on 16 August 2014
I first read "The Last Enemy", Richard Hillary's World War II "Battle of Britain" classic, when I was about 10, in 1960, in Australia.
It is an exciting, and sometimes heartbreaking story of a carefree university student who becomes a Spitfire pilot, is shot down, horribly burned, and then patched up by brilliant, experimental plastic surgery.
(The Guinea Pig Club -- the burns victims who were treated by these brilliant surgeons -- is a remarkable story in its own right!)
The book culminates with an accidental encounter between Hillary, after surgery, his face disfigured, and a woman who has been bombed out of her house during the London Blitz.
The woman, still in shock from her own experience, quietly says to Hillary, "I see they got you, too".
Incidentally, the "last enemy", of the title, comes from the New Testament (1st Corinthians, chap 15, verse 26), where Death is referred to as "the last enemy".
What happened to Hillary, later in the war, I did not know, except that he had been killed during training as a night-fighter pilot.
It was not until about 1990 that I happened to chance on a copy of Michael Burn's book "Mary and Richard".
What a lucky find.
Michael Burn is, or was, himself, a remarkable man. Novelist, poet, commando, journalist, Colditz prisoner of war, ...
Mary Booker was Burn's wife!
During the war he had caught a glimpse of her, in the distance, at a party, and thought she was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen, and decided that he wanted to marry her (or words to that effect).
But before he could meet her, he took part in the brilliant raid on Sainte-Nazaire, the enormous French dry-dock that could have been used by the massive German battleship, "Tirpitz".
The aim of the raid was to make the dry-dock unusable. The method was to take an obsolete destroyer, filled with explosives, into the harbour, and explode it next to the huge doors of the dry-dock.
Operation Chariot, the raid on Ste-Nazaire, is a remarkable story in its own right!
Although the raid was successful, there was a huge cost in casualties, and many survivors were taken prisoner.
Of these, Michael Burn, one of the commandos in the attacking force, ended in Colditz castle, the high-security camp for enthusiastic escapers, such as the leg-less fighter ace, Douglas Bader. (Colditz and its POWs, is a fascinating story in itself -- actually, many stories!)
When Burn was liberated from Colditz, and returned to Britain, he accidentally encountered Mary Booker again, as beautiful as ever, but in mourning.
In fact, after Hillary had been shot down, during his treatment for his burns, he had met Mary Booker, and they became lovers.
Perhaps they would have married.
But, once Hillary was physically fit again (as fit as his burn-scarred hands would allow), having written "The Last Enemy", and become a celebrity because of the popularity of the book, he wanted to return to active duties in the RAF.
In particular, he wanted to continue as a pilot, and not take an air force desk-job.
However his injuries prevented him from being a single-seat fighter pilot.
But he persuaded his superiors that he could manage to fly a twin-engine, two-man night fighter, such as a Bristol Beaufighter or a de Havilland Mosquito.
Tragically, Hillary and his navigator-radar-operator were both killed when their plane crashed into a mountain during night-flying training.
Michael Burn's book "Mary and Richard" is about both Mary Booker, and Richard Hillary, before they met, and their time together, and Hillary's death, and, eventually, Burn meeting and marrying Mary.
One issue Burn tackles is the persistent rumour that Hillary killed himself, by deliberately crashing his plane. Burn considers the allegations, and the evidence, and refutes this speculation. Hillary's death was an accident! Whatever demons haunted Hillary from his combat experiences in the "Battle of Britain", when so many of his close friends were killed, and from the agonies of his burns, and surgeries, he would not have killed his flying companion if he had wanted to commit suicide. He was, in fact, working on a second book to follow "The Last Enemy".
Burn's book is small, but insightful, and a beautiful, heartbreaking tribute to two remarkable people!
Very highly recommended!
John Gough - Deakin University (retired) - jagough49@gmail,com