by John Rennie
Geoffrey Barkway, who died on 8 June at the age of 84, was another of those ordinary men who did extraordinary things during World War II. An east London boy with a passion for locomotives, he was to make his mark in a very different form of transport.
When Staff Sergeant Geoff Barkway piloted his Horsa glider in to land at Pegasus Bridge, he was taking part in “the greatest feat of flying of the second world war” by Air Chief Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory. And yet, Geoff and his five fellow pilots were snootily dismissed by another senior RAF man who opined: “The idea that semi-skilled personnel be entrusted with piloting these troop carriers is fantastic. Their operation is equivalent to force-landing the largest-sized aircraft without engine aid – there is no higher test of piloting skill.”
Geoff would play a crucial role in the enormously complex operation that was D-Day. Holding the two canal bridges was crucial in the wake of the landings. Allied troops would be able to prevent German tanks reaching and attacking the beaches. Intelligence had also discovered that the bridges had been prepared for demolition, potentially cutting off an exit from the beaches and penning the Allied forces in.
It was precision flying, getting direct to the bridges in a way that conventional aircraft simply couldn’t – and in total silence. Yet Geoff’s background was a long way from that of the conventional RAF pilot. Born in east London, the young Geoff had a passion for locos, and left his studies at Leyton Technical College for a job as an apprentice turner and fitter with the LNER (London and North Eastern Railway). With war looming, Barkway signed up for the Territorial Army (Royal Signals) in February 1939. Later that year he swapped to the railways arm of the RE.
But Barkway was after more action, and in 1942 answered the call for trainee glider pilots. “I banged in my application … I had never been in a plane but reckoned I might as well give it a try!” recalled Geoff.
None of the new boys knew what they were being trained for, and D-Day was still two years away. It was an unusual mix – rigorous infantry work, learning to fly powered aircraft then moving on to gliders. Geoff won his wings in April 1943 and was moved to the Horsa troop. If your image of a glider is the gossamer craft piloted by Steve McQueen in the Thomas Crown Affair, think again. The Horsas were hulks: 88ft wingspans, 1550lb and a payload of 29 soldiers or crewed jeep and trailer. The crews dubbed them ‘flying coffins’.
Operation Deadstick demanded the tyro pilots descend from a height of 6000ft over the Channel, seven miles from target, at a steeper than usual angle, aided only by compass and stopwatch, with no ground markers to help them, and in darkness. They had to land within yards of the bridges, and hope the German sentries wouldn’t hear them. Deadstick was an unprecedented mix of expert trigonometry, piloting, bravery … and no little luck. “Precision was everything,” remembered Geoff, years later. “Peter [co-pilot/navigator Staff Sgt Peter Boyle] navigated using stopwatch, map and clipboard. He had to time the moves to the split second. It was up to me to fly the plane. We were too busy making sure we were on the right heading at the right speed to worry about the danger.”
The Halifax towing aircraft released their charges over Cabourg on the Normandy coast. Barkway and Boyle took a right-angled turn starboard and swooped toward their target. To make the job harder, the heavy payload saw the craft descending at 100mph rather than the usual 60mph. One of the gliders went off course, landing miles away, and took no part in the landing, but the rest landed in the space of minutes next to the two bridges over the River Orne. At the last minute, Geoff had to swerve to avoid the glider in front and buried his craft’s nose into the riverbank, was thrown through the cockpit window, into a pond and knocked out. Coming round, Geoff revived the concussed Boyle, and the pair put their infantry skills to use, transforming from airmen to soldiers as they attached the bridge. Barkway was shot in the arm and evacuated to Portsmouth; gangrene had set in and his right arm was amputated.
The job was done and the bridges taken, and an announcement was made that all the pilots would win the Distinguished Flying Medal (DFM). To the surpise of his mates, Geoff’s name was missing. The modest Barkway made no protest, but it emerged that there had been an administrative error, Geoff’s award going to another glider pilot of similar name, who had not flown on Deadstick. The wrong was quickly righted, though too late for Barkway to receive his medal with his pals at Buckingham Palace.
Invalided out of the forces in 1945, Geoff married Eileen and the couple had two sons and two daughters. He returned to a safer form of transport, getting an Engineering degree then serving 30 years with London Transport, helping develop the Victoria Line. In latter years he worked as a consultant on New York and Singapore’s underground railways. The prosthetic arm, meanwhile, served as a useful prop for humour. It would periodically fall off – once when he was riding his bike, to the horror of a passing woman, once remaining on the platform clutching his briefcase as he leapt onto a train.
Commemorative reunions, after-dinner speaking and a lifelong friendship with Peter Boyle were the happy legacy of those dangerous days. The east London lad will be remembered as one of the true heroes of World War II.