He who dared...

Major John Geoffrey Appleyard, DSO, MC and Bar, MA, of The Commandos and Special Air Service Regiment was a Second World War hero, son of Leeds garage owner John Appleyard. The Major didn't make it back and in his memory his father published a book in 1945 called simply Geoffrey.

The young adventurer

Acts of bravery by British troops are being played out daily on the killing fields of Iraq and Afghanistan and we get to know little or nothing about them except when tragedy strikes and some are killed.

But such heroics are nothing new for members of our Armed Forces. During the Second World War Geoffrey Appleyard was one of a swash-buckling band of heroes who were decorated for their bravery several times.

Today communications can be instant but back then there was no internet, no mobile phone. We only know about Geoffrey Appleyard's wartime adventures because he wrote regular chatty letters to his parents in which he revealed his thoughts and some details about his missions.

After the war Geoffrey's father, John Ernest, founder of the Appleyard group of Companies, had the letters turned in to a book he called simply Geoffrey and he presented it to employees of his garage business as a Christmas gift in December, 1945 with the message: " Mr and Mrs Appleyard and Family send best wishes that the Peace so dearly won may be with you this Christmastide and throughout the years to come."


Geoffrey was born on December 20, 1916. His garage-owing family moved from their home in Bramley when he was five and bought imposing Linton Manor in the stockbroker village just outside the market town of Wetherby.

He went to Moorlands School in Headingley, a private establishment which still thrives today, before moving to Bootham School in York – which also still flourishes – for what Geoffrey's father described as "his serious education".

But there seems to have been something of the rebel in Geoffrey. At Bootham he was more interested in planning and executing his wide-flung ornithological expeditions or organising what was known at Bootham as a "rabble" – a midnight rag.

He became secretary of the school's Natural History Society and helped with a British Museum project to ring or band birds to investigate patterns of migration.

They discovered from ring or band recoveries British birds moved to and from South Africa, Algiers, Russia, Norway and Denmark and even Greenland.

Geoffrey's work with the Society earned him the school's coveted Natural History Exhibition.

It was at Bootham that Geoffrey learned a valuable lesson in the art of camouflage.

One night he climbed the school walls and got on to the roof believing no one had seen him. He was mistaken. Next day a master summoned Geoffrey to his study:

"You were on the roof last night, Geoffrey!" blasted the master.

"Yes, Sir, but how did you know?"

"I saw your silhouette you silly wet", was the reply.

Geoffrey never forgot that lesson which came in useful during his military service and used to good effect in more serious raids in graver times.

Geoffrey might have been something of the playboy but he proved at Bootham when he believed it was necessary to concentrate he was more than capable of buckling down.

He was lured by the thought of going to Cambridge and realised he had to pass the entrance examination if he was to be admitted. His concentration on his studies bore fruit – he went to Caius College, Cambridge, at the start of the new academic year in 1935.

Again, Geoffrey was "distracted" by the sporting opportunities that presented themselves, especially rowing.

It didn't take him long to become a member of the College Eight, then he was Boat Club secretary in his second year at Caius and in his final year he was Captain of the Boats.

But Geoffrey was also drawn to ski-ing and went with the University team to Breuil in Italy in December, 1936.

This winter wonderland was also a challenge to Geoffrey. The day before Christmas he and a companion accomplished the feat of climbing the mountain frontier range near the Breithorn, ski-ing down the glacier to Zermatt in Switzerland and climbing back in moonlight over the Theodul Pass and down to Italy.


It was considered impossible to complete in one day but Geoffrey proved the sceptics wrong. Such determination stood him in good stead when he joined up.

Geoffrey devoted his attention to his ski-ing and made the team for the Inter-Varsity Downhill and Slalom and the race was run at Davos in Switzerland on Geoffrey's 21st birthday.

His birthday "present" was to win the Slalom Race for Cambridge against the old "enemy" Oxford. Other wins on the ski slopes followed and he was invited to Captain an English team to ski against Norway in the Easter vacation.

Leader from the start

AS war clouds gathered a national call to voluntary service was made and Geoffrey Appleyard joined the Supplementary Reserve of officers in the Royal Army Service Corps.

In August 1939 volunteers like Geoffrey were called up. He went to Salisbury Plain and showed from the outset although he was an officer he wasn't afraid to get stuck in with his men and dig trenches.

