There are those who say that distance running and marathon running teach people how to put up with pain: well, put them in the dentist’s chair and see how much the marathon running helps put up with what follows. It’s maybe more true to say that marathon and distance running bring out or display characteristics that within the man and which stand them in good stead later in life. In the case of John Neilson Lapraik I would suggest that this is the case. Good athlete that he was, there will possibly be more on his career after his athletics days were over than race details.
Born on 13th September, 1915, at Boroughmuirhead in Edinburgh, he lived most of his younger life in Glasgow and because he suffered from tuberculosis of the knee from the age of seven years, he was effectively crippled for five years, two of which were spent with his legs in plaster. Many of us associate tuberculosis with the lungs but it can and does affect other parts of the body including hips and knees. Treatment almost always used to, maybe still does, involve immobilising the joint, traction and possibly even surgery. He was educated at the High School of Glasgow between 1927 – 34 before going up to Glasgow University. Even at University he was thought to be too fragile for vigorous sports but he had built up his strength and was one of best men in Both the Athletics team and the Hares & Hounds squads. He captained the Hares & Hounds in 1936-37, 1937-38 and 1939-40, and got his Blue in 1937. It is on this period that we will concentrate and look at season 1935 to start with.
On 11th May, 1935, Glasgow University AC held their club championships at Westerlands and Ian Lapraik (known to other athletes as ‘Tod’) had three second places: in the half-mile he was beaten by J Dornan with only a yard and half in it, the winning time being 2:05.7; in the mile he was second to AW MacAuley whose time was 4:43 (Lapraik 4:45) with eight yards in it, and he was second in the Three Miles where a new University record of 15:32.4 was set by AW MacAuley, who was maybe better known as a steeple chaser. He seemed to go into hibernation at this point and was not on the card for any of the annual meetings, nor at any of the inter-university fixtures in May and June.
On 2nd May 1936, in the Atalanta v St Andrews University he won the half-mile, running for Atalanta, in 2:06.2 and also ran in the relay where he was second on the half-mile stage. Later that month – on the 23rd May – he won the invitation two miles handicap at Coatbridge off a 150 yard mark beating H McPhee. The report read: “Glasgow University One Mile and Three Miles champion JN Lapraik, with 150 yards to help him along, won the two-mile short limit handicap from H McPhee (Springburn Harriers). He had to call on all his reserves to head the Springburn man who had won the three previous races. Only two yards separated the men at the finish. McPhee did very well to give 45 yards to Lapraik and only fail.” Noted beforehand as a runner in the Atalanta v SAAA (Western District) on Monday 1st June, he did not in the event turn out. At the Glasgow High School Sports on 6th June he ran as scratch man in the half-mile handicap race where he ran a well-judged race to win on the tape from R McLean in 2:08.6. This set him up for the annual contest between the four Scottish Universities on 13th June at Westerlands, where he was timed at 15:14.8 to win the Three Miles. The report this time read: “In the Three Miles, JN Lapraik (Glasgow University) returned 15 min 14 8-10th sec to get 3 2-5th sec inside the 13 year old record of CH Johnston who was also a Glasgow man. In this effort Lapraik was forced to keep going at a smart gait by IH McDonald (Edinburgh), and gradually the pair drew clear of the field. To clock 4 min 52 and 10 min 4 sec for the one and two miles, Lapraik was in the running for the record. McDonald was nursing him well, but during the third mile he felt the strain and allowed the Glasgow man to open up a gap. Over the last lap, McDonald made a valiant effort to get on terms, and Lapraik had a few anxious moments, as he tried to look round as he entered the straight. McDonald could not maintain the pace he had set for himself round that lap, with the result that he eased well up the straight to allow Lapraik to win with about eight yards to spare.”
