Off the Shelf: Why did he go back?: Isabelle Anscombe on Richard Hillary's acclaimed war book, The Last Enemy

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ONE OF the best-selling books of the Second World War was published 50 years ago this summer. Richard Hillary's The Last Enemy reverberates far beyond its own merits. Not only because its author was just 23 when killed flying seven months after publication, but because it was written by that most charismatic of figures - the hero who doubts himself.

In The Last Enemy, there is no question of Richard Hillary's bravery, even as he attempts to deflate it. The handsome 19-year- old Oxford undergraduate who wanted to be a journalist had joined the RAF as a fighter pilot in 1939, and was shot down and severely burnt during the Battle of Britain. He showed even greater courage under the surgeon's knife as a 'guinea-pig' at East Grinstead, where he was given new eyelids and a top lip, although there wasn't much that even Archibald McIndoe could do for his mutilated hands. Hillary himself makes little of it, but, in I Burned My Fingers, William Simpson described the agonising indignity of it all.

Hillary then persuaded the Ministry of Information to send him to America to help the propaganda effort, but he was promptly banned from appealing in public in case the sight of him gave American mothers too great a fright. Nevertheless, as an anonymous 'Fighter Pilot of the RAF', he made four broadcasts for NBC in a opinionated yet selfdeprecating, laconic manner worthy of some Hemingway hero played by Clark Gable. They won him fan mail, a meeting with Antoine de Saint-Exupery (who introduced him to his publisher), and an affair with Hollywood star Merle Oberon.

Much of the material used in the broadcasts provided the basis for The Last Enemy, but the tone of the book is far more questioning and irreverent. For propaganda purposes, he had to play up to the adulation accorded to 'the few', but the purpose of The Last Enemy is precisely to debunk such a glamorous, easy notion of heroism. As Hillary wrote to his publisher Lovat Dickson: 'It was with some hesitation that I sat down to write the book . . . Finally I got so sick of the sop about our 'Island Fortress' and 'The Knights of the Air' that I determined to write it anyway in the hope that the next generation would realise that while stupid, we were not that stupid.'

Then life took over from the published word. For he insisted on being passed fit for flying against all advice that his hands were too damaged to manage the controls of an aeroplane. In Berwickshire, on 8 January 1943, he and his radio-observer were both killed in an unexplained accident during a night training flight. In 1944 Arthur Koestler published an essay entitled 'The Birth of a Myth', in which he asked: 'But why then, in God's name, did he go back?'

Hillary was young enough, after all, to have his own heroes, and his decision to return was influenced by reading T E Lawrence's The Mint, and perhaps reinforced by Saint-Exupery. But his true heroes were the other 'Long-Haired Boys' of his generation who had already given their lives: compared to them, he had not done enough.

Hillary, suggested Koestler, belonged to a generation 'sick with the nostalgia of something to fight for'. His decision to return to flying reflected his longing to do battle with 'the last enemy', to become the only kind of hero he was ultimately able to admire.

His life provides a poignant ending to a haunting book, for 'the last enemy that shall be destroyed is death'.