Wartime airman remembers burns surgeon on 80th anniversary of support society

·3-min read
Jim Marshall holds a picture of himself as a young airman (Robert Perry/PA)
Jim Marshall holds a picture of himself as a young airman (Robert Perry/PA)

One of the few remaining members of a club for seriously burned Second World War airmen has remembered the pioneering surgeon who rebuilt his life – 80 years after the formation of the trailblazing society.

The Guinea Pig Club was established on July 20 1941 to support young airmen with devastating injuries, taking its name from the experimental treatment they received.

Injured men contributed to the development of plastic surgery after going under the knife in the early days of the pioneering procedures, and they also challenged the existing perception that disabilities were life-limiting and went on to mentor other burns victims.

Visionary surgeon Sir Archibald McIndoe oversaw new techniques treating the wounded at the Queen Victoria Hospital in East Grinstead, Sussex and his work has been remembered by Jim Marshall, 98, who joined the RAF in 1941 aged 18.

The Guinea Pig Club means to me what it means to many people - life

Jim Marshall, RAF veteran

Mr Marshall underwent three years of painful rehabilitation in an Italian hospital after surviving a horrific plane crash in 1945 over Italy which killed the rest of his crew. They had previously flown 100 missions without incident.

The navigator, who flew principally in Wellington bomber planes, then underwent treatment in East Grinstead, which became known as “the town which didn’t stare” as locals were accustomed to wounded servicemen in their midst.

Mr Marshall, now living at the Erskine veterans’ village at Bishopton, Renfrewshire and the last of the club alive in Scotland, said: “The Guinea Pig Club means to me what it means to many people – life.

“McIndoe was very approachable. He would come and talk to us all, he was very popular with all the patients. In fact he asked us to his cottage, to get a change of air.”

The surgeon fostered comradeship among burns victims by encouraging singing together (RAF Benevolent Fund/PA)
The surgeon fostered comradeship among burns victims by encouraging singing together (RAF Benevolent Fund/PA)

Sir Archibald is also credited with emphasising the mental recovery from disfiguring injuries and fostering a communal spirit on the ward by forgetting about military ranks, setting up a drinking club, and promoting socialising and singing among the wounded.

Mr Marshall said one of the two engines on the plane he was on failed, adding: “I didn’t even feel the crash, I knew nothing, I was unconscious.

“I like to think my crew all died with the force of the crash, they could have died of their injuries caused by the force but I hope not.

“The plane kept on travelling which I didn’t know about, breaking up, on fire, through the forest and somewhere during that I was thrown out of the plane. I was still unconscious and knew nothing about it.

“I don’t know how long I was unconscious but eventually I woke up and my clothes were on fire and I was on fire.”

Air vice-marshal Chris Elliot, controller of the RAF Benevolent Fund, said: “Jim’s story of overcoming adversity is inspiring and so typical of his generation.

Visionary surgeon Sir Archibald McIndoe (Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund /PA)
Visionary surgeon Sir Archibald McIndoe (Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund /PA)

“Rather than thinking of himself, and his injuries, for Jim the loss of his crewmates was the hardest thing to bear.

“McIndoe encouraged in these men a positivity for the future, and a determination to recover and lead fulfilled lives.

“Today, the same spirit lives on in the Casevac Club, a group of veterans who were wounded during tours of Afghanistan and Iraq.

“And as long as the RAF exists, the RAF Benevolent Fund will stand by all who serve their country, ensuring they are never alone in their hour of need.”

The Casevac Club – pronounced cazzy-vack, which is a military phrase meaning casualty evacuation – was set up in 2017 and the Duke of Sussex backed its establishment through the Royal Foundation.

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