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 narra
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