Saturday, 13 August 2016

VJ Day 1945

On VE day in May 1945, while the nation celebrated and partied, British and Commonwealth Armed Forces continued to fight in Burma, Singapore and Thailand. Japan had yet to surrender. It was a bloodied, ferocious few months, which finally came to an end following the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August.

Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons: POW camps, & work on the Death Railway
The British Forces over there had been stuck for three solid years, as even on a three day leave, it was simply too far to come home. They would only see their homes once victory in Japan was achieved. 

There were around 300,000 Allied POWs in Japanese camps, and of these only 200,000 would survive. Life in those camps was extremely harsh with torture and executions being commonplace. Their rations were extreme too, with many surviving on meagre amounts of boiled rice and river water. As a result, disease was rife - beriberi, dysentery and malaria were common.

Many, if not all of the men were in a poor state of health and extremely weak and yet they were forced to work on the infamous Thailand-Burma Railway, known as the Death Railway. Around 16,000 POWs died during its construction, along with more than 80,000 Asian labourers. Also built by the POWs was the Wampo Viaduct, which the POWs called "Hellfire Pass" because of how it looked at night by torchlight.
Wampo Viaduct "Hellfire Pass" Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
The railway was constructed so the Japanese could send supplies to their army, and thus avoid shipping. As part of the route would take the railway across a river, a bridge had to be constructed. The first wooden bridge was completed in February 1943 by POWs, and a few months later, they replaced it with a steel bridge, the same bridge you see there today.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons; Bridge on the River Kwae
On the 6th August 1945, at 08:15 local time, the US dropped the first atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima. A B-29 Superfortress bomber, by the name of 'Enola Gay' was piloted by Colonel Paul Tibbetts. The bomb, codenamed "Little Boy" caused horrific widespread death and destruction, killing approximately 80,000 people and wounding many more.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons: Colonel Tibbetts just prior to his mission.
Sixteen hours later, President Truman called for Japan to surrender, informing them to "expect a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this earth."
On the 8th August, Russia declared war on Japan and invaded the Japanese state of Manchukuo. Later that day, the US dropped the second atomic bomb on Nagasaki. The primary target had originally been Kokura, but due to bad weather it was amended.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons: "Little Boy" the mushroom cloud rose to more than 20,000 feet

On August 14th, Emperor Hirohito addressed his Empire on the radio where he announced the surrender of Japan to the Allies. The next day, 15th August 1945 was celebrated as VJ day.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons: Hiroshima
On September 2nd, 1945, Japan's Emperor, Hirohito, accepted the terms of surrender, signalling Japan's capitulation. This brought the war in the Pacific to an end, and also Japan's colonial rule of the Korean peninsula. Hirohito signed the surrender on board the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay as his aides looked on, weeping.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons Japanese surrenders on USS Missouri
King George VI said, "The surrender of Japan has brought to an end six years of warfare which has caused untold loss and misery to the world. "
Crowds swarm in front of Buckingham Palace VJ Day 1945
That unforgettable Sailor's kiss in Times Square on VJ Day 1945
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Monday, 4 July 2016

4th July 1944: An Unusual Way to Celebrate American Independence Day

Today, it's the 4th July, American Independence Day. As an English person, growing up in Britain, the main reason I celebrate this day is firstly because it's my birthday, secondly because of the significance of this day for America and thirdly, I always remember the sacrifice of all American servicemen and women.

I give thanks to the tens of thousands of Americans who answered the call to war, and came over here to help their British allies fight WW2. For a number of those American men, England would be the last place they lived and visited, never to return home again.

More than two million American servicemen passed through Britain during WW2, with around half a million men based with the United States Army Air Force, many of them stationed around East Anglia. Their arrival was known as the 'friendly invasion' and their final departure at the war's end was to leave such an impact on Britain and her people that shocked and surprised them, such was the effect these servicemen had. People at the time reported feeling bereft at the thought of never seeing their new friends again.

