Saturday, 27 May 2017

Dunkirk - Praying for a Miracle

The evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force took place between May 26th and June 4th, 1940. It was a miracle that around 338,000 men were rescued and brought back to Britain. It is a miracle they made it off the beach at all, given the fact that they were cornered, and stuck with nowhere to go, right in the midst of hell. While Hitler had ordered the elite Panzers to stand down, the Germans continued to shell the men on the beach and the Luftwaffe bombed and strafed from the air. It was chaos, everywhere you looked.

A sea of khaki engulfed the beach as tens of thousands of soldiers milled around with nowhere to go. All just waiting amidst the confusion, amidst the bombs, while friends and comrades fell all around them, either dead or wounded. Commanding officers had no idea what was happening and struggled to find out. For the rest of the men, it seemed hopeless. They could almost see England, lying across the Channel - home. 

One eyewitness recalls the sight that met him when his battalion finally arrived on Bray-Dunes. Looking out to sea, columns of soldiers were four-deep, wading out into the sea, only stopping once the water was shoulder-height. They were waiting for the little boats to come and take them out to the awaiting ships further out. Their lines wriggled rhythmically with every rolling wave.

On the beach, the dead and wounded lay all around. Those fatally wounded lay dying, either quietly, or crying out for their mothers, their fear and pain engulfing them as they waited for the inevitable. The medics had done their best, but it was hopeless.

Throughout it all, the Stukas returned, defiant and determined, their attacks relentless as they dived screaming from the sky like a host of angry hornets to release their bombs before swiftly climbing away. Aircraft then machine-gunned the beach, cutting through the lines of men in the water and on the mole - the Dunkirk jetty. More men fell, either killed or wounded, and the dead floated in the water, gently pushed aside by those in the line who were waiting, always waiting, sometimes for many hours. One soldier later recalled counting three tides while waiting in the water before he boarded a ship.

Many of the boys on the beach were a sorry sight. They were not all well-trained, experienced soldiers. Many were simply young lads, eager to do their bit. One such private recalled how his training amounted to firing about ten rounds on Salisbury Plain, prior to being shipped to France. Another recalled being given a rifle, but no ammunition. They were all so poorly equipped. 

As night fell and darkness closed in all around, still the Stukas came, firstly dropping parachute flares, illuminating the sky before dropping their bombs and strafing the helpless troops.

After one Stuka raid, men stood on the beach crying while others sank to their knees and prayed. Some dug holes in the dunes, desperate to have shelter from the bombs. When one soldier found two young privates sheltering in his foxhole, he told them they could stay and he went elsewhere. They were later killed when a mortar landed beside them. 

But even though the Luftwaffe seemed intent on finishing off all those men on the beach, the fact that the Panzers had halted, and the fact that some of the BEF along with the French were still fighting rear guard action against the Germans, gave the BEF a greater chance of being rescued. It bought time and now today, on the 27th May 1940, men were boarding ships. Unfortunately, only around 7,500 men would be successfully evacuated today as a result of the heavy aerial bombardment by the Luftwaffe.

For the men still waiting, still praying for a miracle, it must have seemed impossible. For the fortunate number who made it aboard a ship that day, the relief they felt was immense but yet they worried about how they would be received back home. They felt they were running away from the enemy - they were cowards and surely the people back home would see them as such.

Friday, 26 May 2017

The Miracle of Dunkirk

The long-awaited movie, Dunkirk, by Christopher Nolan, which tells the story of Operation Dynamo, will be released in July 2017. Today, May 26th 2017, marks the 77th anniversary of Dunkirk, the daring rescue mission Britain launched to bring as many of the British Expeditionary Troops home as possible. Why? Well, the German army had them cornered in a small pocket of northern France and to leave them was not an option. Not only was it a humanitarian mission, but equally a military one, as without those men, Britain would be severely depleted of ground forces, leaving Britain wide open to a German invasion, her military might severely depleted.

In early May 1940, the German army swept across northern France and Belgium, heralding a brutal end to the "Phoney War". They had the upper hand, moving with such a might that pushed the British Expeditionary Force back into a retreat towards the coast of northern France. Alongside the British, the French army fought fiercely, but it was no use. The German army at this time was a far greater force, with a superior fire power, greater number of men and the elite Panzer Tank Division.
In a final desperate act, the French called on General Gort, the British commander, to advance south and join them in one last stand, but he refused, realising this could result in the loss of all his men. The BEF were surrounded, beaten into a corner of France, and all seemed hopeless. 

On May 22nd, preparations to evacuate the BEF were in full swing, led by Vice-Admiral Bertram Ramsay. The codename for the Dunkirk evacuation was "Operation Dynamo", named after the Dynamo room in the tunnels beneath Dover Castle, where their naval operation HQ was based.
"Nothing but a miracle can save the BEF now," said General Alan Brooke.

