Guinea Pig club
‘Whose Surgeon’s fingers gave me back my pilot’s hands’: McIndoe, Page and the Guinea Pig club.
This quote appears on the dedication page of ‘Shot Down in Flames’, the memoir of Geoffrey Page DSO, OBE, DFC and Bar. Page was one of a unique group of men and a group that is often overlooked when military history and battles are discussed. He was one of the wounded of war.
Being wounded was something those going into battle did not expect. Geoffrey Page recalled his own thoughts as a young man of 19 regarding war, thoughts that were echoed by many of his generation;
‘Paradoxically, death and injury had no part in it. In the innocence of youth, I had not yet seen the other side of the coin, with its images of hideous violence, fear, pain and death. I did not know then about vengeance. Neither did I know about the ecstasy of victory. Nor did I remotely suspect the presence within my being of a dormant lust for killing.’
Much focus has rightly been on the Battle of Britain and the victory over the Luftwaffe by the ‘Few’ and how these young men saved the country from invasion. But what of those who fought in this battle and were wounded, many in life altering ways, some literally rendered faceless? For them, the war did not stop in 1945 and would carry on for the rest of their lives.
One of those determined to help these young men was the New Zealand plastic surgeon Archibald McIndoe who become consultant plastic surgeon for the Royal Air Force in 1938. In 1939 there were only four full-time registered plastic surgeons in Britain. Two of these men had experience of war wounds from the First World War: Harold Gillies and Thomas Pomfret Kilner who had worked as surgeons in the Royal Army Medical Corps. Gillies is more well-known due to the moving images of his work produced by the artist Henry Tonks of facial reconstruction, repairing the wounds caused by the ripping and tearing of bullet and shell. It would be Gillies who would invite his cousin over to England in 1930 to join his practise, his cousin was Archibald McIndoe.
McIndoe’s services would be needed more than ever in 1940. Emily Mayhew in The Reconstruction of Warriors lists 24 aircrew who between 8 August and 28 November 1940 were wounded, and categorised as having at least one third of their body tissue burned. This would most often be the exposed areas of face and hands.
Fire was the one fear of all pilots. And the face, the area of the body which forms our immediate identity to others could be burned away in an instant thanks to a Luftwaffe tracer bullet. This is graphically recalled by Geoffrey Page, who is one of those on the list, shot down and wounded on 12 August 1940 while attacking Dorniers;
‘Surprise quickly changed to fear, and as the instinct of self-preservation began to take over, the gas tank behind the engine blew up, and my cockpit become an inferno. Fear became blind terror, then agonized horror as the bare skin of my hands gripping the throttle and control column shrivelled up like burst parchment under the intensity of the blast furnace temperature. Screaming at the top of my voice I threw my head back to keep it away from the searing flames.’ It was later, while first being treated that Page realised that his attempt to save his face had not been successful;
‘I looked away and upwards, catching sight of myself in the reflector mirrors of the overhanging light. My last conscious memory was of seeing the hideous mass of swollen, burnt flesh that had once been a face. The Battle of Britain had ended for me, but another long battle was beginning.’ McIndoe was determined to give these men back their identity both physically and mentally. To give them back their lives. In many aspects he was following in the footsteps of men like Sir C. A. Pearson.
Sightless soldiers were a unique group among the blind in Britain. There were some 30,850 men discharged from the British Army during the First World War with damaged or defective eyesight caused by war. Of these nearly two thousand were fully blind. Of the others, many would find that their sight would worsen over the coming years.
Sir Cyril Arthur Pearson laid out his anxieties regarding this in a meeting held at York House, St. James’s Palace on 29 January 1915. This meeting formed the basis of St Dunstan’s (now called Blind Veteran’s UK), a charity to assist those blinded in conflict or those serving in the armed forces who lose their sight later in life. Sir Cyril Arthur Pearson was himself blind, due to glaucoma, having lost his sight at the age of 47. ‘Self-reliant’ and ‘self-helpful’ were the key concepts of the organisation from the very beginning. The blinded men would take part in sports; football, walking, running, rowing, to name a few, and also train to earn their living as masseurs, telephone switchboard operators, poultry keepers and makers of baskets and rugs.
Every newly blinded soldier would be visited in hospital, on many occasions by another blinded soldier and given a braille watch. He could then tell the time. This small act would give some form of independence. This association is still going strong today as Blind Veterans UK and helps those who have lost their sight while serving and anyone who has served in the armed services and has sight issues later in life.
Sir Archibald McIndoe was the right man for the job at the right time. He was a highly skilled plastic surgeon (and had been noted for his skills as an abdominal surgeon) who by 1939 had started contributing to the literature of the profession. He was sent to Queen Victoria Hospital in East Grinstead to organise a centre that would assist in the treatment of the expected facial injury and burn casualties from south-east London originating from the expected enemy bombing. The Hospital would have three new wards;
Ward I: dental and jaw injuries.
Ward II: women and children who were in the main air raid casualties.
Ward III: for officers and the most seriously burned and injured service personnel.
The hospital was soon to receive badly burned airmen, and would go on to treat hundreds. McIndoe would bring two key members of his operating theatre staff with him, Sister Jill Mullins and John Hunter who was his Chief Anaesthetist. Hunter would become famous among those he treated for offering to buy them a beer if they were sick when they woke up from the anaesthetic.
