Trinity College commemorated WWII veteran alumnus Richard Hillary on Thursday with an archival exhibition titled “Richard Hillary: his Life and Legacy”, followed by a drinks reception and two short lectures.
Hillary was born in Australia to British parents, and was sent back to England for school at the age of seven. He arrived at Oxford in 1937, and became well-known for leading Trinity to victory in rowing in 1938.
In 1939 Hillary put his degree on hold to join the Oxford University Air Squadron and enlist in military service, training as an RAF pilot. He was posted to No. 603 Squadron RAF in July 1940, and entered combat later that summer, flying a Supermarine Spitfire to counter German bombardment.
After many successful runs targeting German aircrafts, on 3 September 1940 Hillary’s plane was shot down by a Messerschmitt Bf 109, leading him to parachute into the North Sea. He was rescued by a lifeboat and taken for medical treatment in London, where he became the patient of pioneering New Zealand surgeon Archibald McIndoe.
The crash left him badly burned in his hands and face, and even three months after surgery he was still deemed too disfigured for public appearances. While in London Hillary began drafting a memoir of his experiences in the Battle of Britain, and after persuading British authorities to send him to America, he published the manuscripts under the title The Last Enemy in 1942.
Widely regarded as one of the best pieces of war nonfiction to come out of the Second World War, The Last Enemy was well-received, and Hillary embarked on a promotional tour in America; however, although he often spoke on the radio, he never met readers in person.
The Last Enemy has never gone out of print, and is still read by many. 2019 marks the centenary of Hillary’s birth, and at on Thursday Trinity opened an archival exhibition featuring historical documents surrounding Hillary’s life and legacy.
Trinity College’s spokesperson stated that the college is “very excited to be celebrating his legacy in college and especially hope that students will be interested in learning more about what the wartime experience for those of Hillary’s generation was like – both at Oxford and beyond.”
Writer David Haycock and Professor Dinah Birch then each delivered a short lecture, the former discussing “Eric Kennington: The Painter Behind the Portrait of Richard Hillary” and the latter’s talk titled “Richard Hillary and the Last Enemy”.
After spending time in the United States, Richard Hillary returned to the RAF, though he never regained complete control of his hands. He switched to piloting light bomber aircraft at RAF Charterhall.
On 8 January 1943, while training for night flight in adverse weather conditions, Hillary crashed a Bristol Blenheim bomber into Berwickshire, Scotland and died in the accident. He is remembered at Trinity as one of its most celebrated alumni, with a portrait outside its library.
The Richard Hillary Memorial Lecture is given at Trinity every year, with past lecturers including Phillip Pullman, Carol Ann Duffy, Simon Armitage, and Tom Stoppard. In addition, each year Trinity runs the Richard Hillary Writing Competition and awards 500 pounds to the best creative writing piece under 3000 words.