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RAF Coltishall - From the Blenheim to the Jaguar

From the Blenheim to the Jaguar – a celebration of Colt’s 66 years defending Britain’s shores  

In a series of articles, we look back at the stations that have witnessed the final departure of a military jet on active service, and the last remaining RAF personnel pack up and leave – their roles in defending our shores confined to the history books. In 2006, RAF Coltishall was closed, and with it ended 66 years’ service at the forefront of Britain’s air defence.

Personalised RAF Coltishall Vintage Print

(Personalised RAF Coltishall Vintage Print Now Available)

LIKE many RAF stations, Coltishall’s name was etched into military folklore during the Second World War, its location near the Norfolk coast making it ideal to play a key role in the defence of the skies around Britain, and to launch counter-attacks on German forces across Europe.

Before it closed in 2006, Colt, as it was affectionately known to all who came into contact with the station, was the last surviving operational airfield involved in the Battle of Britain outside London – RAF Northolt stands alone to this day. Work started on the airfield in 1939, and before it was even completed it was handed over to 12 Group Fighter Command.

Its role as a fighter base during World War Two saw a range of aircraft operate from the station situated 11 miles north of Norwich, including Hurricanes, