Captain Geoffrey Costeloe, 1940

Officers of the 1st Airborne Reconnaissance Squadron, July 1944

Captain James Geoffrey Costeloe


Unit : 1st Airborne Reconnaissance Squadron

Army No. : 129356


Geoffrey Costeloe was born in Nottinghamshire on the 4th December 1920, the son of a parish vicar. He was well educated at St Bees School, Cumberland, and could have gone to University but instead chose the Merchant Navy. He did not enjoy his time at sea, however, and left his ship just before the war started.


In May 1939, he enlisted into the Army as a private soldier with the intention, after eighteen months, of going to Sandhurst, but with the outbreak of war he was commissioned into The Border Regiment as a Second Lieutenant on the 20th April 1940. On the 20th October 1941, whilst training with the 1st Border, then a part of the 31st Independent Infantry Brigade, he was promoted to War Substantive Lieutenant. Not long after this the battalion became an Airborne Formation and the brigade was converted into the 1st Airlanding Brigade. Costeloe was part of the 1st Border's Rugby XV team in early 1942, at their camp at Barton Stacey (see photo on page 32 of 'When Dragons Flew').


He served in North Africa, Sicily and Italy with the 1st Border. In North Africa, he commanded a group of 52 men that were to move from their base at Mascara in Morocco and travel to M'Saken in Tunisia. They set off on the 21st June 1943, and had to pick up 52 brand new motor-cycles at Algiers and ride them the rest of the way. [1]


Costeloe took part in the invasion of Sicily on the 10th July 1943, but his glider came down in the sea. "General Hopkinson's powerful voice was heard by Lieutenant Geoffrey Costeloe, second in command of the 1st Border's Reconnaissance Platoon, as his group huddled on the remains of glider No 119, piloted by Staff Sergeant Waldron and Sergeant Harris. The group included Lieutenant Bob Coulston, Lt. Costeloe's batman, eight men from the Platoon and a signaller. All emerged from the wreck, but the wings could not support the weight of the men. Six, including Lt. Coulston, were prepared to swim for it, leaving Costeloe with the remainder. As the seaborne invasion began, Hopkinson's voice could be heard shouting repeatedly "Ahoy there! Airborne troops in distress!" This was eventually answered by a Cockney Royal Marine Sergeant on a landing-craft, who said "Shut up you **** fools, we are doing a **** invasion." At around 05.00 hrs Costeloe's group was picked up by an assault landing craft, which took them to the Polish ship S.S. Sobieski. The Captain, having assumed from their bedraggled appearance that they were Italian POW's, told his crew to put them in irons until persuaded otherwise, after which they were treated royally." [1] Costeloe adds:


I was very glad it was warm because I spent ten hours in the sea and the Mediterranean was lovely and warm, thank God. [2]


Returning to North Africa, the next two months were spent rebuilding the Battalion, then in September 1943 they participated in the landings in mainland Italy. After a high speed trip aboard a Royal Navy cruiser, during which they saw the Italian fleet sailing to Malta to surrender, they disembarked at Taranto and dug in about five miles beyond the city. Next they secured the airfield at Foggia for the R.A.F., throughout encountering only light German opposition. While serving in Italy, Costeloe was promoted to Full Lieutenant, but he also contracted jaundice and had to spend a period in hospital.


The 1st Border returned to the U.K. in December 1943, taking up residence at Woodhall Spa, in Lincolnshire. At some stage Costeloe completed a parachute course and volunteered for a parachute unit within the 1st Airborne Division. He was posted to the 1st Airborne Reconnaissance Squadron in May 1944, and was promoted to Captain in July and became their Adjutant.


After several frustrating false starts he eventually took-off on Operation Market Garden on Sunday 17th September 1944, accompanied by his batman, Trooper W.J. Prescott.


