Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Hope in the Midst of War

I always enjoy finding novels that discover an interesting tidbit of World War II history to expand upon. That is what author Suzy Henderson has done in her recently released book, The Beauty Shop. She has put the spotlight on young soldiers who experienced tragic wounds and burns and the dedicated doctors who worked tirelessly to give them new lives. Read more below on Suzy's writing inspiration.

Welcome, Suzy!

~ Samantha

Guest Post by Suzy Henderson

I have been fascinated with both World War periods for many years, and I suppose having relatives who served in those wars fuelled my interest. Having spent hundreds of hours researching military history, I discovered a story I’d never heard before and became quickly absorbed. That story was about the Guinea Pig Club, and after researching it, I was hooked.

On September 3rd, 1939 Britain declared war on Germany. Although the government had hoped to avoid taking this action, preparations for war had been ongoing since 1937. The RAF had already appointed four leading plastic surgeons to run four main plastic surgery units. One of those surgeons was New Zealander Archibald McIndoe, and he chose the unit at the Queen Victoria Hospital in East Grinstead. By the time war was announced in 1939, the units were up and running. However, nothing could have prepared them for the nature of the injuries they were to face, and McIndoe, as talented as he was, often struggled with the most severe cases. He was left with no choice but to experiment and improvise, but from his experiences, he pioneered great change.

Sir Archibald McIndoe
Right from the beginning, he did not see patients; he saw young men robbed of the latter years of boyhood and the beginning of manhood. Often they had horrific injuries, some having lost their sight, and some with their faces burned away, and they were distraught, depressed and lost, fearing the worst until McIndoe came along. He always shook their hand, often lingering in hold for a few moments while he spoke with them, and nurses remarked how the men’s faces changed as if all of a sudden a huge burden lifted. The fact was, he gave them hope – the first to come along and do so. And hope is a precious gift to those who are convinced all is lost. McIndoe’s words reassured them. He gave each man all the specific details of the care and surgery they required, explaining how long it would take and assured them they would heal in time. In later years, these men have often said how they cherished that first meeting, you see, to them he was God, and some even called him that while others called him Maestro or Boss. They all had such great affection for him because he quite literally saved them.

At the very beginning of the war, McIndoe noticed that the burned pilots who were shot down and bailed out into the Channel seemed to fare much better than those who bailed over land. He deduced it was related to the salt water and so, he devised the plan for saline baths on his ward. The treatment proved to be very successful, and the salt water contributed to reducing infection and promoted wound healing while soothing the burns, enabling the men to finally relax.

As the war rolled on, more airmen became casualties. Fighter pilots, trapped in the flaming cockpits of their Spitfires and Hurricanes, and pilots and airmen of bomber aircraft flooded into hospitals all around the country. In July 1941, several bored airmen in McIndoe’s care decided to form a club. Initially, it was to be a drinking club and a way of passing the time. They called it the Maxillonians. However, one day an airman, on his way to the operating theatre for another procedure announced, “We’re just bloody guinea pigs for the Maestro.” That was it. The club was renamed the Guinea Pig Club.

As more casualties arrived, the club grew. When Fighter Pilot Richard Hillary was sent to the USA in 1942 on a propaganda mission, he raised the profile of the club, and as he too had sustained burns after being shot down during the Battle of Britain, the American citizens saw first-hand what the men had to endure. Soon, McIndoe was opening airmail with letters of support, offers of work and financial donations. He was surprised at first, but he soon realised what an opportunity this was – a chance to protect and invest in the future of his “boys”, as he called them, and so he arranged for the club to become a charity.

Ward 3 Queen Victoria Hospital, East Grinstead
McIndoe took a holistic approach to care, realising this was essential in making these men whole again. In Ward 3, the men were cocooned, under his wing so to speak. In keeping all ranks together, a tightly knit band grew, and camaraderie flourished. However, he realised that the men couldn’t stay safe forever and so he went out into the town of East Grinstead, held meetings with the locals and explained the work he was doing. Then he did something unusual. He asked for their help, appealing for volunteers at the ward, to help out with things such as letter writing, reading and chatting to the men to raise morale. Next, he asked them to invite the men to their homes for tea, and some of his more influential friends with large houses even held parties and dances. The people of East Grinstead were eager to help. McIndoe asked them to look the men in the eye and at least smile, beseeching them never to turn away or appear shocked. They understood, and so the teamwork began, and gradually the airmen gained confidence and came to realise they were safe outside too, safe and welcomed in the small country town just outside London. It was such a small step for the locals to make but for the men, it was monumental.