Children felt the loss of their departure too. Many children looked up at them in awe, and never forgot them, growing up over the years, telling their stories, recalling names and events, acts of kindness and the things they learnt from their new American friends. This wasn't simply war. This friendly invasion impacted upon our way of life here, and as a result, times changed - often very rapidly. They brought candy, gum and widened our traditional British culture. Children were introduced to baseball while women were shown new dances, such as the jitterbug.

The airbases were American, and once USAAF moved in, places were transformed American style, where American traditional culture thrived, slowly seeping out into the surrounding villages and towns. As one journalist wrote in The Times newspaper, 'At one moment, one is driving along a typical English country road, and the next, as if by magic, one is transported 3,000 miles across the Atlantic.'
Control Tower at Kimbolton
For one lucky crew, the 4th July 1944 was to prove to be one memorable American Independence Day. Lieutenant Oswald Masoni was a second generation Italian, all the way from New York. He was a navigator, assigned to the 379th Bomb Group at Kimbolton, Cambridgeshire.
B-17 Twentieth Century/Mojo Jr
On the 4th July, 1944, he took off in the B-17 bomber, 'Twentieth Century' which had only recently been renamed Mojo Jr, on a mission to bomb Nazi-controlled airfields in Normandy, France. Antiaircraft fire scored two direct hits on their engines, and by the time they reached the Sussex coast, the third engine was failing. The captain took the decision to undertake a wheels up landing, and they belly landed and only just managed to stop in time, as their wing tip came to rest a mere six feet away from Ethel Cheney's back door, at no.18 Downview Road, Felpham, Sussex. Naturally Miss Cheney invited the crew in for tea, as you do. Of the ten crew, two were injured.
Lt. Oswald Masoni with local girl, Barbara Deane

As it was also American Independence Day, and it happened to be the co-pilot's last mission, his tour now completed, the crew set off their flares in a ditch by the house, marking the day in their own way and delivering a little American culture to this quiet corner of England. Twenty five years later, the co-pilot, Mayo Adams returned and took tea once again with Ethel. The crew on this mission were:

Pilot: Cliff Blue
Co-pilot ; Mayo Adams
Navigator: Oswald Masoni
Bombardier: ?
Flight Engineer/Top Turret: Cecil Schaffer
Radio Operator: Harry Olson
Ball Turret Gunner: Tom Sutton
Waist Gunner: John McDonough
Tail Gunner: Milton Craven

It must have been such a relief and the perfect end to the 4th July that day, yielding an even greater reason to celebrate than ever before.

Oswald Masoni, nicknamed Big Oz, also kept in touch with the man of the house at no.18, and the two men exchanged letters annually. Oswald survived the war, became a lawyer, married and had children. He passed away in 1988.
379th Bomb Group: Ground crew enjoying coffee and donuts.

A captured Focke Wulf buzzes vehicles and aircraft at 379th Bomb Group, Kimbolton

Tuesday, 14 June 2016

Ernie Pyle In England.

Ernie Pyle was a household name in America during the 1930s and 1940s, and a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist. Born in Indiana, on August 3rd, 1900, he would go on to become a journalist and an accomplished writer who became a war correspondent, covering many events of World War Two. In all, Ernie Pyle wrote four books of his coverage of the war years.

Ernie Pyle image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
He once said that when peace was restored, he would like to return to London, "and stand on a certain balcony on a moonlit night and look down upon the peaceful silver curve of the Thames with its dark bridges." Ernie never got the chance to do that. He was tragically killed by a Japanese bullet on April 18th, 1945, while covering the war in the Far East.

He was a humble man, who took it upon himself to go around England, visiting American bases, soldiers and airmen, and seeing what life was like for them here in the UK in wartime. He ventured a little further from his fellow countrymen and came to meet and know many British people, and was invited into their homes to share what little food they had.