1937 was in many ways Lapraik’s best as a runner. Starting as usual in May, he was at St Andrews on the first of the month to contest the 880 yards and the Mile in the Atalanta v St Andrews fixture. The Mile provided a victory in 4:52.0 and he was second in the half, won in 2:06. The following Saturday, in Aberdeen for another Atalanta team which defeated Aberdeen University, he won ‘the best race of the afternoon’ – the mile – in 4:39.2. “For the first two laps, LW Carson, Aberdeen, set a strong pace. On entering the third lap, AWC Lobban, Aberdeen, and JN Lapraik , Atalanta, went to the front and ran neck-and-neck in the last lap. Lapraik gained a lead of four yards, and a closing burst by Lobban in the last 100 yards just failed.”
The Glasgow University championships were held at Westerlands on 23rd May and Lapraik ran in three events – 880 yards, Mile and Three Miles. The hero of the day was JAH Lees who won the half-mile in 2:02.6 from Lapraik and also defeated him in the Mile in 4:35.8. He had won the 880 by 13 yards and won the Mile ‘easily’. As far as the half mile was concerned, the report commented that ‘Ian Lapraik did not attempt to take the sting out’ with a fast first lap. In the Three Miles, he won ‘easily’ for the second consecutive year in 15:47.6. On Monday 1st June in the Atalanta v SAAA (Western District), Lapraik was forward in the Two Miles event where he finished third behind Emmet Farrell and Willie Donaldson of the SAAA’s. The winning time was 9:50.0 and he was clocked at 9:55 for third place. Being beaten by these two was no disgrace for any Scots athlete and Lapraik now had good times for 880 yards, Mile, Two Miles and Three Miles to his credit by 1st June.
Although Lapraik did not race at the Scottish championships, there was an announcement in the Press on Monday 28th June under the heading SCOTTISH UNIVERSITIES’ SELECTION the report read At a meeting of the representatives of the four Scottish Universities held in Glasgow, the following team was chosen to represent them in Paris on August 22nd to 28th in connection with the Students Olympic Games. 100-200 metres: FP Seymour (Edinburgh), DM Pearson (Glasgow), GRRW Caise (Aberdeen); 400 metres: RB Wylde (Edinburgh), JK Watson (Aberdeen); 800 metres: JH Lees (Glasgow); 1500 metres: JAH Lees (Glasgow), GM Carstairs (Edinburgh); 5000 metres: GM Carstairs (Edinburgh), JN Lapraik (Glasgow).
His own race was towards the end of the meeting – 27th August – and he was timed at 15:49.4 when he finished fourth. It had been a good summer for Ian Lapraik but he still had two years of competition left to him before graduation.
May 1937 saw him start his track season on 7th May in a match between Glasgow University and Queen’s, Belfast, with two seconds – the 880 yards and the Mile. Two weeks later the Glasgow University Sports took place at Westerlands and Lapraik had a good effort at retaining his Three Miles title but could only finish second, 40 yards down on JD Binning who won in 16:03. He again finished second in the Mile which was won in 4:35 by J Muir who had a lead of 20 yards at the tape. On 21st May in a triangular fixture between Glasgow, Aberdeen and St Andrews Universities at the University grounds at Garscadden, Lapraik turned out in the half-mile which he won despite being second across the finishing line – J Anderson of Aberdeen won by 20 yards in 2:02.9, but the judges decided that he had benefited from “pace-making” by the Aberdeen team captain who had run alongside Anderson down part of the finishing straight. Lapraik got the verdict and the points for his win in 2:05. The annual match featuring Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and St Andrews Universities took place in Aberdeen on 13th June and Lapraik was out in the Three Miles – that meant facing GM Carstairs (Edinburgh) who was in outstanding form at this point and he could only finish third behind Carstairs and JW Martin (also of Edinburgh) with the winning time being 15:20.5 and Lapraik 50 yards behind the winner. That championship seemed to finish his summer’s racing – he never seemed to appear at any of the open sports meetings, or at the SAAA Championships although he would probably have done well at them.
As for cross-country racing, the GUAC history records for the late 30’s and up to 1941 are missing and there seems to be only a note saying that the running of Ian Lapraik was outstanding during the late thirties. Again, his name does not appear in the Scottish or District championships and the Glasgow University team did not run in the Edinburgh to Glasgow.
