Vignettes – Richard Hillary

Flight Lieutenant Richard Hillary

Richard Hillary was born in Australia in 1919.  He arrived in the UK shortly afterwards and was schooled in Shrewsbury before entering Trinity College, Oxford in 1937.  He flew with the University Air Squadron and as war broke out he was mobilised into the RAFVR joining No 603 (City of Edinburgh) Squadron of the Auxiliary Air Force.  The Squadron was deployed to Hornchurch on 3 September 1940 and within hours of arrival was fully immersed in the Battle of Britain. Hillary had accounted for five ‘kills’ but one day his Spitfire had suffered damage whilst on the ground following a bombing raid and required a new hood.  The new hood was proving to be particularly stiff in operation and despite many hours of airframe work the hood was only opening half way by ten o’clock in the morning.  Hillary was scrambled at quarter past ten knowing well he had a hood problem.  He was part of eight Spitfires up against a reported formation of up to fifty enemy fighters.  No sooner had the Spitfires arrived at 12,000ft a dog fight ensued. Hillary managed to shoot down one Messerschmitt but in the aftermath was himself hit.  His cockpit filled with flames and he struggled to open the hood.  He managed this with difficulty but at the time cost of burning particularly to his hands.  As he descended in his parachute seeing his badly burned hands he subsequently wrote, “What did gratify me enormously was to find that I indulged in no frantic abasements or prayers to the Almighty.  It is an old jibe of God fearing people that the irreligious always change their tune when about to die:  I was proud to think I was proving them wrong”. Suddenly, Hillary found himself pulled out of the sea by the Margate lifeboat.

It was a long road to recovery and during this time, as Archie McIndoe worked to repair his badly burned hands, Hillary wrote his remarkable book, The Last Enemy.  The title of the book takes its name from first Corinthians 15 v 26 and goes far beyond what life was like to be a fighter pilot in those dark days; it is about the struggles and successes of a particularly articulate young man who even in his darkest moments possessed a glimmer of enduring hope.

“This book has quality.  Most pilots, unfortunately, cannot write; most writers, unfortunately, cannot fly.   The author of The Last Enemy can not only fly; he can also write”. – The Sunday Times.  “A remarkable piece of Literature” – The Tatler.

The Last Enemy was reprinted in 2021 with a preface by Lord Selkirk of Douglas, a former Honorary Air Commodore of 603 Squadron.

Having written his book and struggled back to flying fitness, Richard Hillary was tragically killed in 1943 during a training flight in a Blenheim night fighter near Charterhall in the Scottish Borders, A memorial to him was unveiled in 2001 by the Duke of Kent.

Bob Kemp