Saturday, 15 March 2014

The Last Enemy

...I closed in to 200 yards, and from slightly to one side gave him a two-second burst: fabric ripped off the wing and black smoke poured from the engine, but he did not go down. Like a fool, I did not break away, but put in another three-second burst. Red flames shot upwards and he spiralled out of sight. At that moment, I felt a terrific explosion which knocked the control stick from my hand, and the whole machine quivered like a stricken animal. In a second, the cockpit was a mass of flames: instinctively, I reached up to open the hood. It would not move. I tore off my straps and managed to force it back; but this took time, and when I dropped back into the seat and reached for the stick in an effort to turn the plane on its back, the heat was so intense that I could feel myself going. I remember a second of sharp agony, remember thinking 'So this is it!' and putting both hands to my eyes. Then I passed out...
It was whilst on the Isle of Wight that I was first captured by this paragraph. We had taken shelter from a seemingly never ending downpour in St. James church and after musing on the musty architecture and admiring the pungent fresh flower displays, it was time to move on to the secondhand book box nestled beside the pews, which, if I am honest had been on my mind from the moment we pushed open the heavy church door. I rifled through the books hoping yet again to find something interesting and I was not disappointed, this time it came in the form of a tattered, dusty, sweet smelling, little blue book with the biblical sounding title 'The Last Enemy', I opened to the Proem and read the words above. I was sold. I paid my 25p and we left the church, just as the sun began to shine for the first time that day.

I spent the rest of my all to brief time on the island immersed in this little books pages, amazed that I had never heard of this book or its author Richard Hillary before, and feeling so lucky to have found it. I was even more smitten when I spotted a inscription in the front few pages, from a Daddy to his son in 1943, I wonder if the unnamed son was also in the RAF, or perhaps it was in fact Daddy who was protecting the skies.

After the captivating Proem, the book becomes an autobiographical novel which is broken into two parts. Book one begins with the authors charmed days rowing and occasionally studying at Oxford, his joining the Oxford University Air Squadron, his subsequent RAF training and deployment to 603 City of Edinburgh squadron to fly spitfires, up until him being shot down. Book two focuses on life after, his rehabilitation and the pioneering work of his surgeon Archibald McIndoe to repair his fire ravaged body, his coming to terms with life as it will now be and his realisation that some of his firm held beliefs are no longer sustainable and that some of his actions and the treatment of his friends in the past begin to haunt him.

The Last Enemy is not your archetypal war hero story there is a lot of honesty amongst the moments of bravado. Hillary's is a young man, obsessed with the rather un-English desire for self analysis, which at times does make him seem arrogant, he likes to goad his friends in to debates and is frustrated by those who don't react to his intellectual taunting. But there is something about his unsentimental approach to life, the war and even the deaths of those close to him, which makes the descriptions all the more memorable. 

Immediately that I finished reading, I wanted to know what had happened to Hillary after publishing his book. If I had been able to, I am sure I would have looked online whilst I was reading such was my curiosity, thankfully my parents lack of modernity saved me from myself, so it was not until I returned home that I was able to discover the true sadness of his story. 

Richard Hope Hillary
Born 20th April 1919 Australia
After his months of painful reconstructive surgery, Hillary tried and failed to regain his A1 flying status, instead he was sent to the USA to give talks to the people about his experiences in the RAF, with the aim of trying to build up public support for America to join the fight. Officials soon realised that Hillary's 'damaged' appearance made him unsuitable for public speaking, it was thought that American mothers would object to America joining the war effort due to the fear of a similar fate or worse being inflicted upon their own family, though  his 'new' looks didn't stop him from attracting all the ladies, whilst in New York he had a relationship with actress Merle OberonIt was the public rejection that spurred Hillary in to finishing his novel that he had started back in London, once finished it was published in the USA under the title 'Falling Through Space' a title which was though inappropriate for a British audience and so once across the pond it was renamed The Last Enemy, it was a resounding success.

Hillary post-burn treatment, third from right at an awards ceremony (Image source)
On returning to England, Hillary again pursued his A1 Flying category and this time succeeded, even though it had been noted in the officers mess that he could 'barely handle a knife and fork'. In 1942 he was posted to No.54 operational Training Unit at RAF Charterhall in the Scottish borders, to train as a night fighter pilot. It was during bad weather in early hours of the 8th of January 1943, whilst carrying out an exercise in a Blenheim V, that Hillary and his Navigator F/Sgt. Wilfred Fison were killed when their aircraft crashed into Crunklaw Farm.

Initially, I found it hard to understand why, when Hillary had been through so much in such a short space of time and had such a resounding success with his novel, why would he be so very desperate to return to the skies, had he not wanted in his Oxford days to be a writer? I think though, the answer to this can be found within the pages of his own novel.
Much that is untrue and misleading has been written on the pilot in this war. Within one short year he has become the nation's hero, and the attempt to live up to this false conception bores him. For, as he would be the first to admit, on the ground the pilot is a very ordinary fellow...these men may seem to fit into the picture of everyday life, though they seem content enough in the company of other men and in the restfulness of their homes, yet they are really only happy when they are back with their Squadrons, with their associations and memories. The long to be back in their planes, so that isolated with the wind and the stars they may play their part in man's struggle against the elements.
Some have suggested that he may well have intended to kill himself, to atone for the loss of his friends, perhaps, but to me this seems unlikely, I just can't believe he would have wanted to have taken someone else's life along with his own. Perhaps you could see him as a headstrong young fool that put others at risk for his dreams, or you could see it as him dying for his passion for flying, either way his account of his battles with life even if at times woven with a touch of fiction (last chapter) make for a fascinating insight in to the war, which for me at least mean that both Hilliary and his novel should not be forgotten.

Sources & Further Reading:


  1. Wow Wendy!....and all because you took shelter from the rain in the interesting and thought provoking...what a lovely find.... I once bought a post card album full of cards from Oslo and Norway from 1960's as I'm 1/2 Norwegian.....and it led to me reading all the correspondence ....which was between a son and his mother.....some titled family from Mayfair London...and the son has gone to Oslo University...I ended up looking them up and followed there life history until evidence dried up...It was fascinating and it just makes you wonder doesn't it?...Hope you're well...and kitty too!!! Cheers Jeannette..x

  2. Great post, that sounds like my kind of book :) x

  3. That book sounds fascinating. Such a sad story, though. Poor Hillary.