Churchill with Vice-Admiral Ramsay at naval HQ

On the 23rd May 1940, Churchill ordered Gort to withdraw and the troops then made their way to the port of Dunkirk. The BEF still had to fight as they headed to the coast, and do their utmost to hold the Germans back long enough for the evacuation to take place. As the army convoy made their way along roads, they encountered fleeing refugees - mothers pushing prams, children and elderly. Then the Luftwaffe attacked, diving low in their Stukas, often firing and bombing the civilians as opposed to the BEF, something which both surprised and horrified the troops. 

On May 24th, Hitler issued an order to "halt" stopping the Panzer tanks in their tracks. The reasons behind Hitler's actions remain unknown although military historians have their theories. However, this gave the BEF their best chance of retreat and evacuation back to Britain. All was not yet lost. The Luftwaffe continued, bombing the British destroyers, bombing the men on the beach, bombing those still fleeing. 
Calais fell on May 26th.
Just before 7pm on May 26th, Churchill gave the order for Operation Dynamo to begin.
On the eve of the operation, King George VI attended a special service at Westminster Abbey as a national day of prayer had been declared and services were held all around the country.
While Britain sent ships to evacuate her men from Dunkirk, it seemed unlikely they would be able to evacuate all of the troops. At best they estimated they would rescue some forty-five thousand men over a forty-eight-hour period. 
The admiralty had already put a request out to all civilians, asking for boats to aid the evacuation. Many vessels were requisitioned by the navy who also took a number of boats whose owners could not be contacted. Local fisherman and private boat owners answered the call, including some from as far as the Isle of Man. There were fishing boats, fire ships, private yachts, barges and paddle steamers, many of which were captained by their civilian owners. One of the boats used was captained by the former second officer of the Titanic.

On May 27th, 1940, a flotilla of ships like no other set sail; a mix of fishing boats, yachts, ferries, motorboats and more flowed from the Thames and out into the English Channel, setting sail for Dunkirk. As the French coast came into view, smoke and flames filled the sky as the small port glowed red. 

The beaches were filled with men and littered with equipment and vehicles such as command cars, ambulances, and tanks, abandoned and sabotaged by the troops. The scene was one of absolute carnage and chaos. There were wounded and dead. The Germans were now close enough to shell the beach while Stukas and Messerschmitts bombed and fired from above. The RAF provided air cover, and did their best to fight the Luftwaffe and hold them at bay while the troops waited on the beach.
The little boats sailing up the Thames
Lines of men tumbled along the jetty to reach awaiting ships while others waded out into the sea, struggling in the deep water which lapped over their heads as they tried to reach the smaller vessels. As the boats took men aboard, the men in the lines moved forward, while hordes more made their way over the dunes and across the beach, forming new lines, awaiting their turn to board. 

In the distance, troops from the 51st (Highland) Division fought rearguard actions, trying to keep the Germans at bay in order to give the rest of the BEF their best chance of evacuation. Many would become prisoners of war, while some would successfully evade, fleeing to Marseilles. 
The first day of the evacuation did not go as planned and only around 7,500 men were rescued, due to heavy attacks by the Germans who launched a massive aerial raid on Dunkirk, killing around a third of the remaining civilians. The noise was infernal, continuous, and compounded by the roar of aircraft with firepower from the air. As ships were bombed, fires erupted, and flames raged across the water as leaking oil burned. 

Stuka bombers attack. Image courtesy of Getty Images.

A British destroyer rested on the beach, bombed and burning and the harbour was partially blocked by sunken ships. The small boats would fill up with the men waiting in the water and ferry them out to the larger British ships further out before turning around and returning for more. Lines of weary soldiers continued to trudge down to the shore and out into the sea like a swarm of bedraggled ants. Shells whistled overhead and bombs exploded all around, throwing shrapnel in all directions. 

There were around 900 little boats that took part in the evacuation, often with only one or two crew aboard. The men waited patiently in orderly lines on the 'Dunkirk Mole' - a long stone and wooden jetty - while under constant attack from the Luftwaffe above. Signaller Alfred Baldwin said "they looked as if they were waiting for a bus. There was no pushing or shoving." These men had been deprived of sleep, food, and water, and yet still they obeyed commands and maintained ranks.

By the 4th June, the last of the men were rescued from the French port.

Around 338,000 men in total were evacuated, making this the largest military evacuation in history. 

Around 40,000 men were left behind, which included all those who were dead. Some evaded while the majority were taken prisoner and marched off to slave labour camps in Germany and Poland where they spent the rest of the war. 

Churchill hailed the operation a "miracle of deliverance" but he also warned the nation that "wars are not won by evacuations." He went on to deliver one of his most famous speeches in the House of Commons on the 4th June 1940, where he declared, "We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills. We shall never surrender!" 

Churchill also paid a special tribute to the RAF for their role in Operation Dynamo, in providing some protection to the waiting ships and soldiers.

The miracle of Dunkirk afforded Britain time to re-group and to build up her defences.

  • Interesting Facts

    During the evacuation lorries were lashed together in the sea to construct makeshift jetties to help get soldiers aboard boats.

    The Medway Queen, a paddle steamer, made seven round trips to Dunkirk, rescuing 7000 men in total.

    The RAF flew 3,500 sorties over Dunkirk. 145 RAF aircraft were lost while the Luftwaffe lost 156.

