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The Guinea Pig Club – An RAF Club Like No Other

On this day in 1941, a group of RAF men, all patients at the Queen Victoria Hospital in East Grinstead, founded The Guinea Pig Club. Bored, frustrated by their hospitalisation and numerous surgeries, the club was initially to eb a drinking club, a way of passing time. They named the ward at the hospital, “The Beauty Shop.”

Initially it was named something else, but then one of the men remarked how they were all simply “bloody guinea pigs” to the Maestro. The “Maestro” of course was Archie McIndoe. And, whenever a serious case arrived on the ward, or if Archie was doing the rounds of other hospitals in neighbouring regions, scouting for patients who might require his expertise, his famous words would ignite a spark of hope when he said, “Don’t worry. We’ll fix you up.” And that he did.

Archibald McIndoe at the piano. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Maverick Kiwi Surgeon, McIndoe was a pioneer, taught by his cousin, Sir Harold Delf Gillies who himself pioneered techniques in plastic surgery during and after WW1. Mcindoe treated and cared for burned airmen during WW2. He and his incredible team rebuilt bodies and souls, making the effort to also address the psychological effects of war and injury. Mcindoe gave the men hope, often when they felt all was lost. He invited the entire town of East Grinstead to play their part too, and to invite the men into their homes for tea, to dances, to welcome them into society. The town later became known as “The town that didn’t stare”.

This year, 2021, the club celebrates its 80th anniversary. The club has provided support to its members over the years since its inception. Many of the members from the war years are now deceased and the club no longer holds annual meetings, known to the members as the “lost weekend.” A weekend of much fun and socialising.

This evening, will you raise your glass and remember those brave boys who fought so valiantly for our freedom today? They shall not be forgotten.

Sir Archibald McIndoe image courtesy of wikimedia commons

Below, a selection of images, from real life to reenactors, all reminiscent of the distant past of WW2, 1939-1945. We will remember them, their sacrifice, their courage, their heroism, all for our freedom.

Barry Henderson Photography
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Barry Henderson Photography
Images from the Battle of Britain. Lower right: Richard Hillary, a fighter pilot and one of Archie McIndoe’s “Guinea Pigs.”
Geoffrey Wellum DFC top left, and top right, second on right. On his left, Flight Commander Brian Kingcombe.

Geoffrey Wellum DFC, known as “Boy” when he joined 92 Squadron in the autumn of 1939.One of the youngest to fly during the summer of 1940, he had an extraordinary career with the RAF and was one of the nation’s beloved veterans for years afterwards.

Squadron Leader Wellum, speaking in 2013, said: “Somebody said, “Here’s a Spitfire. Fly it, and if you break it there will be bloody hell to pay.”

“Looking at my life now, I had peaked at about 21 or 22. It was just lovely blokes, all together in Fighter Squadron.”

Born 4 August 1921, died 18 July 2018. I’m sorry I never got to meet him. A remarkable man. Many may have seen the film, “First Light,’ based on the book with the same title which was written by Geoff. It’s a beautiful book about his account of his war and I can highly recommend it. I treasure my copy.

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