Saturday, 13 May 2017

Farewell Sir, Blue Skies: My Tribute to Veteran Des O'Connell

I'm so sad to hear the news that veteran and Guinea Pig Club member, Des O'Connell has passed away at the age of 97.
Des O'Connell

On April 27th, 1941, Flying Officer Desmond O'Connell was an observer on a bombing mission to sink the Bismarck. His aircraft, an Armstrong Whitworth Whitley bomber took off overladen with fuel and bombs, struggled to gain height and crashed into a hillside where it burst into flames. From his position at the rear of the aircraft, Des crawled out through the damaged fuselage and was doused in aviation fuel. Unfortunately, the grass outside was already blazing and he became engulfed in flames.
Des O'Connell before the accident
Des suffered 50% burns. He once said in an interview that he recalled looking down and thinking how his gloves had melted when it fact it was the skin shredding from his hands. He was taken to the nearest cottage hospital where staff feared the worst.

Des was so badly burned that his commanding officer asked his mother where she wished her son to be buried, a conversation sadly overheard by Des himself. He was twenty-one years old and I can only try to imagine the suffering and the fear he must have gone through back then. Fortunately, his mother demanded that he be moved to a specialist unit and so he was transferred to RAF Halton, and while there he was spotted by the pioneering plastic surgeon, Archibald McIndoe.

McIndoe assessed him and decided that he could almost certainly help this young airman and arranged for him to be transferred to his unit at the Queen Victoria Hospital in East Grinstead. Once there, like many of the young men on Archie's ward, he was to endure multiple operations and skin grafts which took more than two years. He needed a new chin, eyelids, ear tips and skin grafts to both legs.

The men in McIndoe's care, including Des, formed a club in July 1941, and they called it the Guinea Pig Club, for that is exactly what they were - guinea pigs for Maestro to experiment on. Maestro was, of course, the nickname for Archie. Some of the men also referred to their hospital ward as the 'beauty shop', the place you were sent to be made up. They had such strength, humour and spirit despite their horrific and often life-changing injuries.
Archie McIndoe (far right) with some of the servicemen he treated
And so it was that Des became inaugurated into this wonderful club after his baptism by fire. Over time the club gathered 649 members and Des was to be an active supporter of the club his whole life. Below is a video of Des talking briefly about his life-changing accident and the beauty of the Guinea Pig Club.
In the video, Des mentions how he'd like the Guinea Pig Club to be remembered for being good. The fact is, the club was a godsend and it was a brilliant idea generated on the lawn outside Ward 3 (Archie's ward) on a glorious summer's day in July 1941. Back then, of course, they had no idea just how beneficial the club would be.

I'm certain his words shall live on and we shall remember the brave few who suffered so for our freedom today. The club continues with the few remaining members and it shall be remembered in history, along with the brilliance of Sir Archibald McIndoe, plastic surgeon and philanthropist.

Thank you for your service. Blue skies, Sir. Rest well.

There is a beautiful memorial plaque within the Queen Victoria Hospital at East Grinstead which lists all the names of the men treated there during the war - all members of the Guinea Pig Club.

You can find more articles about the Guinea Pig Club and the work of Sir Archibald McIndoe here by following the links below:

Who Was Sir Archibald McIndoe?

75th Anniversary of the Guinea Pig Club & Sir Archibald McIndoe

My Tribute to Veteran & Guinea Pig, Dr Sandy Saunders