BBC HomeExplore the BBC
This page has been archived and is no longer updated. Find out more about page archiving.

15 October 2014
WW2 - People's War

BBC Homepage
BBC History
WW2 People's War Homepage Archive List Timeline About This Site

Contact Us

Wartime Plastic Surgery Part 3

by Tearooms

Contributed by 
Tearooms
People in story: 
Margaret Chadd (nee Collett)
Location of story: 
East Grinstead
Article ID: 
A2424124
Contributed on: 
14 March 2004

This contribution has been entered on behalf of Margaret Chadd by Roger Wood.

Presentation by Margaret Chadd MBE to Norfolk and General Hospital in 1987.
QUEEN VICTORIA HOSPITAL, EAST GRINSTEAD, 1941-1945 (Part Two)

None of the patients had to wear Hospital Blues. Mclndoe felt that they were quite impractical for those with burned hands and only stumps of fingers as the uniforms had buttons in awkward places. Anyway, he said they were out of date and made the wearer look like a convicted prisoner. So all those supplied to the hospital by Whitehall, were burnt on his instructions, as he was a civilian surgeon. So what could they say to him? The service personnel wore what they chose and more often than not their RAF jackets - proudly too. The people of East Grinstead came to recognise the lads more as individuals going into the town and in the local pubs, thus revoking the absurd idea that unsightly people should be hidden quietly away from the public gaze. The local people did accept them, did not stare, nor take a second glance from curiosity. I know that these patients were in special circumstances and many had to face the world outside the hospital, alone for the first time and that cannot have been easy. However, I can only recall one hospital death amongst the plastic surgery patients during the war years, whilst I was there, so this speaks well for the level of morale we were able to achieve.
In addition to doing a normal hospital day's work, the staff were expected to take a turn twice a week at fire watching duty. This meant staying on from dusk till dawn on watch and going up onto the hospital roof. It was then that I found that I personally always seemed to get involved in other duties as well. One night, when all was quiet, I remember being called upon to help out in the theatre, when they were short staffed. "You will be alright" the sister said, "As you are Red Cross trained, I only want you to hold the leg." The operation was an amputation of the left leg and I was expected to hold down the right leg. I can hear the saw even to-day!
Another night, the local cinema was hit by a direct bomb at 4 p.m. on a Friday. The small hospital could hardly cope with the casualties, let alone the 18 dead bodies which lay in corridors until mortuary arrangements could be made for them. We worked all through the rest of that night until Monday morning, just stopping for a cuppa or sandwich and the odd cat nap. It was traumatic to say the least. Another night a German bomber was brought down in a nearby field, the pilot captured when his parachute landed. He could not speak a word of English and he spat at all of us who tried to talk to him. On being transferred elsewhere, he did present his expensive silk scarf to his favourite duty nurse.
I remember being called by the receptionist to the waiting room one morning, where an extremely dirty gipsy woman sat with a small boy, her son Leslie, aged 9 years. In her hand she held what looked like a very dirty handkerchief, but when she said "Please can this be stitched back on again?” I realised it was a piece of skin. On the boy's leg was a dirty bandage and it transpired that he had been bitten by their gipsy pony or horse. She had rescued the skin from the horse's teeth and brought it along. Percy Jeyes spent many hours with the lad in the theatre and in spite of what seemed an abnormal amount of 'initial dirt', the graft did take and he walked out of that hospital on crutches - quite a success story.

The patients came from so many different countries, Canada, Australia, South Africa, New Zealand (you must remember we still had an Empire then) America, France, Poland, and Czechoslovakia, from all ranks and walks of life. One learned to look beneath the physical and find the real person beneath the outward manifestations and with so many of them having to return to the hospital time and time again, they became more than just patients, but good friends.

