April 27, 1941 The Guinea Pig Club

The mind recoils in horror at the human body enveloped in flame, but that’s just the beginning.  Both Hurricane and Spitfire fighters place fuel tanks, directly in front of the pilot. The wind speed of an F5 tornado is 201MPH+. The nozzle speed from a common pressure washer, 243. The maximum speed of these two fighter aircraft are 340 and 363 respectively, the explosive force of escaping gasses, geometric multiples of those numbers. The burns resulting from exploding aviation fuel were called “Hurricane Burns”.  The wreckage wrought on the human form, beggars the imagination.

The attraction of taking flight in time of war is unmistakable.  For a lad of nineteen, twenty, twenty one, he is a latter-day knight at the prime of his life, mounting his steed of steel to do battle with evil.  Life seems indestructible and without end at that age, except, reality is shockingly different.  Of a group of 100 RAF airmen in the early phase of World War Two, a mere twenty escaped being killed, captured or incinerated alive.

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Flying Officer Desmond “Des” O’Connell was just nineteen when he joined the British Royal Air Force, in 1938.

O’Connell was assigned to RAF Limavady in the north of Ireland in the early months of World War Two, around the time the Capital Battleship Bismarck cleared the Kiel Canal and emerged into the Baltic Sea. On this day in 1941, Desmond O’Connell and six other flyers were assigned to find and take out the German warship.

The twin engine Whitworth Mark V ‘Whitley’ medium bomber never had a chance, overloaded as it was with extra crew, tanks full of fuel and bombs. The aircraft struggled to gain altitude and clipped the mountains outside of Limavady before striking the ground, and breaking apart.

Desmond O’Connell miraculously survived as did the rest of the crew, but his ordeal had just begun.  Soaked with fuel and suffering a skull fracture, he was crawling on his hands and knees when the fire caught up.   He remembers peering through the flames at his hands, as pieces came off of his gloves.  But those weren’t gloves.  The flesh was burning from his hands.

Archibald Hector McIndoe took to medicine at an early age, earning the first New Zealand fellowship to the prestigious Mayo Clinic in Rochester Minnesota, at only 24. Dr. McIndoe moved to London in 1930 and, unable to find work, joined in private practice with his great uncle, fellow Kiwi Sir Harold Gillies. Gillies was a pioneer in the field of plastic surgery by this time, made famous through his work in the Great War as “The Man who Fixed Faces“.

Dr. McIndoe was a talented surgeon:  confident, precise, and quick on his feet.  Under Harold Gillies’ direction, Archibald McIndoe became a leading figure in the field of plastic surgery.

With the outbreak of WW2, Dr. McIndoe took a position at Queen Victoria Hospital in East Grinstead, Sussex, where he headed up a center for plastic and maxillofacial surgery. A trickle of patients from the “Phoney War” period soon turned to a flood, during the Battle of Britain.

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The mind recoils in horror at the human body enveloped in flame, but that’s just the beginning.  Both Hurricane and Spitfire fighters place fuel tanks, directly in front of the pilot. The wind speed of an F5 tornado is 201MPH+. The nozzle speed from a common pressure washer, 243. The maximum speed of these two fighter aircraft are 340 and 363 respectively, the explosive force of escaping gasses, geometric multiples of those numbers. The burns resulting from exploding aviation fuel were called “Hurricane Burns”.  The wreckage wrought on the human form, beggars the imagination.

Dr. McIndoe treated no fewer than 649 of these men, not only Brits but Canadians, Australians and New Zealanders.  There were Americans and French, Czechs and Poles.  Each man required dozens and sometimes hundreds of surgeries over agonizing years.  Sausage-like constructions of living flesh called “tubed pedicles” were “waltzed” up from remote donor sites on patient’s own bodies, to replace body parts consumed by the war.

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To be rendered hideous and unsightly in service to one’s nation, a subject of horrified stares, is more than most can bear.  McIndoe understood as much and his treatment methods threw convention, out the window.  Inmates were treated not as patients or objects of pity, but as men.  They wore not the ‘jammies or those degrading hospital johnnys with their asses hanging out but their own clothing, and even uniforms.  They had parties and socialized.  Those who were able went “out on the town”.  They were the “Guinea Pig Club”, they socialized, threw parties.  More than a few relationships were formed with nurses, many ended in marriage.

“Others met women from East Grinstead, a place the ‘guinea pigs’ referred to as ‘the town that never stared’”. H/T nzhistory.govt.nz

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Dr. McIndoe was knighted in 1947 and passed away at only fifty nine, but his work lives on in the African Medical and Research Foundation (AMREF), and the British Association of Plastic Surgeons (BAPS) for which he once served, as president.  The Blond McIndoe Research Foundation opened at the Queen Victoria Hospital in 1961, and continues to conduct research into new methods of wound management, to this day.

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The Guinea Pig Club turned seventy-five years old in 2016.  Most of those early RAF members are gone now, but the organization lives on.  Today, new members come from places like the Falkland islands.  And Iraq.  And Afghanistan.