McIndoe also took other measures, such as allowing the men to smoke and drink beer on the ward. He recruited pretty nurses to boost morale and get the men used to speaking to beautiful girls once again, and he recruited chorus girls from London to escort the men to the pub and dances. He also called in favours with his more influential friends and secured jobs for some of the men. McIndoe quite literally covered all areas including pensions which were unfair and unjust for those who were unfit to return to active service. Through his interference, the men were granted a fairer pensionable award.

Later, after the war, the Guinea Pig Club was to prove its worth in helping some members with such things as affording suitable housing, adaptations and even granting money to help establish businesses. There were some men who, despite their injuries, were more than capable of making their own way in life. The club assisted those who were not, those with more severe injuries who required assistance.

What drew me to this story was not simply McIndoe’s exemplary, pioneering surgical work. What I saw was a philanthropist, a man who solely took it upon himself to ensure that the servicemen in his care were fully healed and accepted back into society. His brilliance lay in recognising that it would take more than surgery to heal the men. In healing their bodies and souls he had to consider their psychological and social care too.

Ward 3 at Christmas
McIndoe revolutionised the care, treatment and rehabilitation of burns survivors, and of course, as a pioneer of plastic surgery, his accomplishments formed the foundations of our modern-day burns treatments. He showed his boys how to live with their altered appearances, with their injuries, and he taught the locals how to live, interact and care for these injured servicemen.

Sir Archibald McIndoe died in his sleep on 11th April 1960, a month short of his sixtieth birthday. His colleague and mentor, Sir Harold Gillies, said “Sir Archibald McIndoe was truly one of the great heroes of the Battle of Britain. Hundreds of injured airmen have learned to live and thrive because of him, and the Guinea Pig Club is his great memorial.”

And if you're wondering about the title of my book, The Beauty Shop, I can tell you that this was the name the men gave to Ward 3 - the beauty shop was where they sent you 'to be made up again.' So you see, despite facing such tragic, dark times, and uncertain futures, under McIndoe’s wing the men thrived, and even their humour survived.

The Beauty Shop

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.

Connect with Suzy Henderson

Suzy Henderson was born in the North of England and initially pursued a career in healthcare, specialising as a midwife. Years later, having left her chosen profession, she embarked upon a degree in English Literature and Creative Writing at The Open University.
That was the beginning of a new life journey, rekindling her love of writing and passion for history. With an obsession for military and aviation history, she began to write.

It was an old black and white photograph of her grandmother in her WAAF service uniform that caught Suzy’s imagination many years ago. Her grandmother never spoke of her war service and died in 1980, taking her stories with her. When Suzy decided to research her family history and her grandmother’s war service, things spiralled from there. Stories came to light, little-known stories and tragedies and it is such discoveries that inform her writing today.

Having relocated to North Cumbria, she has the Pennines and the Scottish Borders in sight and finally feels at home. Suzy is a member of the Historical Novel Society and her debut novel, The Beauty Shop was released in November 2016.


  1. Thank you for hosting me today, Samantha. It's an honour to have been asked and I'm so thankful for your support.

    Best wishes
    Suzy :)

    1. You are more than welcome. Thank you for sharing this touching bit of history with us. I wish you great success with The Beauty Shop!

    2. Thanks Samantha - that's so appreciated. I hope you're having a lovely weekend. :)

  2. What a lovely post! Thank you two for sharing it with us today.

  3. McIndoe carried on his work at East Grinstead after the war, but I think he worked privately; the National Health Service was only just coming in. My family lived in Tunbridge Wells, a few miles away, and my brother was born in 1947 with a disfiguring nævus which covered his cheek. Such a large mark was unusual and my brother, still a very young child, was referred privately to the Queen Victoria. Family legend has it McIndoe saw him and said,'That child can't go through life with that thing on his face.' He was said to have operated on my brother; it left the faintest scar. It could well have been one of the surgical team who did the actual operation, but my mother remembered meeting McIndoe.

    1. Hi Alison - that's so great to hear. I can imagine McIndoe saying that. He was reportedly very charming too. Thanks for sharing.

  4. That's an amazing story, Alison! Thank you for sharing!