He saw first hand how people lived and died and struggled here in wartime Britain. He uncovered the sacrifices soldiers and civilians made. He spent time in air raid shelters, amidst the crowding, with people packed in like sardines in humid, stale, atmospheres where the air competed with cigarette smoke, stale sweat and beer.

In his book, 'Ernie Pyle in England', he wrote that while the great air battles raged in the skies over England, he yearned to go and see for himself, not as a war correspondent or a journalist, but for himself. And so in December 1940, Ernie crossed the Atlantic on board the S.S. Exeter. When he finally arrived in England, he travelled by rail to London and saw the country for the first time, in wartime.

He saw women in khaki as well as soldiers, and people carrying gas masks and antiblast tape that crisscrossed its way up and down windows everywhere, and silver barrage balloons flying high in the air. He said that although he'd only been in England for three minutes, he was already in love with our small island.
Pyle with the 323rd Bomb Group before take-off at Earls Colne, England.
As he talks of spending hours in the shelters, he mentions one particular shelter in London. He calls it Shelter Double-X because he wasn't allowed to name it at the time of writing the book - 'careless talk costs lives.' He explains how around ten thousand people live there each night and it's so big down there it takes hours to make your way through. Everything happens there, "from births to deaths" and there are even adult education classes. He mentions the soldiers who go there looking for girls. It's "a big, jolly city all under one roof."

As I read through his book, I was hooked. It's not just the information, which to me is fascinating, but it's the casual manner with which he wrote; almost conversational. It's simple and beautiful, and reminiscent of Hemingway, I thought. Ernie Pyle brought wartime Britain to life for me in a way that no other writer or written source has managed to do. It's little wonder that he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1944 for journalism and it's a tragedy his life was cut so short. His coverage of the war was his own individual style, and he focussed on the people and what mattered to them, whether they happened to be civilians, servicemen or anyone else for that matter. It was his style that made him so popular with the people.

Venturing even further afield, Ernie would journey to North Africa and Italy, and from there he went to Normandy and witnessed D-Day in June 1944. He witnessed the liberation of Paris in August 1944. It was during his coverage of the Pacific theatre of war that he would make his final journey. On the 17th April 1945, Ernie came ashore with the Army's 305th Infantry Regiment on lejima. He was killed by a single bullet to the head when the Japanese opened fire on the 18th April. When news broke of his death, people and servicemen everywhere were saddened and shocked. President Trueman said that Pyle "told the story of the American fighting men, as the American fighting men wanted it told."
Ernie Pyle's Memorial image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Sunday, 5 June 2016

Remembering Operation Overlord: D-Day 6th June 1944

D-Day, 6th June 1944: Operation Overlord was the largest air, land and sea operation launched by the Allies. There were more than 5000 ships, 11000 aircraft, and 150,000 troops. Training for the operation had begun some months before in England. Equipment and vehicles lined streets in England, waiting for the order to ship out.

The airborne invasion was to commence first and pave the way for the amphibious landings.
Easy Company (now immortalised as the "Band of Brothers"), part of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, had their marshaling area in Upottery, Devon next to an airstrip. On the 4th June, in preparation for the mission, many of the men had their heads shaved or got a Mohawk haircut. On the afternoon of the 5th, someone found some cans of paint and they painted their faces like the Sioux, dubbing streaks of white, green or black down their noses and across their foreheads and cheekbones. Some used charcoal to blacken their faces. At 2030 hours, they lined up in groups of eighteen and marched towards the hangars, silently.

Second Lieutenant Richard D. Winters recalled marching past some British antiaircraft units at RAF Upottery and he said, "that was the first time I'd ever seen any real emotion from a Limey, they actually had tears in their eyes." The men were told, "No prisoners. We are not taking any prisoners." At 2200 hours, they boarded and at 2310, 81 Dakotas carrying more than 1300 men, hurtled down the runway. As they crossed the Channel, those who looked down below saw the invasion fleet sailing towards Normandy, 6000 vessels, a sight they'd never see again. Overall, more than 13,000 young American paratroopers took part in the operation.