    The destroyer Wakeful was torpedoed and sunk on May 29th, with the loss of 600 lives. 
    In all, it's estimated that 3,500 British were killed on the beaches or at sea while more than 1,000 civilians lost their lives in Dunkirk air raids.

    One of the little ships, 'The Crested Eagle' was bombed after picking up 600 men. 300 died in the flames while the Luftwaffe fired at those trying to escape. The remains of the wreck can be seen at low tide.

    Tuesday, 16 May 2017

    The Dambusters: Operation Chastise

    Today heralds 70 years since the Dambusters Squadron (617) embarked upon their daring raid of the Ruhr dams in Germany. The mission, codenamed Operation Chastise, took off from RAF Scampton at midnight on the 16th May 1943, with Wing Commander, Guy Gibson as the leader.

    The Air Ministry had identified the dams in the Ruhr Valley as potential targets as early as 1937. Operation Chastise had its origins in a meeting of the RAF Bombing Committee way back in 1938 when potential weak spots were identified in Germany's industry. The reservoirs were key - they provided water and power to industry and to sever the supply would slow up German's war machine. It was decided that by destroying the Mohne dam, enormous volumes of water would be lost, water which was necessary for the industries in the Ruhr Valley. By destroying the smaller dams, there would be a loss of electrical power and much disruption, not to mention the destruction caused by the subsequent flooding.

    Barnes Wallis
    Barnes Wallis was an engineer and an aircraft designer. When WW2 was declared, he immediately began to think of what he could do to help shorten the war.

    In 1941, it was concluded that less than ten percent of bombs were falling within a five-mile radius of their target. Wallis began to focus his attention on particular targets, including the dams of the Ruhr Valley. He quickly realised that the available weaponry was no match for the construction of the dams. No, something special was required. Not only was he going to have to design a suitable bomb, but he also realised that he would have to consider the aircraft used and look at necessary adaptations.

    He experimented with bouncing marbles across a water tub in his garden at home and immediately realised he had something. After some time and a great number of experiments, he came up with the idea of a bomb that could potentially be released upstream of the dam, and bounce upon the water a few times before hitting its target.

    Using a modified Wellington bomber, experiments were carried out over Chesil Beach in September 1942, using a spherical-shaped bomb. Following the tests, officials gave the go-ahead for further testing, which eventually led to the developments of two bombs, a larger version of the bouncing bomb, codenamed 'Upkeep' and a smaller variant, codenamed 'Highball', for use on Mosquitoes when attacking ships such as the Tirpitz.

    'Upkeep' was a cylindrical mine designed to explode approximately thirty feet below the surface. It was just under five feet long and a little over four feet in diameter. This 'bouncing bomb' was designed to act like a skipping stone, to avoid hitting torpedo.

    In early 1943, it was suggested that the optimum time to launch a raid on the dams was after they were filled to capacity following the spring rainfall. In February, the go-ahead was given, and twenty-three Lancaster bombers were allocated to be modified to carry Upkeep. Having originally been a spherical shape, it had since been modified to a cylindrical shape following further testing.

    The aircraft had their mid-upper gun turrets removed, along with the bomb-bay doors. Adaptations were made to hold the bombs in position. Twin spotlights were fitted along with VHF radio telephones which would allow the crews to communicate with each aircraft.

    Meanwhile, crews for the mission had to be sought. Squadron X was formed at RAF Scampton on March 21st, 1943. The Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur 'Bomber' Harris appointed Wing Commander Guy Gibson to lead the squadron and not even he was privy to the top secret information of the planned mission. His role was to train the men.
    Wing Commander Guy Gibson
    Some very experienced pilots and crew volunteered to serve under Gibson, men he already knew. However, not all were experienced, with some having flown less than ten missions, and for some of the flight engineers, this was to be their first sortie.

    On March 31st training commenced. This consisted of low-level flying and navigating at zero feet. They then trained over water, which caused problems for the pilots who struggled to judge their height over the water.

    On the 16th May 1943, the night of a full moon, the final briefing began at 6 pm. Guy Gibson introduced Barnes Wallis to the crews, and full details of the mission ahead were finally revealed.

    The mission was divided into three waves of attack, each wave following a different route, to their individual targets. The first wave comprised of nine aircraft and was tasked with attacking the Mohne, Eder and Sorpe dams. Wing Commander Gibson led this wave, along with Martin, Hopgood, Young, Shannon, Maudsley, Astell, Knight and Maltby.

    The Second wave, which took off first as they had a longer route, comprised of five aircraft, piloted by Barlow, Munro, Rice, Byers and McCarthy.

    The third wave had five aircraft piloted by Ottley, Burpee, Brown, Anderson and Townsend.
    Their routes were flown at very low level to avoid defences. After crossing the Dutch coast, all navigation was done by map reading and dead reckoning, and it must have been nerve-wracking considering they were flying extremely low in the dark, with only the light of the moon.

    Amazingly, some of the aircraft were flown below power cables while others followed roads, flying below tree-top level. Byers aircraft strayed off course and was shot down over the island of Vlieland with the loss of all on board. Munro's aircraft also flew over Vlieland and was damaged by anti-aircraft fire, forcing them to return to Scampton.

