Friday, 3 March 2017

My Tribute to Veteran & Guinea Pig, Dr Sandy Saunders

Dr Arthur Courtney Saunders, a veteran and member of the Guinea Pig Club, sadly passed away on 26th February 2017, aged 94.

He was known to all as Sandy. Unfortunately, I never had the chance to meet Sandy in person, but I was honoured to speak with him on the telephone last year, and our conversation shall remain with me forever.

In November 2016, my debut novel, The Beauty Shop was released. I wrote it because I wanted to share with the world the remarkable story of the Guinea Pig Club - a club formed by injured servicemen who required the care of New Zealand plastic surgeon, Archibald McIndoe.

It is a remarkable piece of history not only because of the pioneering plastic surgery McIndoe undertook but in everything else that he did. In many ways, he quite literally gave his all in helping 649 young men overcome the most horrific, debilitating injuries and set them back on the path to life; to living whole lives.

One of the 'guinea pigs' was a young man called Sandy Saunders, a man who was to become so inspired by the work of this remarkable surgeon that he too would train to become a doctor, and spend the rest of his working life in medical practice. As a GP, he was highly respected by all who knew him, and he spent his life giving back, helping others as he too had once been helped.

Sandy Saunders back row, 3rd from left
Sandy's own story was remarkable. Having witnessed the beginning of the war as a civilian, including the bombings in his hometown of Liverpool, he received his call-up at the age of 21 in 1943. Sandy joined the Army as an officer, but later, having been so inspired by D-Day, the glider pilots and Pegasus Bridge, he volunteered for the Glider Pilot Regiment. Unfortunately, on the 27th September 1945, while undertaking a training flight, he was attempting to land his Tiger Moth at RAF Gaydon in Warwickshire when he became caught in crosswinds. The engine stalled and the aircraft plummeted. Sandy recalls waking up, trapped in the midst of an inferno. Tragically, his navigator was killed. Despite his injuries, Sandy somehow managed to unbuckle his harness and clamber out of the aircraft, after which he collapsed on the ground. Later, having regained consciousness in hospital, he soon learned he had forty percent burns to his hands, face and legs.

Bandaged from head to toe, it would be three months before he would see himself in a mirror. Recalling that moment, he told me how it shocked him. He was horrified and felt as if all was lost and slipped into depression. But, by chance, he was later referred to Archibald McIndoe who quickly assessed him, saw what needed to be done, and very promptly arranged for him to be admitted for surgery. It was a new beginning for Sandy. Archie, as many called him, performed a series of operations, significantly improving Sandy's hands, face and legs. During this time, Sandy learned to adapt, to cope with his injuries, and he became very interested in Archie's work.

While a new life dawned, he spent the rest of his life devoted to his work and his family, but memories of war, and more importantly, his accident, never left him. He explained how he often had nightmares, reliving the crash, reliving the guilt he carried over the death of his friend and navigator. He said to me, 'Well, it's rather like being the driver of a car and having a crash which kills your passenger. You'd feel guilty, wouldn't you?' That has stayed with me ever since and yes, I'm quite sure I would feel guilty. His words were so emotive, and have made me question many things in life since our chat.

Sandy Saunders 2016
He ended the call with the news that he was having major surgery soon and he may nor survive. I immediately thought the worst, and he asked me to pray for him. I said I would, and I certainly did. Fortunately, he did survive the operation but later received the news that he was terminally ill. Sadly, he passed away at home with his wife by his side, just as he had wished, on 26th February 2017.

Something else I recall from our chat was how warm he was, how friendly and caring still, even taking the time to ask about my family and me and giving me some advice at one stage. He never ceased caring about people, about life and about the things that mattered.

He was an active member of the Guinea Pig Club throughout his life, and he began and led the campaign to have a permanent memorial to the club, to honour all 649 members. This was unveiled in November 2016 at the National Memorial Arboretum, by HRH the Duke of Edinburgh. The memorial bears an inscription, penned by Sandy himself, and reads: Out of the flames came inspiration.

In many ways, Sandy reminded me of Sir Archibald McIndoe, and I am truly blessed and honoured to have spoken with this dear gentleman, something I will treasure for the rest of my life.

For Sandy Saunders, a man who rose from the ashes to live a life filled with love and compassion, beating the machine of war in all its inhumanity, spending his life giving back to the people. He never tired of telling his story, realising how important it was for people to understand and to learn from it. Thank you for your service. Blue skies, Sir. Rest well.

