The Military Museums

Geoff Costeloe

James Geoffrey (Geoff) Costeloe was born in Nottingham, England in 1920.

Geoff Costeloe

James Geoffrey (Geoff) Costeloe was born in Nottingham, England in 1920.

Geoff Costeloe

James Geoffrey (Geoff) Costeloe was born in Nottingham, England in 1920. He joined the Merchant Navy after finishing school, and then enlisted in the Border Regiment in May 1939. As a part of the 1st Battalion, he served in North Africa and took part in the glider borne invasion of Sicily in July 1943. In March 1944, he was assigned to the First Airborne Reece Squadron and fought in the Battle of Arnhem, where his unit was rescued by Canadian soldiers.

His loyalty to the Canadians continued after the war and in 1951, he enlisted in the 1st Btn PPCLI and served in Korea. In 1953 he joined the Queen's Own Rifles and was stationed in Germany and Canada.

Early Years

James Geoffrey (Geoff) Costeloe was born on December 4th, 1920 in Nottingham, England. His father was a parson with the Church of England with a large vicarage in Nottingham. Geoff was the eighth of nine children, and was very close to his younger brother Norman who fought with the Gurkha Rifles in Africa and during the Italian Campaign at Monte Cassino. Norman was killed in September 1944 during the Battle of San Marino.

Geoff attended St. Bees School in Cumbria and attended Officer Training Corps during the summers. When he graduated High School at age 17, Geoff joined the Merchant Navy and made two trips to India and Calcutta.

British Army Training

Deciding that life on the sea wasn't for him, Geoff left the Royal Navy in 1939 and joined the British Army. Geoff was training in Aldershot, England at the outbreak of war. His battalion was sent to France not long afterwards but Geoff wasn't allowed to go because he was under the age of 19. He was sent back to the Officer Training Unit in Aldershot where he stayed a few months until he was commissioned in March 1940.

After his commission, Geoff was sent back to the Officer Training School as an instructor where he stayed for over a year until he was posted to the 1st Battalion of the Border Regiment and stationed in South Wales where they continued extensive training and exercises as part of one of the independent brigade groups.

During this time Liverpool, England was attacked by German bombers with high explosive and incendiary bombs. Geoff's unit was sent to Liverpool for a time to help with firefighting at the Liverpool dockyards and surrounding areas. Geoff had remarked that his experience in Liverpool was the first time he came under enemy fire during the war. It would not be his last.

While at the officer training school, King George VI paid his unit a visit, and Geoff was one of the fortunate cadets who got a chance to speak with him.

Airborne Training

In 1941 the 1st Airborne Division was formed, and the brigade of which the Border Regiment was part, was chosen to form the Air Landing Brigade of the Airborne division.

Geoff's unit then began extensive parachute and glider training in South Wales and Hampshire. The Airborne Division consisted of two brigades of three parachute battalions each, and an Airlanding Brigade of three battalions that would be landed in gliders carrying not only troops but also heavy equipment and supplies such as jeeps and anti-tank guns.

They also did a lot of field firing exercises with live ammunition to prepare them for the rigors of actual combat.

Glider Crashes

Even though Geoff was in an Air Landing battalion, he made several parachute jumps out of aircraft during training and also completed numerous flights in gliders, even crashing twice in training.

The first time the glider pilot landed short of the runway and slid straight into a brick wall causing the glider to disintegrate completely. The pilot broke both legs in the crash but no one else was injured.

Another time as Geoff recalled, the pilot made "a beautiful landing", but unfortunately he was still 50 feet above ground, the aircraft stalled and came straight down "like a pancake" crashing into the ground so hard both wings fell off. But this time they were lucky as no one on board was injured.

Invasion of Sicily

Geoff and his unit trained in England until 1943 when they were sent to North Africa to prepare for the Sicily landings in July 1943 that marked the beginning of the Italian Campaign.

The invasion of Sicily began on 10 July, 1943. The glider assault took place the evening before with the goal of taking the Italians by surprise and capturing key bridges they would hold until reinforcements arrived the following day.

The weather was very bad that night, with strong offshore winds compounded by the difficulty of navigating in the dark. The tow plane pilots were inexperienced at glider operations, and as a result, most of the gliders were released too far out to sea without enough altitude to reach shore. Many of them ended up crashing into the sea with the loss of hundreds of men.

Geoff was the senior officer on his glider of 14 men, one of the 150 gliders that took part in the assault. Flying in pitch darkness and fierce winds, they realized they were in trouble when the pilot yelled back from the cockpit that they were about to ditch. Their glider crash landed into the Mediterranean about 4 miles from the coast of Sicily.

Fortunately their glider landed intact and everyone was able to scramble out and climb up onto the wing of the glider, which managed to remain afloat. Geoff had been lucky since he became entangled in his gear as he was leaving the glider which dragged him under the water, only freeing himself at the last moment.

After ten hours on the open ocean, they were finally rescued by a passing troop ship and given dry clothes and a hot breakfast. Geoff and his company were sent back to Malta to reform the battalion for the next operation. Of the original 150 gliders released during the invasion of over 2,000 British troops, 65 gliders crashed into the ocean with the loss of 250 men who drowned.


After a month or so in Malta, and under great secrecy, the entire brigade was loaded onto cruisers and sent charging off at night across the Mediterranean towards Taranto, Italy.

The Italian government had surrendered in early September 1943, and the Airborne Division was sent to Taranto to help secure the harbour and the remainder of the Italian Navy stationed there. Afterwards the unit was moved northwards where the Air Landing brigade helped in the capture of the airfield at Foggia.

As Geoff recalled, while his men were advancing up a road, they surprised a German officer who came towards them in a big Mercedes car only to find himself completely surrounded by British troops. Evidently some German units hadn't realized the Allies had already advanced that far into Italy.

