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Probing beneath the surface

Fighter Boy

Author: John Willis

Publisher: Mensch Publishing, 2024

ISBN: 978-1-912914-67-8

 Hardback, 289 pages, illustrated, no index


Towards the end of his life I had the privilege of knowing Geoffrey Page a little. The word “privilege” has been chosen with care. He came across as a modest man who, perhaps lacking the bravado of one or two of his heroic contemporaries, did not always receive due credit for his remarkable achievements.


Although Geoffrey produced a memoir, his life called for a biography and that has now arrived, written by John Willis, author of a number of exceptional, controversial and, therefore, thought-generating, books relating to the Battle of Britain.


A quarter of a century ago I knew the outline of Geoffrey’s career, which included terrible 'Hurricane Burns' in 1940, many visits to the operating table as a Guinea Pig at East Grinstead and refusal to accept the view of plenty, including the surgeon, Archibald McIndoe, that a return to flying was out of the question. That obsessive stubbornness led Geoffrey to fly again and to regain an operational category. From there he became a wing leader and then one of the very few who acquired Guinea Pig status for a second time.


Founding the Battle of Britain Memorial Trust and being present for the opening  of the National Memorial by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother in 1993 were highlights of Geoffrey’s later career.


Now I have read John Willis’s book and know much more even than I did after studying Geoffrey’s published recollections, my judgements seem to be confirmed. Geoffrey should be remembered as an inspiration. If you are facing physical adversity you will do yourself much good if you pin his likeness on your wall and keep saying to yourself “This is easy compared with what he went through”.


The picture Willis paints is of a complex man. The courage and determination are there, but so is a troubled childhood, a lifelong lack of success with money and long-lasting estrangements with some family members, particularly Geoffrey’s uncle, Sir Frederick Handley Page. Willis notes that his subject was secretive, even disingenuous, about his education. Eventually a rift developed between Geoffrey and the Guinea Pig Club, when different views, but passionately held on both sides, emerged on the future direction of the club.


The book probes well beneath the surface in terms of the way Archie McIndoe ran his domain at the Queen Victoria Hospital. It is often suggested that McIndoe was regarded with great devotion by patients but could be perceived as difficult and unreasonable by others. It is common, too, to compliment the nurses on their ability to work daily with horribly disfigured men without showing distress.


Willis goes further and discusses how those nurses, generally young and female, were apparently expected by McIndoe to put up with sexual advances they would not have tolerated in their private lives. As far as the great surgeon was concerned, bringing his patients back to normality and restoring their confidence overrode pretty well anything else.


Willis quotes a nurse called Bridget Warner, reflecting in her 80s. “I loved those boys [the patients]. Some of the younger girls used to get a bit upset. But they were only boys after all, and they’d been through something terrible … they were always flirting. I’ll admit to a few rendezvous in the linen cupboard myself, but it was only fun and you went along with it. Things were different; we were all out for the war and for getting these boys better. I don’t know why people make so much of it. You did your bit and then a bit more.”


I stand by my earlier placing of John Willis as an author of considerable substance. He does, however, nod off from time to time in this volume. He clearly does not understand the role of Cranwell in the Second World War, for instance, and some loose wording might lead an unwary reader to suppose that Gibraltar is in north Africa. Keith Park was not “Sir Keith” during the Battle of Britain.


Sadly, the most prominent error is hardly missable as it appears on the front cover. Geoffrey Page’s post nominals are presented in the wrong order. The DSO should come before the OBE.


However, Geoffrey Page now has more of the fame he deserves, albeit posthumously. I hope you will read this book about one of the inspirational figures in the history of the RAF.

Geoff Simpson

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