Dr Sandy Saunders (1922 -2017)

Sir Archibald McIndoe top centre
Several weeks ago, Sandy took to the skies for one last flight.

Sunday, 27 November 2016

Publication Day: The Beauty Shop Released 28th November 2016

My debut novel, The Beauty Shop is released today, the 28th November 2016. Set during World War Two and based on the true story of the Guinea Pig Club, it explores the nature of good looks, social acceptance and the true meaning of 'skin deep' via three interlocking experiences.


England, 1942. After three years of WWII, Britain is showing the scars. But in this darkest of days, three lives intertwine, changing their destinies and those of many more.

Dr Archibald McIndoe, a New Zealand plastic surgeon with unorthodox methods, is on a mission to treat and rehabilitate badly burned airmen – their bodies and souls. With the camaraderie and support of the Guinea Pig Club, his boys battle to overcome disfigurement, pain, and prejudice to learn to live again.

John ‘Mac’ Mackenzie of the US Air Force is aware of the odds. He has one chance in five of surviving the war. Flying bombing missions through hell and back, he’s fighting more than the Luftwaffe. Fear and doubt stalk him on the ground and in the air, and he’s torn between his duty and his conscience.

Shy, decent and sensible Stella Charlton’s future seems certain until war breaks out. As a new recruit to the WAAF, she meets an American pilot on New Year’s Eve. After just one dance, she falls head over heels for the handsome airman. But when he survives a crash, she realises her own battle has only just begun.

Based on a true story, "The Beauty Shop" is a moving tale of love, compassion, and determination against a backdrop of wartime tragedy.


Chapter One

Ward III, Queen Victoria Hospital, East Grinstead, November 1942

The boy lay swathed in bandages that masked third-degree burns to the face, neck, chest, arms, and legs; the aftermath of a skirmish with the Luftwaffe. It was a miracle he’d been able to bail out of his flaming Spitfire and pull the cord on his parachute, with hands of molten wax, skin that hung in shards like ripped silk, and fingers melded together by the heat of the furnace. Archibald McIndoe inhaled as he hovered in the doorway of the side room and wrinkled his nose against the cloying stench of charred flesh that assaulted his nostrils. It was a nauseating odour he was used to and usually ignored, but tonight was different. Tonight it was especially malodorous and reached into the back of his throat, and he cupped his nose with his hand as he tried not to gag.

He sauntered out into the ward. Music flowed from the gramophone further down, and the upbeat, familiar Glenn Miller sound swung out, a delightful blend of saxophones, trumpets, and strings. ‘American Patrol.’ The volume was unusually low; he sensed that was purposefully done out of respect and his heart contracted. A haze of stale cigarette smoke and the sweet aroma of beer blended in the air to mask any clinical odours or otherwise. With the blackout curtains drawn, the bedside lighting cast a subdued glow around the ward. He stopped in front of the coke stove and held his hands in the wave of heat that streamed from the door. They were still numb from the frosty evening air, even though he had been back inside for a while.

He glanced around. The place looked more like a barracks than a hospital. One airman lay stretched out on top of his bed, reading a newspaper, a smouldering cigarette resting between the first two fingers of his right hand. He glanced up.

‘Evening, Maestro.’ The voice was flat.

Archie nodded a greeting. Three others sat huddled around the table in the middle of the ward, playing cards. Suddenly, an airman in RAF blues sprang up from his chair and grabbed the blonde VAD nurse with the ruby lips and twirled her around, dancing to the tune, which promptly changed to a slower number. Then he drew her close as they waltzed to notes that quivered in the air. He glanced at Archie and grinned. ‘Hello, Maestro. Fancy a beer?’

‘No thanks, Dickie, not tonight.’

His upturned mouth sagged into a straight line, and he nodded, his hand slipping from the nurse’s waist as he moved away – thirty seconds of frivolity anaesthetised by the gathering dark clouds. As Archie ambled back towards the side room, the boys gazed at him with sombre faces, their eyes glazed. Amidst the clink of beer glasses, the chain-smoking, and the banter, they all knew.

