Richard Hillary Centenary celebrated

A series of events at Trinity commemorated the centenary of the birth of Richard Hillary – former Oxford student, RAF fighter in the Battle of Britain, and author of The Last Enemy.

Richard Hillary is an iconic figure in the 20th century history of Trinity College; he came up to Trinity in 1937 and helped take the Trinity Boat Club to its first Head of the River in over 70 years in 1938. Like so many of his generation, he gave up his degree in the summer of 1939 and volunteered for military service, training as an RAF pilot and flying as one of the ‘few’ who defended South East England in the Battle of Britain in the summer of 1940.

On the night of 3 September his Spitfire was shot down in flames over the English Channel, and he was rescued alive but with terrible burns to his face and hands. This led to a year as one of the ‘guinea-pigs’ of the pioneering surgeon Archibald McIndoe. Unable to fly subsequently and deemed too disfigured to appear in public, he began instead to write about his experiences. The Last Enemy was published in 1942 to universal critical acclaim. He returned to flying and was posted to a remote training airfield on the Scottish borders, where he died in an accident while flying at night at the age of 23 on 8 January 1943.

The Last Enemy has never been out of print and is widely regarded as a classic World War Two literary memoir. The royalties from its publication were placed in a Trust that continues to award an annual college prize for undergraduate writing

The events in college included an exhibition and two short talks on Thursday 28 November. An archive exhibition curated by College Archivist Clare Hopkins included portraits, letters and other memorabilia of Hillary’s time at Oxford, and a talk by David Haycock discussed the portrait of Richard Hillary painted by Eric Kennington.

A lecture by Professor Dinah Birch, Honorary Fellow of Trinity and chair of the Richard Hillary Trust, explored Hillary’s short life and his writing of The Last Enemy, concluding: ‘The Last Enemy tells the story of a brave young man involved in a struggle far bigger than himself, and it is a reminder of what we owe to those who were lost in that struggle. It is also a vivid reminder of what it is that drives men to war, even after they have learned its price.’

Published: 29 November 2019

Further information

Further news