William Roberts

First World War veteran
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The Independent Online

William Roberts, transport engineer and wartime aircraft fitter: born Hartlepool, Co Durham 29 September 1900; married 1930 Edith Parker (died 1980; two sons); died Jacksdale, Nottinghamshire 30 April 2006.

A veteran of the First World War, William Roberts was the last survivor of the Royal Flying Corps (RFC). Born in Hartlepool, Co Durham in 1900, Roberts could remember walking with his mother to his first day at school at the age of three. On leaving school, he worked for the Northern Daily Mail as a copytaker, receiving five shillings and sixpence a week.

He was in Hartlepool on the morning of 16 December 1914 and witnessed the first engagement of the Great War on British soil, when the German High Seas Fleet bombarded the town from as close as 4,000 yards, killing 112 people. "I got on my overcoat, because it was very cold, and I had to run ziggy-zag through the streets to get home," Roberts recalled,

As I ran, shrapnel pinged against a Fry's Chocolate sign next to me. I passed a woman who had run out into the street, stark naked. I had never seen a naked woman before. Then another woman came out of her house and sat on the kerb with her baby in her arms. I ran past my school which had a large hole in the wall.

Roberts also remembered his cousin Alf's family running from their house,

to get away from the sea front and the guns. Alf's younger brother was hit by a shell which shattered his arm. Alf ripped his brother's shirt off, put a tourniquet on his arm and carried him to the hospital. It's funny because when I think back to my childhood, I can remember how German bands used to come to Hartlepool in the summertime and play in those very same streets.

William Roberts's father volunteered for the Royal Engineers after the raid, but was killed by a sniper a year later. After that, William volunteered for the Durham Light Infantry, but at 16 he was too young. The following year, he joined the RFC and was sent to Laffans Plain at Farnborough to work as a fitter and rigger on Sopwith Camels and Bristol Fighters. Nearly 90 years later, when I interviewed him for Last Post: the final word from our First World War soldiers (2005), he could still recall his service number - 81855.

Rather than use ballast, the pilots at Farnborough would take up a passenger, normally one who wanted to fly, like William Roberts. On one occasion he was up in a Maurice Farman when the engine stalled and he found himself hanging upside down. The Belgian pilot shouted at him to get out quickly, as the plane was about to burst into flames. An hour later the same pilot was killed in another plane.

Although he never went to France, Roberts saw five planes crash, but nothing deterred him from going up. With the playfulness of youth very much with him, he was caught trying to evade drill and was given 168 hours' detention in a steel cage with a small window, known as the "digger". "When teatime came," he said.

I heard a bit of a tinkling noise, and I had a look up and there was a piece of string hanging down with a couple of Woodbines tied on. It was from some of the girls in the office.

On his release, despite his punishment, Roberts was promoted corporal. When the RFC amalgamated with the Royal Naval Air Service in April 1918, he recalled that the former RNAS men who wore a collar and tie looked down on his friends in the RFC who did not.

After the war Roberts volunteered as a drill instructor and became an excellent fencer. He was called for tests to become a pilot and passed them all, but decided that he wanted to enjoy civilian life. He returned to an apprenticeship as a marine engineer which he had started just before he joined up. However, when he received his indentures and therefore was entitled to a "man's" wage, he was sacked.

Roberts returned to the RAF and worked in motor transport. During this period he met T.E. Lawrence, who was attempting to escape his past as an aircraftsman. William recalled: "He was very quiet - an unassuming person. If you met him, you'd think he was nobody." He came out of the RAF again in 1926 and worked as a motor mechanic and driver with the Ribble Bus Company in Lancashire, before becoming chief engineer with the Chesterfield Corporation Transport Department, from where he retired in 1967.

William Roberts enjoyed smoking his pipe and the odd whisky, as well as gardening. He remained absolutely alert until the end of his life. His death certificate aptly gave the cause of his death at 105 as "old age".

Max Arthur

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