Back in the side room, another sound filtered in, a desperate, chilling rasp, and the hairs at the nape of Archie’s neck prickled. He sighed. He had told the boy exactly what he said to all of them when they first arrived. ‘Don’t worry. We’ll fix you up.’ His stomach sank. He’d tried his best, truly he had.
He strode over to the bed. David’s breathing had changed since this morning. He was in the period of transition; the final phase. Archie swallowed. Dear God, why had it come to this? David lay quite still, rattling breaths cutting through the hush, a thatch of golden blond hair just visible above his bandages. Did he have a girl and did she ever thread her fingers through his hair? It was a random thought, plucked from nowhere, silly really, but then this whole event was bizarre and surreal. It shouldn’t be happening – just like this damn, bloody war. The words of his cousin Harold Gillies sprung into his mind: This war will bring injuries never seen before. Archie nodded. ‘Right again, as usual,’ he muttered.

Why couldn’t he have saved him? Yes, the boy had severe injuries, but injuries he could have survived. But the infection that had taken a serious hold several days ago had changed the course of David’s life, bending its flow in another direction. Sepsis had spread, his organs were failing, and there was nothing to be done. Nothing at all, except sit here and wait. The boy sucked in breaths through an open mouth. Archie glanced around and spotted the kidney dish on the bedside table with a mouth swab and water. He gently dabbed David’s dry lips and tongue. At least he could do that.

Archie was not familiar with death. Most of the time, his patients lived, so it was a dreadful blow when death came calling. This boy had suffered enough, and now in a cruel twist, he would die after all, and he’d put up such a splendid fight. Archie heard Richard Hillary’s words loud and clear as if the young fighter pilot were standing next to him: Tell me, Archie. Does a chap ever sense that death is waiting?

‘I don’t know,’ Archie murmured. ‘But I sense it.’ He sank down on the chair next to the bed and glanced at his watch. Eleven o’clock. He pinched the bridge of his nose and closed his eyes, stifling a yawn as fatigue closed around him like a warm, fuzzy blanket. He’d spent twelve hours in surgery and longed to return home, but he would wait. The boy was an American with the RAF; a stranger on foreign soil. No one should be alone at the end.

Sister Jamieson bustled into the room carrying a steaming, white enamel mug, her rubber-soled shoes squelching across the linoleum floor. ‘I saw you come in, and I thought you might like a cup of tea,’ she said in a hushed voice.

‘Thanks.’ He was in need of something a little stronger, in all honesty, but that would have to wait. He took a sip. At least it was warm.

‘I can ask one of the nurses to sit with him if you need to go. There’s no telling how long it will be.’ Her thin, pale lips flickered to form a faint compassionate smile, revealing a dimple on her left cheek he’d never noticed before, although the woman rarely ever smiled.

‘It’s all right. I’ll stay a while. Besides, there’s no one to rush home for.’ Home was but a mere shell now that his wife and daughters were in America, but at least they were safe, thank God.

‘Such bad luck he came down behind enemy lines. If only they could have repatriated him sooner.’

‘Yes, well I suppose he’s lucky they sent him back at all.’ Archie sipped the tea and Sister Jamieson retreated. He liked to think that even German doctors would obey the Hippocratic Oath and do their best for their patients. The enemy. His elder brother’s face slipped into his mind. Jack had been captured in Crete in 1941 and was now in a camp somewhere in Germany. Two birthdays spent in captivity. Archie prayed he was well and wondered if he’d received the Red Cross parcel as yet. He closed his eyes for a moment. Why in heaven had Jack joined up? He’d even had to lie about his age, given that he was forty-one at the time. Archie shook his head. Jack had inherited Mother’s artistic ability and had studied art, but he’d gone on to run the family printing business after Father passed away. It was as if war had sought him out, with the lure of one final fling.

The music from the ward suddenly ceased, and a hush descended. Out in the corridor, the sluice door protested as it swung shut with its usual creaky groan and water gushed as someone turned on a tap. The night nurse rattled past the door with a tray of steaming mugs, and he caught the comforting aroma of malt as it drifted in the air on a ribbon of steam. He glanced at the rise and fall of David’s chest as the boy sucked in shallow breaths, followed by the release of excruciating rasps that snarled over his lips.

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Wednesday, 26 October 2016

Author Hilary Custance Green & Surviving the Death Railway

Today I'm so thrilled to welcome the author, Hilary Custance Green, who recently released her latest book, Surviving the Death Railway. 

Welcome, Hilary and please tell us a little about you.

         I’m a Jack of all Trades. I spent twenty years as a sculptor, then went back to university and became a Research Psychologist. To balance the academic life, I started writing and publishing fiction. I found it enormously satisfying, so since retiring from the Medical Research Council, I have continued to write. What I write is fiction, but I try and look honestly and realistically at the way individuals cope with what life throws at them. 

