RAF 100: Remembering happy days at Coltishall

The RAF Coltishall sign.

The RAF Coltishall sign. - Credit: Eastern Daily Press ©2003

Open for exactly two-thirds of the RAF's 100 years, the airfield at Coltishall had a special place in the hearts of its air- and ground-crew. Former Group Captain Ian Hall recalls his days at 'Colt'.

The former RAF Coltishall gate-guard Jaguar.

The former RAF Coltishall gate-guard Jaguar. - Credit: Archant © 2006

RAF Coltishall. The much-missed fighter base. The Norfolk station that evoked the most affection in its heyday – and still stirs emotion amongst those who would preserve its memory and heritage. We who served in later years were conscious of its fine Second World War record, and of the various, impressive fighter aircraft types resident during post-war years. Of course that could be said for dozens of stations, many of them in East Anglia. But 'Colt' always shone especially brightly.

I only did one tour of duty there, flying Jaguars in the early 1980s. The Cold War dominated our lives, and we certainly felt we were making a substantial contribution to NATO's deterrence. By regularly operating from our assigned forward areas in Norway and Denmark we demonstrated our readiness to counter Warsaw Pact aggression.

Pictured in 2014, retired RAF Group Captain Ian Hall with his book on Jaguars.

Pictured in 2014, retired RAF Group Captain Ian Hall with his book on Jaguars. - Credit: Archant Norfolk

It was 'cold' war on those deployments in more ways than one. North Norway obviously so, but our tented home on the east coast of Jutland invariably seemed to suffer damp, freezing winds off the Kattegat. Hours spent in gas masks further increased the discomfort level. But nevertheless it was wonderfully stimulating and fulfilling work.

During my 32-year RAF career I served at a dozen operational RAF stations, amassing 4,500 flying hours on five different fighter-bomber types. So why my affection for Coltishall and the Jaguar? The aircraft was certainly pleasant to fly; it was effective, serviceable and economical to operate. And of course after Gulf War One, combat-proven. Despite some curious foibles, its crews loved it.

Family connections: the author's young son, second from right, gets a close up at Coltishall with hi

Family connections: the author's young son, second from right, gets a close up at Coltishall with his schoolfriends. - Credit: Archant

But it's not just the aircraft that counts. It's the job one's doing; the people one's with; the spirit; the place. And Coltishall scored across the board. It was a neat little station, set in glorious countryside not far from a lovely city. Our babies were named in local churches and we shopped at Roys.

Most importantly, the local people enjoyed having us amongst them – and indeed were proud of our exploits. This was particularly valuable during our many absences, for the families we left behind appreciated village community support. We sensed that friendship, too, on the all-too-frequent occasions when we buried lost comrades in local graveyards.

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Norfolk became permanent home to hundreds of RAF families, both aircrew and groundcrew. My story may be typical, in that my wife and I had no pre-conceived plan to settle there. No, we first took steps towards becoming 'locals' for quite mundane reasons: our posting to Colt coincided with our savings finally reaching a level which offered a step onto the property ladder. Of course bricks and mortar didn't put down roots. But my wife made friends at church and with village mums at the school gates. Lifelong friendships sprang up between our children and their local classmates. We quickly learned to love the area and, in common with so many military families, Norfolk grew to be our home.

Jaguars weren't the only aircraft I flew from Colt. I was winched up on many occasions by the yellow helicopters – simulated rescues, not real, I hasten to add! And during later ground tours I flew Chipmunk trainers to keep in practice and to give cadets a taste of aviation. There wasn't much time to enjoy the scenery from a jet cockpit, but those little piston-engined machines offered an alternative view of Broads, coast and city; all appeared even more beautiful when seen at leisurely pace from a 'Chippy'.

And neither was that Jaguar tour my first visit to Coltishall. Back in 1965 I myself had attended cadet camp there. We youngsters marvelled at the mighty Lightnings – in those days, Colt trained interceptor fighter pilots. During that week we were also bussed across to RAF West Raynham to wonder at the revolutionary Kestrel jump-jets (forerunner of the Harrier) being trialled by the British/US/West German Tripartite squadron. Maybe that camp sowed in me the seed of a flying career.

It certainly set my county scene, but although I flew in a Chipmunk then (perhaps the same airframe I piloted myself years later), Coltishall was not my first or only professional Norfolk touchdown point. My Jet Provost flying instructor had been a Canberra bomber pilot, and in 1967 we took our little trainer to RAF Watton to visit his old colleagues on a land-away navigation exercise. Later, while Coltishall's runway was being resurfaced, I operated Jaguars from Sculthorpe. And although based overseas during my later Tornado days, I naturally had contact with RAF Marham – where the squadron I commanded still resides.

