Guinea Pigs roamed the town “that didn’t stare”

The Guinea Pig club
The Guinea Pig club

This year is the 75th anniversary of the Guinea Pig Club, an institution founded in Sussex in June 1941.

From day one, membership was only open to a group of very special people. These were Allied aircrew who had received serious injuries in the course of their flying duties and had subsequently undergone ground-breaking reconstructive surgery at the Queen Victoria Hospital in East Grinstead.

The men were all patients of New Zealand-born Dr Archibald McIndoe and his team of surgeons, anaesthetists and nurses. It was McIndoe’s idea to form the Guinea Pig Club as a morale-booster for the servicemen and he saw it as part social club and part support network. The social element invariably involved the intake of copious alcohol! To be eligible a member needed to be a serving airman who had gone through at least two surgical procedures at the hospital. By the end of the Second World War 649 men had enrolled.

The Guinea Pig Club continued in existence post-war and its annual reunion meetings were held right up until 2007. Most of the members were British but there were also men from the Commonwealth and France plus Czechs, Poles and Americans and even several Russians. During the Battle of Britain and the subsequent Luftwaffe Blitz, most of the hospital patients were fighter pilots who commonly suffered severe burns to the face and hands. As the war progressed and the Allies own bomber offensive grew ever more intense, injured bomber crew became a majority in the Guinea Pig ranks.

Even as war clouds gathered over Europe in the late Thirties, the RAF anticipated the type of injuries likely to befall pilots and crews in aerial combat. Special burns units were set up in several hospitals of which Queen Victoria was one. Pioneering surgery techniques were developed along with specialist equipment. When the first casualties were treated they often survived terrible wounds that just a few years earlier would have proved fatal. It was for this reason that the club’s name was chosen; it recognized the fact that the injured men were more or less human “guinea pigs” in the same way that those unfortunate rodents had long been used in vivisection.

Whilst the authorities had correctly forecast many casualties with bad burns the scale and dreadfulness of it all still came as a massive shock. One common injury was designated “airman’s burn” and described thus: “It comprised a burn of almost unwavering characteristics due to the sudden exposure of unprotected parts of the body to intense dry heat or flame, as though the patient were thrust into a furnace for a few seconds and withdrawn. The consequence was deep, searing burns, usually of third degree, to areas of tremendous functional importance – the hands and eyelids in particular”.

From this it will be no surprise to learn that for many pilots it was not enemy cannon fire or ack-ack bursts they feared the most. No, the real nightmare was the prospect of being burnt alive, something referred to as the “orange death”. Pilots openly admitted that crashing to earth to perish in a painless second’s impact or to cop a killer bullet in the air were much preferred to the drawn-out agony of a fiery death.

In 1942 McIndoe’s team was joined by Canadian doctor Albert Ross Tilley. He had led the way in plastic surgery pre-war in his home country. Tilley was as skilled as McIndoe and the pair learnt to deal with horrendous cases such as that of Air Gunner Les Wilkins, who had lost his face and hands. McIndoe recreated the airman’s fingers by making incisions between his knuckles.

With so many of his patients confined to his hospital for many months and even years whilst undergoing successive surgery, MacIndoe determined to make their lives as near normal as possible. The men could wear civilian clothes or uniforms and leave the hospital whenever they wished. Local families were encouraged to greet them when out and about and East Grinstead laudably became "the town that did not stare". The drinking of beer on the wards was also permitted. Later in life some of the hospital’s female staff remembered how a few of their charges recovered certain physical functions faster than others; one can only imagine Benny Hill-type scenes where fit young men in pyjamas pursued bevies of bemused nurses around the ward! It was said that if such a situation caused a problem, McIndoe would move a nurse to a different ward rather than discipline a randy RAF man.

McIndoe liked a glass of beer. He also enjoyed a joke; elected Life President of the Guinea Pig Club from the outset he ensured that the first Club Secretary was a pilot with badly burned fingers, which meant he was excused from writing too many letters; in similar tongue-in-cheek vein, the Treasurer had badly burned legs, a condition that ensured he was unlikely to race off with the funds. After McIndoe’s death in 1960, the Duke of Edinburgh became President.

In 2000, there were still some 200 club members but by 2007 there were just 97. That same year the growing frailty of the survivors signaled it was time to wind down. Even so there are Guinea Pigs with us still, though I doubt if any are still chasing nurses!

Jackie Mann DFM was one of the Guinea Pigs. Knocked out of the sky by “friendly fire” in the summer of 1940, just six months later he was shot down by a German fighter and badly burned. Many years later in 1989 while living in the Lebanon he was kidnapped and spent time as a prisoner with the Church of England envoy Terry Waite before being released in September 1991. The experience most likely shortened his life not least because he was deprived of the skin medication he needed as long-term treatment for his wartime burns. He died in 1995 aged 81.

Another Guinea Pig was Jimmy Edwards who post-war went on to become a much-loved comedian, musician and actor. He settled in Sussex, first at Rottingdean and then at Fletching. I wrote about Jimmy in an episode of the Yarns earlier this year but I didn’t mention his time spent in the Queen Victoria Hospital after his Dakota re-supply aircraft was shot down at Arnhem in September 1944. Jimmy was awarded the DFC for staying with his stricken plane upon learning that one of his crew was badly wounded and unable to bale out. In a crash landing, pilot Edwards suffered burns serious enough to warrant treatment in East Grinstead. Jimmy’s trademark handlebar moustache was in part cultivated to hide his scars.

East Grinstead Museum is marking the Guinea Pig Club’s 75th year since foundation with the creation of a dedicated and permanent display titled “Rebuilding Bodies and Souls”. Due homage is paid to the inspiring story of the birth of amazingly innovative reconstructive surgery in the Mid Sussex town during the Second World War “as seen through the eyes of the patients and medical staff involved”.

A worthy project indeed.