There are many famous names amongst the patients who were airmen, some from the Battle of Britain, who returned to flying duty having been patched up but then sadly only to loose their lives in subsequent combat. Several wrote books about their experiences. Tom Gleave, Bill Simpson and of course Richard Hillary - I remember them all, as they were then, gallant young men in the prime of life in the 1940s serving their country in the course of war. Other names come to mind - Geoffrey Page, Richard Atcherly who both were to become famous for their roles in the RAF.
TOM GLEAVE'S book, "I Had a Row with a German" relates how he escaped from his Hurricane aircraft in the Battle of Britain when his fuel tank was hit by flack. He then baled out but not before his face, hands and legs were burned. (So many airmen later regretted the fact that they had not worn their protective covering for their faces and hands. If only they had remembered to put on their gloves and headgear, they might not have been so severely burned). Tom recalls in his book, how his burns turned sceptic and that he had to be held down in his bed each night, because of the awful nightmares he experienced. McIndoe was able to give him a new nose, with skin from his forehead, and then replaced those areas with skin from his thigh, resulting in him always having a paler area of skin on his forehead. This type of replacement is called rhinoplasty and was done by curling the skin from the forehead to make the new nose over his two burnt holes. One of the stages that Tom remembers was the pleasantness of lying in the saline bath, thus easing the initial pain and when the old dressings over his wound just floated away.
BILL SIMPSON wrote "One of our Pilots is Safe" and tells the fascinating story of his long journey through Europe after being shot down before he reached East Grinstead Hospital, where he became one of the founder members of Guinea Pig Club.
RICHARD HILLARY wrote "The Last Enemy" which is a moving account of a young pilot facing possible death. He had two periods in hospital for repair to his burned face with his eye lids and lip being repaired and improved. He was renowned for his red pyjamas and for not being the easiest of patients to nurse. Sadly he returned to duty and was tragically killed when his aircraft crashed.
ALAN MORGAN arrived at the hospital in 1942, calling it "a bloody place where everyone was bloody mad". He was not fried or burned but a pilot who was very badly frostbitten. When his bomber had been hit by flack over Leipzig, he tried to save his crew, because the fires in the aircraft burst open a side door. In trying to rescue them and shut the door, he, himself, fell unconscious with his gloveless hands hanging out of the aircraft over Germany. The plane later crashed in France and he was rescued, treated initially and arrived in a shocked, dazed condition, hardly aware that the nurses were trying to save what was left of his hands by immersing them into ice buckets. He had been an industrial apprentice in Manchester, so McIndoe realised that if he was to return to his trade at a later date, he would need his hands. At the time his fingers were just black sticks, so the surgeons decided there was absolutely no chance at all of saving them. Thus, McIndoe removed all but the part of the thumb on each hand. A shattering experience for Alan but he did learn eventually to hold a pencil in what remained of his stump so he could write to his girl friend. Until he was able to reach that stage, others would write to Ella for him and eventually she came down to East Grinstead and I found lodgings for her so she could be with him most of the day.
REG HYDE was so badly burned that for nearly 3 years he had to eat and drink through a tube. He found it strange many years later, after he was happily married with three lovely children that folk should remark to him about the childrens’ good looks - almost as if they thought this should not be possible because of his burns. Some people have a lot to learn about the difference between congenital defects and those caused by tragic accidents.
JACK KIRBY'S aircraft accident involved both his jaws being completely broken. He woke up one day to find himself in hospital with clay being inserted into his mouth, a set of splints being cemented to his jaw, a carpenter fixing scaffolding over his bed to hold the splints into the correct position, two pulleys, a cross beam and a piece of cord attached to a hook on the top set of splints. He said that he felt as if he was a strung up pig. He turned out to be a demonstration patient for the surgeons and training staff, with lectures given at his bedside. It was a day of great joy when the jaws had responded sufficiently to the treatment, the weights and pulleys taken off and his jaws fixed with only wires. At last he could eat what was known as 'Jaw Food'.
JACK ALLOWAY, a Canadian pilot lost most of his face, when his plane crashed. Initially he found it difficult to realise that he would look different and for a time was too scared to even look into a mirror. His first look was just a quick peep, and then perhaps although he did look different, it was not too awful, slowly he learned to accept his new face by studying it from all angles in the mirror, feeling it was not too bad. At East Grinstead, it always helped to know that there were people far worse off then you.
BILL FOXLEY was so badly burned that his face was completely expressionless with one eye completely gone. The skin and muscles fixed up to his eyebrows. Whilst surgeons can graft skin to cover the blackened contracted mass of a man's face, they cannot stimulate a smile or grin, however clown-like. In Bill's case, his emotions could not be recognised from his remaining eye, his face or his hands, which had been completely burned. In fact he had no hands at all, only burnt stumps. None of this prevented him being rehabilitated. He married a hospital nurse, Catherine, and obtained a job with the Electricity Generating Board and made a new life for himself.
JIMMY WRIGHT was burned beyond all recognition and blinded in both eyes when his bomber exploded. He survived with many years treatment at East Grinstead and later at St. Dunstan's. He obtained a job and eventually ran his own film business.

DICK RICHARDSON floated down by parachute when his plane was shot down over France. His clothes were totally burned, his right hand was burned away and most of his left hand too with its 5 fingers. He too had lost the sight of both eyes, so with no fingers, it would seem impossible for him to learn Braille.
After a series of operations to his face and on what remained of his hands, he was able to go to St. Dunstan's for training and he also found employment.
One of the Czech patients, whose name eludes me now, had gone to fight the Germans in Poland in 1939 He then managed to escape to Russia, from where he got himself in Rumania, then on to Turkey and Syria before finding a boat to take him to French West Africa. He got another ship to take him to France, when on the fall of France; he stole an aeroplane and flew it to England. He arrived with severe head injuries and after repair surgery was said to have returned to active service. I often wonder where he is today. .
Many of these patients experienced severe emotional problems with their wives, fiancées and girl friends, who found that they could 'not take it' or the sight of the one they loved, so changed. To compensate for this, the marriage rate between nurses and patients was high and you have to remember, that most of the patients were under 28 years of age, so they were highly motivated and in Ward III, the spirit of the Battle of Britain certainly prevailed in spite of their injuries. They lived for today. Who knows what tomorrow would bring?
Let me tell you about a few of the women I remember.

