History, Military History, The Battle of Britain, The War in Europe,

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 be a drinking club, a way of passing time. The men 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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Anzac Day 2021

Anzac Day is a national day of remembrance in New Zealand and Australia that commemorates all Australians and New Zealanders who served and died in all wars, conflicts and peacekeeping operations. It also commemorates all those who contributed and suffered as a result of their service. It is annually observed on April 25th, the day which marks the landing of “Anzacs” at Gallipoli in 1915.

Thousands of men lost their lives during the Gallipoli campaign, including 44,000 men from the French and British Empire which included 8,500 Australians and 2,779 New Zealanders. 87,000 Ottoman Turks also lost their lives.

In case you were wondering, ANZAC is an acronym for the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps.

More than 3,000 Australian nurses volunteered to serve during the First World War. They worked in hospitals, casualty clearing stations near the front line, or on hospital ships and trains. Nurses served around the world, in Britain, France, Belgium, the Mediterranean and the Middle East. Many would go on to receive military medals for acts of bravery and for their service. Twenty-five Australian nurses lost their lives during their service.

The sights they were suddenly faced with must have been truly appalling and shocking, no doubt never witnessed before. Heavy artillery, machine guns and poison gas created injuries on such a huge scale. As one nurse noted, bullets were nothing, but shrapnel tore through flesh and severed limbs.

It was during this time that plastic surgery, still relatively in its infancy, was shaped through innovation as a direct result of injuries sustained by men during WW1. Sir Harold Delf Gillies, a distant cousin of renowned plastic surgeon Sir Archibald McIndoe who I mention in my book, The Beauty Shop: A WWII Novel, became a pioneer in his field during his war service. Faced with men who had had their faces torn to shreds by shrapnel, he had to devise ways of reconstructing their faces, working on jaws, noses, eyes. It was during this time that artists were recruited to paint such patients to record the injuries, and also the reconstruction work that followed.

Jaw injuries were severe, rendering men unable to eat and drink. Often, they had to be nursed sitting up to prevent them from suffocating if they lay down. Some had injuries that left them blinded, or having lost their eyes. Some had their noses literally ripped off, leaving a gaping hole.

Gillies was, like McIndoe, a New Zealander who later became based in London. In 1915 he was posted to France where he witnesses horrific injuries. On his return to England, he established a special ward at the Cambridge Military Hospital in Aldershot where men with facial injuries could be sent. By 1916, Gillies convinced medical chiefs that a dedicated hospital was urgently needed for men with facial injuries. Thus The Queen’s Hospital at Frognal House in Sidcup was established in 1917.

Archibald McIndoe

Skin grafts were already in use, but more medical experience was required. Gillies pioneered techniques that greatly improved the success of grafts working, and also techniques in reconstruction. Men were not only physically injured, but psychologically too. They worried how their loved ones and friends would react to their altered image. Confidence was severely affected, men became recluses, depressed. Gillies was clearly aware of all possible problems associated with such injuries and their recovery.

Thousands of men suffered disabilities and long-term health conditions from their war injuries.

Gillies was very aware of the fact that men with facial disfigurements were severely disadvantaged in their lives, going forward. People on the street could not bare to look at them, often turning away or screaming out. Such men would have little to no chance of finding work. Earning a living was vital, so Gillies devised training schemes for the men so that they might learn new skills.

Gillies was a pioneer of plastic surgery, ahead of his time, and he would go on to teach his younger cousin, Archie McIndoe, who himself would become a pioneer in plastic surgery during the Second World War, where once again injuries were witnessed that had never been seen before. Archie took heed of his cousin, and performed magnificent work, including paying attention to the mental health of men too. Once again training was devised to give men fresh interests and new skills to equip them for a new life, a different life, in a greatly changed world after the war.

Another great lady, Nancy Wake, a New Zealander raised in Australia, would have celebrated Anzac Day too, had she still been alive. Nancy also did much for the war effort from October 1940 until the end of WW2. She worked as a courier for an escape network in Marseille, taking supplies to others in the network, and escorting evaders and civilians fleeing the Germans, to the foothills of the Pyrenees. Later, she too became an evader, crossing the mountains to reach Spain. In 1944, she joined SOE in London, and parachuted back into France in time to wreak havoc prior to the D-Day landings. Nancy is of course the heroine in my novel, Madame Fiocca: A WWII Novel.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

Laurence Binyon “For the Fallen”

Sir Harold Delf Gillies – 17th June 1882 – 10th September 1960.

Sir Archibald McIndoe – 4th May 1900 – 11th April 1960.

Nancy Augusta Wake – 30th August 1912 – 7th August 2011