In May 1939 he started his season in the match between Glasgow University and Queen’s University, Belfast, on Monday 8th May in the Mile where he finished third in a race won in 4:36.2. The University championships were held on the following Saturday (13th) and Lapraik regained his Three Miles titles in the absence of Binning in 15:58.3, and finished second to Muir in the Mile, won in 4:37.0. He had two races the following weekend in University fixtures and after a Three Miles in 15:59.0, he raced to 2:05.0 the following afternoon.
On 27th May, in the Glasgow University v Trinity College, Dublin, at Westerlands, he won the Three Miles by 120 yards in 15:59.0 from another Glasgow runner, TL McGlynn. He was not in action at the Scottish University championships on 10th June at Craiglockhart. The World Student Games (the Universiade) which were to be held at Amsterdam, were switched to Monaco where, in the febrile atmosphere of a Europe on the verge of war, GM Cartsairs won the 5000m in 15:20.2.
Lapraik’s athletics career, like so many others came to a sudden halt with the outbreak of hostilities but the real John Neilson Lapraik came to the fore and the personality characteristics which helped him overcome his childhood medical problems and become one of Scotland’s best athletes, produced a genuine hero.
I quote from the ‘Herald’ of 13th June, 1998: On the day war was declared against Germany (September 3, 1939), he enlisted in the Highland Light Infantry, and after attending the Officer Cadet Training Unit at Dunbar (renowned for its toughness) he was commissioned into the Cameron Highlanders. Posted to the Middle East he soon volunteered for the Commandos where he observed that in 51 Commando, which contained both Jews and Arabs, the two races worked in perfect harmony. Soon afterwards he was sent to Malta to train small parties of canoeists in coastal raiding. However, he was soon leading raids along the North African coast and the Aegean islands. His physical development proceeded apace: his chest expanded from 37 inches to 43. He once paddled a canoe from Malta to Sicily, a distance of 70 miles, and on one occasion even managed to control a canoe in a force-nine gale. Successful raiding depended on daring, luck, initiative and quickness. In their flimsy craft the canoeists were always liable to be blown out of the water and were well aware that they were usually miles inside enemy-held territory from which no-one could rescue them, and their survival depended on their own efforts. “
The GU history simply says:
“Ian Tod Lapraik was an outstanding athlete in the Hares and Hounds during the late thirties . Ian Lapraik ( a law student) organised red gowns for the trips to Dublin and kilts for the journeys south of the Border, often a chilling experience! Tod Lapraik was known as ‘The Black Scot’ and carried out on his own acts of sabotage behind the enemy lines.”
He even has a Wikipedia page which briefly describes his war service.
Lapraik enlisted in the Highland Light Infantry on 3 September 1939, the day that war was declared against Germany. After training at the reputedly tough Officer Cadet Training Unit at Dunbar, he was commissioned in the Cameron Highlanders in 1941. In the same year he saw action with 51 Commando in Ethiopia, then known as Abyssinia, and won the Military Cross and the Ethiopian Lion of Judah.
In June 1943, he joined the newly formed Special Boat Squadron (SBS), based near Haifa, commanded by Lord Jellicoe. In 1943 he commanded an SBS unit operating from bases in Turkish waters. Notable among his successes was an attack with the Greek Sacred Squadron on Symi, when the German garrison was decimated and all their installations destroyed. For this and other actions, he was awarded a bar to his Military Cross.
In 1944, the Squadron was expanded to Regimental status, though still part of the SAS group. The unit was now styled the Special Boat Service, and the three operational Detachments were likewise expanded into Squadrons: Major Lapraik commanded M Squadron. In 1945, he was awarded the DSO, in recognition of his courage and leadership.