What genres do you write and why?

This is always a difficult question to answer. I guess it is literary, but at the lighter end of the genre or maybe you would say it is the literary end of general fiction. I explore some serious themes, but I like to write about love and adventure.

When did you first become aware of wanting to be a writer?

I was a reader first ­– the original bookworm. I dreamt of becoming a poet but found my own efforts embarrassingly bad. I scribbled endlessly through my teens, but was frustrated by my inept writing skills. The real breakthrough came with the typewriter and then – utter bliss – the computer. Writing became three dimensional, like a sculpture. I could shape ideas, move words, paragraphs, and whole pages. I could clothe a skeleton outline in any order I liked, without losing track of it.

Which authors do you feel have influenced you the most?

My biggest influence during childhood was Kipling – the most mesmerising storyteller, who climbed into the skin of different peoples and animals with ease and made a feast of language. Then there is Mary Renault who combines history, love and the mental life of her protagonists, so satisfyingly. I think she nails that meeting point of erotic and enduring love. Nevil Shute remains a favourite because of the way he is interested in low profile characters – ordinary people who become heroes and heroines in spite of themselves. I admire Sebastian Faulks’s writing, both fiction, and non-fiction, and his research is exemplary.

How has your family history shaped your writing?

In terms of subject matter, not at all. Yet my mother’s social conscience travels with me. My father’s attitude that it is possible to make absolutely anything is certainly built in. Both of them were Cambridge graduates, and though neither were academic high achievers, they gave me a respect for reading and thinking and an assumption that there is no fundamental difference between a man and a woman or between nation and nation – except cultural ones.

What do you love the most about writing and what do you dislike?

I think I remain at heart a builder (as I was as a sculptor), someone who loves to take a skeletal idea and clothe and shape it until it comes as near to the original vision as possible.  There is a moment in every novel where it tries to fall apart. It is three-quarters written, the major turning points and climaxes are in place, but the glue between them starts to dry out too soon, parts fall off, the balance shifts too far from the centre. Belief is hard to hold onto at this stage.
Like most other writers, I also dislike the aftermath – the promoting and marketing.

Can you share with us the next book on your reading list?

         The truth? The book that has just risen to the top of the pile by my bed is Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers! A non-fiction book, by journalist Mary Roach, looking at what happens to bodies after death. The opening line is: The way I see it, being dead is not far off from being on a cruise ship.
         Although I read a great deal of fiction, I have a long list of non-fiction waiting, I am also about to read Midge Gillies Army Wives From Crimea to Afghanistan: the Real Lives of the Women Behind the Men in Uniform.  This subject is dear to my heart, and my mother’s story appears in it briefly.

                   Hillary's father's men (Royal Signals 27 Line Section in Malaya) November
 1941 before capture

Please tell us about your latest published book.

During my childhood, my father, Barry, talked about my mother’s role in WWII. While Barry and his men were prisoners of the Japanese in the Far East, my mother, Phyllis, had kept in touch with the wives, mothers and other relatives of the men in his Signals Unit (69 men). Phyllis died in 1984, but it was only after Barry’s death in 2009 that I began to search for her papers. I found them, at last, hidden in the archives of a military museum. They included newspaper cuttings, notebooks, address books, a dossier and some 250 letters written to Phyllis from the tenements of Glasgow and the East End of London. I used these letters, along with Barry’s memoirs and Phyllis and Barry’s personal correspondence, to piece together the experiences of the men and women separated by 6000 miles over four long years. These years lasted from the day when the men danced eight Eightsome Reels simultaneously on the platform of Liverpool docks in July 1941, to the autumn of 1945, when forty-one men limped home in ones and twos. What emerges from this and from the post-war letters to Barry and Phyllis is the amazing, unceasing support these men and women gave each other.
         Surviving the Death Railway: A Far East POW’s Memoir and Letters from Home is my first non-fiction book, and was published this summer by Pen and Sword. 
           One of the rare 'letters' (they were only permitted to write 25 words in capitals) from Phyllis to Barry that arrived in Thailand. It took over a year to reach him. 
In the larger, more settled camps, the men put on shows which the Japanese guards also enjoyed. Barry
was a chorus girl (Custance Baker) in this one.

Portrait of Phyllis which Barry preserved for 4 years in the jungle

        Discover more about Hilary here:

Monday, 10 October 2016

Clare Hollingworth: The English Rose, who saved Europe's Refugees

Happy Birthday, Clare! Many best wishes & thanks to you. 

