Fight for Sight
The vital part played by a Battle of Britain pilot in developing artificial lenses that have restored the sight of millions of people.
Flying Officer Gordon “Mouse” Cleaver served with 601 Squadron in the Battle of Britain, survived the war and died in 1994. However his exploits were recalled on two occasions in 2006. The first was in January when the organisers of the Hahnenkamm, the toughest race in World Cup skiing, decided to present a “Cleaver Cup” to the highest placed British competitor in the race. Gordon Cleaver was the winner of the first competition in 1931, held on the mountain above Kitzbühel in Austria.
Cleaver, an Old Harrovian, was not even in the British team at the time which led the Austrians to conclude – wrongly – that if the Hahnenkamm could be won by someone who had not even made the team then the British must be brilliant skiers. The first international Hahnenkamm, organised “according to the British rules” of a downhill and a slalom combination, was a far more primitive affair than the modern race made famous by Franz Klammer and Hermann Maier. All downhills were off piste with competitors having to ski across country for several hours to reach the top of the mountain. The British contingent in the inaugural race was further handicapped because it was unfamiliar with the course and the organisers had forgotten to supply any marker flags. The British resorted to positioning their helpers along the run as human signposts.
Gordon Cleaver came sixth in the downhill and second in the slalom, making him the overall winner.
Another British competitor was Roger Bushell, during WW2 he organised and took part in “The Great Escape” and was subsequently one of 50 escapers recaptured and then shot by the Gestapo.
Cleaver went on to join the Auxiliary Air Force in 1937 and at the time of the Battle was flying Hurricanes with 601 Squadron at Tangmere. On Thursday 15th August 1940, with eight confirmed or probable victories to his credit, he was shot down during combat over Winchester. The aircraft’s perspex canopy was shattered by enemy fire and fragments were driven into his face and both eyes. Somehow he managed to bale out and parachuted down at Lower Upham outside Southampton. He was taken to hospital in Salisbury. He would not fly again, being now blind in the right eye and with seriously reduced vision in the left eye.
He was able to serve in a ground role in the RAF till late 1943 when he retired with the rank of Squadron Leader. During and after the war Cleaver was monitored by various surgeons and underwent 18 operations, some to repair facial damage and some (at Moorfields Eye Hospital in London) to remove the perspex fragments still embedded in both eyes. He made a special impression on an opthamologist named Harold Ridley who, as the Forties drew on, speculated that the perspex was in fact dormant in the eyes and not being rejected. Could this mean that a lens made from similar material could replace a human lens affected by disease or cataracts ? Ridley eventually felt confident enough to perform the first IOL (intraocular lens) implant at St Thomas’s Hospital on 29 November 1949 on a female patient with a cataract in one eye. The operation has subsequently been performed many millions of times throughout the world. It is arguable that had Gordon Cleaver not been injured in this way and survived to be studied then the operation may have taken even longer to develop (if at all) as such a condition could not be replicated as an experiment.
Of course the whole story is far more complex and has now been documented, after many years research, by American opthamologist David J Apple MD in “Sir Harold Ridley and his Fight for Sight” ISBN 1-55642-786-7
David contacted the London Monument website in order to research Cleaver and 601 Squadron and we were able to put him in touch with perhaps the last surviving pilot that served with “Mouse” in 601 and knew him well – Jack Riddle. Jack says that the nickname “Mouse”, perhaps unkindly due to Cleavers facial features when young and before his injuries, was so embedded that Jack only discovered that his name was Gordon on reading the book.
David Apple was also greatly assisted by a post-war adjutant and historian of 601, Reggie Spooner, both Jack and Reggie were kindly invited to the UK launch of the book at a sumptuous dinner at the Berkeley Hotel in Knightsbridge in September 2006. (David Apple is shown speaking below with Jack (L) and Reggie (R) at their table).
Sadly Reggie Spooner died in December 2006, Jack Riddle on 8th August 2009 aged 95 and David Joseph Apple MD on 18th August 2011.