There's an intriguing brown roadsign on the A697 a little east of Greenlaw directing visitors to the "Richard Hillary Memorial". If you follow the signs you find yourself a crossroads of minor roads set amid tranquil woodland. In the north-eastern angle of the junction is the memorial shown above, to Flight Lieutenant Richard Hope Hillary and Sergeant Kenneth Wilfrid Young Fison, and to the many others who lost their lives serving at RAF Charterhall between May 1942 and May 1945.
Set into the ground at the rear of the memorial is the only surviving runway light from RAF Charterhall, an airfield which stood, and whose remains still stand, just beyond the woods here and which served as the base for 54 Operational Training Unit during the war. 54 OTU trained crews to fly night fighters and in an age before good navigational aids (and when a blackout was in force to avoid assisting enemy night bombers), this was a highly risky business. RAF Charterhall achieved an unenviable record for losses through training accidents. Very early on 8 January 1943 Flight Lieutenant Hillary and Sergeant Fison became two more casualties, when their Bristol Blenheim V aircraft crashed close to the site of the memorial, and less than half a mile from the runways at RAF Charterhall.
It is at first sight surprising that the memorial here is not known as the RAF Charterhall Memorial, but that is perhaps explained by the fact that by the time of his death, Richard Hillary was a Battle of Britain ace who had become something of a celebrity.
Richard Hillary was born in Australia but educated in England, at Shrewsbury School and Trinity College, Oxford. He joined the Oxford University Air Squadron and RAF Voluntary Reserve in 1939, and was called up in October of that year to train as a fighter pilot. He joined 603 (City of Edinburgh) Squadron in July 1940 at their base at RAF Montrose, and moved with them to RAF Hornchurch in Essex on 27 August 1940. Within a week Hillary and his Spitfire had shot down five German fighters, with two more probables and one damaged. He was himself shot down on 3 September 1940, and was very badly burned while escaping from his aircraft.
A long period of difficult medical treatment followed. Hillary was badly disfigured and never regained full use of his hands. A publicity trip to the United States in 1941 was restricted to radio and newspaper interviews because of the appearance of his injuries, and he spent part of his time in New York writing the story of his experiences. This was published in June 1942 as "The Last Enemy" and is widely regarded to be one of the best books to have emerged from World War Two.
Hillary subsequently convinced the RAF that he was fit to fly once more, and in November 1942 was posted to 54 OTU, where he was crewed with radio operator Sergeant Wilfred Fison. Wilfrid Fison had himself studied at Clare College in Cambridge in the 1920s, and had joined the RAF Voluntary Reserve at the end of 1941. The two had only been flying together for a few weeks when their accident happened.
The memorial at Charterhall was unveiled on 6 November 2001 by HRH The Duke of Kent in the presence of Wilfrid Fison's son, the Reverend Geoffrey Fison. Richard Hillary is also remembered by an annual literature prize and an annual lecture given at Oxford University in his honour.