Gary Parsons witnesses the ending of an important chapter of the history of the Royal Air Force
Thursday, 30 November 2006 - the gates are finally locked on RAF Coltishall's history, ending sixty-seven years of the Royal Air Force's occupation of this field in North Norfolk. It all began in 1939 as war clouds formed over Europe, and the British Government saw the need for rapid expansion of the Royal Air Force. Hundreds of sites were surveyed for possible use as aerodromes, and a potato field to the north-west of Coltishall village provided an ideal site for a fledgling bomber station.
November 1939 brought the first aircraft, Blenheim light bombers from nearby RAF Horsham St Faith, but the new aerodrome's intended role as a bomber airfield was shortlived, as in May 1940 it was re-designated as a Fighter Station. 66 Squadron, flying Spitfires, moved in on 29 May to begin thirty-three years of fighter operations from this Norfolk field, commencing with that momentous summer of 1940 when legends such as Douglas Bader and 'Sailor' Malan would walk the grass to their aircraft. Although not in the front-line of operations through the Battle of Britain, Coltishall provided a respite for squadrons from Kent and protected the East Coast from Luftwaffe raids mounted from the Low Countries.
Coltishall's location near the North Sea meant it was a busy airfield during the war, with many types making emergency landings or diversions. A Search and Rescue Flight was formed in July 1941 and a SAR presence was kept right through to 1993 when the task was re-assigned to the new station at Wattisham Airfield. Many a downed airman's first re-acquaintance with terra firma was this corner of Norfolk.
Post-war saw the construction of the main runway, and in the fifties the concrete revetments sprang up in the south-west and north-eastern corners of the expanded airfield. Vampires, Venoms, Hunters and Javelins would hide between the huge slabs of concrete, famous Battle of Britain squadrons such as 23 and 74 taking the RAF into the jet age. It wasn't long until Coltishall's most significant aircraft, the English Electric Lightning, would appear - as early as 1959 the Mach-2 fighter arrived in Norfolk, Coltishall being chosen as the airfield to evaluate the fighter for service introduction through the Air Fighter Development Squadron. The first front-line unit would be 74 Squadron, becoming operational in April 1961. The following thirteen years would be the noisiest, most vibrant period of the airfield's history as the Lightning would make Coltishall its spiritual home.
But maybe it's the Big Cat for which Coltishall will become synonymous. Entering service in 1974, the Jaguar spent thirty-two years at Coltishall - remarkably that's almost half the life of the station, and those pilots that first flew the aircraft in the early years are either Air-Vice Marshals or retired from the service. Although the Jaguar wasn't the fastest or sexiest aeroplane on the block, it became a superb battlefield weapon and the RAF's most cost-effective ground-attack aircraft. But this counted for little in the end - the RAF is committed to Typhoon, and the Treasury demanded substantial cuts in operating expenditure to pay for the shiny new fighter. Jaguar, being an airframe with little development potential, became the sacrificial lamb along with its home, Coltishall. While 6 Squadron survives with the Jaguar for another ten months at Coningsby, the Cat's time is almost up.
So we arrive at 30 November 2006, the day that many locals and enthusiasts had denied themselves to acknowledge. The Jaguars may have departed back in March, but it had still been an RAF station, even though personnel had been drifting away as new postings came through. Principally through the efforts of its last Community Relations Officer, Mick Jennings, permission had been given to allow the public on base to view the closing ceremony and locking of the gate - an unusual event, but one that underlined the closeness of the station and the local population. It had been thought that up to 3,000 people may attend, but the queues that formed from 0830 confirmed that many more wanted to pay their own respects to this airfield - nearly double the expected number braved the stiff autumnal breeze.
It had been planned for a Hurricane to land and depart the airfield, but a stiff cross-wind meant that no landing would be made. Thus the honour of being the last RAF aircraft to leave fell to Agusta A109E ZR323 from 32 (TR) Squadron, which brought Air Vice Marshal David Walker in to make the final speech.
Gathered around the flagpole outside the Station HQ, Air Vice Marshal Walker addressed the parade: "Rarely will a station be as much missed as Coltishall will be in the years ahead. This has been a friendly home for the RAF and we are sadly leaving. We leave with a heavy heart and with great memories."
As the ensign was lowered to the sound of a lone bugler, a Hurricane flew over, followed by a quartet of Jaguars. The Jaguars split immediately overhead, the roar of the afterburners echoing across the empty airfield.
At 1108 came the defining moment - the parade marched out of the main gate, stopped and stood to attention. Warrant Officer Pat Chapman turned the key in the lock, handed it to Sqn Ldr Hughes, the last Officer Commanding RAF Coltishall, who in turn handed it to Defence Estates representative James Ryley. Hughes, the fortieth and final officer in charge of the airbase, said it had been a "great privilege" to act as the last person in charge. "But it's not about me or the guys on parade; it is us as the RAF celebrating the history of this station in the right way. I am shutting the station Douglas Bader flew from. It has been a very emotional and moving day."
For Mick Jennings it certainly was - a true enthusiast and keen historian, this corner of Norfolk has been his life for the last twelve years. He has been offered other postings, but "Nowhere can compare to Coltishall" and he will take early retirement and a new life in Australia. Everyone who has served at Coltishall has been captured by its special spirit and community atmosphere, and many will take that with them to their new postings, none more so than at Coningsby where many of the aircrew and groundcrew have transferred. Maybe it's the legacy of some great men that have served here - Bader, perhaps the RAF's most famous fighter pilot; Malan, an ace of the Battle of Britain; Stanford-Tuck, another ace and former Station Commander; Crowley-Milling, Battle of Britain pilot and Air-Marshal; 'Cat's Eyes' Cunningham, legendary night-fighter pilot; Topp, Station Commander and leader of the famous 'Black Arrows'; Baxter, Spitfire pilot and TV presenter; Rainier, youngest DFC award since the Second World War, in 1991.
Yet all of this seems inconsequential to the mandarins of Whitehall, who are determined to see the station sold off at the earliest opportunity. Given the lack of infrastructure investment over the years, Coltishall is largely as it was in wartime, only the runways and aprons distinguishing it from its origins. There probably isn't any better preserved expansion-period technical site in the country, a shame that some effort couldn't be made for a working museum. Where better than to inspire our future pilots - wouldn't it make an ideal site for UAS, AEF and elementary flying training? Add the Battle of Britain Flight into the mix, and what better way to keep both our history and future alive? Sadly it would seem the spirit isn't there in Whitehall to grasp such opportunities.