McIndoe and his team were pioneers in their treatment of burn victims. Before the start of the Second World War, tannic acid was used to treat burns by forming a hard casing over the raw wound. However, this caused the skin to contract making reconstruction problematic and was very painful for the patient when it had to be removed. McIndoe was instrumental in making this treatment obsolete and replaced with gentler saline washes. This resulted in more one-to-one treatment, and dressings were more easily removed.
The treatment of tubes of skins forming skin grafts was also pioneered by McIndoe and his team. These tubes would over time be grafted over the burns on the face or hands, making new skin. It is images of men undergoing this treatment that form some of the most memorable images of facial reconstruction. Treatment was unavoidably long and full of pain and discomfort for these young men. Because of this a bond was formed between them.
Geoffrey Page’s first experience of walking into a ward at East Grinstead is an example of this and what treatment demanded of the patient;
‘The tall figure was clad in a long, loose-fitting dressing gown that trailed to the floor. The head was thrown right back so that the owner appeared to be looking along the line of his nose. Where normally two eyes would be, were two large bloody red circles of raw skin. Horizontal slits in each showed that behind still lay the eyes. A pair of hands wrapped in large lint covers lay folded across his chest. Cigarette smoke curled up from the long holder clenched between the ghoul’s teeth. The empty sleeves of the dressing gown hung limply, lending the apparition a sinister air. It evidently had a voice behind its mask. It was condescending in tone.
“Ah another bloody cripple! Welcome to the home for the aged and infirm!”’ This was Page’s first encounter with Richard Hillary who so memorably wrote of his own experiences in ‘The Last Enemy’.
The unique atmosphere of the wards was due to the powerful personality of McIndoe who was aware of the psychological scars caused by burning as well as the physical. Page had encountered this scarring early on when he and a group of men going to the hospital for treatment went to the pub on the way;
‘At that point the landlord’s wife joined her husband behind the bar. Her loud undertone to him soon jerked me back to the true state of affairs. “The poor dears, and them so young and all. Quite turns me stomach.”’
Those being treated formed their own grouping and dark humour played its part; for example, men would place bets on whether a patient who woke up from surgery would be sick and crowd around his bed watching with interest. It was a way of deflecting thoughts of the gruelling and painful treatments. All ranks were treated the same and watered-down beer was allowed on the wards. Meals were supplied when needed not at a strict time. McIndoe also fought to improve the pay and conditions of the men while they underwent recovery. He was also known to loan them money to help them set themselves up for civilian life.
To keep this intimate friendship and bonding a club was formed. On 20 July 1941 in a hut in the grounds of the Hospital a meeting took place. Those at the meeting were a mixture of staff and patients. A toast was drunk to the forming of The Guinea Pig Club. The Club was for those who had surgery at East Grinstead and also the staff. Archie Mcindoe wrote that ‘It has been described as the most exclusive Club in the world, but the entrance fee is something most men would not care to pay and the conditions of membership are arduous in the extreme’.
Geoffrey Page, one of the founder members of the club and its first chairman admits that at first it was formed as just a drinking club but ‘it was soon to change its nature’. At the second meeting Page suggested that the funds they collected from members should be used to support others financially. This became an important aspect of the club and was supported by the RAF Benevolent Fund. Its annual dinners were also a highlight of membership and the last was held in 2016, the 75th anniversary of the forming of the Guinea Pig Club. On this last meeting, members were giving a tour of East Grinstead, which become known as ‘The Town That Didn’t Stare’ when patients were encouraged to go around the town while undertaking treatment. They were accepted by those living in the town.
McIndoe’s legacy is today carried forward in the Blond McIndoe Foundation, founded in 1961 after the death of Archibald McIndoe in 1960. Its aim is to research the science of healing with emphasis on burns and wounds healing.
Geoffrey Page, like other members of the Guinea Pig Club, would fly in combat again, determined, at the time, to take vengeance. He was awarded the DFC in 1943 and a bar to this when his victories reached 10. By the end of the war Geoffrey Page had 15 victories to his name, and one damaged. Of these 6 were shared. Geoffrey Page would go on to be instrumental in the creation of the Battle of Britain Memorial, unveiled by the Queen Mother on the White Cliffs of Dover in July 1993.
For the wounded of war, conflict does not end in ceasefires, when peace treaties are signed or when victory parties take place. There is no getting back to ‘normal’. The work of McIndoe and the determination of men like Page ensured that these group of men, the ‘Guinea Pigs’ were not forgotten and that they achieved their own personal victories. The Fewest of the Few would also be remembered.
The RAF Museum Archive hold the papers of Wing Commander Page including his log books (Ref: X004-1425, covering the period 1937 – 1948). These are available to view via appointment. The library holds many memoirs including Tales of a Guinea Pig and other histories of the Guinea Pig Club and Archie McIndoe.
Richard Hillary, The Last Enemy (London: Penguin Books, 2018)
ER Mayhew, The Reconstruction of Warriors: Archibald McIndoe, the Royal Air Force and the Guinea Pig Club (London: Greenhill Books, 2004)
Geoffrey Page, Shot Down in Flames (London: Grub Street, 2011) This was originally published as Tale of a Guinea Pig.
Websites of Interest
Blind Veterans UK
Blond McIndoe Foundation
East Grinstead Museum