So many have heard the name, Oskar Schindler. He was the German credited with saving around 1200 Jews. And there have been others, and today I give you the story of a lady who is 105 years old, living in a care home in Hong Kong. Her name is Clare Hollingworth. Clare is credited with being the first journalist to break the news of the Second World War. But, there is a twist. Before breaking the news, Clare was busy with a humanitarian role.

Clare Hollingworth was born on the 10th October 1911 in Leicester, England. She had been working as a journalist for under a week when her employer, The Daily Telegraph packed her off to Poland to report on the problems in Europe, at the end of August 1939.
Clare Hollingworth
Once there, Clare managed to borrow a car as she intended to drive to Germany. Along the German-Polish border, she witnessed numerous German troops, armoured vehicles, and tanks. In her words, she said, "I was driving along a valley, and I saw scores of tanks, hundreds." Three days later on the 1st September, she contacted the British embassy in Warsaw and reported the invasion of Poland. Officials there were sceptical, however, and Clare reportedly held the telephone at arm's length out of a window in an attempt to pick up the noise of the tanks rolling in.

The Telegraph ran with the headline "1000 tanks massed on Polish border" and "ten divisions reported ready for swift stroke."

But less known is just what Clare did before the war. In 1938, as thousands of refugees poured over borders in Europe seeking asylum, Clare Hollingworth was a 27-year-old beautiful woman who had just booked a holiday to Kitzbuhel, Austria. When she returned home, she had a Nazi-approved visa in her passport.

In September 1938, Chamberlain's "Peace for our Time" mission delivered Czechoslovakia's Sudetenland region to Hitler, something which struck terror into refugees who sought asylum abroad. Many British people were outraged, and various organisations were created to help with the refugee crisis. One such organisation was the British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia, and in March 1939, they were looking for a willing volunteer to carry out a dangerous mission. They needed someone willing to travel through Germany to the Polish port of Gdynia to meet a significant number of refugees who were fleeing Prague.

Now that Clare had a Nazi-approved visa, she was eligible to volunteer for the role, and so she travelled to Poland without delay. Just before she reached her destination, the Germans marched into Czechoslovakia.

In Gdynia, 451 refugees were waiting - men, women, and children. Most were known as anti-Nazis and included military men, writers, and Jews, some of whom had already fled from Germany and Austria. They had no means of safe passage as they did not have the official documents or funds.

Clare was very efficient, and had a way with words, a way that would see her haggle with officials to get what was required. She collected up her group of refugees and sought accommodation and food while she then set about acquiring appropriate documentation and arranging sea passage to take them to sympathetic countries.

Afterwards, Clare returned to Poland. Refugees arrived daily from Czechoslovakia, risking their lives as they did so. They were shot at from one side by the Germans, and from the Poles who were defending their borders.

The British General Consul in Katowice welcomed Clare's help, and she was put to work immediately, interviewing refugees daily and checking their claims to British support. Soon, she was made the official BCRC representative for Poland and was charged with the care of more than a thousand refugees at any one time until safe passage could be arranged to countries such as South America and Britain.

The list of people the BCRC saved included a two-year-old girl called Madlena Koerbel, who escaped to America with her family. This small child was renamed Madeleine Albright and became the Secretary of State. Clare also helped secure the safety of Hans Heinrich XVII von Hochberg who was a London-born Polish aristocrat.

Another lucky soul was Margo Drotar. Margo was four when she and her mother were arrested in Poland in 1939. They were communists from Hungary, fleeing the advancing German troops. Thrown into jail, they had starved for five days when Margot's mother held her up to the prison bars and told her to cry. A woman passed by and heard her cries. That woman contacted the resistance in Katowice jail, and Margot and her family were smuggled out to safety where they were interviewed by an English lady. Margot and her family sailed away from Poland on the last ship, reaching England 2 days before the outbreak of war on the 1st September.

Margot now lives in Buckinghamshire and has four children, nine grandchildren, and a great-grandson. Having found out about Clare, she sent her an emotional birthday message which said,

"Happy Birthday darling Clare. Live for a hundred years again. I will think of you to the end of my life. Thank you very much for what you gave me, and for all those other people. Thank you."

Between March and July 1939, Clare helped to arrange visas for around 2000-3000 refugees who were then able to come to Britain and other countries.

