Condensed in part from Silent Runner-Wolfgang Heyda, U-boat Commander by Rodney J. Martin
In June of 1940 German forces invaded the British Channel Islands that lay off the coast of France. The Germans set up military installations and used the islands for naval operations. Major John Geoffrey Appleyard, recipient of the Victoria Cross and informally known as Apple, would take part in a series of commando raids on the Channel Islands that would infuriate Hitler and lead to the shackling of German POWs at the Bowmanville, Ontario POW camp.
Appleyard was an extraordinary man with strong convictions and dedication to winning the war. He said to a friend, “It is not enough to do our duty. We must do more than our duty - everything we can, to the absolute limit.” He had been a champion skier and oarsman and was first in his class at Cambridge. He was a veteran commando raider, having completed several raids in Africa.
A German transmitter station, which had been set up in the Casquet Lighthouse, was used for naval operations. The Casquet Lighthouse, which was built in 1724, is located about ten kilometers west of the island of Alderney. Alderney is in the middle of the two fastest currents in the English Channel, “The Race” and “The Swinge.” The Alderney Race is a notorious strait of water between Alderney and Cap de la Hague in France. At high tide, water flows through the channel at a high rate and is sucked back down as the tides recede. Hazardous rocks located within a few miles of the island and an uneven seabed add to the turbulence of the treacherous waterway. The Casquet Lighthouse complex consists of a twenty-seven meter conical tower and two shorter towers that are sited on a steep barren rock. Its isolated location made it a perfect objective for a commando raid and the treacherous currents that surround the lighthouse gave the German occupants a false sense of security.
The officers of the raiding party consisted of Major Gus March-Phillips DSO, OBE, who commanded the operation, Anders Lassen, the first foreigner to win the Victoria Cross, Captain Graham Hayes MC. and Appleyard. Having spent holidays in the Channel Islands as a schoolboy, Appleyard was quite familiar with the dangerous tide rushes that could smash a small boat against the rocks.
Lieutenant Freddy Bourne commanded the motor torpedo boat that was used for the mission. They had affectionately dubbed the boat “The Little Pisser” because of its oversized twin 1200 horsepower engines. It was Bourne’s first command and Appleyard acted as navigator. Appleyard wrote, “It was pretty nerve-racking as it’s a notoriously evil place and you get a tremendous tide race round the rocks.” There were a total of twelve men on the mission. All went well and Appleyard was the first to leap ashore with the bowline. Graham Hayes was in control of the stern-line, which had been attached to the kedge-anchor that had been dropped on approach to prevent the boat from being smashed against the rocks. Although several large swells surged against the rocks, the landing party made it safely ashore without any damage to the boat. Appleyard handed the bowline to another and Hayes remained in control of the stern-line as the raiding party departed.
Shortly after midnight on September 3, 1942, the commando party made its way through barbed wire up the steep rocky surface to the courtyard unchallenged. Once in the courtyard the group dispersed to their prearranged objectives.
Appleyard and Sergeant Winter dashed up the twenty-four meter spiral staircase to the tower light only to find it unoccupied. The garrison was totally surprised. Appleyard said, “I have never seen men so amazed and terrified at the same time.” Three were sleeping, two were just turning in and two others were on duty. Even though an open box of hand grenades and an Oerlinkon at the ready were found, seven Germans were taken prisoner without a shot being fired. One German, who was in charge of the lighthouse operation, fainted at the sight of the commandos. Another was initially thought to be a woman because he was wearing a hairnet. The seven prisoners, some still in their pajamas, were carted off to England. Several codebooks were confiscated and most likely forwarded to Bletchley Park for analysis. Appleyard suffered a seemingly unfortunate accident. He fractured his tibia as he boarded the boat.
Then on the 12th of September, another commando party landed at St. Honoré with Appleyard acting as navigator. All were killed except for Graham Hayes who was later captured in Spain and executed by the Germans in 1943. Appleyard, unable to go ashore, was spared. In October Appleyard would lead a raid on Sark where four bound German prisoners were shot and killed as they tried to escape.
Hitler, incensed with the raids, ordered that all captured commandos in or out of uniform be shot. He also protested the binding and killing of German prisoners, and gave orders to shackle British POWs who were captured during the disastrous Dieppe raid. In retaliation German POWs were shackled in Canada, which led to a prisoner insurrection at the Bowmanville, Ontario POW camp.
In 1943 commandos would again raid the Casquet Lighthouse. This time the swashbuckling actor Douglas Fairbanks Jr. would be one of the commando raiders.
This story appeared in the
July 2004 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.
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