I went to Arnhem in a DC 3 aircraft and parachuted onto the heath at D.Z. 'X' at a few minutes after 2 pm on 17th September 1944. I eventually married up with my jeep, driver and radio operator and moved off with the Commanding Officer towards Wolfheze. "Remember Arnhem" gives a very good account of the happenings from that moment on. [3] [Costeloe's personal contributions to "Remember Arnhem" are on pages 68, 149, 157-158, 171-172, 192 and 215]


In Italy the country was rather open and that sort of thing, but in Holland it was rather different. In Arnhem we were in a city and it was all street fighting you know and very close quarter fighting. Different altogether, in the open it's much easier because you can see where things are. In a built up area you never know who is in the house and who isn't and it's much more difficult. [2]


On the night we withdrew across the river, I was allotted about 12 men from Squadron HQ including S.Q.M.S. Holderness. We set off towards the river shortly after 9 pm - it was raining heavily and the shell-fire both friendly and hostile was very heavy. As a result there was no point in hanging around, so I led my group through the trees (about 1 mile, from just north of the Hartenstein Hotel to the River) as fast as I could. It was about half way to the river that I was challenged by a sentry in a foreign accent. I naturally thought he was a POLE - and continued on, calling out the password. My group had nearly all passed this sentry when we were fired on by an MG 34. Tracer bullets were literally bouncing past our legs as we all ran for cover. Unfortunately S.Q.M.S. Holderness, who was at the rear of my group got killed at that time. I managed to collect the remaining men together and proceed towards the river. I believe the MG post was knocked out by another group who followed after us.


When we eventually reached the river there was no sign of boats - in fact no sign of anyone. It would appear we were the first to arrive at the river. However, I began to wonder whether we were in the right place - so I started to lead my group along the river back to the West. We must have gone at least half a mile without making contact with anyone - until we came across an assault boat lying on the beach. To our horror we found the boat full of dead soldiers (from the Dorset's, who had tried to get across the previous night). We lifted out these bodies and laid them on the beach and then proceeded to pile into the boat and push off. The boat was so full of bullet holes that it immediately began to sink. So we had to abandon this venture.


I then got my group together and said that those who thought they could swim the river could do so and I would stay with those who felt they couldn't make it. I was grateful when they all agreed to stick together and try and find the boats. All this time the shell fire from our guns as well as the German guns was very heavy and very noisy.


So we started to make our way back to our original start point on the river bank, and it was not long before we bumped into many friendly faces, and the sound of outboard motors. We took our turn in the queue and eventually were taken across the river by some cheerful Canadian Engineers.


When the remnants of the Squadron eventually got back to Ruskington I found I was the senior officer left and set about the task of writing letters to next-of-kin of those missing and killed - I tried to do most of the officers and gave the missing and killed Other Ranks to other surviving officers.


One of the major problems was writing citations for those who deserved special recognition. I'd had no experience in this field nor had I any high level help at Divisional HQ to help and advise me. With the result we were only able to get one M.C. (Dougie Galbraith) and one M.M. (Sergeant Pyper). This was very disappointing as I'm sure the Squadron as a whole deserved more - had 'Freddie' Gough returned with the Squadron I'm sure things would have been different.


I left the Squadron in early 1945 to attend a course at the Staff College in Wimbledon. I was then posted to Burma and promoted to Major. I was seconded to the Burma Police and detailed to reform a battalion of the old Burma Frontier Force. Eventually I had some 700 Kachins reasonably well trained and manning border posts on the Burma/Chinese frontier in Northern Burma.


In 1951 I emigrated to Canada and joined the Canadian Army - I commanded a Company of The Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry in Korea 1951-52 and held several Staff and Regimental appointments until I retired in 1970." [3]


Many years later, after he had fully retired, Geoffrey Costeloe spoke of some of the things that mattered to him about the Battle of Arnhem. On the subject of casualties; "It was difficult if somebody you knew well, a very great friend got wounded or killed, of course it was. Yes, it was a bit of a shock, but somehow or other one had to put up with it you know? I don't know what it is but you do, you put up with it and get on with the job."


On the subject of the cause of the Second World War; "We all felt we were doing something good, you know, worthwhile. I think it was important you felt like this, otherwise what would be the purpose in kind of throwing your life away if it wasn't going to be useful. I have a very strong feeling that what we did was right and maybe there were mistakes on the way, but whatever we did they tried to get it right and they tried to do the best they could." [2]


He married Betty in Singapore on the 18th March 1950, and they had two sons, Timothy and Nigel, and a daughter, Anne. He died on the 22nd February 2009, at Victoria in Canada.


[1] Extracts from 'When Dragons Flew'.

[2] Extract from a taped interview at the University of Victoria, Canada. 9 November 2008.

[3] Letter to Bob Hilton. 8 February 1996.



My thanks to Bob Hilton for this account.


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