 

Feature image, top of page:  A scene from the 2012 play “The Guinea Pig Club”, depicts the agonies of WW2-era RAF airmen, treated for severe burns

 

A Trivial Matter
“Until the spring of 1944, the priority for manpower in the UK was not the navy, RAF, army, or even the merchant navy, but the Ministry of Aircraft Production. In the war, Britain alone built 132,500 aircraft, a staggering achievement – especially when considering that Fighter Command in the battle of Britain never had more than 750 fighters”. H/T HistoryExtra.com
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September 6, 1939 Battle of Barking Creek

There is a time when every hero, is as green as the grass.

The Nazi conquest of Europe began with the Sudetenland in 1938, the border districts of Bohemia, Moravia, and German speaking parts of Czechoslovakia. Within two years, every major power on the European mainland was either neutral, or under Nazi occupation.

Ground forces of the United Kingdom were shattered in 1940, along with those of her French, Indian, Moroccan, Polish, Belgian, Canadian and Dutch allies.  The hastily assembled fleet of 933 vessels large and small were all that stood before unmitigated disaster.

338,226 soldiers were rescued from the beaches of France.  Defeated but still unbeaten, these would live to fight another day.

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In 1940, the island nation of Great Britain stood alone and unconquered, defiant in the face of the Nazi war machine.  In Germany, street decorations were being prepared for the victory parades which were sure to follow, as Adolf Hitler considered plans for his surprise attack on his ally to the East, the Soviet Union.

After the allied armies were hurled from the beaches of Dunkirk, Hitler seemed to feel he had little to do but “mop up”.  Prime Minister Winston Churchill captured the spirit of the period as only he could, when he said that “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few”.

The “so few” to whom the Prime Minister referred, were the 2,342 British aircrew of the Royal Air Force (RAF), and the 595 international air crews who were her allies, in the “Battle of Britain“.

freeborn2_1715769cJohn Connell Freeborn was a pilot with the RAF, and a good one, too. Credited with 13½ enemy aircraft shot down, Freeborn flew more operational hours during the Battle of Britain, than any other pilot, ending the war with a Distinguished Flying Cross and  Bar, and completing his RAF career as a Wing Commander.  Yet, there is a time when every hero is as green as the grass.  In the beginning, John Freeborn like everyone else, were rank amateurs.

On the third day of the war, September 6, 1939, air combat experience was precisely, zero.  Very few had so much as seen a German aircraft, when a squadron of Mk IIB Hawker Hurricane fighters took off from North Weald Air Base after an early morning air raid alert. Two reserve Hurricanes left shortly afterward, piloted by Montague Hulton-Harrop and Frank Rose.

Something went wrong, and the two reserves were identified as enemy aircraft. Three Spitfires from Hornchurch, Essex were ordered to attack. Commanding officer of the flight, Adolph “Sailor” Malan, gave the order to engage.  Flying Officer Vincent ‘Paddy’ Byrne opened fire on Rose’s aircraft, as Pilot Officer John Freeborn attacked Hulton-Harrop.

Both aircraft were shot down. Rose survived, but Hulton-Harrop was dead before he hit the ground, shot through the back of his head. He was the first RAF pilot to die in the second World War. In another unfortunate first, this was the first time any aircraft had been shot down by a Spitfire.

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At the ensuing court martial, Malan testified for the prosecution, against his own pilots. He claimed that Freeborn had been irresponsible, impetuous, and had not taken heed of vital communications. As for Freeborn himself, his attorney, Sir Patrick Hastings, called Malan a “bare-faced liar”.

As an interesting aside, Hastings’ co-counsel for the defense was Roger Bushell, who was later incarcerated with Paddy Byrne at Stalag Luft III.  Roger “Big X”Bushell became the mastermind of the “Great Escape“, in which he and seventy-five other allied prisoners escaped Stalag Luft III via three tunnels, dubbed “Tom”, “Dick” and “Harry”.  Bushell was caught along with Bernard Scheidhauer, while waiting for a train at the Saarbrücken railway station, and murdered by members of the Gestapo.  Only three of the 76, escaped to freedom.

The court exonerated both Spitfire pilots, ruling the case to be an unfortunate accident.

RAFHurricaneRichard Hough and Denis Richards wrote about the episode in The Battle of Britain: The Greatest Air Battle of World War II, saying “This tragic shambles, hushed up at the time, was dubbed in the RAF ‘the Battle of Barking Creek’ – a place several miles from the shooting-down but one which, like Wigan Pier, was a standing joke in the music halls.”

The “Wigan pier” joke has to do with an inland industrial town, as if such a place could possess a pier, like some seaside pleasure resort.

Many years later, Freeborn spoke of the first RAF pilot to die in WW2, the man he himself had killed in a “friendly fire” incident. “I think about him nearly every day”, he said. “I’ve had a good life, and he should have had a good life too”.

