Shrewsbury School

Richard Hillary Essay Medal Competition

Thursday 13 June 2013

Air Vice-Marshall Sir Michael Simmons (DB 1950-55), one of the architects of the newly created Richard Hillary Essay Medal Competition, visited the School last week and met the first winner of the Competition, Alex Walker (O). 

Sir Michael Simmons and Alex Walker, 6th June 2013Sir Michael qualified as a pilot while he was still a pupil at the School. He went on to have a highly distinguished career with the RAF, flying Canberras, Buccaneers and Tornadoes. Two years ago, he returned to Shrewsbury to give the Remembrance Day address in Chapel. He spoke movingly about another Salopian, Richard Hillary (Ch 1931-36), whose wartime experiences as a Spitfire pilot had been part of the inspiration for Sir Michael’s own passion for flying.

Richard Hillary was called up to the Royal Air Force in October 1939.  He joined 603 Squadron as a Spitfire pilot and moved with them from Scotland to join the Battle of Britain on 27th August 1940.  Within a week Hillary had shot down five German fighters, but he himself was shot down on 3rd September 1940 and was very badly burned while escaping from his aircraft.

Hillary was badly disfigured and never regained full use of his hands.  He wrote the story of his experiences, The Last Enemy, which is widely regarded as one of the best books to have emerged from World War Two.   He convinced the RAF that he was fit enough to return to flying in November 1942, even though the damage to his hands remained severe.  On 8th January 1943 his Bristol Blenheim crashed in Scottish woodland during a night training exercise, and he died aged 23.

He is remembered today at Trinity College, Oxford – where he was an undergraduate – by an annual literature prize, a portrait outside the college library, and an annual lecture in his honour.   Although his name appears on the School War Memorial and on the Battle of Britain memorial in Chapel, the story of his short but extraordinary life has become less well-known among Salopians in recent years. Sir Michael Simmons has worked closely with Richard Barber (SH 1955-60 and former Salopian Club President), the School and the Salopian Club to create a new and fitting memorial in his honour.

The Richard Hillary Essay Medal Competition gives Sixth Formers the opportunity to spend two hours writing an essay on a one-word title; entry into the Competition is entirely voluntary. It is modelled on the historic competition undertaken to select Fellows of All Souls College, Oxford. 

In its inaugural year, the Competition attracted considerable interest and 34 Sixth Formers volunteered to take part. The essay title was ‘Luck’ and the winner, Alex Walker will be presented with his medal and with a copy of Richard Hillary's book "The Last Enemy", at Prize Giving on Speech Day.

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