The Last Enemy by Richard Hillary (1942) 221 p.

The_Last_Enemy.jpg

One of the things that’s struck me – looking back at history as an adult with fresh eyes, rather than with the received background wisdoms we get through early schooling or pop culture – is an appreciation of looking at past events through the eyes of people alive at the time, and how those events then compared to their own past. World War I, for example, seems to us like an inevitability, and a rather old-fashioned sort of war compared to the blitzkrieg of World War II; but for those living through it, it was the point at which the future started looking bleak instead of hopeful, the unhappy dark conclusion to the industrial revolution, the optimism of the Gilded Age and the green agrarian fields of Europe turned into the muddy, rusty, mechanical hell of a machine war. It must have felt like the end of the world.

Similarly, the Battle of Britain is such a proudly-remembered, immortalised landmark of history that we ironically don’t appreciate it as much as we should. It was the first great air battle in human history. For thousands and thousands of years human beings had killed each other across Europe, and for nearly a thousand years Britain’s geographic fortune meant it was largely protected from foreign invasion by sea. When the British Expeditionary Force packed off to France in 1939, they expected this war would turn out largely like the last one: a stalemate in the muddy trenches of the Low Countries. They certainly never expected that Britain’s sovereignty might be threatened, or that the skies above London – the ultimate home front – would play host to a battle between flying machines that simply hadn’t existed two generations ago. (One of the most striking images of the Battle of Britain, to me, is the contrails in the sky above St Paul’s Cathedral.) The flyleaf of my copy of The Last Enemy has the oldest inscription I think I’ve ever seen in a book I own: “To Les, March 1943.” The worst of the danger had passed by 1943 but it’s still strange to think Les received this book as a gift from somebody while the war was still ongoing, when the outcome was still in play. It certainly makes history feel less far away.

Richard Hillary was an Oxford student in the 1930s who signed up to the RAF when the war broke out. The Last Enemy is an interesting first-hand description of what it was like to be one of the men so rightly idolised these days, the fighter pilots who defended Britain against the Luftwaffe and a potential invasion. Hillary was by calling a writer, though it’s fair to say that this is one of those books (like Alive by Paul Piers Read) which is compelling not because it’s told with any particular flair but simply because the events it describes are so compelling.

It’s also very much a book of two halves. Hillary was shot down over the North Sea during the Battle of Britain and was badly burned on the face and hands, and the second half of The Last Enemy details his hospital treatment and recovery. In many ways this is the more interesting story: going straight from being a glamorous hot-shot fighter pilot to a pitiable and broken thing, blinded, awash on a tide of pain and morphine in a hospital bed, rendered a helpless bystander in a war he desperately wanted to go back to fighting. It also, at great length, details the kinds of things which put the lie to any notion of glamour. It’s one thing to die for your country. It’s quite another thing to get your eyelids burned off, have crude replacements cut from the skin of your forearm to replace them, spend months immersed in 1940s healthcare, undergo saline baths, listen to the screaming of the other patients, incubate a terrible infection in your burns, and eventually leave hospital disfigured for life to face a society that doesn’t quite want to look you in the eye anymore. Hillary would certainly never say it, and maybe it’s just my own medical squeamishness, but the feeling I got was that this kind of ordeal was a far worse experience than anything active combat could put you through.

One remark of [my mother’s] I shall never forget. She said: “You should be glad this has to happen to you. Too many people told you how attractive you were and you believed them. You were well on your way to becoming something of a cad. Now you’ll find out who your real friends are.” I did.

Hillary himself is quite an introspective fellow, though strangely for a memoir I couldn’t say I really got to know him. It very much feels like he’s building his own image up. More telling, I think, than any aspect of his personality he shows to the reader is the truth of his fate, which obviously isn’t included in the book. He eventually managed to pass the medical board and go back to flying – not in combat, but still flying for the RAF – even though, by the account of his fellow officers, he could barely hold his knife and fork in the mess hall, got splitting headaches and had trouble reading the altimeter. Clearly there was some burning drive within him to risk his own life (and that of others), to ignore his own medical condition, to go back if not to battle than at least to the skies. He inevitably crashed and died on a night training flight in Scotland in 1943. He was twenty-four years old, which, to me these days, seems terribly young.

An interesting memoir written by a hero. A hero who joined the RAF for self-admittedly selfish reasons and was probably a bit of a narcissist, but a hero nonetheless.

Advertisements