    When Rice's Lancaster hit the surface of the sea, the Upkeep bomb was ripped free, and the back of the aircraft was flooded. Luckily, they made it back to Scampton.
    Barlow's aircraft hit power lines and is thought to have possibly been hit with flak first, and it crashed with the loss of all on board. By now, four out of five of the aircraft from the second wave had either been downed or forced to abort.

    The Mohne was the first dam to be attacked. Gibson led his formation directly to it, and while they circled out of range of the flak, he made a single pass over the dam before informing the others of his intention to attack. He flew down to skim the water at the height of sixty feet, so low in fact the bomb-aimer yelled they were about to hit trees. The navigator flicked on the spotlights, and the bomb-aimer waited for the precise moment to release the mine. Flak rained down all around them while the front-gunner fired back. Gibson later confessed to being afraid as his brightly lit aircraft became the prime target, but he retained his composure to do his job and lined his Lancaster up, maintaining a height of sixty feet while the flight engineer adjusted their speed. At 00:28 hours, they released Upkeep, which bounced three times but sank short of the wall. It detonated, and a vast plume of water surged up and over the dam wall. After it had subsided, they could see that the wall was still intact.

    Gibson then called Hopgood in to make his attack. The Germans, now prepared, fired relentlessly, hitting Hopgood's aircraft several times. The bomb-aimer, unhappy with the approach, was about to order another run when they were hit once more. Hopgood ordered the release, which was actioned, and the bomb was dropped late. It bounced up over the dam and exploded, destroying the main powerhouse. Fire now raged through the aircraft and Hopgood ordered the crew to bale out. The aircraft then exploded. Only the rear gunner and the bomb-aimer managed to bale out. The others were killed.

    Martin attacked next, and Gibson flew alongside to distract the gunners. Their bomb exploded about twenty yards from the dam. Next up was Young who made the perfect approach and their bomb hit the dam wall centre. The dam wall still seemed to be intact when Maltby made his run and noticed the wall was now crumbling. They dropped their bomb which was a direct hit, and millions of gallons of water surged through the breach and down through the valley. Gibson had ordered Shannon to attack next, but now he cancelled the order and instructed him to follow him on to the Eder dam, along with Maudslay, Young and Knight.

    In conclusion, of the nineteen aircraft that had left Scampton, eleven had attacked the dams, the Mohne, Eder and Sorpe.
    On the return trip, two more aircraft would be shot down. In all, eight aircraft were lost in the raid, equating to fifty-three men killed and three more became POWs.
    617 Squadron after the mission
    The results were significant, with industry badly affected, many areas flooded and the loss of power. Thousands of men were drafted in by the Germans to help rebuild the dams, taking them away from the Atlantic Wall defences they were building. This was to aid the Allied invasion on DDay in June 1944. Thirteen hundred civilians were killed, including around five-hundred Ukranian slave labourers when the dam ruptured, causing mass flooding.

    Goebbels later said the attack was "an act of war against the state, but one to be admired, for the English had navigated and planned so thoroughly."

    The Dambusters raid was a huge boost to morale, mid-war when nothing was certain.

    Fred Sutherland
    Today, there are only two surviving veterans of the former Dambusters.George 'Johnny' Johnson is the last remaining British survivor of that squadron and Canadian front gunner Fred Sutherland is the last surviving Canadian crew member of the raid.

    George 'Johnny' Johnson
    The bravery and the sacrifice of the young men involved will always be recognised and honoured.
    The mission was top secret and extremely dangerous. Flying at such low levels left the bombers extremely exposed, and the loss of life was tragic on both sides.

    I had the honour of meeting the daughter of Barnes Wallace a short while ago and she explained how her father never got over the loss of life, a burden that remained with him for the rest of his days.

    Remember them all this evening at midnight. Think of them leaving to board their Lancaster's, taking off and embarking upon the daring raid to the Ruhr Valley in Germany. Remember those who never returned and those who did, only to tragically lose their lives later in the war, as was the fate of Guy Gibson. Please, spare a moment to remember them all on this 74th anniversary of Operation Chastise.
    Guy Gibson & crew preparing for take-off. Operation Chastise.

    Saturday, 13 May 2017

    Farewell Sir, Blue Skies: My Tribute to Veteran Des O'Connell

    I'm so sad to hear the news that veteran and Guinea Pig Club member, Des O'Connell has passed away at the age of 97.
    Des O'Connell

    On April 27th, 1941, Flying Officer Desmond O'Connell was an observer on a bombing mission to sink the Bismarck. His aircraft, an Armstrong Whitworth Whitley bomber took off overladen with fuel and bombs, struggled to gain height and crashed into a hillside where it burst into flames. From his position at the rear of the aircraft, Des crawled out through the damaged fuselage and was doused in aviation fuel. Unfortunately, the grass outside was already blazing and he became engulfed in flames.
    Des O'Connell before the accident
    Des suffered 50% burns. He once said in an interview that he recalled looking down and thinking how his gloves had melted when it fact it was the skin shredding from his hands. He was taken to the nearest cottage hospital where staff feared the worst.

