The title of this book is taken from Corinthians I v15: "The last enemy to be destroyed is death." Approaching this book cold, it is not entirely apparent why this is the title of the book until pretty much the last chapter of the book when all is revealed. This book is essentially the story of a journey of young Australian who was supposed to serve in the Sudan Political Service like his father only for the Second World War to intrude and to see him become part of the 'thin blue line' that defended these shores from the Luftwaffe in 1940.
Unlike many books by WW2 pilots, Richard Hillary's account is highly introspective. He seems to portray himself as a carefree young man who just wants to get on with life but you soon realise that there is far more going on under the hood. These suspicions are helped by the fact that he was a highly eloquent writer. His journey also goes far beyond the cockpit as it follows his early pre-war University years with an interesting sojourn in Nazi Germany as a rower sent to Bavaria. He makes some interesting asides into what separates the British from the Germans and why they may very well end up as enemies once more. As a University Air Cadet he was perfectly placed to join the RAF at the outbreak of hostilities although ending up on Spitfires seemed more luck than judgement as they were cycled through various training machines and missions during the phoney war. There is a particularly poignant section on night flying when he explains how close he came to crashing when he loses his horizon and his sense of direction. The poignancy of this obviously horrifying experience is only fully realised when you discover that he was later killed in 1943 on a night flight and you can almost imagine the scenario occuring similar to the one he explained so clearly in these pages. We do know from the very outset of this book that he was shot down during the Battle of Britain. Indeed, he was lucky to be plucked alive off the coast of Kent with terrible burns and injuries sustained. The rescue is remarkable enough but the after care that he received is an equally fascinating part of his story. It lays out the painful processes of medical care and the very early years of plastic surgery in the midst of the Blitz with bombs literally falling onto the hospitals that he was being treated in.
What really shines out through this book though is the sheer quality of Richard Hillary as a writer. He drops hints that he always wanted to be a journalist or a writer but that parental expectation and then duty got in his way. The organisation of the chapters is more than a little intriguing. This is no linear book with a clear beginning and end. You know that he is going to be shot down and yet you are being led to the fateful and consequential event knowing that it is coming but fearful of its arrival nevertheless. His intellectual journey is equally complex as he analyses his youthful clarity of purpose, has conversations with convinced pacifists or the surviving loved ones of friends of his killed in action. He leads you to believe that he has a clear and simple philosophy of life for much of the book... until that is, one final journey of his is interrupted by the Blitz. Travelling home during a bombing raid, he takes sanctuary in a pub only for him to hear the bomb falling directly towards the building. He survives, but not all in the blast zone are so fortunate. Up until this point death had almost been removed from his experience - he had known death and suffering and indeed many of his friends simply never returned. But to be confronted by a mother who literally died in his arms and her dead baby seemed to force him to confront a new reality. In many ways a modern reader might think that the author is going through full blown Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder but the author articulates it as finally understanding fully what he is fighting for. He now knows that his duty is to fight for the memory of those who had died or who had suffered from the war to date. From this point on he was determined to redouble his efforts as both a writer and then once more as a pilot again to honour the deaths of his fellow colleagues and the all those who had suffered terrible wounds. He wanted to fight on behalf of all those in his squadron who had made the supreme sacrifice or who had been injured. He also wanted to fight for all those who he had encountered in the wards of the hospitals that he had made his own recovery in, be they veterans from Dunkirk, sailors or fellow airmen. He now understood that their fight for survival was a personal act of bravery for each and every one of them.
The Last Enemy is on a higher plane than most normal military literature. Few warriors can have been so eloquent and have made such interesting personal and philosophical journeys in their short lives. As mentioned before, it is so sad that this pilot did indeed die young. Within a year of publishing this book and against the advice of doctors he was determined to get back into a cockpit and to resume fighting on behalf of his friends and colleagues. One can only wonder what other masterpieces he might have penned had he lived a longer life. Having said that, few people can have gained such wisdom at such a tender age. He may have died young but he filled it with far more than most of us can only dream of achieving. Death was indeed his own last enemy.