D-Day 70: ‘I just wanted to do something’

Judy Stokes of Titchfield who was a Red Cross nurse after D-Day and worked with a pioneering plastic surgeon''Picture: Paul Jacobs (141617-7)
Judy Stokes of Titchfield who was a Red Cross nurse after D-Day and worked with a pioneering plastic surgeon''Picture: Paul Jacobs (141617-7)

From broken bones to new beginnings

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When factory worker Judy Maddocks and her colleagues heard news of the Normandy invasion on the radio, she sprang into action.

Knowing she would be needed on the home front, the part-time nursing volunteer was quickly banging on the office door asking to be released from her day duties.

30/5/14           ''Judy Stokes of Titchfield who was a Red Cross nurse after D-Day and worked with a pioneering plastic surgeon PPP-140530-150702001

30/5/14 ''Judy Stokes of Titchfield who was a Red Cross nurse after D-Day and worked with a pioneering plastic surgeon PPP-140530-150702001

‘I don’t think my feet touched the ground as I headed for that office,’ recalls Judy, who had been training as a nurse in her spare time and had just turned the minimum age of 19.

‘I was saying “now can I go?” I don’t think anyone knew how heavy the casualties would be. But I knew I would be needed.’

D-Day shook the world and changed lives, as well as taking them.

It put Judy on a career path that would lead to a convalescence hospital in Liphook and then to her most harrowing yet fascinating role – working for plastic surgery pioneer Sir Harold Gillies.

At Rooksdown House in Basingstoke, where Gillies would carry our some of his most radical and successful reconstructive surgery, Judy and her colleagues would help men who had suffered appalling disfigurements and injuries.

As well as tending to their wounds, they would laugh with the patients and go out with them to the shops and cinema as moral support.

Judy, whose surname is now Stokes, says: ‘To start with I had no idea I was working in the presence of history. He was such a pioneer.

‘I realised afterwards what an honour it was to be on his staff.’

But when the young woman heard about the D-Day landings and decided to down factory tools and take up a nursing post, she had never heard of Harold Gillies.

Like everyone else, her thoughts were taken up by the invasion across the Channel.

‘To be honest, we were elated,’ she says. ‘It felt like the beginning of the end. We were young and were aware there would be casualties, but everything else took over. I just wanted to do something. ‘

Judy had been training with the Red Cross for a few years, assisting nurses in hospitals.

She took up her first full-time post at the convalescence hospital.

As a Red Cross VAD (voluntary aid detachment) nurse, Judy’s duties included making beds, giving blanket baths and assisting senior nurses.

She says the men hardly spoke about their time on the front line.

‘They were reluctant to talk about their experiences, they didn’t want to relive them I suppose.’

The atmosphere was very different at Rooksdown House, where many of the men were in as much mental anguish as physical pain.

Harold Gillies encouraged friendship between staff and patients, recognising the men needed to recover emotionally too.

‘I think that was the secret of his success,’ says Judy, now 89 and living in Titchfield. ‘He wanted people to be rebuilt in mind as well as body.

‘In fact it was a wonderful matrimonial agency. There were several marriages between patients and staff.’

Judy was posted there after being shown pictures of the most extreme cases to see how she would react.

She hadn’t been there long before she realised the importance of her new employer.

Surgeons came from all over the country to learn Harold Gillies’ techniques.

He would become renowned for performing cosmetic surgery and, after the war, sex change operations.

Judy recalls him giving a man new eyelids. ‘He took the skin from behind the ear with just a fringe of hair for eyelashes. The join was in the crease so no-one knew.’

The unit took in many burns victims, most of them the survivors of tank and aircraft crews.

It was a relief for these people to be in a friendly environment.

‘We were with them every day. We didn’t see their appearance, just the man underneath,’ says Judy.

She is full of admiration for the patients and how they coped with physical and mental pain.

‘Sometimes it put a strain on relationships and then you’d have someone breaking down – if he’d received a Dear John letter. Then we weren’t above giving them a cuddle.’

The nurses also went to dances and the cinema with the men. ‘If you have been disfigured and have to learn to live with that, it’s a relief to be with someone who is used to you as you are.’

She says the wards were often filled with laughter – and that was down to the man in charge.

‘He was super, the sort of man you would like to have for an uncle, and a true gentleman. I once saw him open a door for a ward maid.’

There was a lot of leg pulling – or arm pulling – says Judy.

One patient found it hilarious to offer his prosthetic hand and then leave it in the clutch of the recipient.

And Judy particularly remembers the patient who had a toe grafted to where he’d lost his thumb.

‘Later I’d see him in Fareham and he’d give me the thumbs up,’ she laughs.

VAD staff assisted nurses and took on hygiene duties but in wartime everyone moved up a notch and Judy was sometimes able to accompany a patient to theatre and watch.

After the war she married and became a mum, but continued with her Red Cross duties and last year clocked up 70 years of service.

She remains proud of her war duties. ‘I played a very humble part but felt very honoured to be there. Every time you heard a patient laugh it gave you a really good feeling.’

Pioneering work

Harold Gillies’ pioneering work in reconstructive surgery began in the First World War.

Born in New Zealand in 1882, he came to the UK to study medicine at Cambridge University and joined the Royal Army Medical Corps in 1915.

While serving in France he met dentist Charles Auguste Valadier and was impressed by his efforts to replace jaws blown away by gun fire.

Gillies’ own experimental work saw him focusing on aesthetics, trying to make patients similar to how they looked before their injuries.

After the Battle of the Somme, Gillies treated 2,000 cases of facial mutilation.

Between the wars he developed a private practice and became noted for his pioneering work during the Second World War.

In 1946 Gillies and colleagues carried out the first sex reassignment surgery from female to male. He performed the first male to female surgery in 1951.

Sir Harold died in 1960 aged 78.