Sandy’s memories as a wartime ‘guinea pig’

Sandy Saunders, of Burton Lazars, who trained as a glider pilot in the Second World War before suffering serious burns in a plane crash in 1945 which led to him receiving pioneering plastic surgery and joining the iconic Guinea Pig Club EMN-150311-093013001

Sandy Saunders, of Burton Lazars, who trained as a glider pilot in the Second World War before suffering serious burns in a plane crash in 1945 which led to him receiving pioneering plastic surgery and joining the iconic Guinea Pig Club EMN-150311-093013001

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The nation will pause on Sunday to remember service personnel who have given their lives in conflicts but Sandy Saunders will also have his own memories of fellow air crew who survived but had to live on with horrific injuries sustained in battle.

The Burton Lazars man, who is 93 next month, is one of around 20 surviving members of the Guinea Pig Club, 649 airmen who had their bodies reconstructed by pioneering plastic surgeon, Sir Archibald McIndoe.

Rev Brian McAvoy with attendees at the 74th anniversary reunion service to commemorate the formation of 156 Parachute Battalion, which was based at Melton before the Battle of Arnhem in the Second World War EMN-150211-122408001

Rev Brian McAvoy with attendees at the 74th anniversary reunion service to commemorate the formation of 156 Parachute Battalion, which was based at Melton before the Battle of Arnhem in the Second World War EMN-150211-122408001

Sandy had 23 operations over three years after he miraculously escaped from a blazing Tiger Moth aircraft after it crashed on a training exercise in 1945. towards the end of the Second World War.

Forty per cent of his body was badly burned but the surgery he received at a Sussex hospital allowed him to live a normal life after the war - he went on to work as a GP for 40 years.

But Sandy has never forgotten the men in adjoining hospital beds who continued to carry their scars long after Germany’s surrender.

And he will be thinking of them at the weekend when he joins some of his fellow ‘guinea pigs’ in paying their respects to the fallen on Remembrance Sunday.

“After I had my acccident I was hideously disfigured - I didn’t recognise myself when I looked in the mirror,” recalled Sandy.

“But when I was in hospital there were those who were worse off than me.

“On the wards we were in close contact with some heroic figures who had also suffered terrible burns and other injuries.

“Some of the ‘guinea pigs’ went back into battle after their treatment and some were subsequently killed in action.”

Sandy spent the early years of the war working in gun-laying radar as a lieutenant with the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (REME).

But he was inspired to join the Glider Pilot Regiment after hearing about their involvement in Operation Varsity, a massive airlift of Allied troops which enabled them to cross the Rhine and close in on Berlin to accelerate the end of the conflict.

Hundreds of gliders transported paratroopers, field guns and vehicles for the pivotal assault.

“I was 21-years-old and rather adventurous so I decided to volunteer for glider pilot training,” said Sandy, who originates from Liverpool.

“I had never flown in an aircraft before so it was all very new and they didn’t tell me that 100 glider pilots had been killed in training.”

He qualified as a pilot but never got to fly in a combat situation.

That was because of his catastrophic accident while flying a Tiger Moth on a training exercise.

He retains vivid memories of the harrowing incident, which happened as he lost control while attemping a heavy cross-wind landing after returning to the airfield from a navigation exercise.

“I remember having a feeling of rather violent apprehension,” Sandy recalled.

“There was also shock and horror and the realisation I was probably going to die in the next minute or so.

“I was unconscious after we hit the ground and when I came to the plane was in flames.

“By some miracle I managed to undo my harness and climb out.

“Unfortunately my navigator had been killed in the crash.”

Sandy was taken by ambulance to hospital at Warwick.

His body had been ravaged by severe burns, including both legs from his thighs to his ankles, his hands and across his face.

He faced a life of disfigurement until he heard about the work of Sir Archibald McIndoe at the Queen Victoria Hospital at East Grinstead.

The surgeon was doing wonders with other airman who had been burned so Sandy got in touch.

Aside from the medical help and psychological support he received, Sandy also came into contact with hundreds of other servicemen with similar injuries.

And he was soon inducted into the Guinea Pig Club, which had been formed in 1941 by injured pilots who had served in the Battle of Britain.

It was intended to be a social club and support network for suffering air force personnel.

Sandy said: “They were all people who had serious burns and other bad injuries - our chairman had lost both legs and another was totally blind.

“But they were great fun and some were very heavy drinkers.

“In fact, we used to have a keg of beer on the ward.”

Mr McIndoe’s work was revolutionary and included banning the use of anti-coagulent cream on burns victims because of the terrible damage it caused, especially to the hands.

Sandy used to watch some of the operations on his friends and fellow club members through a glass screen from a viewing balcony.

It inspired him to go into medicine and he became a GP in 1952.

Sandy, who has continued to meet annually with the ‘guinea pigs’, went on to raise two daughters - one of whom sadly died from cancer - and has four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. He is married to his third wife, retired magistrate Maggie.

Remembrance Sunday remains a poignant time for Sandy, who added: “It’s a moving ceremony for everyone and for me it’s a connection with my wartime days.”

l For further details on this year’s Melton Remembrance Day parade, turn to page 8.