JOAN was a young factory girl of 18 years, who worked in a London sweet factory. She was involved with the mixing of the toffee substance there when the bomb hit her factory. Immediately she was covered from head to foot in boiling sugar. Her whole body was totally burned and she received her initial treatment in London before being transferred to East Grinstead. She was not only covered with bedsores but her hair was sticking out in hard sticks, covered with the remains of the melted toffee on it and also with maggots underneath it all, her bones protruded though the remains of her charred flesh and she cried and moaned all day, only being released from some of the pain when immersed into the saline bath. Even getting into that was agony. Her hair had to be totally removed under anaesthetic. She eventually began to heal and she returned time and time again over a period of 5 years for further grafting and plastic surgery. One of her 'plusses' was the fact that the factory manager would visit her to see how she was progressing and never came empty handed. Can you believe it; he brought either toffees or boxes of chocolates. Need I tell you that she had not the slightest interest in these in spite of the rationing, but always found a ready market amongst us staff and other patients and converting them into hard cash.
MAISIE was 19 and it was just 2 weeks before her wedding day, when she was bombed. Half her face was completely embedded with tiny fragments of broken pieces of glass. You can imagine the psychological effect this had on her, but her fiancé was marvellous and stood by her through all the many operations and eventually they married.
ROSE was a munitions worker, but more importantly a very skilled dressmaker. In a London air raid both her hands were blown off from the wrists. Eventually she had two artificial hands fitted and she leaned to adapt and returned home, determined to take up her job again and to learn to make dresses with her new hands.
GLADYS was dancing with her fiancé at the Cafe de Paris on the night it was bombed. She too was transferred with severe facial damage and the whole of her body impregnated by tiny pieces of glass. The removal of each piece took hours of surgery but she kept each piece, as it was taken out in a special box, calling them her diamonds and showing and counting them with all her friends. There must have been several hundred by the time she was finally allowed to return home. She had been a particularly beautiful girl and she found it hard to come to terms with her scarred face but harder still to accept the fact that her fiancé had been killed in the air raid.

We were not bound by confidentiality, equal opportunity or any other red tape in talking about the patients and much press publicity has followed so these names are known to not only those who worked in the hospital but others too who praised them for their courage and bravery. Now I wonder as each year passes about all the Guinea Pigs as the patients came to be called.

Like us, they too must be growing old with failing sight, perhaps one remaining eye, and rheumatics in the fingers on stumpy hands. It cannot be easy for them. A great deal of financial help has been given by the RAF Benevolent Fund as well as support and comradeship from other members of the Club. This was founded in 1941 after a drinking or gorging session in one of the wards and a bottle of sherry from the surgeon’s mess. It was for all RAF and allied forces patients, surgeons, doctors and males involved in their rehabilitation. Each year they would meet at the Felbridge Hotel for a pilgrimage of faith and a renewal of the Association. Sadly now there are so many missing familiar faces. More recently, wives and other females who have had links with the hospital are also invited to part of this social event.
I must end with the Guinea Pig Anthem which is set to the tune of the Church's own Foundation:-
We are Mclndoe's army
We are his Guinea Pigs
With dermatomes and pedicles,
Glass eyes, false teeth and wigs.
And when we get our discharge
We'll lash out with all our might:
"Per Ardua ad Astra"
We'd rather drink than fight.

John Hunter runs the gas works,
Ross Tulley wields a knife
And if they are not careful
They'll have your flaming life.
So Guinea Pigs,
Stand steady for all your surgeons' calls
And if their hands aren't steady
They’ll wipe off both your ears.
We've had some mad Australians,
Some French, some Czechs, some Poles
We’ve even had some Yankees,
God bless their precious souls.
While as for the Canadians
Ah, that's a different thing,
They couldn't stand our accent
And built a separate Wing.

© Copyright of content contributed to this Archive rests with the author. Find out how you can use this.

Archive List

This story has been placed in the following categories.

Medical Units Category
Sussex Category
icon for Story with photoStory with photo

Most of the content on this site is created by our users, who are members of the public. The views expressed are theirs and unless specifically stated are not those of the BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of any external sites referenced. In the event that you consider anything on this page to be in breach of the site's House Rules, please click here. For any other comments, please Contact Us.



About the BBC | Help | Terms of Use | Privacy & Cookies Policy