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I an ex member of both 7 and 8 Squadron's of the Rhodesian war spending most of my operational time on Seven Squadron as a K Car gunner. I was credited for shooting down a fixed wing aircraft from a K Car on the 9 August 1979. This blog is from articles for research on a book which I HAVE HANDED THIS MANUSCRIPT OVER TO MIMI CAWOOD WHO WILL BE HANDLING THE PUBLICATION OF THE BOOK OF WHICH THERE WILL BE VERY LIMITED COPIES AVAILABLE Contact her on yebomimi@gmail.com The latest news is that the Editing is now done and we can expect to start sales and deliveries by the end of April 2011

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Wednesday, August 20, 2008

MAJOR GEN KEITH COSTER



Extracted from Illustrated Life Rhodesia
Fortnight Ending January 27th 1971

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Army Commander Major-General KEITH COSTER, one of the key figures in Rhodesia's war against terrorism, talks to BEVERLEY WHYTE.

HE IS EVERY inch a soldier Tall — six foot although seems more — well-built, he could be in his late thirties but is in fact just 50.

Major General Keith Coster, LCD., O.B.E., Chief of General Staff, General Officer Commanding the Rhodesian Army and one of the key men in this country's preventive war against communist-inspired guerrilla encroachment, is wearing a smart grey suit and modish suede shoes when we meet. But he might just as well be in battledress for all the camouflage civilian dress affords him. General Coster is amodest man, to the point of self-deprecation, and shies away from personal publicity. He finally consented to this profile because "it wouldn't do the army any harm to be written up. It could do some good. I don't underestimate the value of good public relations."

When he agreed to be interviewed, he suggested in his characteristically unassuming and courteous way that he should come to my office In town —a rare gesture indeed in Rhodesia, where lowly Journalistic Mahomet's must invariably go cap in hand to the
mountain.

A quiet man, who does an important, difficult job quietly and well, who rates group efficiency more highly than individual brilliance, who believes in training and experience rather than flair, whose military heroes are men like Slim and Auchinlek rather than talented mavericks like Patton and Wingate. Keith Coster is a professional.

ATHLETE BORN IN ZULULAND
Keith Coster went to Maritzburg College for his senior schooling and matriculated in 1936. More at home on the sports field than, perhaps, in the classroom, he represented Natal at junior athletics (best time for the mile: 4.41).
"I never wanted to work in an office," he says. "1 was always keen on the outdoors. My father was a bank manager and 1 rather think he hoped I'd follow him there, but I knew it would never do for me.

"When I left school, I thought of joining the Bechuanaland Police, the British South Africa Police, and the South African Army. In the end I chose the army.
"I wanted to go on the officers' course at the South African Military College, but I was too young. So I joined something called the Special Service Battalion — a military unit raised during the Depression, chiefly to create employment during those years. The SSB lasted until the outbreak of war, when it became a combat unit and its name was changed. The pay was a shilling a day. I actually managed to save money."
"What did you spend your money on in 1937?"
"Clothing."
"Natty clothing?"

The General smiles. "No. Just enough to get myself home decently dressed at weekends.'
Corporal Coster duly joined the 1938 officers' course, and found himself "completely compatible" with army life. "It was just what I had been looking for."

The course should have taken two years, but in September, 1939, with the outbreak of the Second World War, the fledgling officers were prematurely commissioned. Second-Lieutenant Coster went into the South African Air Force as a pilot and specialist armament officer, charged with training officers and other ranks —gunners, bomb aimers and pilots— in air armament duties. He was stationed at various air stations in South Africa throughout 1940 and '41; met and married Molly Stanley in 1941, and the following year was posted to the North Africa theatre.


Early Days. Left: Lance-corporal Keith Coster of the Special Service Battalion, 1937.
Centre: Officer cadet during flying training, 1939. Rudder before belongs to a Blenhelm.
Right: Flight Lieutenant, South Africa Air Force. Coster spent his last three years of the war in POW camps in Italy and Germany (where he roomed with author Paul Brickhill, and took part in the Great Escape)

He joined Number Five Fighter Squadron, and was shot down in July, 1942.

TRIAL BY FIRE
IT WAS near a place called El Daba, behind the Alamein I line — west of El Alamein itself. I was out with my Squadron flying a Tomahawk. At a very low altitude, after chasing some Stukas, I was shot down by a Messerschmitt, and set on fire. I force landed, and set off on foot at a spanking pace, heading for the sea. But then I realised that I was being followed by some Germans in a Volkswagen truck. Of course they pretty soon caught up with me. They said: "For you, the war is over, Kommen zie mit".
So I went mit. Being slightly wounded, I spent part of the first night in an ambulance — until I was thrown out by a German officer who wanted to sleep in it himself. So I slept on the sand."