General Eisenhower with the 101st Airborne on D-Day
While Hitler had information that there would be an Allied invasion, he did not know when or where they would strike. The Allies launched a series of false operations in a bid to deceive the German forces and lead them to believe that the invasion target was the Pas-de-Calais. Norway and other targets were also leaked. The deception was to prove very effective, leaving the Germans with little defences at the Normandy beaches.

The 5th June was originally chosen as the day to invade, but due to bad weather conditions, Operation Overlord was postponed another day. On the morning of the 5th June, the meteorologist predicted improved weather conditions, and Supreme Commander General Eisenhower gave the order to commence Operation Overlord. He told troops, " You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The hope and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you. Your task won't be an easy one, but this is the year, 1944. The tide has turned. The free men of the world are marching together to victory. Good luck."

A number of troops landed by air, which was crucial to the mission and it was their job to protect the men landing on the beaches from German counter-attacks. Hundreds of aircraft dropped Allied paratroopers on enemy targets over Normandy. The aircraft involved were the DC-3/C-47 Dakota.

And then there were the gliders. The 6th Airborne Division was led by Major General Richard Gale, who commanded the parachutists and glider-borne troops. Their mission was to hold the eastern flank of the invasion forces and to prevent German counter-attacks from the east. 

In order to do this, they had to capture the bridges over the River Orne and the Caen canal, this latter bridge was known as Pegasus Bridge. These would enable the seaborne troops to cross. Secondly, they had to disable the Merville gun battery, whose 100mm calibre guns fired down on Sword Beach and the amphibious landings. Third, the bridges over the River Dives had to be destroyed in order to prevent the Germans from crossing. Just before dawn on D-Day, the 6th Airborne Division achieved their mission objectives but suffered heavy losses. More than 2000 soldiers are buried at the Commonwealth War Graves cemetery at Ranville.

Pegasus Bridge 9th June 1944; Horsa Gliders can be seen where they landed.
On the 6th June 1944, American, Canadian and British forces landed along a fifty mile stretch of beach in the Normandy region of France. The Americans were tasked with attacking the beaches, Utah and Omaha. The Canadians, Juno and the British, Gold and Sword.

Scottish piper, Bill Millin, known as 'Piper Bill,' defied orders and took his bagpipes with him and led the troops onto the beaches as he piped. He was completely unarmed. The Germans thought he was completely mad and that was why they did not shoot at him. As Bill piped, walking up and down the length of the beach, men fell all around him and bodies bobbed in the water while shells and bullets hurtled overhead. 

By the end of the day, more than 150,000 troops had landed and pushed their way inland by up to five miles in some places and despite the heavy losses, it had been a success.

Thursday, 26 May 2016

Remembering Dunkirk.

In May 1940, the "Phoney War" came to an end as German forces swept across northern France and Belgium. As the German forces advanced, the Commander of the British Expeditionary Force, General Viscount Gort realised that the Germans had the upper hand. The French Army fought desperately but it was no use. In a final desperate act, the French called on Gort to advance south and join them in the last stand, but Gort knew enough to realise that this could well mean the loss of all of his men.

So, on the 23rd May 1940, Gort gave the order to withdraw and for the troops to make their way to the port of Dunkirk. The Dunkirk evacuation was codenamed "Operation Dynamo" and took place between the 26th May 1940 and the 4th June. It was led by Vice-Admiral Bertram Ramsay. The codename came from the Dynamo room in the Dover cliffs where their operation HQ was based. Just before 7pm on May 26th, Churchill gave the order for Operation Dynamo to begin.

Unbelievably, Hitler had ordered his tanks to stop pursuing the BEF on the 24th May for reasons that remain unknown, although he trusted the Luftwaffe to be able to prevent the evacuation. The BEF, meanwhile had to fight their way to Dunkirk and try to hold off the Germans long enough while they waited for the ships to arrive to evacuate them from the beaches. They were joined by a small number of French and Belgian forces.