Clare carried on after the war, reporting the news and covering later conflicts around the world, such as in Palestine, China, and Vietnam. She is also a survivor of the King David Hotel bombing in Jerusalem in 1946 which killed 91 people.

She didn't speak of her role in helping refugees flee the Nazis. It was by chance that a relative discovered her involvement in this daring, dangerous mission. She is typical of a generation who perhaps feel unworthy of being hailed heroic, but they are nonetheless. She was clearly a feisty, determined young woman and one resolved to 'doing her bit' to help vulnerable people flee a tyrannical regime; flee death.

Wednesday, 5 October 2016

Remembering The Brave Few: Battle of Britain Pilots

I recently watched the film 'First Light' again - I've lost count of how many times that makes now, but it's so beautiful and evocative, and I lose myself in the drama. Some of you will know it's an adaptation of the book, First Light, a personal and frank account of life during the Battle of Britain by author and former WW2 pilot, Geoffrey Wellum DFC. Geoff is now 95 years old, but he remembers his experiences as a Spitfire pilot most vividly.
Geoff 'Boy' Wellum 92 Squadron Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Geoff was 18 years nine months when he completed his initial training and arrived fresh and eager at 92 Squadron at Biggin Hill. Nicknamed 'Boy' by his Squadron Leader Brian Kingcombe, he was to have the most harrowing induction into the life of a fighter pilot in RAF Fighter Command.

Initially, while he might have felt keen to join in the fight and send the enemy packing, he soon realised just what hell he was embroiled in. Like the rest of his 'brothers' he would become tired, worn down and worn out by the relentless pace, lack of sleep, the constant threat of enemy attacks and perhaps worst of all, witnessing the loss of one's friends up among the clouds.
Geoff with Brian Kingcombe Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
But while Geoff was clearly a great fighter pilot, he is also a great writer, effectively conveying in the most elegant prose the trials and tribulations of life in 92 Squadron during those dark, uncertain days.

In the film, one of the most poignant scenes for me came following the squadron's return from a sortie. Having encountered the FW 190 for the first time, Flight Lieutenant Lund was leading a section of three Spitfires when they encountered enemy aircraft over the Channel. The Luftwaffe shot all three down, and Lund's Spitfire Vb W3459 was seen diving away in flames. He was 22 years old and Geoff's good friend. Geoff narrates throughout the film.
P/O Tommy Lund No 92 Squadron Image via Wikimedia Commons
Geoff stated "Tommy Lund was a lovely chap and a very dear friend. He went into the Channel, but all the best blokes did, and the blokes like me got away with it."
At the end, Geoff says "Nobody wants a medal, nobody wants a thank you, but it would be nice just to be remembered because then you must think of all of us, and not just those of us who survived."

After serving eighteen months with 92 Squadron, Geoff was posted to an OTU elsewhere to instruct. Later, as a Squadron Leader, he served in the siege of Malta, and that was where he suffered a nervous breakdown, aged twenty. In 1944 he married his sweetheart, Grace and served in the RAF until 1961.

By the end of 1940, 92 Squadron had achieved the highest combat score in the entire RAF, with a tally of 127 enemy aircraft destroyed.
Researching the war and putting faces to names is something I love and feel privileged in doing, and it's so important to me to remember the sacrifices made, remembering the selfless, brave, young men who gave their all for our today. Lest we forget.

Saturday, 1 October 2016

The Berlin Airlift

When WW2 ended, Germany was defeated and divided up. The Soviet Union controlled East Germany while the west was divided up between the US, Britain, and France. Berlin, the capital city, rested within Soviet power but was split into four, with one-half of the city under Soviet control and the rest divided between the other countries.
The Allied Control Council was established in Berlin, and this union's mission was now to govern and rebuild Berlin.

Unfortunately, nothing involving governments and politics is simple, and soon there were rifts as the Soviet Union disagreed with the other allies over such things as German Unification, Soviet War repatriations, and ideology. The Soviets were vying for more say in the economic future of Germany, something the British and the US would not consent to.

It is relevant to indicate Churchill here. Churchill predicted WW2 in the early thirties when no one in parliament would listen. He was right. He also saw what was coming in Europe - or rather who, after the war ended. In a speech in Fulton, Missouri, he said, "From Stettin on the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the continent."

Early in 1948, things came to a head, and Stalin ordered the Allies to leave Soviet-controlled Berlin. Trains were stopped on various days in June and finally on June 21st the Soviets halted a train carrying US Military supplies and denied it entry to Berlin.
Then the Soviets cut off all land and sea access to West Berlin. There would be no fresh supplies from the West. Berlin had a population of just over two million to feed, and there was food for around thirty-five days and coal for forty-five days.

