Private Leonard Waller
Unit : HQ Company, 12th Battalion The Devonshire Regiment.
I was with the 12th Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment. We went ashore in Normandy on 7th June 1944, the day after D-Day, and advanced around Ouistrehem to Ranville where the battalion took over the village from a parachute battalion, who had fought their way there on D-Day against some German resistance. We spent two fairly quiet days there, occasionally interrupted by German bombers.
Our battalion had set up an Observation Post (OP) on a hill half a mile south of our headquarters, which, on the afternoon of June 9th, was manned by Privates Jack (Sam) Koster and George Lavender. Jack Koster, nick-named Sam after the comedian Sam Costa, was responsible for frequently telephoning HQ with their observations of enemy movement in the valley below. His last call that afternoon was an urgent request for tea rations as they had manned the OP since noon. I was ordered to take the tea ration up to them.
So I set out alone along the track leading to the OP carrying my loaded rifle and a can full of hot sweet tea, with the unreal feeling of taking a solitary walk on the South Downs in the Sussex countryside. Eventually I reached the OP on the brow of the hill, where I was welcomed by Sam and George as I handed them the tea and said that I was to stay to relieve one of them to return to HQ.
Within minutes of my arrival the OP was under heavy fire. There being no form of cover we all three dived as flat as possible and I felt a heavy blow on the side if my head. After a pause to make sure the firing had stopped, I congratulated ourselves on that “near miss”, but looking up I realised that the near miss was a direct hit on the OP. Sam and George had been killed instantly right beside me and the field telephone was nowhere to be seen.
Badly shaken and vaguely wondering what to do next in that utter silence which followed, I reasoned that staying there without the telephone was pointless. I staggered back through our forward company lines where our own mortars were taking vigorous action against a German attack, eventually reaching HQ dazed and deafened. I was then taken on to the field hospital at Bayeux suffering from concussion and loss of hearing from a perforated left eardrum. After three days I was assured the deafness was only temporary and I was left to find my own way back to my unit by thumbing a lift from any army truck travelling in that direction.
Some weeks later whilst back home on leave, my wife and I visited George Lavender’s widow to express our condolences and explain the circumstances of George’s death. I knew nothing of Sam Koster’s family.
An extraordinary postscript to this story occurred fifty years later. In 1994 I joined the D-Day anniversary tour to Normandy with the Devonshire Regiment veterans. In the mêlée of people waiting to leave the ferry, I struck up a conversation with a lady standing nearby and asked her if she was with the Devon’s party. She told me that she was travelling with her husband, but that her reason for joining our tour was in the hope of finding her brother’s grave at Ranville and learning more of the circumstances of his death in June 1944. Thinking I might be able to help as I was with the HQ Company throughout my time with the regiment, I asked her brother’s name and she quietly replied “Jack Koster”. I was momentarily stunned and felt my life turning back again half a century — I was once again the young man aged 26 who was beside Jack when he was killed. She was speaking to the only man who could explain the full details of her brother’s death.
© BBC. WW2 People's War is an online archive of wartime memories contributed by members of the public and gathered by the BBC. The archive can be found at bbc.co.uk/ww2peopleswar/.
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