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Richard Hillary

The memorial

The memorial

On 6th November 2001, a memorial was unveiled in memory of Richard Hillary, Battle of Britain ace with No.603 (City of Edinburgh) Fighter Squadron and author of the WWII best seller  ‘The Last Enemy’, on the site of RAF Charterhall, Duns, by HRH The Duke of Kent KG.

Richard Hillary went to school at Shrewsbury and was then sent up to Trinity College, Oxford, where he learnt to fly with the Oxford University Air Squadron. Tall, athletic and good-looking, Hillary was part of the successful college rowing team of that period. Popular with the girls for his good looks and charm he was also known to be arrogant and superior.

As a member of the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve (RAFVR), he was called up at the outbreak of war. At that time he still had a year to study for his degree. In July 1940, having completed his training, he was posted to B Flight, 603 Squadron, then based at Montrose flying Spitfires. When the Squadron moved south to RAF Hornchurch on 27 August it was immediately sent into combat against the Luftwaffe. Until that time their only opposition had been un-escorted German bombers attacking targets on the northeast coast of Scotland from their bases in Denmark. Now the pilots of the Edinburgh Squadron were embroiled in combat with superior numbers of the Luftwaffe Messerschmitt BF109E fighter as well as the bombers. In just one week in the south, Hillary shot down five 109’s and claimed two more probably destroyed and one damaged. He himself had been shot down on 29 September and force landed near Lympne, Kent, and invited to join guests at a nearby brigade cocktail party where he was given plenty of whisky to calm his nerves.

The official party

On 3 September, seconds after claiming his fifth and final kill, Hillary’s part in the Battle of Britain came to an end when he was shot down. Unable to make a rapid escape from his flaming aircraft he was badly burned about the face and hands before falling free from his Spitfire and parachuting into the North Sea.
There followed months of painful surgery to reconstruct his face and hands. His fingers never regained anything like their original function. Despite repeated attempts he was unable to get an A1 flying fitness category, which would enable him to return as an operational pilot.

He was sent on an abortive trip to the USA to give a series of talks on his experiences in the Battle of Britain in order to stir up the Americans interest in joining the fight. Sadly, the officials took one look at Hillary’s face and hands and realised, not unrealistically, he could not be seen by the public in the intended role – It was suggested the mothers of young Americans would object and generate further disquiet, perhaps setting back attempts to get America into the war, for fear of their own kin folk receiving similar injuries, or worse.

HRH the Duke of Kent

HRH the Duke of Kent

While this treatment of Hillary in America caused him much distress it motivated him towards writing about his own experiences. His story was initially published in the USA under the title of ‘Falling through Space’ and subsequently published in Britain in June 1942 as ‘The Last Enemy’. It was an immediate success. Since that time, the book has been re-published on many occasions and remains popular today and is often described as the best book to come out of WWII with Hillary’s gift for ‘reportage’ a great literary asset from one so young.

Sgt John McKenzie

Sgt John McKenzie

The challenge to get his operational flying category back was irresistible and Hillary longed to return to fighting, perhaps to in some way justify his survival whilst all his dearest friends had by that time been killed. In November 1942, fate played its hand. He regained an A1 flying fitness category and was posted to No 54 Operational Training Unit at RAF Charterhall in the Scottish Borders to train as a night- fighter pilot. During the early hours of 8 January 1943, whilst carrying out a night flying exercise in a Blenheim V, Richard Hillary and his radio/observer Wilfred Fison were killed when their aircraft crashed on Crunklaw Farm.

Northumberland based author David Ross has spent many years researching the life of Hillary and 603 Squadron. On Battle of Britain Day, 15 September 2000, the book on the life of Hillary entitled ‘The Definitive Biography of Richard Hillary’ was launched at The Imperial War Museum, Lambeth. Published by Grub Street, the book features an in-depth study of his life and Hillary the person. The book also gives mush attention to the many characters of 603 Squadron with whom he flew.

Denise Maxwell-Woosnam

Denise Maxwell-Woosnam

David Ross’s research took him to the site of RAF Charterhall on many occasions and it was during one such trip that he decided that a memorial should be erected, not just to Hillary, but also Wilfred Fison and all those killed, at what became known as ‘Slaughter’ all’. He subsequently joined forces with Major Alexander Trotter, Lord Lieutenant of Berwickshire, who donated the land on which the memorial stands and organised the unveiling; and Captain Tony Sainsbury VRD, MA, RNR, Archivist to the Richard Hillary Trust Archive at Trinity College, Oxford. It was Tony who launched an exceptional fund raising effort, which allowed the project to be completed well ahead of schedule. Robertson Memorials, made the memorial itself under the guidance of area manager Jim Walker, from a single piece of dark grey Bohus granite.

Oxford University Air Squadron representative

A representative from Oxford University
Air Squadron

The Richard Hillary Memorial Project came to fruition on a bright November morning. Among the many guests were members of Hillary’s old school and college and Mrs Denise Patterson, dedicatee of ‘The Last Enemy’ (DMW) who had made the long journey in order to be present. Also present was Group Captain Bob Kemp, Inspector of the Royal Auxiliary Air Force, Scotland; Wing Commander Alasdair Beaton AE, Commanding Officer of 603 (City of Edinburgh) Squadron, and members of the 603 Squadron Association, some of whom had known Hillary during the summer of 1940. It was a particularly poignant occasion for a few of the 603 Association as one of their former colleagues, W/O Fletcher, was killed at Charterhall on 2 June 1944. Following the unveiling by HRH the Duke of Kent KG, the dedication was read by Reverend Geoffrey Fison whose father, Sergeant Wilfred Fison, was killed with Hillary. Following the unveiling the guests were invited to lunch at Fogo School.

Text courtesy David Ross. Pictures courtesy of Ronnie Richardson.