US Military Commander General Lucius Clay formed a plan to send an armed convoy into Soviet controlled Germany, but this action would almost certainly have led to another war, something which some in government called for, given the aggressive and antagonistic actions of Russia.

British Commander Sir Brian Robertson suggested dropping supplies by air, and after consultation, the plans were drawn up. On June 26th the first aircraft took off from bases in England and Western Germany and landed in Berlin. The scale of this operation was enormous, and it posed a great logistical challenge as aircraft landed at Tempelhof Airport every four minutes throughout the day and night. Often the pilots had to fly two or three round-trips daily in WW2 aircraft that often required maintenance and repairs.

Civilians watch a C-47 Skymaster coming into land at Tempelhof Airport 1948

To the RAF, this was known as Operation Plainfare. West Berlin was literally under siege, and the Allied Forces worked tirelessly to keep supplies coming. The German people would no doubt have been terrified, humiliated and lost. Having endured almost six years of war, and bombings, the one thing they feared most as the last days of war closed in was the arrival of the Russians. They were right to fear them. There were a lot of 'war crimes' committed, crimes which the Russians have never had to account for. Soviet soldiers committed inhumane acts and had it not been for the Allied Forces, the people of West Berlin would have starved.

To the Americans, the operation was known as Operation Vittles, because they were "hauling grub." They flew C47s and C54s from airfields in the American zone. Initially, the US and the RAF operated independently of one another, with the same aim of course, but by mid-October 1948 they combined their efforts with a single airlift task force HQ. American aircrews flew over 189,000 flights.

And let us remember with pride the grand efforts of the ground crew who also worked tirelessly to keep all the aircraft airworthy in support of the airlift.
During the term of the airlift, thirty American servicemen and one civilian were killed as a result of twelve air crashes. The RAF suffered five air crashes with the loss of eighteen airmen.

British aircraft also flew more than 131,000 sick people out of Berlin to West Germany for medical care. The British began with two squadrons of Douglas Dakotas, but quickly realised it was not enough. They acquired more aircraft and utilised the larger Avro York transport aircraft. Then, on July 4th they also used two Squadrons of Short Sunderland flying boats which took to the skies from the River Elbe. They carried supplies out and returned with industrial goods and refugees.
In November 1948 Squadrons of new Handley-Page Hastings transport aircraft arrived.

For almost a whole year aircraft flew twenty-four hours a day, making much-needed deliveries. Over 200,000 aircraft made over one and a half million tonnes of supplies. The blockade continued until May 12th, 1949. During this time, the Russians were seen as bullies, holding civilians as hostages in West Berlin, with the constant threat of starvation. They were viewed scornfully by the rest of the world for their inhumane and antagonistic behaviour.

C-47 Skytrains at Tempelhof Airport

Meanwhile, the success of the airlift served to show the world that the Allies had air and technological superiority. By the time the blockade ended, West Germany had become a separate nation.
The airlift continued until September 1949. By now the eastern section of Berlin was now a part of Soviet East Germany and West Berlin was a separate territory with its own government. It officially ended September 30th 1949.

For the people of Berlin, the war might have ended in May 1945, but conflict remained with them, and of course, flowed throughout the Cold War years. With the current Syrian conflict, I wonder, do leaders ever learn and will we ever achieve world peace?

US Crew celebrates the end of Operation Vittles 


Friday, 30 September 2016

The Other Douglas Bader

Many people have heard about Douglas Bader, the RAF pilot who miraculously survived an aircraft crash in the 1930s, but sadly lost both of his legs. Bader, through sheer courage, willpower, and true grit returned to flying after the outbreak of WW2.
But Bader was not the only double amputee to serve in the war. There was another.
Colin Hodgkinson

Colin Hodgkinson was born in Wells, Somerset on February 11th 1920 and he joined the Fleet Air Arm for pilot training in 1938. He trained on the aircraft carrier Courageous. Sadly, during training, Colin was involved in a mid-air collision with another Tiger Moth and suffered severe injuries, and like Bader, had to have both legs amputated. He had been flying blind, with a hood over his head during instrument training. The instructor accompanying Colin was killed. 

