My most poignant memories of army life took place in Osnabruck and Imphal Barracks, where I was stationed from around 1976-1984.
I remember the downy birch trees from which clouds of yellow pollen drifted, when the wind blew across the barracks, in spring. It greatly irritated Mick Henderson, our bandmaster, who suffered hay fever. The species of birch were specifically Betula pubescens around which the ‘fly agaric,’ toadstool (Amanita muscaria), with its distinct red cap and white spots, often grew. Downy birch and the ‘fly agaric’ have a symbiotic relationship. Occasional some quite poisonous toadstools grew around our band block, including the ‘death cap’ and ‘destroying angel.’ I remember the winters when borders of grey-black snow, hardened to ice, edged the regimental square and paths from December until April. And in summer, the grass between the various ‘blocks’ was parched a thirsty brown. I did most of my taekwon-do, from white belt to black, training under the canopy of birch trees by our band block and had an intimate relationship with the seasons from the dank smell of the lichen on the papery bark of the birch trees to the taste of the dust that my footwork kicked up in the summer. And of course, a myriad of faces traverse that landscape.
It was, in retrospect, quite a beautiful barracks, spacious and well-ordered with tended gardens and where buildings, with the exception of the gymnasium, were single floor buildings and hence blended into, rather than dominated the wooded background. In this sense it was the antithesis of austere barracks such as Imphal Bks, in York, where there wasn’t a shred of grass, or functional, somewhat clinical type barracks such as Cambrai, in Catterick Garrison, from which we’d just arrived.
A posting of eight years was a long one and it meant that you became acquainted with the small army of civilian staff that work in every barracks but whom you rarely got to know. Most of the small army of civilians were women and indeed, the only man I can remember was ‘Peter,’ the barber. Other civilians, some British, worked in the WRVS and the library both of which were opposite the Guardroom. the faces of some of the German women who worked in the cookhouse, I can still remember.
There was also a small contingent of individuals who worked just outside the barrack entrance: Archi Konker and his family ran a highly successful ‘schnell imbiss’ wagon which stood by the Naafi every evening in the late 1980’s. Then there were the taxi drivers, one of whom was Richard Muller, who in the summer of 1981, drove me to Schiphol airport in Amsterdam when I missed my connecting train.
I visited Imphal Barracks in 1990 and considering I’d only been out of Germany for 4 years, Osnabruck was almost a ghost town and even by then Imphal Barracks had been fenced in and its environs, Am Limberg and the Naafi, were inaccessible.
At 1500 hrs on Thursday the 26th of March 2009, Imphal Barracks lowered the Union Flag which had flown over its domain for 64 years. They keys to the main gate were handed over to the Mayor of Osnabruck. So many people, both military and civilian had lived and worked here and yet trawling through the internet, so little remains as a testament to its existence. Of all the thousands of photos that must have been taken by soldiers and their families, only a handful of sources can be found.
However, Jim Blake’s, the schnell imbiss close to the barracks, is still going strong.
© 努江虎 – 노강호 2012 Creative Commons Licence.
Photos of the deserted barracks taken in 2010. (link)
Last Post, Osnabruck. (Royal British Legion)
Circa 1975. On a Wednesday afternoon, ‘sports afternoon,’ we (Taff Coleman, Woolie, Lofty, Pete Middleton, Daz, Adrian Dawson), used to go into Richmond. Adrian, Pete and Woolie had cars. Usually, we had pate and toast or a ploughman’s lunch in the King’s Head though if we were early and had not eaten in the barracks, we would eat in one of the numerous cafes and restaurants around the square. I remember a place that sold pork chops, gravy and mashed potato and the Bell Nook springs to mind, probably because of its name which we changed to ‘bell end.’ I think it may have been a pizza restaurant.
Often, we’d then go to the auction room which was in one corner of the square near the Chinese take-away and Barclay’s Bank. We bought all sorts of things there, a piano, a Baby Belling cooker which consisted of one hotplate, a grill and a tiny oven, electric bar heaters etc. There was a friendly old lady who worked there who took a liking to us and would refer to us as ‘my boys.’ The auctions were held on a regular basis and I went to a few and I remember the shop, which was stepped the further you went back into it, was enormous with all sorts of curiosities.
© 林東哲 2011 Creative Commons Licence.
Sometime in the mid 1980’s we went to Calgary and stayed at a barracks in Calgary itself, as opposed Medicine Hat. We may have stayed in both locations, I’m not sure but we certainly stayed in a large barracks from which it was easy to get to town. A 15 minute or so walk from the barracks and there was an ice cream shop which sold the most amazing homemade ice-cream.
This photo was passed to Facebook via ‘Smithy’ though I’m not sure if he took it. Those shorts certainly look severe and in the photo, far left, is Eddy. I’m sure Eddy wouldn’t mind me saying, but he was a man of contrasts; not the best looking of guys, in my opinion but seemingly gifted with a golden tongue that could enamor him to the most beautiful of women – often in droves. And could he waffle!!!
Eddy could never control his spending and had blown all his money within a few days of arriving in Canada. Mick gave me a loan on his behalf and I had to accompany him to meals and pay from his ‘allowance’ and each day I had to give him pocket money. This forced Eddy into the role of a sort of prostitute and for the duration of the tour he would clean your boots, iron your tights and do almost any other job to earn your loose change. Poor Eddy! We quite took advantage of his poverty and I can vaguely recall we made him do some shit jobs, not out of necessity but for entertainment. I can’t exactly recall , but I have a feeling Phil Watson was behind one or two. I remember Eddy would go to the PX, which was probably a 20 minute excursion in the heat of a prairie summer, to buy us coke or snacks and we would let him keep the change . So, one of our nasty entertainments was to compile a shopping list which left the most meager amount of change, and I mean like 10 cents, and see if he would go and get it – and poor Eddy would. And if that wasn’t humiliating enough, I remember Phil making him clean his boots as he lay on the bed wearing them.
This then reminds me of the night club I went into, when he was broke, and where he had meet a woman and temporarily moved in with her. She was an older woman and completely in love with ugly, no money Eddy. I recall we went back to her apartment where Eddy had made friends with her rather nasty cat – but that’s another story.
Can you add any more information or clarify anything which I can assimilate?
What was Eddy’s name?
Any details on him?
© 林東哲 2011 Creative Commons Licence.
I’m selecting photographs with Taff in them and linking them to his epitaph. If you have other photographs please forward them. I’d appreciate any information on this photo.
When this photo was taken, I remained in barracks getting ready for a taekwondo competition. I remember Martin (Hitler) was with me. Not too long after you all departed, we decided we should have gone and so set off to some forested place with a cavalry trumpet. The idea was to sound the regimental Call from somewhere in the forest and hope for a response. What a freaking dumb idea! The forest was enormous, as far as the eye could see. Naturally, the idea failed and we returned to camp. I think we missed out on a fantastic booze up. So, some questions.
Who took the photo?
I estimate this trip to have been around 1978?
What memories do you have?
What was happening in the photograph
Do you have any other photographs from this trip?
What does a Baron look like? I always wanted to meet one.
What was the Baron’s name and where did he reside?
What was Twiggie’s first name? His real one?
© 林東哲 2011 Creative Commons Licence.
Phillip (‘Taff’) Coleman, who would have been 53 on the 15th of December (2010). He was killed, instantly, early in the morning of December 1st, on his way to Gatwick Airport, where he worked. I was unable to leave these comments on the Facebook site for the 5th Royal Inniskilling Dragoon Guards Band Members Past and Present, they don’t allow for a post of longer than a 1000 characters. ‘Taff’ deserves more! I decided to host them here.
I have special memories of ‘Taff’ and he has a very close place in my heart which a few band members serving from that period, will understand. On the day I left the band, during which we’d been friends for 12 years, he gave me a final hug as I stood waiting to board the bus back to the UK. As he kissed my cheek he whispered, that if ever one of his children were gay, he’d simply remember me and it would never be a problem. They were his exact words and he was crying as he spoke them. I had some excellent army friends and ‘Taff’ was one of the best!
I left the band in 1988 and in the period since then, 22 years, we only met the once. It was a fleeting reunion, probably only of minutes, in 1989, during a break in the Colchester Tattoo rehearsals. Despite our close friendship, we never talked on the phone, never once e-mailed each other and never once connected via Facebook. I always thought I’d see him again – sometime…somewhere… I think we both did!
‘Taff’ left the band not too long after I did and for a long time he seemed to disappear but every now and then, as if coming up for air, I’d hear rumours about him: one time I heard he was working in Wigan, then I heard he worked for Twinnings tea company. Another time I heard he was appearing on the TV show Gladiators. I’ve no idea how true any of them were.
In 1976, when stationed in Cambrai Barracks, Catterick, Pete Middleton, Adrian Dawson, Taff, John Adye and myself were all part of a little group and every Friday we held a meeting to ‘front-stab’ each other (because band life was incredibly bitchy). One of us recorded and wrote the minutes and we each paid a weekly subscription, kept in a jar, which we used to pay for curry evenings in Darlington. After the meeting we’d often make mashed potatoes and cook a fray Bentos steak and kidney pie and then watch the Friday night horror movie. The group probably didn’t survive very long, but I remember it well.
Catterick is where I have my deepest memories of him. On Wednesdays, sports afternoon, the ‘club,’ along with Chris Woolnough, who was sort of an associate member, would go into Richmond and have pate and toast, or buttered scones, at the King’s Head, or we’d have lunch at the Belle Nook. Later, we’d go to the auction house and maybe buy some stuff. The old lady who used to work in those dusty, ancient rooms would refer to us as ‘my boys.’ I can still hear her cracked old voice with its comforting broad northern accent. She would have died years and years ago but she used to mother us, dearly! I once bought a second hand piano at the Richmond Auction house as well as the Baby Belling cooker in which we cooked our tinned pies.
Our friendship could easily have survived a long and longer chasm because we knew each other so well and unwittingly, knew this. We ‘grew-up’ together and he was the third person I came out to. First was Adrian Dawson, then Pete Middleton, and then ‘Taff ‘- basically, the Front Stabbing Club. I ‘came out’ to him as we sat taking a ‘breather’ on a small bridge on the moor, out on the tank tracks, during a run. He didn’t talk to me for a few days. He wasn’t happy about my sexuality and even less into the idea I had a crush on him. But ‘Taff’ was always his own man, confident and strong, characteristics that came out when he played the euphonium, and after a few days pondering the issue, he apologized for being ‘stand offish’ and for the next thirteen years, never once let me down.
I do not doubt that our personalities changed in the years since we left the band, I do not doubt there developed some big differences, that’s natural, but we had enough history and experience between us to temper significant changes. But it is a shame that the envisioned reunion, I, we, thought might one day occur, will never take place and it is a greater travesty he has gone at such an important point in his life and those closest to him.
Only a few days ago, I was looking at photos from his recent marriage and saw the display photo of of a motorbike. I had this fleeting image of ”Taff’ on a high-powered bike and could imagine him enjoying the thrill of biking – that was part of his character. ‘Taff’ was a proper ‘man’ and into ‘man’ things: cars, bikes, the tattoo on his arm, tinted sun-glasses, often pushed up on his head, a sweat band around his forehead, chewing chewing gum – I can see him ‘sporting’ them all at different times of the life during which I knew him and always with a big smile, the same smile seen in his wedding photographs and the same smile that had enamored me as an adolescent coming to terms with my sexuality. And I can just as easily see him on a monster of a bike with leathers and a snazzy helmet. ‘Taff’ wasn’t reckless or a ‘tearaway,’ far from it, but on this occasion was tragically unlucky.
And I now realise, as a chasm begins to stretch between us and from which I can no longer rescue or resolve anything, that I know nothing about him. Did he have brothers or sisters? Does he still have a mother or father? What happened to his children and did he have more? Where did he spend his childhood and what was it like? Today, I searched his Facebook, searching all its nooks and crannies with more gusto than I ever do on such sites, looking for answers, looking for his embodiment in text, for a fading reminder of his being; but the only comment, other than his e-mail address which either I’d never noticed or always planned write to, sometime, was promising to provide the website link for his wedding photos. His final words, ‘but don’t hold your breath!’ Unfortunately, ‘Taff,‘ time’s hooded harbinger, beat us to it. I neither considered such questions nor sought such answers before but as usual, it is when we no longer have something that its value becomes all the more apparent; all the more desired.
What farewells does one mutter to a friend on the precipice of that cataclysmic departure? What words finalise the epitaph with enough respect, and grandeur and at the same time encapsulate the intensity of emotion generated? Three words, virginal, emerge renewed and are forever mutated. Three words suddenly imbued with meaning beyond meaning, and which stir an accompanying melody, a lament. Three words detailed to encompass so much and sentinel the point beyond which a new chasm separates us and in which the tangibility of ‘sometime’, and ‘somewhere’ evaporate. Three words to emblazon the entrance to departure: ‘Fare Thee Well…’
Nick ‘Lofty’ Elwood
© 林東哲 2011 Creative Commons Licence.
♦Taff’s funeral was held at 10.30, on Monday 13th of December at Kingswood Chapel, Worthing Crematorium. He would have been 53 two days later. He died on the anniversary of my father’s funeral. For many, many years, my uncle (Ron Elwood), was organist at the chapel where he is to be cremated.