He was then attached to the Greek Sacred Regiment Sacred Squadron, which had also been expanded from its original Squadron status, and remained with them until the end of the war. This was a very difficult period in Greek history and his service was further recognised by the award of Officer of the Order of the British Empire from Britain, and the Order of the Phoenix from Greece. He also received the Greek War Cross, 2nd Class (Β’ τάξεως) for his earlier operations.
His skill in watermanship was legendary. He once paddled a canoe from Malta to Sicily, a distance of 70 miles, and on one occasion even managed to control a canoe in a force-nine gale.
He was six times mentioned in despatches;
wounded six times;
captured three times but always escaped.
After the war, the SAS and the SBS were disbanded from the regular establishment, but in 1947 the SAS returned, as a unit of the Territorial Army. This unit was 21 SAS (V) and Major Lapraik now commanded B Squadron, whose senior ranks were composed mostly of veterans of the SBS. Between 1973 and 1983, Ian Lapraik was the Honorary Colonel of 21 SAS.
In his civil life, Ian Lapraik worked in publishing. He died in Buckinghamshire on 15 March 1985.
That is all very impressive, but to get the measure of the tasks he carried out we should look at one of the operations he was involved in. The Raid on Symi took place from 13th to 15th July in 1944 as part of the Mediterranean Campaign. Two allied Special Forces were involved – the British SBS and the Greek Sacred Band. who raided the German and Italian garrisons on the island of Symi in the Aegean Sea. During the raid, the German and Italian forces were overwhelmed and the Allies forces evacuated Symi as planned. In detail –
100 British men were involved and the Commanding Officer was Ian ‘Jock’ Lapraik. We can go back to Wikipedia for further description:
The British and Greek forces from ten motor launchers and supported by schooners and caiques landed unopposed and by dawn all three forces were overlooking their respective targets. As soon as light took effect the attack began, firstly on the harbor defenses with mortar and machine guns; the German garrison was taken by surprise. Two German barges which had followed the British boats came into the harbour only to be overwhelmed by gunfire, after which they were sunk.
The last objective was the castle just above the harbor and fire was concentrated with Vickers machine guns and mortars opening up on the battlements. Whilst crossing a bridge SBS men became pinned down and had to stay there for a while. Fighting was bitter here and the majority of the casualties were taken in this area but mortar fire was concentrated on the castle. A captured German officer and a Royal naval Lieutenant seconded to the SBS called out for the castle to surrender and after three hours of further fighting an Italian Caraninieri unit walked out and surrendered.
Further in land the other German position in a Panormitis Monastery was attacked and the men driven out and only surrendered when they came to a promontory by the sea. The island was thus secured and mopping up was done on other possible strong points on the island.
With the consolidation the SBS began planting demolition charges, this included gun emplacements, ammunition, fuel and explosive dumps. Even the harbor wasn’t spared, altogether nineteen German caiques, some displacing 150 tons were destroyed. During this time the Luftwaffe made a number of attacks on the island but to little effect.
With all the objectives taken it was decided to evacuate the island and so the Greeks and the SBS withdrew with the booty and prisoners. A small section of SBS remained on the island until the last possible moment. Two German motor launches attempted to land but the SBS opened fire setting the two ships on fire as they tried to withdraw. The last of the men to leave on a barge ran into an E Boat but with enough captured weapons and ammo they were able to open fire and sink the vessel for no loss.”
That’s word for word from the encyclopedia and gives a good idea of what his war service was all about. There were also many acts of individual bravery – such as the sabotage mentioned in the GUAC history. He was a much decorated soldier and his principal honours and awards are noted below – note that these are the principal awards and the list is not exhaustive.
Honours and Awards:
*Distinguished Service Order, awarded 18 October 1945;
*Officer of the Order of the British Empire, awarded 9th August 1945
*Military Cross, 19 August 1941, and Bar 3 February 1944
*Territorial Efficiency Decoration, 14 September 1956
*Mentioned in Despatches, 25 January 1945
*Lion of Judah (Abyssinia)
*War Cross (Greece), 2nd Class, 14 October 1949.
There is really nothing to add to the story of Ian Lapraik other than to say, go and read more about him!