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Coltishall's curtain call?

Andrew Bates was at Coltishall's last-ever(?) photocall on 16 September 2005. Pictures by the author and Gary Parsons

Ever mindful of the sad fact that RAF Coltishall is due to close during 2006, enthusiasts were granted one last chance to visit this historic airfield for a 65th Anniversary Photocall arranged during mid-September. The anniversary was effectively a double celebration, commemorating sixty-five years as an operational fighter station and sixty-five years since the Battle of Britain. Held one day prior to a station families' day, this enabled both photographers and casual visitors alike one last opportunity to experience, at close quarters, flightline operations at the Jaguar's spiritual home. The familiar sight and sound of the Jag at Coltishall has been the prime feature of station life since the first examples arrived back in 1974, clearly accounting for a sizable chunk of the station's history.

Photocall bits

As ever, rumours abounded amongst enthusiasts prior to the event with regards to potential foreign visitors, the most popular being; "…the Poles have confirmed." As it transpired, lack of fuel prevented them attending, so international participation was fairly low-key, comprising a pair of Lakenheath Eagles (one 'C' and one 'E'), a pair of Danish F-16s, a single and twin-seat example, and a pair French Mirage 2000Ds. However, with additional arrivals for the families' day, along with all the regular Jaguar movements, there was still plenty to keep all the photographers busy. Additional to all of this, regular hangar tours were conducted throughout the day, which not only allowed access to just about every other Jaguar on base, but it also allowed visitors the opportunity to view Mick Jennings's superb and well renowned cockpit collection.

With unrivalled access to the main apron, this being available virtually all day (10:30 - 18:00), it was possible to savour all the sights and sounds of this busy operational station. With a steady flow of arrivals, comprising of such types as Tornado, Harrier or Hawk, along with all the routine Jaguar sorties, there was arguably no better place to be, at that moment in time, for the average enthusiast. Full marks to Mick Jennings and his team for once again arranging another first class event. The organisation was, as always, both safe and efficient, whilst still retaining that feeling of exclusivity. From a personal point of view, mixed feelings were the order of the day, excitement and sadness. Excitement at being able to once again participate in another fabulous Coltishall photocall, and sadness that this would most definitely be the last time. Time is about to be called on another historic RAF airfield, but as they say, that's progress for you.

Coltishall - from plough to afterburner

Planned as a bomber station, the construction of Royal Air Force Coltishall began in February 1939, but it was pressed into use as a fighter station in May 1940 while still incomplete. The Station has remained continuously in use as a fighter station to this day. This long association with air defence is commemorated in the Station badge and its motto 'Aggressive in Defence'.

On 29 May 1940, RAF Coltishall welcomed its first Squadron. Under the command of Squadron Leader Rupert Leigh, No 66 Squadron with their Spitfire Mk 1s moved the short distance from another Norfolk airfield at RAF Watton. They were joined three days later by No 242 Squadron, a Hurricane squadron manned mainly by Canadian pilots who had joined the Royal Air Force prior to the start of the war. Coinciding with their arrival at RAF Coltishall was the appointment of a new Squadron commander, a thirty-year old fighter pilot with artificial legs - Squadron Leader Douglas Bader.

RAF Coltishall was declared fully operational to No 12 Group (Fighter Command) at 00:01 hrs on 23 June 1940 by the Station Commander, Wing Commander W K Beisiegal. The first recorded kill of the Battle of Britain is credited to No 66 Squadron - following a 04:40 hrs take off, Sergeant F N Robertson, flying Spitfire N3035 and accompanied by two other Spitfires climbed to 15,000 feet and intercepted a lone Dornier 17 bomber in the skies over Winterton. The gunner of the enemy aircraft successfully hit one of the Spitfires, forcing him to return to base, but the remaining pair continued the assault until Sergeant Robertson mortally wounded the Dornier, which crashed into the sea.

As the battle progressed, the Station was used as a base for resting Squadrons from No 11 Group in South East England, but the Station's own squadrons played an aggressive part, belonging to the celebrated 'Duxford Wing' and destroying a total of eighty enemy aircraft. Famous 'aces' such as Stanford Tuck, 'Sailor' Malan, 'Cats Eyes' Cunningham and Johnnie Johnson all flew from the base during the Second World War.