    Des was so badly burned that his commanding officer asked his mother where she wished her son to be buried, a conversation sadly overheard by Des himself. He was twenty-one years old and I can only try to imagine the suffering and the fear he must have gone through back then. Fortunately, his mother demanded that he be moved to a specialist unit and so he was transferred to RAF Halton, and while there he was spotted by the pioneering plastic surgeon, Archibald McIndoe.

    McIndoe assessed him and decided that he could almost certainly help this young airman and arranged for him to be transferred to his unit at the Queen Victoria Hospital in East Grinstead. Once there, like many of the young men on Archie's ward, he was to endure multiple operations and skin grafts which took more than two years. He needed a new chin, eyelids, ear tips and skin grafts to both legs.

    The men in McIndoe's care, including Des, formed a club in July 1941, and they called it the Guinea Pig Club, for that is exactly what they were - guinea pigs for Maestro to experiment on. Maestro was, of course, the nickname for Archie. Some of the men also referred to their hospital ward as the 'beauty shop', the place you were sent to be made up. They had such strength, humour and spirit despite their horrific and often life-changing injuries.
    Archie McIndoe (far right) with some of the servicemen he treated
    And so it was that Des became inaugurated into this wonderful club after his baptism by fire. Over time the club gathered 649 members and Des was to be an active supporter of the club his whole life. Below is a video of Des talking briefly about his life-changing accident and the beauty of the Guinea Pig Club.
    In the video, Des mentions how he'd like the Guinea Pig Club to be remembered for being good. The fact is, the club was a godsend and it was a brilliant idea generated on the lawn outside Ward 3 (Archie's ward) on a glorious summer's day in July 1941. Back then, of course, they had no idea just how beneficial the club would be.

    I'm certain his words shall live on and we shall remember the brave few who suffered so for our freedom today. The club continues with the few remaining members and it shall be remembered in history, along with the brilliance of Sir Archibald McIndoe, plastic surgeon and philanthropist.

    Thank you for your service. Blue skies, Sir. Rest well.

    There is a beautiful memorial plaque within the Queen Victoria Hospital at East Grinstead which lists all the names of the men treated there during the war - all members of the Guinea Pig Club.

    You can find more articles about the Guinea Pig Club and the work of Sir Archibald McIndoe here by following the links below:

    Who Was Sir Archibald McIndoe?

    75th Anniversary of the Guinea Pig Club & Sir Archibald McIndoe

    My Tribute to Veteran & Guinea Pig, Dr Sandy Saunders

    Friday, 3 March 2017

    My Tribute to Veteran & Guinea Pig, Dr Sandy Saunders

    Dr Arthur Courtney Saunders, a veteran and member of the Guinea Pig Club, sadly passed away on 26th February 2017, aged 94.

    He was known to all as Sandy. Unfortunately, I never had the chance to meet Sandy in person, but I was honoured to speak with him on the telephone last year, and our conversation shall remain with me forever.

    In November 2016, my debut novel, The Beauty Shop was released. I wrote it because I wanted to share with the world the remarkable story of the Guinea Pig Club - a club formed by injured servicemen who required the care of New Zealand plastic surgeon, Archibald McIndoe.

    It is a remarkable piece of history not only because of the pioneering plastic surgery McIndoe undertook but in everything else that he did. In many ways, he quite literally gave his all in helping 649 young men overcome the most horrific, debilitating injuries and set them back on the path to life; to living whole lives.

    One of the 'guinea pigs' was a young man called Sandy Saunders, a man who was to become so inspired by the work of this remarkable surgeon that he too would train to become a doctor, and spend the rest of his working life in medical practice. As a GP, he was highly respected by all who knew him, and he spent his life giving back, helping others as he too had once been helped.

    Sandy Saunders back row, 3rd from left
    Sandy's own story was remarkable. Having witnessed the beginning of the war as a civilian, including the bombings in his hometown of Liverpool, he received his call-up at the age of 21 in 1943. Sandy joined the Army as an officer, but later, having been so inspired by D-Day, the glider pilots and Pegasus Bridge, he volunteered for the Glider Pilot Regiment. Unfortunately, on the 27th September 1945, while undertaking a training flight, he was attempting to land his Tiger Moth at RAF Gaydon in Warwickshire when he became caught in crosswinds. The engine stalled and the aircraft plummeted. Sandy recalls waking up, trapped in the midst of an inferno. Tragically, his navigator was killed. Despite his injuries, Sandy somehow managed to unbuckle his harness and clamber out of the aircraft, after which he collapsed on the ground. Later, having regained consciousness in hospital, he soon learned he had forty percent burns to his hands, face and legs.

    Bandaged from head to toe, it would be three months before he would see himself in a mirror. Recalling that moment, he told me how it shocked him. He was horrified and felt as if all was lost and slipped into depression. But, by chance, he was later referred to Archibald McIndoe who quickly assessed him, saw what needed to be done, and very promptly arranged for him to be admitted for surgery. It was a new beginning for Sandy. Archie, as many called him, performed a series of operations, significantly improving Sandy's hands, face and legs. During this time, Sandy learned to adapt, to cope with his injuries, and he became very interested in Archie's work.