Interrogation for three days at a camp "somewhere in the desert" followed: "psychological methods", says the General vaguely.
He was then handed over to the Italians in Tobruk; moved to Benghazi and from thence by sea to Bari via Taranto. He remained in Italy as a prisoner of war until 1943, when he was moved to Germany; first to Moosburg near Munich, then to Stuttgart, and finally into an Air Force P.O.W. camp — the well known Stalag Luft 3 near Sagan.

"Douglas Bader had been there, but he'd been moved out just before I arrived because he was so troublesome. Wing Commander Stanford Tuck, a well known fighter pilot, was an inmate, though. Also Bob Braham, a top-scoring night fighter pilot, and Wing Commander Day, the Senior British Officer about whom a book has been written."

The young Captain Coster roomed with Paul Brickhill, author of "The Great Escape" and "The Dam Busters".
At the time Brickhill was writing his first book — the manuscript of which he later smuggled out in a plaster cast on his arm. Keith Coster suggested "Barbed Horizon" as the title, but Brickhill eventually made a more banal choice: "Escape or Die".

Keith Coster, like thousands of other Allied prisoners, was determined to escape. At Stalag Luft 3 he found himself involved in perhaps the most famous of all attempts.
"It wasn't my first attempt. I'd been involved in two tunnel efforts in Italy, both of which had been abortive.

BRITISH ROULETTE
In the Great Escape, I was only a minor cog. A tremendous number of people had a part to play in it. We drew cards to choose who would go out. We reckoned to get 200 out, from total camp complement of more than 1,200. I did draw a card, but progress through the tunnel fell behind schedule and only 80 out of the 200 managed to get out. I was one of those who didn't. In the event

I was lucky, because of those eighty who were first in the queue, nearly all were captured and fifty were executed by the Germans.

"My duties were ferret'-watching: 'ferrets* were a special type of German security guard. On the night in question, we were all locked up in the bungalow from which the Great Escape started . . . waning for our turn to come. But it never did. The hold-up came about because a couple of the chaps got stuck in the tunnel Also we'd underestimated the time we needed. Several days later we heard that a number of the escapees had been picked up. But ft wasn't the only attempt we made. We were always working on some escape plan.

"Boredom was your biggest enemy in prisoner-of-war camp. You had to sustain morale, keep yourself occupied. I spent a lot of time keeping fit." (he is still a firm believer in physical training). "Running, exercising; I did gym with a chap called Blake who had represented New Zealand at gymnastics, and who took me under his wing.
"Like everyone else, I tried my hand at studying. French and German were the subjects I chose. Comparatively few of us lost our spirit—most remained healthily cheeky.

"There was a lot of contact, fraternisation between the prisoners and the Germans. We had to use them to get supplies, things like radios. It was largely a matter of blackmail: you'd ask the fellow to get you something quite innocent, and repay him with an item from your Red Cross parcel. Then you'd ask him for something more compromising, and if he jibbed, you'd say: 'Ah, but if you don't,
I'll tell the Commandant about that tin of coffee.' Yes, the SS did make occasional raids—they would rush in, make a search and so on. They were every bit as beastly as films and books have depicted them."

BY JANUARY, 1945, the Germans were on the run. At Stalag Luft 3, in the icy grasp of midwinter, the prisoners could hear the sounds of battle getting closer each day. The Russians were approaching the River Oder.

"At one o'clock one bitterly cold morning, we were told to get up. We set off, pulling sleds with our few belongings on them, across the snow-covered fields in a howling blizzard. We travelled for about 100 kilometres. Then we were entrained in cattle trucks, and moved across Germany from the east to the west. En route, we were regularly attacked by the RAF. We were being used as bargaining counters; the Germans knew that it was all almost over. They regarded us as hostages.

"In April, on my 25th birthday, we were out in the fields moving eastwards. Montgomery's 21st Army Group were approaching we knew. During the first couple of days of May we were bivouacked on a beautiful big estate in Schleswig Holstein. Suddenly, behind us, we saw units of the German Army, withdrawing. An hour later a Daimler scout car when a corporal in charge drove up. The war was over.

"My first reaction was a sense of unbelief.’Stunned mullet'? Yes, that just about describes it."

Ex-P.O.W. Keith Coster and two friends "went for a walk, looking for a way to England".
They chanced on a deserted airfield just as a Canadian pilot, hopelessly lost, was coming in to land. "We told him where he was and hitched a lift with him to England, arriving on May 7. We went straight to Brighton, where all returned prisoners of war were being temporarily accommodated. Then there was a tremendous pre-VE night party. It lasted all night."
Does he remember what he did that night?
"Yes," says the General blandly, "but I'd better not tell you about that."
He does recall, however, that he was in "astonishingly good shape— largely because of my concentration on physical fitness". When he came out of POW camp he was at his fighting weight (25 years later, he is only 20 1b. heavier).