On 8 August 1945 RAF Coltishall was handed over to the Polish Air Force and became RAF Coltishall (Polish) under the command of Group Captain T H Polski. This change was to see the transfer of personnel from No 133 Polish Wing HQ, Nos 306, 309 and 315 Squadrons in addition to Nos 6306, 6309, and 6315 (Polish) Servicing Echelons. The station was handed back to RAF Fighter Command in February 1946.

In 1951 RAF Coltishall said farewell to a trusted stalwart of Fighter Command. The Mosquito first saw action at Coltishall during the Second World War and ever since that time had served with various squadrons in many forms. The Mosquito NF36s of No 141 Squadron left Coltishall in September 1951 and were dispersed to various other units. The aircrew remained away from Coltishall until they re-equipped and trained on the new Meteor NF11. Early in 1957 a contract was let to extend the runway and to strengthen both the runway and taxiways - during this period the aircraft were moved to RAF Horsham St Faith near Norwich. Whilst on this detachment both Coltishall squadrons began to re-equip with the Javelin FAW 4 aircraft, and in doing so became the first Javelin Wing in Fighter Command.

1958 saw extensive alterations to the station and in preparation for the arrival of the Air Fighter Development Squadron (AFDS) of the Central Fighter Establishment (CFE) and the very first Lightnings into RAF service. The first of the pre-production Lightnings to be delivered was XG334/A, which arrived at Coltishall on 23 December 1959 followed by XG335/B and XG336/C a few days after Christmas.

Towards the end of 1959 Coltishall's resident Hunter unit, No 74 Squadron, were informed that they were to be the first front line operational squadron in the RAF to be equipped with the Mach 2-capable English Electric Lightning. On 29 June 1960 No 74 Squadron became the first operational Lightning equipped RAF squadron. From 13 April 1964 to 30 September 1974, Coltishall was the home of No 226 Operational Conversion Unit, its role to train pilots to fly the Lightning Interceptor. Prior to the disbandment of the OCU in 1974, 810 pilots had been trained to fly this mighty aircraft.

In April 1963 Coltishall became the home to the Historic Aircraft Flight, which would later become the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight. As the last of the Lightnings left the base in 1974 to be replaced by the Anglo-French Jaguar, it became obvious that more space was needed at Coltishall and therefore in 1976 the decision was made to relocate the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight to Coningsby in Lincolnshire. In an emotional send off, 7,000 local people gathered to bid farewell to these historic aircraft.

Earlier in February 1965 Denis Healey publicly revealed that an agreement in principle had been forged between the UK and French governments to jointly develop a new aircraft. A Memorandum of Understanding was signed in May of the same year - the aircraft was to be called the Jaguar, and the Royal Air Force was to get 150.

Airshow acts

The first Jaguar squadron at RAF Coltishall was No 54 (Fighter) Squadron, arriving on 8 August 1974 from Coningsby under the command of Wing Commander Terry Carlton. Wing Commander John Quarterman led No 6 Squadron south from RAF Lossiemouth in November 1974, from where it had re-equipped with the Jaguar. No 41 Squadron arrived at Coltishall in April 1977, this Squadron (like No 54 Squadron) had converted from the Phantom FGR2, and had also been based at Coningsby.

Until 1990 the Jaguar was never used in anger - however, the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait changed this situation. Once the backbone of the RAF Ground Attack Force, the Jaguar had largely been replaced by the Tornado GR1. Despite its age, the Jaguar could offer vital low-level ground-attack capability as 'Tank Busters', should the Iraqi army advance into Saudi Arabia.

As the situation progressed RAF Coltishall assembled a composite squadron together with 300 personnel to support it. Desert camouflage paint arrived at the station shortly before midnight the day before the Jaguars departure - it was all hands to the pumps, including the employment of Air Training Corps cadets on summer camp. Their achievement was superb, ten aircraft being repainted in full desert camouflage in less than five hours.

