The Guardian (02/Feb/2005) - Obituary: Geoffrey Riley


Geoffrey Riley, GC

Schoolboy hero decorated for his bravery in a Yorkshire flood

On Whit Monday, May 29 1944, a violent thunderstorm, followed by a torrential downpour, broke over the Digley Valley in Yorkshire. The normally benign river Holme was turned into a raging torrent some 80ft wide and 15ft deep, its waters flooding the surrounding land and buildings.

Geoff Riley, who has died aged 75, then a 14-year-old schoolboy, was with his father Donald, up on higher ground above the village of Holmfirth, watching the waters below when they spotted an elderly woman from one of the cottages taking refuge on her garden wall. Such was the force of the water that the wall had begun to crumble in places along its length.

Although much of the wall was soon under water, Geoff attempted to reach the woman by crawling along the top. However, realising he could not get to her because of the breaks in the wall, he tried to persuade her to move towards him, but she was too frightened. Knowing there was no chance of saving her unless he could physically help her off the wall, Geoff got into the water and, making his way along the wall, helped her down into the floodwater.

They were making good progress towards safety when a torrent of floodwater knocked them off their feet and carried them both towards the river, eventually pinning them against a dry stone wall.

With the force of the floodwater now flowing over the wall and into the river, Geoff was becoming exhausted and could make little further progress. Donald Riley, realising his son was now in real difficulty, went to the rescue. After he reached Geoff, the two of them managed to support the woman and began inching towards shallower water. With their backs to the torrent and the wall in front of them, they were nearing safety when the wall suddenly gave way under the weight of the water and all three were swept away.

Geoff survived by clinging on to floating debris, but his father and the woman died. When the flood subsided their bodies were found several miles downstream. On October 3 1944, the London Gazette announced the award of the Albert Medal to Geoff Riley.

Given the day off school and dressed in his best suit, Geoff, accompanied by his widowed mother, received his medal from King George VI at an investiture at Buckingham Palace. When the Royal Warrant for the Albert Medal was revoked in 1971, Geoff Riley exchanged it for the George Cross, which he received from the Queen at Buckingham Palace on March 6 1973.

He was born in Huddersfield. After attending Holme Valley Grammar School, he followed his father into electrical engineering and took up an apprenticeship with the Central Electricity Generating Board. He later attended Huddersfield Technical College and did his national service as a junior technician with the RAF, stationed in Shropshire.

Riley qualified as a chartered engineer and spent the rest of his working life with the CEGB, later Powergen. Essentially a practical man, he bought a large, rather run down detached house which he renovated from top to bottom. Among his other interests were gardening and restoring vintage motorbikes.

Following retirement, he and his wife Barbara, whom he married in 1953, toured all over Britain and Europe in their caravan. After his wife's death in 1997, Riley took to holidaying further afield, visiting Australia, New Zealand and Canada. He joined the VC & GC Association in 1973, and, from 1995, served on its committee.

His son and daughter survive him.

Geoffrey Riley, GC, hero, born November 20 1929; died January 16 2005