Updated: Apr 4, 2022
Richard Hope Hillary was born on 20th April 1919 in Sydney, Australia, the son of a Government official. He went to London at the age of 3, when his father was appointed to a post at Australia House there. He was at Shrewsbury School from 1931 to 1937 and then went to Trinity College, Oxford, where he read Modern Greats and History.
Whilst there he learned to fly with the University Air Squadron. He was sometime President of the Rugby Club and Secretary of the Boat Club.
Called to full-time service on 3rd October 1939, Hillary was posted to 3 ITW Hastings and after completing his flying training at 15 FTS Lossiemouth, he went to No.1 School of Army Co-operation at Old Sarum. On 23rd June 1940 he moved to 5 OTU, Aston Down and after converting to Spitfires he joined 603 Squadron at Dyce.
Above image courtesy of and copyright the David Ross Collection.
The squadron moved south to Hornhurch on 27th August. Hillary claimed a Me109 destroyed and another probably destroyed on the 29th and was himself shot down, crash-landing near Lympne, unhurt. He claimed a Me109 on the 31s;, two Me109s destroyed, one probably destroyed and another damaged on 2nd September; and another destroyed on the 3rd. On this day Hillary was shot down in flames into the Channel off Margate by Hauptmann Bode of II/JG26. He baled out, grievously burned, and was rescued by the Margate lifeboat. Hillary spent three months in the Royal Masonic Hospital and then went to the Queen Victoria Hospital, East Grinstead where he underwent plastic surgery by Archibald Mclndoe and became a Guinea Pig.
After leaving hospital in late 1941, Hillary went to the RAF Staff College at Gerrards Cross in January 1942 for a three-month course. He regained his flying category and went to 54 OTU Charter Hall to convert to night fighters.
(For an account of the life and work of Archibald McIndoe please click here)
(Above: Hillary is shown, post-burn treatment, third from right at an awards ceremony)
On 18th January 1943, circling a beacon at night, his Blenheim V BA194 spun into the ground at Crunklaw Farm and he and his navigator, F/Sgt. KWY Fison, were killed. The weather was bad and the aircraft may have been subject to icing. There is a memorial at the site (below).
Hillary was cremated at Golders Green Crematorium, London and his ashes were scattered from a Boston over the English Channel by his old 603 Squadron CO, W/Cdr. GL Denholm.
Hillary is remembered for his classic book 'The Last Enemy', published in June 1942.
His portrait was made after his operations by Eric Kennington (above).
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.
Photo courtesy of Imperial War Museum website
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.
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.
Richard Hillary was killed in action on a night time flight on 8 January 1943.
Hillary's aircraft is XT-M