    While a new life dawned, he spent the rest of his life devoted to his work and his family, but memories of war, and more importantly, his accident, never left him. He explained how he often had nightmares, reliving the crash, reliving the guilt he carried over the death of his friend and navigator. He said to me, 'Well, it's rather like being the driver of a car and having a crash which kills your passenger. You'd feel guilty, wouldn't you?' That has stayed with me ever since and yes, I'm quite sure I would feel guilty. His words were so emotive, and have made me question many things in life since our chat.

    Sandy Saunders 2016
    He ended the call with the news that he was having major surgery soon and he may nor survive. I immediately thought the worst, and he asked me to pray for him. I said I would, and I certainly did. Fortunately, he did survive the operation but later received the news that he was terminally ill. Sadly, he passed away at home with his wife by his side, just as he had wished, on 26th February 2017.

    Something else I recall from our chat was how warm he was, how friendly and caring still, even taking the time to ask about my family and me and giving me some advice at one stage. He never ceased caring about people, about life and about the things that mattered.

    He was an active member of the Guinea Pig Club throughout his life, and he began and led the campaign to have a permanent memorial to the club, to honour all 649 members. This was unveiled in November 2016 at the National Memorial Arboretum, by HRH the Duke of Edinburgh. The memorial bears an inscription, penned by Sandy himself, and reads: Out of the flames came inspiration.

    In many ways, Sandy reminded me of Sir Archibald McIndoe, and I am truly blessed and honoured to have spoken with this dear gentleman, something I will treasure for the rest of my life.

    For Sandy Saunders, a man who rose from the ashes to live a life filled with love and compassion, beating the machine of war in all its inhumanity, spending his life giving back to the people. He never tired of telling his story, realising how important it was for people to understand and to learn from it. Thank you for your service. Blue skies, Sir. Rest well.

    Dr Sandy Saunders (1922 -2017)

    Sir Archibald McIndoe top centre
    Several weeks ago, Sandy took to the skies for one last flight.

    Sunday, 27 November 2016

    Publication Day: The Beauty Shop Released 28th November 2016

    My debut novel, The Beauty Shop is released today, the 28th November 2016. Set during World War Two and based on the true story of the Guinea Pig Club, it explores the nature of good looks, social acceptance and the true meaning of 'skin deep' via three interlocking experiences.


    England, 1942. After three years of WWII, Britain is showing the scars. But in this darkest of days, three lives intertwine, changing their destinies and those of many more.

    Dr Archibald McIndoe, a New Zealand plastic surgeon with unorthodox methods, is on a mission to treat and rehabilitate badly burned airmen – their bodies and souls. With the camaraderie and support of the Guinea Pig Club, his boys battle to overcome disfigurement, pain, and prejudice to learn to live again.

    John ‘Mac’ Mackenzie of the US Air Force is aware of the odds. He has one chance in five of surviving the war. Flying bombing missions through hell and back, he’s fighting more than the Luftwaffe. Fear and doubt stalk him on the ground and in the air, and he’s torn between his duty and his conscience.

    Shy, decent and sensible Stella Charlton’s future seems certain until war breaks out. As a new recruit to the WAAF, she meets an American pilot on New Year’s Eve. After just one dance, she falls head over heels for the handsome airman. But when he survives a crash, she realises her own battle has only just begun.

    Based on a true story, "The Beauty Shop" is a moving tale of love, compassion, and determination against a backdrop of wartime tragedy.


    Chapter One

    Ward III, Queen Victoria Hospital, East Grinstead, November 1942

    The boy lay swathed in bandages that masked third-degree burns to the face, neck, chest, arms, and legs; the aftermath of a skirmish with the Luftwaffe. It was a miracle he’d been able to bail out of his flaming Spitfire and pull the cord on his parachute, with hands of molten wax, skin that hung in shards like ripped silk, and fingers melded together by the heat of the furnace. Archibald McIndoe inhaled as he hovered in the doorway of the side room and wrinkled his nose against the cloying stench of charred flesh that assaulted his nostrils. It was a nauseating odour he was used to and usually ignored, but tonight was different. Tonight it was especially malodorous and reached into the back of his throat, and he cupped his nose with his hand as he tried not to gag.

    He sauntered out into the ward. Music flowed from the gramophone further down, and the upbeat, familiar Glenn Miller sound swung out, a delightful blend of saxophones, trumpets, and strings. ‘American Patrol.’ The volume was unusually low; he sensed that was purposefully done out of respect and his heart contracted. A haze of stale cigarette smoke and the sweet aroma of beer blended in the air to mask any clinical odours or otherwise. With the blackout curtains drawn, the bedside lighting cast a subdued glow around the ward. He stopped in front of the coke stove and held his hands in the wave of heat that streamed from the door. They were still numb from the frosty evening air, even though he had been back inside for a while.

    He glanced around. The place looked more like a barracks than a hospital. One airman lay stretched out on top of his bed, reading a newspaper, a smouldering cigarette resting between the first two fingers of his right hand. He glanced up.