Back in England, the call went out across Britain for anyone with a boat to spare and many boats were requisitioned by the navy to be used for the evacuation. Local fisherman and private boat owners answered the call, including some from the Isle of Man. Many other boats were offered voluntarily, and a number of boats were taken by the navy whose owners could not be contacted. On the eve of the operation, King George VI attended a special service at Westminster Abbey as a national day of prayer had been declared and services were held all around the country.

On May 27th, 1940, a flotilla of ships like no other set sail; a mix of fishing boats, yachts, ferries, motorboats and more flowed from the Thames and out into the English Channel heading towards Dunkirk. Smoke and flames filled the sky above the small port and the crew on these boats risked their lives as the Germans attacked. The beaches were filled with men. Lines of them tumbled along the pier to reach awaiting ships while others waded out into the sea, struggling in deep water, often lapping over their heads as they tried to reach the smaller vessels.

Meanwhile, German artillery continued to bombard them and the Luftwaffe strafed them overhead. Churchill thought they might rescue around 50,000 men but by the end of the operation, approximately 340,000 men had been saved. The operation was the largest evacuation in military history.

In the background, Dunkirk glowed red as the small port burned. Ambulances were abandoned on the beach by the shore having emptied out their casualties for evacuation. A British destroyer was on the beach, bombed and burning and the harbour was partially blocked by sunken ships. The scene was absolute carnage and chaos. The small boats would fill up with men and ferry them out to the larger British ships further out in the deeper water, and then turn around and go back again for more. Lines of weary soldiers continued to trudge down to the shore, out into the sea, like a swarm of bedraggled ants. Shells whistled overhead and bombs exploded all around as bodies floated in the sea.

There were around 900 little boats that took part in the evacuation, often with only one or two crew aboard. The men waited in orderly lines for rescue, patiently while under constant attack by the shelling and the Luftwaffe above. Signaller Alfred Baldwin said "they looked as if they were waiting for a bus. There was no pushing or shoving."

The forces on the ground were also aided by the RAF, who flew around 3.500 sorties during the operation to defend the troops from the Luftwaffe. 145 RAF aircraft were lost and the Luftwaffe lost 156.

During the evacuation, there were over 200 ships and boats lost. HMS Wakeful was torpedoed on May 29th and sank in 15 seconds with the loss of 600 lives. There were around 90,000 British left behind, either killed at sea or on the beaches, wounded or prisoner's of war and more than 1,000 citizens of Dunkirk killed in the air raids.

While the evacuation was in progress, there were also atrocities. On May 27th, 97 men from the Royal Norfolk Regiment ran out of ammunition in the village of Le Paradis and surrendered to the Germans, only to be shot on the orders of the SS.

The little boats sailing up the Thames after Operation Dynamo
Churchill hailed the operation a "miracle" but he also warned the nation that "wars are not won by evacuations." He went on to deliver one of his most famous speeches in the House of Commons on the 4th June 1940, where he declared, "We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills. We shall never surrender!"
Churchill also paid a special tribute to the RAF for their role in Operation Dynamo, in providing some protection to the waiting ships and soldiers.

Some of the returning soldiers worried about how they might be received back in Britain, and whether they might be thought of as cowards. They need not have fretted. Back in England they were given an orange, a sandwhich, a mug of tea and a very warm welcome, with civilians flooding to the station to greet them and offer help.

It was an amazing success, and as Churchill declared, a "miracle" and it was a turning point in the war, a definite blow to the German war machine. This "miracle" enabled Britain to regroup, and to prepare for war while strengthening her forces and preparing for the possible threat of a German invasion.

Friday, 20 May 2016

WWII - Melvin Rector, Former Mighty Eighth Air Gunner Remembered.

Former Air Gunner, Melvin Rector, 94, made his first and last journey back to England earlier this month since leaving our shores back in 1945. Sadly, on May 6th 2016, while visiting the Battle Of Britain Bunker in Herefordshire, Melvin suddenly passed away.

