It seems a rather odd thing to admit these days, but I spent much of my youth reading war comics and watching war films. That’s how it was if you lived in a house filled with boys in the 1960s. As a result I can still recite, without recourse to Wikipedia, the names of the three men who won a bar to the Victoria Cross (Chavasse, Martin- Leake and Upham, if you are interested), and I can easily recall the boiling hot afternoons during the summer holidays that I spent at Tobruk or on the Normandy beaches, flying low over the Möhne dam or high in the skies above Kent – all while sitting in a 1/9d seat at the Regal Cinema, Wallingford.
When I was 13, my mother, who could trust me to know the difference between a Dornier and a Messerschmitt 109, suggested I try a book she had read on its first publication in 1942. The book, which had made a lasting impression on her, was The Last Enemy by Richard Hillary, its title taken from an Epistle of St Paul: ‘The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.’ My mother said that no one at the time thought Hillary should have been allowed to fly again, after being shot down and grievously wounded during the Battle of Britain. She also told me that, during the war, she had briefly worked in a munitions factory, making small engine parts for Spitfires. What she definitely did not tell me was that she had had a boyfriend in the Royal Canadian Air Force, who was killed during the war.
Richard Hillary was 21 when he wrote The Last Enemy. He was recovering from operations to repair the damage done by terrible burns to his face and hands, after being shot down over the English Channel on 3 September 1940. He recounts this in the short preface, and for sheer gripping, horrifying excitement, it cannot easily be beaten. He has a relaxed, unforced style, which would have made him an excellent journalist had he lived and which is eminently suited to a first-person narrative. Although he uses some technical jargon, especially about the Spitfire (which of course he loves), it does not get in the way of the general reader’s enjoyment. Certainly, I don’t remember it foxing me, even when I was 13.
The book proper begins with his years at Trinity College, Oxford, to which he went from Shrewsbury School in 1937. He is handsome, clever, charming, carefree, arrogant, a very good oarsman; indeed he is not unlike many of his middle-class, privileged, public-school contemporaries. They are unpatriotic, though mostly not pacifist, sometimes effete, certainly half-hearted and, as he puts it later with disgust, ‘disillusioned and spoiled’ (not entirely surprising, since they had grown up in the long shadow cast by the First World War, in which their fathers had fought). Hillary joins the Oxford University Air Squadron, both for the fun of flying and because he thinks that, should war come, his brand of individualism will be easier to pursue as a pilot than as a soldier.
He also joins the RAF Volunteer Reserve so, when war does break out in September 1939, he and some of his friends abandon Oxford and find their way to flying training schools. Here he is initially undisciplined and argumentative but here too, for the first time in his life, he meets men who have had a less gilded youth than he; they are more talented pilots, and they are totally committed to defeating Germany. In the course of his training, he finally begins to grow up.
The first part of the book is an account of this training and the part he plays in the Battle of Britain, which turns out to be a single week in late August 1940, when he shoots down five German aircraft and learns, usually without emotion, of the deaths of many of his friends. (His description of how pilots take the news of the fate of their companions is searingly honest and most uncomfortable to read.)
There follows an account of his long stints in the hospital at East Grinstead after his crash, and the work of the amazing Archibald McIndoe in reconstructing his eyelids, lips and hands using plastic surgery, a technique then still very much in its infancy. Hillary becomes one of the famous ‘Guinea Pig Club’. His account doesn’t spare the gory details, nor does he deny what a difficult patient he can be, especially when he very nearly dies after developing a mastoid. This is the tale of a very young man (not much more than a boy) trying to work out who he is, and what he believes in ‒ a complicated mixture of bravado and self-doubt, and almost entirely, as he ruefully admits, egocentric.
Towards the end of the book, Hillary recalls the epiphany that has spurred him into writing his story. He helps dig a dying woman out of the rubble of a blitzed house in London. Looking at his face, she says, ‘I see they got you too.’ He finds himself in a frenzy of anger against her until he realizes it is really anger against himself: his half-heartedness and selfishness have prevented him from understanding that in fighting the war he has been in the presence of real evil.
By May 1941, he had recovered enough to suggest to the authorities that he travel to the United States for propaganda purposes and, in particular, to talk to factory workers making matériel for the Allies. When he got there, though, the British ambassador would not let him speak in public, for fear that his disfigurement would put off American mothers. He did some broadcasting, however, and he had a passionate affair with Merle Oberon, the beautiful Hollywood actress and wife of Alexander Korda, which did a great deal to salve his wounded pride and self-confidence during this semi-abortive trip.
He wrote much of his book in the United States, and it was published first there by Reynal and Hitchcock as Falling through Space in March 1942, and three months later in Britain, by Macmillan, as The Last Enemy. It was an immediate success. The fact that he wrote with such honesty, detachment and lack of self-pity gave authenticity to the admiring remarks he made about the gallantry and self-sacrifice of his contemporaries. This was propaganda of the best sort for the government since his was so obviously an honest account, although it did not go down well with some fellow-pilots, who were inclined to think he was ‘shooting a line’.
Without telling McIndoe, in the summer of 1942, Hillary besieged Fighter Command with requests to fly again, and eventually, when he had been passed fit by the medical board, he was given the go-ahead, provided he only flew night fighters, which were easier to handle than Spitfires. However, even after McIndoe’s work on his hands, Hillary could scarcely hold a knife and fork; he was certainly not strong enough to keep a plane in the air if something went badly wrong. And it did. Hillary’s Bristol Blenheim crashed on the night of 8 January 1943 near RAF Charterhall in Berwickshire. Both he and his observer, Sergeant Wilfred Fison, were killed. Hillary was 23 years old.
In the end, it was not a German fighter pilot who got Hillary, but his superiors, who acceded to his importunate requests to let him fly again. Still, we should resist the temptation to be censorious about that decision: the autumn of 1942, before the Battle of El Alamein eased the pressure, was about the lowest point of the war for the Allies; the morale-boosting potential of Hillary’s story was too obvious for the authorities to ignore. And experienced pilots were scarcer than aeroplanes.
The Last Enemy lived on in my head long after I turned the last page. But even someone like me, who was caught up in the long backwash of the war, can never feel the impact that this book must have had on those who read it when it first appeared. For them, the victory was by no means assured, a fact which must have quite changed their angle of vision. What is more, most people knew someone serving in the Allied air forces, and a great many experienced the grief of loss as a result: people like my mother, in fact.
© Ursula Buchan 2017, Slightly Foxed Issue 55
This article also appeared as a preface to Slightly Foxed Edition No. 39: Richard Hillary, The Last Enemy