DULLNESS OF PEACETIME
KEITH COSTER flew back to South Africa shortly afterwards "Now the story becomes more prosaic. I must admit I did find peacetime pretty dull—that did take a little time to get used to. At first I was in Pretoria, still in the Air Force. Then I went on a staff course at Voortrekkerhoogte until 1946. I was offered the post of adjutant at the South African Military College, and accepted gratefully. I'd never intended joining the Air Force—it only came about because of the outbreak of war, and because most of my friends joined that service; so I went with them. Afterwards, I got back to the Army as soon as I could.

"I had an excellent job training the first lot of post-war officer cadets— the 1947 and '48 courses. I thoroughly enjoyed this; it was
very worthwhile work. Sadly, a lot of my cadets were later killed in Korea."

A staff post on the HQ of the Armoured Brigade Group at Potchefstroom followed, until the end of 1951, when the Costers, who now included five-year-old Steven and two-year-old Judy, went to England for the then Major Coster to attend Staff College.
"I enjoyed Camberley — in retrospect. At the time I had to work terribly hard to keep up. On the domestic front, it was our first taste of rationing and servant less housekeeping with small children to look after. Altogether an excellent experience. And of course on the military side, the training was first class."

Then it was back to South Africa, and Military College, as a member of the Directing Staff, teaching tactics and administration. I'd heard that the General is a military history enthusiast, and ask him about this. He says cautiously: "I am fairly interested—particularly in the Anglo-Boer War, largely I suppose because I have seen so many of the battlefields for myself. This way, history comes alive."

Which general, out of both world wars, does he consider to have been the greatest? "Sir William Slim-without a shadow of doubt," he says without hesitation. "He was a first class administrator, and a very determined man. He commanded the war's forgotten army and moulded it into a fine, aggressive force. I admire his sense of humour, his refusal ever to accept defeat. And, of course, the way he looked after his troops and kept their morale at such a high level."

I mention Wingate, and he comments: "He must have been an extremely difficult subordinate. Unconventional people are of value in
their own way, but they have to be curbed."

WHEN MAJOR KEITH COSTER left the South African Army in 1954 ("I'd been looking around for a change, and Federation seemed to be an expanding, dynamic concern in which I felt I'd like to be involved") he little dreamt that within fourteen years, he would be General Officer Commanding the army of Rhodesia. "I certainly didn't aim that high," he says. "Had the Federation not broken up,

I would just have made full colonel by the time of my retirement. And I would have been retired by now. The dissolution of the Federal Army siphoned a lot of people off."

The move from South Africa to the Federation required some adjustment. "There was a looser form of discipline up here, but it was no less effective. A challenge? Very much so. It was not only a smaller army, but one that was growing swiftly; after all, it had come from virtually nothing to four battalions almost overnight, so to speak. It had more regular units than the South African Army then possessed. What I found especially interesting was that; apart from the Rhodesian personnel I met, a lot of officers were on secondment from the British Army—and it was refreshing to make contact with a new point of view.

"In 1958, I was sent to Zomba to join 2 KAR. This was the most fascinating part of my career, and exactly what I'd been looking for: sound professional soldiering, and the wonderful outdoor life that the country itself offered—riding, shooting, fishing. Soldiering as it used to be, in fact. Unfortunately it didn't last nearly long enough.


In the Federal Army - "a challenge: It was a small force which grew rapidly.
Left: Lieut. Col. Coster inspecting weapons with Brigadier Anderson and Sir Roy Welensky.
With Major General J. Anderson on a field exercise.

Staff jobs followed until 1963, when he became Commandant of the School of Infantry. In 1964 he was appointed to command 2 Brigade and then, later in that year, he became Chief of Staff to Major-General Putterill. Four years afterwards, in October 1968, he
took up his present appointment as Chief of General Staff.

GENERAL KEITH COSTER what one may term a "soldier's soldier". He takes a real and personal interest in his troops, has the ability to make lance corporal and captain alike feel at ease, goes out into the field as often as he can to meet the men. Twice he has patrolled with active units (with the RAR and RLI—"They both treated me very gently," he says).

He also made his first parachute jump some months ago. Did he enjoy it?
"Yes", he says with his customary diplomacy. And adds, "But I see no point in repeating the experience."


(Keith Coster is a 'soldier's soldier", takes a real and personal interest in his troops, has patrolled with active units and, some months ago, made his first parachute jump into Lake McIlwalne ("I see no point in repeating the experience," he says.))

It will not be long, less than two years perhaps, before General Coster retires—at an age when most men in other professions have accumulated their experience, consolidated their positions, and are at their most valuable. The Rhodesian army insists on a comparatively early retiring age Understandably, because this Is young man's army, and a small army In which promotion must be fairly rapid If young officers are to be attracted Into die service and encouraged to stay.

Nevertheless, Keith Coster will be a real loss to the armed services of Rhodesia.

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I welcome comments from everyone on my book Choppertech.
I am interested especially on hearing from former ZANLA and ZIPRA combatants who also have thier story to tell.