He was buried on the 18th May on British soil with full military honours. Initially, it was said to hold a simple service, but once the funeral director discovered Melvin's military past, they made a concentrated effort to give this heroic veteran the send off he deserved.

Melvin was a gunner on the B-17 the Memphis Belle, piloted by Captain R. Morgan whose crew was one of the first to complete 25 tours, way back on May 17th 1943. It is so poignant that he passed away during his visit here, his final journey before joining his brothers in arms. Blue skies, Sir. R.I.P.

Thursday, 19 May 2016

The Guinea Pig Club & Sir Archibald McIndoe

The Guinea Pig Club was formed on the grass, outside of Ward III at the Queen Victoria Hospital, in East Grinstead. A group of young men, all airmen who had received burns and were in the care of plastic surgeon, Archibald McIndoe, decided to form a drinking club to pass the time while they were stuck in the hospital. It was also seen as a way of maintaining contact with one another when they were finally discharged.

Initially, they called it the Maxillonians, after the Maxillo Facial Unit where they were receiving treatment, but later it would change to the Guinea Pig Club when an airman announced how they were all just "bloody guinea pigs" to the Maestro. The Maestro, of course, was Archibald, who the men sometimes called, Archie or the Boss. They looked up to him because when they first arrived, no matter how severely injured and disfigured they were, no matter how wretched, lost and alone they felt, he looked into their eyes and showed them empathy. And he always said, "Don't worry, we'll fix you up." In that short sentence, he offered hope, and it was a lifeline. 

The boys present on that fine July day in 1941 included Richard Hillary, Tom Gleave, Geoffrey Page, Peter Weeks, Joseph Capka, Bill Towers-Perkins and Russell Davies, an anaesthetist. Peter Weeks had been badly smashed up, as was the phrase at that time, and he was confined to a wheelchair. The boys made him their treasurer because he had no chance of absconding with the funds. The secretary was chosen because his hands were badly burned and bandaged and so he was unable to take notes. Such amazing humour despite their very grave situations.

Richard Hillary had written a book about his experiences so far in the war. Hillary was a fighter pilot who had been shot down twice in the Battle of Britain. His book, “The Last Enemy,” was quite a success, and while he was recovering, the RAF sent him to America, on a propaganda tour. However, once he arrived there, officials took one look at him and decided it was a bad idea to unleash him on the public. Hillary was humiliated, and when Archie heard about it, he was furious, and he vented his anger directly on the Air Ministry and Washington.

However, some good came of Hillary's trip after all. Soon after he arrived back in England, Archie began receiving letters from America. In them, were kind words, offers of employment and most generous of all, money orders and notes. Strangers were sending donations to the men on Ward III. After Hillary’s success with his book, the trip to America and newspaper articles, the story of the Guinea Pig Club and the plight of the men had reached far and wide. This forged the beginning of the charity, and it is one that went from strength to strength. Over the years, it has helped these “Guinea Pigs” at times when they needed it, such as with buying suitable accommodation, and helping them to establish their own businesses. There’s probably no other club in the world like it, and of course, the price you paid to join was rather high. To qualify for membership you had to have been "mashed", "fried" or "boiled" by the war in the air and sent to the Queen Victoria Hospital, in the care of Archie McIndoe.

Nothing was too much trouble for Archie, and he was determined that "his boys" as he called the men, would have the best of care. He needed to patch them up. He had to reconstruct their faces, hands, treat burns, carry out skin grafts and much more. But beyond the physical problems, a larger problem remained. The psychological scars ran much deeper, and some of these boys sank into depression, and some even became suicidal. In the early days of the war, while burned pilots from the Battle of Britain were recovering, Archie was horrified to hear of their treatment by the public in cities such as London. People would be openly shocked and react quite badly at the men's disfigured faces. Comments such as "They ought to be locked up," were heard. 

