BASINGSTOKE is famous for many things – but a lot of people will not be aware that it is where the man known as the father of plastic surgery set up his base during the Second World War.

Working at Rooksdown House, which was part of Park Prewett Hospital, Sir Harold Gillies performed life-changing pioneering work. He not only patched men up who suffered horrific disfiguring facial injuries and other wounds, but did so in a way to help ease them back into society with what he called aesthetic reconstructive surgery.

Prior to the war, the master surgeon was already renowned for performing cosmetic surgery and even sex-change operations.

Among his team at Rooksdown were people like Judy Stokes, who was a Red Cross Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) nurse, who worked at the Plastic Surgery Unit Sir Harold has set up.

The sprightly 84-year-old, who lives in Titchfield, was recently at Milestones museum, where she was on hand to talk to visitors about the British Red Cross at an exhibition.

Recalling her time at Rooksdown House, Judy said: “I really wished I had realised that I was in the presence of history and knew how very privileged I was to work for such a man.

“But to me, Sir Harold was just another boss and it was just another job that all of us were doing. There were a great many of us and we were all rather young, aged between 19 and 23.”

Much of her work at Rooksdown involved the routine care of patients.

“This was washing, blanket baths, changing beds, changing pyjamas, changing dressings,” explained Judy.

“But sometimes you were required to look after a particular patient, and when the patient went to theatre, you went with him, which was the only opportunity I would have had of watching Sir Harold at work, because I was not part of the theatre staff.”

Judy said the operations and after-treatment required a great deal of work.

“You were not only looking after the wound but also the donor area, where skin or bone had to be taken for the necessary repair.

“And so you had two vital areas to protect. A lot of these operations involved a series of operations and if one of them broke down at any point, it meant you had probably wasted three or four operations prior to that.

“It was pioneering stuff – after all we are talking of the 1940s.

“It was all rather trial and error, but there was only one way to find out.”

Talking to Judy, it is clear that she is full of admiration for Sir Harold – describing him as a great man who, partly because of his modesty, was overshadowed by his more famous cousin, Archibald McIndoe another fine plastic surgeon who was trained by Sir Harold.

“He was such a charming man,” said Judy. “I had worked in other places previously, including Winchester Hospital, where when the big man came down the corridor you went into the woodwork with the rest of the earwigs.

“But Sir Harold would open the door for a ward maid, and he positively encouraged frater-nisation, because, of course, these men he was treating had to be rebuilt, not just physically but emotionally, particularly the ones who were let down by wives, fiancées or girlfriends.”

The fraternisation extended to staff and patients going off to a local pub, which Judy affectionately called the Mucky Duck – possibly The Swan in Sherborne St John.

The patients also mixed in well with Basingstoke residents. Judy explained that when some of the patients were able to go into town, not surprisingly they would attract attention.

“They’d have a nurse to go along with them holding their hands – sometimes literally,” said Judy.

“The people of Basingstoke were absolutely wonderful in the way they opened their arms, hearts and doors, asking the patients to come in and have tea with them – they rallied round beautifully.

“These men were always being invited to parties and picnics and dances. I think in a way it was gratitude for what these men had done and suffered.”

Judy has fond memories of the comradeship, and after the war she joined a Rooksdown Reunion Club, where she was able to meet up with former colleagues and patients.

Among the patients she recalls vividly is the man who gave her the thumbs-up, knowing that in fact his thumb had once been his big toe, and a man who had very badly frost-bitten feet.

“He’d lost all his toes and without toes you can’t walk,” said Judy. “So Sir Harold devised for a lump of flesh that had been taken from somewhere else on his body to be attached to the end of the foot to act as a counter-balance.

“This man was so thrilled that he said to me: ‘Look nurse, I can walk now!’.”

Judy said Sir Harold was a man who was keen to share his knowledge, and towards the end of the war and following its end, she remembers many doctors from all over the world coming to Rooksdown to learn about his techniques.

The surgeon’s name lives on locally with the Gillies Health Centre, in Brighton Hill and Gillies Drive in the Rooksdown area of Basingstoke.