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September 17, 1940 Battle of Britain

Prime Minister Winston Churchill captured the spirit of the period, as only he could. “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few”. – Winston Churchill

When the allies invaded Europe in 1944, they had to land on the beach in order to get a foothold. At that point, they controlled none of the European continent. The Nazi war machine had been so successful, that a map of Europe at that time could have been drawn in only two colors. One for the occasional neutral nation, the other for Nazi controlled or occupied territory.

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Allied evacuation of Dunkirk, May 1940

Your eyes would have to cross the English Channel on that map to find a third color, that of Great Britain, which in June of 1940 stood defiant and alone in the face of the Nazi war machine.

Rooftop Observer

In his “Finest Hour” speech of June 18, Prime Minister Winston Churchill said “What General Weygand has called the Battle of France is over. I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin“.

In Germany, street decorations were being prepared for the victory parades which were sure to come, as Hitler considered plans for his surprise attack on his ally to the East, the Soviet Union. After Great Britain and her allies had been hurled from the beaches of Dunkirk, Hitler seemed to feel he had little to do but “mop up”.

Battle of britain, children evacuatedGermany needed air supremacy before “Operation Sea Lion”, the amphibious invasion of England, could begin. Luftwaffe commander Hermann Göring said he would have it in four days.

Military planners of the 1930s believed that “The Bomber will always get through”, and Luftwaffe strategy was based on that assumption. Air Chief Marshal Sir H.C.T. “Stuffy” Dowding, leader of RAF Fighter Command, had other ideas. Dangerously low on aircraft and the pilots to fly them, the “Dowding System” employed a complex network of detection, command, and control to run the battle. The RAF hadn’t the faintest prayer of defending their entire coast, but Dowding’s system allowed them to dispatch individual squadrons to intercept each German air raid.

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THE BATTLE OF BRITAIN 1940 (HU 104718) Workmen carry part of the bullet-riddled fuselage of a Dornier Do 17, alongside the wreckage of other crashed German aircraft at a scrapyard in Britain, August 1940. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205227877

The “Channel battles” beginning on July 10 were followed by a month of Luftwaffe attacks on English air fields. Losses were catastrophic for the RAF, but worse for the Luftwaffe. On only one day during this period, September 1, did the Germans succeed in destroying more aircraft than they lost.

German tactics changed on September 7. For almost two months, Luftwaffe attacks concentrated on cities and towns.

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The Imperial War Museum online library (http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/search?query=battle+of+britain&items_per_page=10) overflows with images of every day English life, set against a backdrop of catastrophic destruction. Children climbing over piles of rubble on their way to school. A milk man on his rounds, picking his way through shattered streets.  Adults browsing through stacks of library books, the ceilings open to the sky, great beams and rubble littering the aisles between the stacks.

23,002 English civilians died in the raids.  Another 32,138 were injured.

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BATTLE OF BRITAIN (HU 810) A newspaper seller in the street watching a dog-fight during the Battle of Britain. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205226579

Interestingly, the most successful RAF squadrons to fight in the Battle of Britain weren’t British at all, but Polish.

battle of britain, kidsCzechoslovakia fell to the Nazis on the Ides of March, 1939, Czech armed forces having been ordered to offer no resistance. Some 4,000 Czech soldiers and airmen managed to get out, most escaping to neighboring Poland.

Tales of Polish courage in the face of the Nazi invasion of September 1 are magnificent bordering on reckless, replete with images of Polish horse cavalry riding out to meet German tanks. Little Poland never had a chance, particularly when the Soviet Union piled on two weeks later. Poland capitulated in a month, but the German victory was more costly than expected. Much more.  It’s estimated that the Wehrmacht expended twice as much ammunition defeating Poland as they did France the following Spring.  A country with a third larger population.

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The combined fighting forces of the two nations wound up in France in accordance with the Franco-Polish Military Alliance of 1921, thence to Great Britain following the French capitulation of June, 1940.

Battle of Britain, MilkmanBritish military authorities were slow to recognize the flying skills of the Polskie Siły Powietrzne (Polish Air Forces), the first fighter squadrons only seeing action in the third phase of the Battle of Britain. Despite the late start, Polish flying skills proved superior to those of less-experienced Commonwealth pilots. The 303rd Polish fighter squadron became the most successful RAF fighter unit of the period, its most prolific flying ace being Czech Sergeant Josef František.  He was killed in action in the last phase of the Battle of Britain, the day after his 26th birthday.

145 Polish aircrew served with the RAF during this period, making up the largest non-British contribution to the Battle of Britain.  The smallest is a two-way tie at one each, between Barbados and Jamaica.

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Polish Air Force memorial, St Clement Danes, London

In the end, Great Britain could not be defeated. German resources greatly outnumbered those of the English, but the ratio was reversed when it came to losses. The two nations were at a stalemate and none but a Pyrrhic victory was possible for either. Hitler indefinitely postponed Operation Sea Lion on September 17. By the end of October, the air raids had come to an end.

In the end, the Battle of Britain remains a story we remain free to tell, in English.  Prime Minister Winston Churchill captured the spirit of the period, as only he could.

“Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few”.