Archie was not going to put up with that. He made it his mission to involve the local town of East Grinstead in the care of his boys. With that, he spoke with friends and other prominent people within the town and devised a plan. Families nearby generously offered invitations to tea to groups of Archie's boys. Nurses and volunteers chaperoned them to the pub and the cinema. They received invites to parties and dances, and locals frequently visited them at the hospital, bringing library books, reading and writing letters and talking to them. The boys learned to socialise while they tried to come to terms with their altered image and any resultant disabilities, and in groups, they had camaraderie and support. 

The town of East Grinstead took these boys under their wing; they loved them and were thankful for their devoted service to their country, and now, it was the turn of the people to show their devotion to this select few who had given up so much in their youth. East Grinstead became known as "the town that did not stare."
Ward III Christmas 1941 Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Step back in time to the early 40's, and pay a visit to Ward III. It's not like any ward you've seen before, I can assure you. The beds might line each side in regimental rows, but you'll see a beer keg on a table and a gramophone. There's a piano, and someone will belt out a tune if you ask. There's a young lad down at the end, encased in bandages from his head down. He has slits for eyes and a gap for his nose and mouth, and when he wants to smoke, he'll let you know.

A nurse is asked to flick the radio on and duly does so. A Glen Miller tune swings out, and a young man in RAF blues springs up and grabs her by the hand. She blushes and laughs, sneaking a glance towards Sister's office just in case she's looking. She's not. They dance, watched by eager eyes all around - men in varying stages of recovery. Another airman is snoring. He's out totally, having rolled in around four o'clock that morning, completely drunk. There are flowers everywhere, in vases on every man's bedside table. That's another of Archie's ploys. The scent disguises the smell of burnt flesh. Ladies in the town hand deliver bunches of flowers each week. 
Archibald Mcindoe at the piano. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Above the sound of the radio, voices can be heard, laughing, shouting, swearing occasionally. Nurses must endure the flirting and slaps on the bottom from a few of the men, but it’s all part of the job. They must be pretty to nurse here. Archie wants his boys to be able to talk to beautiful girls. He does not want them to become shy, retiring recluses. It’s so vital that they leave here in a positive frame of mind, with the vision to see that they can still lead a full life; they can get married and have children and work for a living. That vision is oh so important and yet there are a few men here who have lost their sight. But thanks to their Maestro and their brothers in arms here, they have developed that extraordinary vision to realise that they too can have a real life if they want it badly enough.

And one final note. You can forget the doctor-patient relationship nonsense. Archie was one of the best plastic surgeons around and a pioneer of treatment. But there was nothing stuffy or pompous about him. He was a New Zealander, and when he first arrived in London in the early 30s, he was treated as such – as a colonial. So, in a sense, he knew a little about being singled out, being different. However, with his competent surgeon’s skill, and his vibrant, bubbly personality, he won people over. He certainly had the adoration of his boys, and he spent time with them. He’d join them for a pint on the ward or at the pub, play the piano and have a sing-a-long. He’d be at the same house parties, and even invited groups of them to his home for drinks. Richard Hillary called him “Mac,” which is so informal and just shows the level of familiarity they had.

Sadly, Richard Hillary was tragically killed in a flying accident while carrying out a night training exercise in his Blenheim Bomber in January 1943. Archie was due to see Richard and perform further surgery on his eye, which had become increasingly problematic. The truth is that Hillary could have had this seen too much sooner, but he had not wanted to make a fuss at his base, RAF Charterhall, and did not wish to be seen as making an excuse to get out of doing his duty. Night flying, it seemed, was just too much for him with his physical problems. Archie was devastated and angry at what he saw as an unnecessary death.

Archibald McIndoe developed his own health problems and on April 11th 1960, he passed away at the age of 59. Today, the Guinea Pig Club remains, although its members have declined from the original 649 to 18. Sandy Saunders, is one of the fittest members at the age of 93, and he has just launched an appeal to raise funds for a memorial to the Guinea Pig Club and its members. If you visit the following link, you can read more about this and make a donation.