During the course of the war a number of mainly unofficial clubs were established to commemorate and celebrate the bravery or misfortunes of war, and for the most part relate to some form of escape or evasion activity. Membership of such clubs was hard won and dependent on acts such as bailing out of a stricken aircraft; walking back to base after having crash landed in the desert; successful survival at sea after ‘coming down in the drink’, or – as is the case with the Guinea Pig Club – undergoing experimental plastic surgery after receiving terrible burns or other injuries during combat, or during subsequent aircraft crashes.
Each club has its own insignia which poetically depicts the nature of the escape or evasion activity: a gold caterpillar (or silkworm), a winged goldfish, a winged boot and a winged guinea pig. Insignia was worn proudly by club members during the war years, albeit often discretely, as wear of such insignia on service dress was not officially permissible. Instead, insignia such as the Goldfish Club badge were sewn under a lapel or pocket flap.
The Late Arrivals Club
The Late Arrivals Club was an informal association which began amongst British servicemen in the Western Desert during the Second World War. Membership was awarded to military personnel serving under British and Commonwealth Services, who had walked back to their own side from behind enemy lines, although later there were examples of the concept being adopted by some Americans, and for similar incidents in Burma. For obvious reasons, members of the Club were in the Royal Air force or its colonial Squadrons, and they had often been missing for weeks before turning up having been helped out of trouble by local Arabs.
Escape and evasion in the Western Desert was a contrasting experience to being on the run across Western Europe. Servicemen faced huge expanses of uninhabited inhospitable terrain, blistering heat in the day and freezing temperatures at night. There were often few landmark to aid navigation apart from the stars, and airmen could find themselves hundreds of miles behind enemy lines, which constantly shifted due to the rapid advance and retreat of armies in the desert war.
Members were awarded certificates containing the words “It is never too late to come back,” along with a silver badge designed as a winged boot which could be worn on the left breast of flying suits. The badges were sand cast in silver and made by local jewellers and silversmiths.
The Guinea Pig Club
The Guinea Pig Club, established in 1941, was a social club and mutual support network for British and Allied aircrew injured during World War II. Its membership was made up of patients of Archibald McIndoe at Queen Victoria Hospital, East Grinstead, Sussex, who had undergone experimental reconstructive plastic surgery, including facial reconstruction, generally after receiving burns injuries in aircraft. The club remained active after the end of the war, and its annual reunion meetings continued until 2007.
The club symbol, or “brevet”, depicts a guinea pig flanked by oversized RAF “wings”. Two artistic renditions were used: the first showed the guinea pig sitting upright and with his ears swept back, perhaps in imitation of a pilot at the controls of his aircraft; while the second showed a more naturalistic guinea pig on all fours.
The Caterpillar Club
The Caterpillar Club is an informal association of people who have successfully used an Irvin Air Chute Company parachute to bail out of a disabled aircraft. After authentication by the parachute maker, applicants receive a membership certificate and a distinctive lapel pin. The nationality of the person whose life was saved by parachute, and ownership of the aircraft are not factors in determining qualification for membership; anybody who has saved their life by using an Irvin parachute after bailing out of a disabled aircraft is eligible. Even German air crew were elligable as there was an Irvin branch in Germany, however no German crews were known to have applied for membership. Prospective members must send documentation of the incident to the manufacturer, which then conducts its own research.
The requirements for membership are rigid – members must have saved their lives by jumping with a parachute. Consequently, RAF Sergeant Nicholas Alkemade, who during World War II bailed out of a RAF Avro Lancaster at 18,000 feet without a parachute and landed uninjured in a snow-drift, was refused membership because a parachute had not been used.
The Goldfish Club
The Goldfish Club was formed in November 1942 by C. A. Robertson, the Chief Draftsman at the United Kingdom’s PB Cow & Co., one of the world’s largest manufacturers of air-sea rescue equipment. After hearing of the experiences of airmen who had survived a ditching at sea, Robertson decided to form an exclusive club for airmen who owed their lives to their life jacket, dinghy, etc., enabling members to meet and exchange experiences.
With the company’s backing, the club was named The Goldfish Club: gold for the value of life, and fish for the water. Each member was presented with a heat-sealed waterproof membership card and an embroidered badge. News of the club spread rapidly, and in January 1943 the BBC broadcast an interview by Wynford Vaughan-Thomas with Robertson and two members who had qualified on their first operational flight. Due to wartime regulations, production of metallic-embroidered badges was prohibited, and all cloth was severely rationed. These problems were overcome with silk embroidery substituted for wire upon black cloth cut from old evening dress suits that were sent by readers of the London Daily Express after an appeal by columnist William Hickey. Uniform dress regulations prohibited the wearing of the Goldfish Club badge on British and American uniforms. The badge was generally worn by Naval aircrews upon their Mae Wests. Many RAF & USAAF aircrew placed their badge under the flap of their left hand uniform pocket.