Profiles of Courage: Henry Coyle Rath, DFC

News Article / July 10, 2017

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By Major Bill March

Born in Hastings, Ontario, on November 12, 1898, Henry Coyle Rath was working as a hardware clerk in Tweed when he walked into the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) recruiting office on September 10, 1917. After completing his training in Toronto and Borden and Texas, he sailed for England on February 26, 1918.

Selected as a scout, or fighter pilot, the young Canadian was taught to fly the Scout Experimental (SE) 5a, designed by the Royal Aircraft Factory. A capable single-seat, bi-plane fighter, it had a top speed of about 222 kilometres per hour and was armed with a single forward-firing Vickers 7.7 millimetre machine gun and a 7.7 millimetre Lewis upward firing gun on the top wing. At the controls of this tough, agile aircraft, Rath was destined to become an ace.

Posted to No. 29 Squadron on June 5, 1918, Rath soon became acclimatized to aerial combat on the Western Front. The last of the German spring and summer offensives were coming to an end, and Allied airmen would soon find themselves supporting advancing Allied armies through the summer as they pushed the Germans back. Rath scored his first victory, shared with Captain Robert Holme, when he helped drive down an enemy reconnaissance aircraft southwest of Merville, France. Two more victories followed in July, and a further seven were claimed in August. Although some of these victories came about through the careful “stalking” of a German target, Rath often found himself part of a larger squadron effort engaged in an aerial melee with like numbers of enemy aircraft.

One such battle took place on October 14, when he was part of a four-aircraft offensive patrol. Operating on a line between Roulers and Ingelmunster, in Belgium, the Allied flyers spotted a large number of enemy scouts below them. The SE5a’s dove to attack and quickly shot down five of the enemy. Rath accounted for two German Fokker D. VIIs – his eleventh and twelfth victories.

For this action, in conjunction with his other accomplishments, Lieutenant Rath would be awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross on February 8, 1919. Unfortunately, he would not live to receive the decoration. Death was ever present on the Western Front and it was not always the result of enemy action. On October 26, 1918, over the village of Tournai, Belgium, he collided with another SE5a flown by Second Lieutenant Roderic MacLean, a U.S. pilot in the same squadron. The collision occurred at an altitude of almost 3,600 metres, and Rath did not survive the fall of his stricken aircraft. MacLean succumbed to his injuries the following day.

Lieutenant Henry Colye Rath is buried in the Tournai Communal Cemetery, Allied Extension, in Hainaut, Belgium. He was 19.

Lieutenant Rath’s entry in the February 7, 1919, Supplement to the London Gazette includes the statement of action that would be read the next day, during the February 8 posthumous awarding of Rath’s Distinguished Flying Cross: “A bold and resolute fighter in the air who has six enemy aeroplanes to his credit. On 14th October he, with three other machines, engaged a large number of enemy scouts; five were shot down, Lieut. Rath destroying two.”

The Gazette is the United Kingdom’s official public record, and has been in daily publication since 1665.

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