    ‘Evening, Maestro.’ The voice was flat.

    Archie nodded a greeting. Three others sat huddled around the table in the middle of the ward, playing cards. Suddenly, an airman in RAF blues sprang up from his chair and grabbed the blonde VAD nurse with the ruby lips and twirled her around, dancing to the tune, which promptly changed to a slower number. Then he drew her close as they waltzed to notes that quivered in the air. He glanced at Archie and grinned. ‘Hello, Maestro. Fancy a beer?’

    ‘No thanks, Dickie, not tonight.’

    His upturned mouth sagged into a straight line, and he nodded, his hand slipping from the nurse’s waist as he moved away – thirty seconds of frivolity anaesthetised by the gathering dark clouds. As Archie ambled back towards the side room, the boys gazed at him with sombre faces, their eyes glazed. Amidst the clink of beer glasses, the chain-smoking, and the banter, they all knew.

    Back in the side room, another sound filtered in, a desperate, chilling rasp, and the hairs at the nape of Archie’s neck prickled. He sighed. He had told the boy exactly what he said to all of them when they first arrived. ‘Don’t worry. We’ll fix you up.’ His stomach sank. He’d tried his best, truly he had.
    He strode over to the bed. David’s breathing had changed since this morning. He was in the period of transition; the final phase. Archie swallowed. Dear God, why had it come to this? David lay quite still, rattling breaths cutting through the hush, a thatch of golden blond hair just visible above his bandages. Did he have a girl and did she ever thread her fingers through his hair? It was a random thought, plucked from nowhere, silly really, but then this whole event was bizarre and surreal. It shouldn’t be happening – just like this damn, bloody war. The words of his cousin Harold Gillies sprung into his mind: This war will bring injuries never seen before. Archie nodded. ‘Right again, as usual,’ he muttered.

    Why couldn’t he have saved him? Yes, the boy had severe injuries, but injuries he could have survived. But the infection that had taken a serious hold several days ago had changed the course of David’s life, bending its flow in another direction. Sepsis had spread, his organs were failing, and there was nothing to be done. Nothing at all, except sit here and wait. The boy sucked in breaths through an open mouth. Archie glanced around and spotted the kidney dish on the bedside table with a mouth swab and water. He gently dabbed David’s dry lips and tongue. At least he could do that.

    Archie was not familiar with death. Most of the time, his patients lived, so it was a dreadful blow when death came calling. This boy had suffered enough, and now in a cruel twist, he would die after all, and he’d put up such a splendid fight. Archie heard Richard Hillary’s words loud and clear as if the young fighter pilot were standing next to him: Tell me, Archie. Does a chap ever sense that death is waiting?

    ‘I don’t know,’ Archie murmured. ‘But I sense it.’ He sank down on the chair next to the bed and glanced at his watch. Eleven o’clock. He pinched the bridge of his nose and closed his eyes, stifling a yawn as fatigue closed around him like a warm, fuzzy blanket. He’d spent twelve hours in surgery and longed to return home, but he would wait. The boy was an American with the RAF; a stranger on foreign soil. No one should be alone at the end.

    Sister Jamieson bustled into the room carrying a steaming, white enamel mug, her rubber-soled shoes squelching across the linoleum floor. ‘I saw you come in, and I thought you might like a cup of tea,’ she said in a hushed voice.

    ‘Thanks.’ He was in need of something a little stronger, in all honesty, but that would have to wait. He took a sip. At least it was warm.

    ‘I can ask one of the nurses to sit with him if you need to go. There’s no telling how long it will be.’ Her thin, pale lips flickered to form a faint compassionate smile, revealing a dimple on her left cheek he’d never noticed before, although the woman rarely ever smiled.

    ‘It’s all right. I’ll stay a while. Besides, there’s no one to rush home for.’ Home was but a mere shell now that his wife and daughters were in America, but at least they were safe, thank God.

    ‘Such bad luck he came down behind enemy lines. If only they could have repatriated him sooner.’

    ‘Yes, well I suppose he’s lucky they sent him back at all.’ Archie sipped the tea and Sister Jamieson retreated. He liked to think that even German doctors would obey the Hippocratic Oath and do their best for their patients. The enemy. His elder brother’s face slipped into his mind. Jack had been captured in Crete in 1941 and was now in a camp somewhere in Germany. Two birthdays spent in captivity. Archie prayed he was well and wondered if he’d received the Red Cross parcel as yet. He closed his eyes for a moment. Why in heaven had Jack joined up? He’d even had to lie about his age, given that he was forty-one at the time. Archie shook his head. Jack had inherited Mother’s artistic ability and had studied art, but he’d gone on to run the family printing business after Father passed away. It was as if war had sought him out, with the lure of one final fling.

    The music from the ward suddenly ceased, and a hush descended. Out in the corridor, the sluice door protested as it swung shut with its usual creaky groan and water gushed as someone turned on a tap. The night nurse rattled past the door with a tray of steaming mugs, and he caught the comforting aroma of malt as it drifted in the air on a ribbon of steam. He glanced at the rise and fall of David’s chest as the boy sucked in shallow breaths, followed by the release of excruciating rasps that snarled over his lips.

