Magazine article The Spectator

Glory in East Grinstead

Magazine article The Spectator

Glory in East Grinstead

Article excerpt

Glory in East Grinstead THE RECONSTRUCTION OF WARRIORS: ARCHIBALD MCINDOE, THE ROYAL AIR FORCE AND THE GUINEA PIG CLUB by E.R. Mayhew Greenhill Books, £18.99, pp. 256, ISBN 1853676101 £16.99 (plus £2.25 p&p) 0870 800 4848

For most people, plastic surgery is now almost synonymous with cosmetic surgery: the removal of the ravages of time from the faces of the rich and vain, the smoothing out of wrinkles, the tightening of flab. It was not always so, however, for plastic surgery as a specialty was born in the crucible of war. The most famous plastic surgeon who ever lived was probably Sir Archibald Mclndoe, the New Zealander who turned a hospital ward in East Grinstead into a centre of world renown. It was he who not only surgically reconstructed the faces and hands of RAF airmen who had been badly burnt in crashes, often taking a dozen or more operations to do so, but who also trained a cadre of plastic surgeons whose influence was felt worldwide long after his death in 1960 at the age of 59.

This book is not a biography (or hagiography) of McIndoe, however, but an account of the circumstances in which thousands of RAF men, more in Bomber than in Fighter Command, came to be burnt; how they were transported to East Grinstead; how they were treated in the hospital; how they formed a club called the Guinea Pig Club, because before McIndoe came to East Grinstead so little was known about the correct treatment of extensive burns, and he therefore had to experiment and improvise; and how McIndoe enlisted the whole population of the town in support of these brave men so that they did not feel socially excluded, to use a phrase that the current government uses so cavalierly.

The story is a truly inspiring one. On the whole, the RAF behaved well towards its injured airmen, at a time when generosity and decent treatment rather than parsimony could not be taken for granted. It appears that the top brass understood that for the RAF to look after its own when they were injured was essential for morale in a service in which the casualties were so high. This might have been obvious, but top brass have always been good at overlooking the obvious.

As for the men who were burnt, it is impossible to read of them without feeling humbled by their bravery, their humour, their modesty, their resilience, their devotion to duty. …

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