After the capture of the airfield at Foggia, the Airborne Division was pulled back to Taranto, and eventually loaded onto ships and sent back to the UK where they arrived just before Christmas 1943.


Not long after Geoff returned to England, he transferred to the Reconnaissance Corps in the Airborne Division, and the unit began to prepare for the D-Day landings.

However, as it turned out, of the four Airborne Divisions in England at the time, only the American 82nd and 101st Airborne and the British 6th Division would take part in the D-Day landings. The 1st Airborne Division was held back in reserve.

Over the next few months, several operations were planned and then just as quickly cancelled as British ground forces reached their objectives before the Airborne could carry out their mission.

Then in early September 1944, word was received of a planned operation to capture the Arnhem bridge in the Netherlands.

Market Garden

The objective of this operation was to seize the advantage from the Germans and capture and secure a bridgehead before the main British force arrived. Initially it was just going to be the 1st Airborne Division, with one Brigade sent to Arnhem, one brigade to parachute onto Nijmegen and another brigade to land in the Grabbe area.

But this operation was postponed for two weeks so that three Divisions could take part. In the meantime, the Germans were able to reinforce their troops and tanks in the area.

Operation "Market Garden" began on 17 September, 1944, and was up until that time, the largest airborne operation ever undertaken. It was an enormous undertaking, with three Divisions of almost 35,000 airborne troops landed on a single day by parachute and glider.

Complicating matters, was the decision by the Air Force not to fly close to the bridges because they felt the danger from flak was too great, so some of the paratroopers, including Geoff's brigade, were landed eight miles from their objective.

Most of the troops landed by parachute, with the remainder coming in with larger gliders that carried the vehicles.

The weather for the operation was good and the landings themselves were very successful. Geoff and his section regrouped and headed off towards Arnhem, but quickly ran into heavy German fire causing several casualties. They also discovered that the radios they had been issued didn't work properly.

So the Commanding Officer (Major Freddie Gough) left the unit to get instructions from divisional headquarters. Geoff didn't see him again until after the war.

Major Gough had joined up with some other units and had made his way to the perimeter around the north end of the Arnhem bridge, where he helped command defensive positions there for the next four days. He was captured by the Germans on 21 September 1944.

The Arnhem Bridge

The following day (18 September 1944), Geoff and his group managed to fight their way to headquarters at Harstenstein in Osterbeek, several kilometers from the Arnhem bridge. With the remainder of the unit, they held out for the next seven days under terrible conditions with not enough food, water or ammunition and some of the most bitter fighting of the war.

German mortar bombs and snipers took a heavy toll on the troops, and at great risk to himself and under intense enemy fire, Geoff was known to have made several journeys with wounded men in one of the few surviving jeeps to bring them to the safety of the regimental aid post.

When it finally became clear they could not hold out any longer, they were told to withdraw (25 September, 1944). The only escape route was across the river, but only those who were unwounded were able to get down to the river where they were rescued by small boats piloted by Canadian Engineers of the PPCLI.

Geoff initially tried to swim across the river but turned back because the current was too strong. He lay in the mud along the shore until he heard an approaching boat. It was one of only two remaining boats manned by the Canadians, all the others had been sunk by German fire. The crew pulled Geoff aboard and got him safely across the river. He made his way to an aid station, and as he recalled, was given some rum. His Arnhem fight was over.

Epilogue to Market Garden

The Canadian Engineers managed to ferry 2,400 men across the river that day, 2,160 from the 1st British Airborne. Even so, over 7,000 men became casualties in the battle. The Market Garden operation is considered to have been a tactical disaster.

Only 55 out of the original 270 men in Geoff's squadron made it back. Some were killed, some were wounded, and those who were and couldn't get out became POW's.

When they got back to England Geoff found himself to be the senior officer left in the squadron. He was subsequently given the unpleaseant duty of writing letters to the next-of-kin of all the soldiers who had perished in the battle.

Staff Job in the Far East

Geoff was sent to Burma in early 1945 and put in charge of a Frontier Battalion training soldiers to man outposts along the Chinese frontier. After the war with Japan ended, Geoff left the unit and was hired to manage a rubber plantation in Southern Burma.

The stability of the region deteriorated after the British pulled out in 1948 he so decided to leave, and accepted a position in Malaya managing a Tea Estate. There he met his wife and they were married in Singapore in 1951.

The Korean War

Geoff and his wife came to Canada in April 1951 and by June 1st he had joined the PPCLI. By September, he was made Captain and was on his way to Korea where he was put in command of "C" Company of the 1st Battalion PPCLI.

Geoff spent a year in Korea during which he experienced more than 6 months of static warfare in trenches along the demarkation line between North and South Korea. Reaching the front lines in October 1951, they were shelled almost every day and had to endure extreme weather of all kinds including the bitter cold of winter. His unit went through conditions not seen since the First World War.

Geoff and his unit were finally relieved in April 1952 and sent home in September the same year. They had been there to enforce the unofficial demarkation line that eventually became the official Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between the two Koreas after the Armistice Agreement was signed on 27 July 1953.

Often called the "Forgotten War", of the UN force that served in Korea including South Korea, almost 1 million military and civilian personnel were killed, wounded or missing in action. Of that total, 1,558 were Canadians, including 516 who were killed.

Home to Canada

Not long after Geoff had returned home in 1952, he joined the Queen's Own Rifles of Canada and was stationed in Germany and Canada over the next several years.

Upon his retirement, Geoff and his wife settled in Victoria, BC, where he lived out his remaining years. Geoff passed away in Victoria in 2009.


Major Costeloe's story was complied by material graciously provided by the Costeloe family, and through recorded interviews conducted by the University of Victoria, BC in 1983, and also from the book "Remember Arnhem" by John Fairley.

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