Mention of Norfolk's most important RAF base prompts a digression. An elderly friend tells me that, during his Marham tour in 1950s B-29 bomber days, the station was known to servicemen as 'El Adem with grass' – El Adem then being a notoriously bleak RAF airfield in the Libyan desert. He also says that only once during that tour did he visit Norwich – after falling asleep on a train, missing his stop, and waking up in the carriage sidings at Thorpe station (yes, at that time there were east-west rail lines across Norfolk).

Now, I don't recount this tale as a cheap shot at Marham; after all, in the 1950s few airmen owned cars, so life at most stations was somewhat isolating. But even then, Colt's cosy dimensions and proximity to the city must have made it a more favourable location.

During my 1980s tour the RAF's eight operational Jaguar squadrons and the training unit were distributed between four stations. But Coltishall was always the fleet's spiritual home. Cuts later made Colt the sole Jaguar base, and it was natural that what had always been a desirable posting became, to many, their life. People were content with their work, and loved where they lived.

Thus they were devastated when the end came. It was inevitable in times of shrinking numbers and consolidation at larger bases that Coltishall would close. By then I had long been away doing other work, but I still lived in the area. After a week at my Ministry of Defence desk, Friday's trip home to the family in Norfolk was always a highlight. Throughout, I maintained contact with Jaguar people and followed their adventures.

Who could forget, for example, the stunning sight of the Coltishall formation in 1990's Battle of Britain 50th anniversary flypast – being led by the first RAF jet to be finished in 'desert pink' camouflage? I was among the St James's Park throng watching that air armada heading for Buckingham Palace, and was touched by the warmth of comments from the surrounding public.

'We'd almost forgotten the Gulf crisis!' 'How can they possibly manage this ceremonial while preparing for conflict?' 'We wish them God speed and a safe return.' The Jaguars did return safely, having flown more combat missions per aircraft than any other RAF type, and in 1991 I was proud to join station personnel and Norfolk people in greeting their homecoming.

We shouldn't forget, either, the sterling work done by Coltishall squadrons in the Balkans during the 1990s. Truly, they were a busy team during those final years. But it had to end, and I joined them for the closing-down ceremony – a sad event for all who had been associated with the station. Nevertheless, though, a splendid occasion, for the RAF invariably does these things well. The invitation to the final ball included the following line: 'ticket price includes free drinks until 4 a.m, following which there will be a cash bar.' Whether it's a wake or a celebration, the RAF knows how to party!

In my second flying career, the view from the flight deck of my airliner when descending over the former RAF Coltishall towards Norwich International always left a pang of sadness. The empty runways; the deserted hangars; the derelict officers' mess. I don't advocate making a shrine of the place, for although it seemed to have been there forever the station's lifespan was only 67 years. A mere blink in the eye of history. But I'm delighted that the site, not least the former married quarters at the appropriately renamed Badersfield, is now productive.

I continue to sense a special connection between Coltishall, Norfolk and the RAF. A 'Jag' guards County Hall today. Local pubs still exhibit mementoes on their walls. I lunch occasionally with a group of retired Norfolk pilots (can we balding, white-haired characters, adorned with hearing aids and spectacles, really have flown fighters?!) And the energetic 'Spirit of Coltishall' association perpetuates the station's memory. I, along with many others I've little doubt, still look up when I hear the roar of jets. It's generally American F-15s from Lakenheath these days, but I think back to the days when my colleagues and I made that noise (we tried to be considerate, I promise!). I particularly recall each spring when the selected demonstration pilot began his workup for the coming summer's displays. I'd hear jet aerobatics in the high overhead and, after much squinting and searching, would pick out the distant speck as the pilot went through his paces. Over succeeding days he'd come lower by stages as he gained his clearances and approvals, until he seemed to be taking the roofs off the houses in our village.

But the local people never complained, sharing my pride in their RAF station. At least that was how I perceived it! RAF Coltishall will never, I'm certain, be forgotten.

Ian Hall has written a series of aviation books. 'Jaguar Boys', 'Tornado Boys' and 'Fast Jets and Other Beasts' are all published by Grub Street, and feature Ian's memories plus those of other personnel connected with some of the RAF's most iconic planes. 'Fast Jets' also looks at the 12 years Ian spent flying commercial airlines after his RAF service. In addition Ian has written 'A Goldstar Century' (a history of 31 Sqn, published by Pen & Sword), and two novels, 'Upwards' and 'Storm at Sunset', published available via Amazon as paperbacks or ebooks.