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Warrant Officer Bill Foxley

Warrant Officer Bill Foxley
Born: August 17th 1923, Liverpool. Died: December 05th 2010 Age 87.


Bill Foxley, was considered the most badly burned airman to survive the Second World War, his example and support became an inspiration to later generations who suffered similar severe disabilities.

Foxley was the navigator of a Wellington bomber that crashed immediately after taking off from Castle Donington airfield on March 16 1944.

He escaped unscathed but, hearing the shouts of a trapped comrade, went back into the aircraft despite an intense fire. He managed to drag his wireless operator free, suffering severe burns in the process.

“The plane was like an inferno, he said later‚“I had to climb out of the astrodome at the top and that’s when I got burned.”

His sacrifice was not rewarded, however, as his comrade died shortly afterwards, as did two other crewmen.

Foxley was admitted to Queen Victoria Hospital, East Grinstead, with horrific burns to his hands and face. The fire had destroyed all the skin, muscle and cartilage up to his eyebrows. He had lost his right eye and the cornea of the remaining eye was scarred, leaving him with seriously impaired vision .

He came under the care of Sir Archibald McIndoe, the pioneering plastic surgeon, and over the next three and a half years underwent almost 30 operations to rebuild his face, including procedures to give him a new nose and build up what was left of his hands.

He finally left hospital in December 1947, when he was discharged from the RAF as a warrant officer. Though he did his best never to let on, he was rarely free from pain for the rest of his life.

A notable witness to his courage was Winston Churchill. During a brief convalescence in 1946 in Montreux, Foxley and a fellow burns victim, Jack Allaway, found themselves in the gardens of a house where Churchill was painting. After watching how the two men manipulated cups of tea with their disfigured hands, Churchill walked over and offered each a cigar. Allaway reportedly then dated Churchill’s daughter Mary.

He was 18 when, in 1942, he joined the RAF to train as a navigator. Posted to Bomber Command, he was nearing the end of his training course when his Wellington crashed.

After being discharged from the RAF he worked in the retail trade in Devon but wanted to return to Sussex and be near to East Grinstead. 

For many years he had a distinguished career in facilities management at the London headquarters of the Central Electricity Generating Board, where he was the terror of contractors. 

Many of the workmen were unaware that he was nearly blind, and when a redecoration job had been completed Foxley would press his face up to within a few inches of the wall and glare at it, not letting on that it was the only way he could inspect the paint work.

Foxley had to overcome very public horror of his scarred features. Commuting daily by train from Crawley to London, the seat next to his often remained empty. Passengers who moved to take up the seat would change their minds at the last moment, prompting Foxley to tell them:“It’s all right. I’m not going to bite you.”

In 1969 he appeared (with officer rank, for effect) in the film Battle of Britain, as a badly burned pilot who is introduced to a WAAF officer, played by Susannah York, in an celebrated scene set in an RAF operations room.

The hospital ward at East Grinstead had been full of men who had suffered severe burns. Such was their indomitable spirit that they formed the association known as the Guinea Pig Club, in honour of McIndoe’s pioneering and unproven surgery. 

Considered by its members to be more exclusive than any smart London club, the Guinea Pig provided a support network for burns victims throughout their lives. 

Foxley once commented that being a “pig” meant “everything” to him.

Nor did he restrict his support to veterans of the Second World War. 

Foxley also gave immense encouragement to those badly burned during the Falklands conflict as well as in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

With two fellow “pigs”, he set up the charity Disablement in the City, which grew into Employment Opportunities, of which the Duke of Edinburgh was president. 

After developing into a nationwide organisation, Employment Opportunities merged in 2008 with the Shaw Trust.

Foxley also devoted a great deal of his time to raising funds for the Blond McIndoe Research Foundation, even getting sponsored, aged 80, to abseil down a fireman’s tower. “There’s nothing to it” he said afterwards.

Unable to play sport, Foxley took to long-distance running and would often run 12 to 18 miles a day, an activity he kept up until he was in his seventies. Twice he trained for the London Marathon, but minor injuries thwarted his participation on both occasions. He rode a bicycle to the supermarket until a few months before his death and regularly paraded at the annual service of Remembrance at the Cenotaph.

The nature of Foxley’s injuries left him unable to smile or communicate his emotions. The most animated feature of his reconstructed face was its glass eye, which glinted when it caught the light. None the less, he never lost his positive approach to life. 

When asked how his experiences had affected him, he would reply: “It’s your personality that will come through, whatever. I’ve never let it worry me too much; I’ve just got on with it.”

He married his first wife, Catherine, who nursed him at East Grinstead Hospital, in 1947. She died in 1971. He is survived by their two sons and by a daughter from a brief second marriage.

Reprinted with the kind permission of the Daily Telegraph obituaries column.
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Article prepared by Barry Howard.

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 • Last Modified: 02 July 2019, 13:20