    The universal buy link

    Social Media Links

    Wednesday, 26 October 2016

    Author Hilary Custance Green & Surviving the Death Railway

    Today I'm so thrilled to welcome the author, Hilary Custance Green, who recently released her latest book, Surviving the Death Railway. 

    Welcome, Hilary and please tell us a little about you.

             I’m a Jack of all Trades. I spent twenty years as a sculptor, then went back to university and became a Research Psychologist. To balance the academic life, I started writing and publishing fiction. I found it enormously satisfying, so since retiring from the Medical Research Council, I have continued to write. What I write is fiction, but I try and look honestly and realistically at the way individuals cope with what life throws at them. 

    What genres do you write and why?

    This is always a difficult question to answer. I guess it is literary, but at the lighter end of the genre or maybe you would say it is the literary end of general fiction. I explore some serious themes, but I like to write about love and adventure.

    When did you first become aware of wanting to be a writer?

    I was a reader first ­– the original bookworm. I dreamt of becoming a poet but found my own efforts embarrassingly bad. I scribbled endlessly through my teens, but was frustrated by my inept writing skills. The real breakthrough came with the typewriter and then – utter bliss – the computer. Writing became three dimensional, like a sculpture. I could shape ideas, move words, paragraphs, and whole pages. I could clothe a skeleton outline in any order I liked, without losing track of it.

    Which authors do you feel have influenced you the most?

    My biggest influence during childhood was Kipling – the most mesmerising storyteller, who climbed into the skin of different peoples and animals with ease and made a feast of language. Then there is Mary Renault who combines history, love and the mental life of her protagonists, so satisfyingly. I think she nails that meeting point of erotic and enduring love. Nevil Shute remains a favourite because of the way he is interested in low profile characters – ordinary people who become heroes and heroines in spite of themselves. I admire Sebastian Faulks’s writing, both fiction, and non-fiction, and his research is exemplary.

    How has your family history shaped your writing?

    In terms of subject matter, not at all. Yet my mother’s social conscience travels with me. My father’s attitude that it is possible to make absolutely anything is certainly built in. Both of them were Cambridge graduates, and though neither were academic high achievers, they gave me a respect for reading and thinking and an assumption that there is no fundamental difference between a man and a woman or between nation and nation – except cultural ones.

    What do you love the most about writing and what do you dislike?

    I think I remain at heart a builder (as I was as a sculptor), someone who loves to take a skeletal idea and clothe and shape it until it comes as near to the original vision as possible.  There is a moment in every novel where it tries to fall apart. It is three-quarters written, the major turning points and climaxes are in place, but the glue between them starts to dry out too soon, parts fall off, the balance shifts too far from the centre. Belief is hard to hold onto at this stage.
    Like most other writers, I also dislike the aftermath – the promoting and marketing.

    Can you share with us the next book on your reading list?

             The truth? The book that has just risen to the top of the pile by my bed is Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers! A non-fiction book, by journalist Mary Roach, looking at what happens to bodies after death. The opening line is: The way I see it, being dead is not far off from being on a cruise ship.
             Although I read a great deal of fiction, I have a long list of non-fiction waiting, I am also about to read Midge Gillies Army Wives From Crimea to Afghanistan: the Real Lives of the Women Behind the Men in Uniform.  This subject is dear to my heart, and my mother’s story appears in it briefly.

                       Hillary's father's men (Royal Signals 27 Line Section in Malaya) November
     1941 before capture

    Please tell us about your latest published book.

    During my childhood, my father, Barry, talked about my mother’s role in WWII. While Barry and his men were prisoners of the Japanese in the Far East, my mother, Phyllis, had kept in touch with the wives, mothers and other relatives of the men in his Signals Unit (69 men). Phyllis died in 1984, but it was only after Barry’s death in 2009 that I began to search for her papers. I found them, at last, hidden in the archives of a military museum. They included newspaper cuttings, notebooks, address books, a dossier and some 250 letters written to Phyllis from the tenements of Glasgow and the East End of London. I used these letters, along with Barry’s memoirs and Phyllis and Barry’s personal correspondence, to piece together the experiences of the men and women separated by 6000 miles over four long years. These years lasted from the day when the men danced eight Eightsome Reels simultaneously on the platform of Liverpool docks in July 1941, to the autumn of 1945, when forty-one men limped home in ones and twos. What emerges from this and from the post-war letters to Barry and Phyllis is the amazing, unceasing support these men and women gave each other.
             Surviving the Death Railway: A Far East POW’s Memoir and Letters from Home is my first non-fiction book, and was published this summer by Pen and Sword. 
               One of the rare 'letters' (they were only permitted to write 25 words in capitals) from Phyllis to Barry that arrived in Thailand. It took over a year to reach him. 
    In the larger, more settled camps, the men put on shows which the Japanese guards also enjoyed. Barry
    was a chorus girl (Custance Baker) in this one.

    Portrait of Phyllis which Barry preserved for 4 years in the jungle

            Discover more about Hilary here: