Topic: The military career of Colonel Allen Coster

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This article by Kenneth Brown originally appeared in the November 2014 Issue No 77 of the Hauraki News.

My name is Kenneth Brown and like Allen I am a former Commanding Officer of 6 Hauraki Battalion. Just over a week ago Allen asked me to provide some brief comments about his military career which began with Army Cadets at Tauranga College, as it then was, which a common thread was in those days. In 1952, at age 19, his Territorial Force career began when he attended the 3rd intake of compulsory military training at Papakura and was subsequently posted to Ngaruawhahia as an Armoured Trooper, regimental number 458219. At the time he lived in Morrinsville and when I asked him why he joined armoured he replied “because that was what the local unit was”.

In 1951 the Waikato Regiment, a pre-war infantry unit had been incorporated into the 1st Armoured Regiment. In 1955, following a recommendation from Major Allan Woolwin, a friend of his father’s, he was sent on a commissioning course and duly commissioned whereupon he became commander of a tank troop in C Squadron, the Te Awamutu/Otorohanga Squadron. A memory from that time was leading a column of Valentine tanks to a right turn on the mountain side of the Desert Road, telling his drivers “creeper gear – don’t touch the controls!” and up the escarpment he went with 13 tanks. He wouldn’t do it today he said. Allen continued with Armoured moving into a staff training unit and Rob Storey, who went on to be Minister of Transport in 1984, was a fellow officer at the time. Another was Ross Wightman, a Waikato All Black of 1951.

In 1958 CMT went to a ballot system and as a consequence in 1960 the Waikato Regiment was reduced to a Squadron. Eventually he moved from Morrinsville to Tauranga and decided to try the Hauraki’s. He was initially Quartermaster and then took over command of the Whakatane Company.

Allen assumed command of the Hauraki Battalion on 1 April 1970, I am sure there was no significance in it being April Fools Day! At the time it was a watershed in that he was the first CMT trainee to be appointed CO (his post WW2 predecessors all had war time service). He introduced a high degree of creativity and imagination to exercise planning; such as one exercise where the Battalion found itself facing the “Kaimai Liberation Front” a hotch potch force comprising (and I quote from the Battalion history book, Comrades Brave)

“.....small-time farmers who banded together because of pressure by bourgeois landowners, increasing electricity costs and power failures, to oust the capitalistic landowners and incompetent powerhouse engineers.”

It sounds like Allen was fighting himself!

He recalled a Cadre NCO, Keith Storey approaching him advising they had no way to entertain any guests and asked for a Garrison Club. So, Allen established one, advising that if there were any problems then he would immediately shut it down. Des Anderson must have appeared on the scene about then!

At the time the National Service system was coming under pressure. Too many men were leaving the TF once their three year obligation had expired. To ease this, hair standards were relaxed (which was important at the time) and access to better equipment was available. But in December 1972 the government of the day abolished National Service with military service being voluntary ever since. Allen had a difficult job keeping the Battalion together at this time, especially as new Colours were to be presented the next year, 1973. He quickly set about recruiting including some former regular force soldiers. Allen often spoke of the Colours parade that day in March 1973 and of note is the pikes on which the Colours were mounted were carved with Maori motifs, being the first time this had been done in the New Zealand Army. Allen had arranged this in recognition of the Battalion’s strong Maori heritage.

During his tenure the decision was made to allow women to join the Battalion. More recruits were needed and women were willing to take over some of the jobs which would free up men for front line tasks, Allen had no difficulty in accepting women into the unit. I think he just liked having women about!  12 years later he was present when one of those early female recruits received her Efficiency Medal.

In 1969 he was awarded the Efficiency Decoration for 12 years efficient service as an Officer and received clasps to that award in 1975 and 1981. He served 4 years as CO but eventually began looking over his shoulder so in 1974 Allen was succeeded by Lt Col Evan Torrance and he was transferred to Headquarters Field Force Command at Fort Cautley. Also in 1974 he was awarded an OBE, Order of the British Empire. He served under Rob Williams who was GSO 1 Operations and said if the Field Force was ever deployed, he would have been its Operations Officer. His main role though was umpiring exercises, of which he did several including  American Battalions who came down for winter training in those days. He also umpired when Lt Col Bob Burt was CO and on another occasion, at annual camp 1977, noticed the Hawkes Bay Battalion was having a hard time of it with incidents of hyperthermia and recommended cancellation of the exercise. He subsequently wrote a paper on that incident. I remember it well as I was one of the drivers ferrying soldiers out of the exercise area into Waiouru.

In 1980, while Deputy Commander 1 Task Force, he co-authored with Lt Col Bob Burt, who was CO of the Hauraki’s at that time, some detailed notes on the Battle of Gate Pa and these are now easily found on Google and also there are some photographs of him with Ray Craft’s model of Gate Pa, completed early this year.

Robin told me that often during the school holidays a number of nieces would come and stay on the farm and help with feeding out hay. They would come back excited saying they had great fun as uncle Allen forgets he is driving a tractor and thinks he is driving a tank up and down the hills! On another occasion he had a sword at home when some rustling was heard. Leave it to me he shouted, unsheathing the sword and chased after an errant possum. I think the possum died of laughter rather than sword strike!

He went on to serve in 1 Brigade, under John Mace who at the time was of equal rank so to avoid any awkwardness he would salute John each morning and call him Sir, then for the rest of the day he was John.

He retired from the TF in 1981 and went through a small hiatus until 1983 when he became Honorary Colonel of the Regiment until 1989 when he handed over to Col Bob Burt. He has been a stalwart of the Bay of Plenty Officers Club for many years and served as President in 1989 to 1990 and became a Life Member in 2002. Until a few months ago he was bar manager and had served on the committee for many years. He was also a keen member of the Hauraki Association and a regular visitor to the Garrison Club.

The military was a big part of his life and he enjoyed relating stories at the club, at formal dinners and at many Chinese dinners at Simon and Fong’s restaurant in Devonport Road. Some of his stories I had heard several times but I still enjoyed hearing them. He told me the army was an “interesting institution”.

Colonel Coster, OBE, ED, JP had an exemplary career in the military and will be sorely missed. Rest in peace sir, your work is done. Allen humbly declined the right to a full military funeral, to which he was entitled due to his rank and service; on the grounds that he had never served in combat and for him to receive such an honour would denigrate the memory of those who fought and died in service of their country. 

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The military career of Colonel Allen Coster


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The military career of Colonel Allen Coster by Tauranga City Libraries Staff - HC is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 New Zealand License