Subsequently in January 1991 Jaguars took part in Operation Desert Storm, and as part of the coalition air force, conducted numerous recce and bombing sorties against Iraqi forces in support of the liberation of Kuwait. As a result of the war, after returning from the Gulf, the Jaguar wing deployed to Incirlik, in south west Turkey, to participate in Operation Warden, providing an air presence necessary to secure a safe haven for the Kurdish people of Northern Iraq. This commitment was handed over to the Harriers in April 1993 to be replaced less than four months later by a similar role in support of Operation Deny Flight, policing the skies above the Bosnian conflict from a base in Southern Italy. It was during this period of operations that a 41(F) Jaguar became the first RAF aircraft to drop a bomb in anger over Europe since 1945. This attack was carried out against a Bosnian Serb tank, and resulted in the tank being severely damaged.

The Jaguar Wing handed over responsibility for the UN controlled Operation Deny Flight to the Harrier Force in August 1995, and enjoyed a well earned break from operations. On 1 January 1996 the Jaguar Wing was declared as an asset to NATO's Rapid Reaction Force, ready to deploy at short notice in support of NATO Operations anywhere within the sphere of NATO's influence.

July 2000 saw an expansion of the Jaguar Wing with the relocation of 16(R) Squadron from RAF Lossiemouth. Thus, briefly, Coltishall was to host four squadrons of Jaguars until the disbandment of 16(R) and 54 Squadrons in March 2005 as the drawdown commenced.

Gary Parsons was invited to the last families' day. Pictures by the author and Mike Kerr

It's been a long while since a proper open day was held at Coltishall, and hopes were high that we would be treated to a 'Last, last Jaguar show' before the base closes its doors, much as Binbrook did for the Lightning back in 1987. Sadly, manpower and financial resources meant the September event was only ever going to be a families' day, but the photocall went some way to redressing the balance for the general public, although numbers were limited. Mick Jennings would like nothing better to put on a full-blown public airshow, as being a local he is well aware of the community ties within North Norfolk and Norwich, and would welcome the opportunity to put on a last show. However, with a dwindling full-time air force and the reliance on contracted services, it probably won't happen - which is a shame for both the air force and the local populace, who have lived with jet noise for the last fifty years or so.

Family members

So the families' day on 17 September was as close as we are likely to get to a 'Last, last Jaguar show', and as families' days go it was quite impressive, with a six-hour flying programme (although with some lengthy gaps) and a static lineup that many a proper airshow would be proud to host. A shame then that the local roads were coned off more than ever, denying many the chance to park up, and watch the action, although the farmer at the 22 runway end finally saw the light and opened his field for spectators (for a small fee, no doubt). Hopes for a mass flypast of Jaguars were dashed early on as a four-ship performed a flypast and airfield attack just after midday, with just the solo display aircraft to close the show nearer 18:00. It would have been fabulous to see that nine-ship Binbrook routine repeated - if you weren't there, nine Lightnings took off in stream, straight into a 270-degree turn before heading towards the crowd at 100 ft and pulling into the vertical - okay, so the Jag isn't quite as sprightly as the Lightning, but something similar could have been devised. It seems going out in style is frowned upon these days - witness the limp squadron disbandments of recent years.

With displays from most of the RAF's front-line 'teams', the flying programme was supported by TFC's Hurricane KZ321, flown by Stu Goldspink, Maurice Hammond's P-51D 'Janie' and the BBMF's Spitfire Mk V AB910, heralding Coltishall's formative years as a fighter base. A flypast of the Hurricane and two Jaguars was performed on the Friday, but curiously not repeated on the Saturday, much to everyone's disappointment. Former Jaguar pilot Andy Cubin displayed Delta Jets' Hunter G-FFOX to good effect in the late afternoon sun, with today's display pilot Derek Sington soon after in the solo Jaguar.

Finishing the flying was a repeat performance by Stu Goldspink in the Hurricane - as the setting sun bounced off KZ321's wings, the echoing sound of the Merlin around the airfield's hangars made one realise what history is all about, and what we are about to lose.

Next March will see 41(F) Squadron disband, and 6 Squadron relocate to Coningsby in readiness for conversion to Typhoon in early 2007. Coltishall will close as a flying station on 31 March, but remain open as long as the Jaguar is in service as the simulator will stay serviceable for as long as is required. Coltishall will shut completely by late 2007 - another sacrifice to appease the beancounters in Whitehall. No regard for history, tradition, location or morale - I wonder what Bader would have made of it?

With thanks to Mick Jennings and his staff


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