He led from the front. Shades of his modis operandi in his father's garage where he got his hands dirty like the rest of the workforce.

Geoffrey proved he had nerves of steel and was fearless in the face of adversity as the collection of letters shows.

He volunteered and was accepted as a commando and at Christmas, 1940, found himself at a secret training camp on a remote island off the west coast of Scotland.

In May, 1941, after a daring rescue to bring two secret service agents who'd been operating in France back to England carried out by submarine and then dingy, Geoffrey, now an acting Captain, was awarded the Military Cross for his "services in the field".

Next came a spell on board a converted Brixham trawler called Maid Honor which went under sail to West Africa. It was a covert operation and the vessel had been converted for the clandestine transportation of weaponry and could take 30 men.

Geoffrey and his crew had a few "narrow escapes". On one operation codenamed 'Postmaster' they planned to capture a German tanker in harbour on the island of Fernando Po. The date was January 1942 and although the island was Spanish territory, therefore officially neutral, the mission went ahead and was accomplished, taking the German tanker and an Italian freighter!

So successful was 'Postmaster' that additional men were recruited and the force expanded. The importance of the Maid Honor's crew's work – and Geoffrey's part in it – came with the announcement Geoffrey had been awarded a Bar to his Military Cross.

His chum Lt (acting Captain) Graham Hayes was awarded the Military Cross. Could this have been for capturing the tanker and freighter?

A landing too far

In early 1942 Geoffrey was one of the mostly hand-picked officers to form a nucleus for a small scale raiding force – was this the forerunner of today's Special Boat Service? – to probe the French coastal defences.

They operated with motor launches capable of doing 30 knots.

They led charmed lives but then in September, 1942, their luck ran out in a raid on the Cherbourg Peninsula.

Geoffrey was injured and couldn't walk but was allowed on the mission and stayed on the motor boat while Major March-Phillipps (Gus) and Captain Graham Hayes and seven others got into their landing craft but as soon as they made it ashore the Germans sprung an ambush. Gus was killed, Graham was posted missing.

It was not until after the war that Graham's parents learned the truth about their son.

He'd swam for his life and eventually was washed ashore. He found a friendly farmer who handed him over to the French resistance and he got to Paris where he lived openly without capture.

But Graham wanted to go home and was guided by the resistance over the Spanish border. But then tragedy struck. The Spanish handed him over to the Germans who took him back to Paris and locked him up in the Fresnes Prison. Graham was kept in solitary confinement for nine months then on July 13, 1943, he was shot by the Germans.

Geoffrey had lost his two best friends.

You here again? said the King

On December 15, 1942, the London Gazette recorded that Geoffrey – now a major in charge of the Small Scale Raiding Party – had been awarded the Distinguished Service Order.

At his Investiture – his third at Buckingham Palace in 11 months – King George paused to have a conversation with Geoffrey and opened by saying "What, you here again so soon?"

Geoffrey took part in 17 raids in which landings were made on the enemy coast as well as crossing the Channel night after night before a landing could be effected.

Next stop was North Africa.

The Small Scale Raiding Force, which had operated from land and sea, was now given an air capability.

Again much of what Geoffrey did was top secret but his letters home showed mixed emotions and some long periods of boredom which certainly wasn't what the boy from Bramley expected.

Geoffrey had lost his two best pals Gus and Graham. Now his luck was about to run out. He wasn't supposed to go on an airborne expedition to drop around a dozen paratroop commandoes north of Randazzo in Sicily on the night of July 12, 1943, but the rebel in him was still burning away.

He joined the flight although he didn't intend to drop, just determine the spot to which reinforcements should be send the following night. He expected to return to North Africa within a few hours. Five days later there was still no sign of him.

Then the letters started to arrive in Linton bearing the sad news. a letter to the Appleyard family from King George read: "The Queen and I offer you our heartfelt sympathy in your great sorrow. We pray that your country's gratitude for a life so nobly given in its service may bring you some measure of consolation."

Once word was out that Geoffrey was missing presumed dead other letters of tribute arrived at Linton. One was from Lord Louis Mountbatten, Supreme Allied Commander South East Asia, which read: "He was a grand leader and I was proud to have him in my command."

Major Appleyard was 27 when his plane failed to return to its base in North Africa.

He has no grave. Shades of the fate of the American band leader Glenn Miller. And why no one has made a film based on Geoffrey beats me.