterell



On Aug. 29, 1918, Henry Botterell flew his Sopwith Camel toward enemy-occupied Vitry, France. After dropping four bombs on a railway station, he was heading back to his airfield when he saw a German observation balloon over Arras. Putting his Camel into a dive, he machine-gunned 400 rounds into the balloon, setting it aflame.

As the soldier leaped from the basket, yanking open his parachute, Lieutenant Botterell banked close enough to see the fear in his enemy's eyes. But he didn't shoot him. Instead, he snapped a salute, and headed back to base, a moment of gallantry captured by Robert Taylor, the famed aviation artist, in his painting Balloon Buster.

Mr. Botterell, who turned 106 on Thursday, is believed to be the last living fighter pilot of all the nations that fought in the First World War, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Through a spokesman at Sunny-brook and Women's College Health Sciences Centre in Toronto, Mr. Botterell declined to be interviewed, but four years ago, he said: "I was just a bank clerk. I wasn't one of the very best, but I had my share of action."

Henry John Lawrence Botterell was born in Ottawa and attended Lisgar Collegiate Institute. In 1916, he was working for the Bank of North America (now the Bank of Montreal) when his older brother, Edward, who played football for the Toronto Argonauts, was killed overseas. A few months later, Henry, then 20, enlisted with the Royal Naval Air Service and was sent to England to train as a fighter pilot.

At one point in the war, inadequate training gave new pilots a life expectancy of three weeks, but it was engine failure that caused Mr. Botterell to crash on just his second takeoff at Dunkirk, France. He suffered head injuries, a fractured leg and smashed teeth - and eventually was demobilized as disabled. But he later re-enlisted and managed to qualified as a fighter pilot again, returning to France with the newly formed Royal Air Force in early 1918.

The Camel, which got its name from the hump created by two machine guns imbedded under its cowling, was Mr. Botterell's favourite plane and gave the Allies the edge on the Western Front. Not that the machine guns didn't jam during dogfights. On one flight, a bullet ripped through Mr. Botterell's ear and smashed his goggles. He briefly lost consciousness, re-covering just in time to avoid crashing.

In 1919, he returned to Canada and his banking career. As a souvenir, he brought back a Belgian fence post that had snagged the wing of his Camel on one of his many low-flying sorties. It is now in the War Museum in Ottawa. Mr. Botterell married in 1929, and later moved with his wife, Maud, and their two children to Montreal. During the Second World War, he commanded an Air Cadet squadron in Lachine, Que. But he never flew again, except on commercial flights. A few years ago, he took one to Ottawa to visit his older sister, Edith, then 103.

In 1999, he celebrated his own 102nd birthday at a hotel in Lille, France, where he and 16 other Canadian veterans were marking the 80th anniversary of the end of the First World War. At the time, he told an interviewer that he could not remember how he had celebrated his 22nd birthday, four days before the Armistice.

But his diary notes how he spent that Nov. 11. "The CO woke us up to tell us about the Armistice. We had a big dinner with pheasant and hare, shot locally."

The next day, Mr. Botterell recorded: "I flew low over Mons and waved at the troops."

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