Once he was fit enough, Colin was sent to Roehampton to the limb centre and fitted up for a set of tin legs. He was subsequently invalided out of the forces and given a pension of £3 per week. However, before he was discharged back to civilian life, Colin persuaded his doctors to send him for some convalescence leave and he went to Dutton Homestall. While he was there, he met Archie McIndoe, a plastic surgeon in charge of Ward III (nicknamed the Beauty Shop) at the Queen Victoria Hospital in East Grinstead, where he treated burned airmen.

Archie would later state, "He was a red-headed thick-set figure precariously balanced on two artificial legs which were planted firmly apart and braced backwards to support his swaying body. His face was badly scarred. His eyes reflected the bitter desperation mixed with wariness which betrayed a constant anxiety to maintain his balance. He kept within reach of a wall or a convenient chair. He was watching me carefully and obviously had something to ask me. We moved into a corner and talked."
Colin asked Archie to help him get back into the Navy. While they chatted, Archie's gaze raked over Colin's face. He had keloid scar tissue above his left eye, so Archie said, "You ought to come over to the hospital sometime. I'd like to fix up that eye for you."

Archie had become frustrated with what was known as the RAF's ninety-day rule. If an injured serviceman was still unfit for duty at the end of 90 days, he was then invalided out and given a pittance of a pension as determined from the regulated schedule of payments set for particular disabilities. 

This caused men financial hardship, being unable to work, being unfit for many things, and also being stripped of their wings, something akin to stripping them of their spirit. Archie had seen it happen and he disagreed with the rule and it was one which infuriated him. Now, here, he had his chance. This burly six-footer before him, Colin Hodgkinson would give him the ammunition he needed to tear into the Air Ministry. 

And so he operated on Colin and fixed up his eye. Now, Colin was on the books, he was one of Archie's boys and became a member of the infamous Guinea Pig Club. Archie then began one of his own personal battles. He set about writing to the Admiralty and when that had no effect he telephoned. In the meantime, he used his influence with an old friend and persuaded him to allow Colin to fly his light aircraft. He also told Colin to practice walking on his tin legs, to improve his gait and stability.

As the weeks passed, Archie was getting nowhere fast. Then a chance meeting at a dinner with the secretary to the First Lord of the Admiralty won him some ground. Archie managed to persuade him that Colin was indeed fit and capable of returning to service and was told that the matter would be given consideration.

It worked. Colin was called back to active service and posted to a naval station in Cornwall at the beginning of November 1940. He was the first man to return to service while drawing a pension and this established a precedent. Soon afterwards all of the services opted to abolish the ninety-day rule. In celebration of this huge victory, Archie organised a drinks party back at his home for all the walking members of Ward Three.
Wells Gazette

Colin was determined to fly Spitfires and, inspired by Douglas Bader, he obtained a transfer to the RAF as a Pilot Officer. In December 1942 he was posted to No 131 Squadron at Westhampnett, Sussex. When the squadron left he was allowed to remain and joined No 610 Squadron. Colin became known as 'Hoppy' Hodgkinson, for obvious reasons. 

In August 1943, he was flying escort duty to a group of American B-26 Marauders when his squadron encountered more than fifty Focke-Wulf 190s. A dog fight ensued and he shot down a FW 190 that was heading to attack his wing leader, 'Laddie' Lucas. 

Later, Colin joined No 501 Squadron as flight commander. In November 1943, during a reconnaissance sortie, his oxygen failed and he crashed into a field in France. He suffered serious injuries and one of his legs became detached as farm workers pulled him from his blazing Spitfire. He was duly taken prisoner and sent to a POW camp. Ten months later, the Germans repatriated him, thinking he was no longer useful to his country and he was sent back to McIndoe for treatment. 

Colin returned to active duty near the end of the war and was based at Filton in Bristol as a ferry pilot. In 1946 he left the RAF but returned in 1949 and served with No 501 & 604 Squadron, flying de Havilland Vampires until the early 1950s. Returning to civvie street, Colin entered the world of advertising and PR, later starting up his own successful business, Colin Hodgkinson Associates.

After a brief spell in politics, he enjoyed a stint as an air correspondent with ITN and then later in 1957 he published his book, "Best Foot Forward," a biographical account of his life and his war. When his first wife June Hunter died, he married Georgina, a Frenchwoman. Colin Hodgkinson died on 13 September 1996.

Here's a link to a British pathe newsreel of Colin Hodgkinson's book signing with RAF pals including Johnnie Johnson and Archibald McIndoe :

Colin Hodgkinson seen on the left, chatting with Sir Archibald McIndoe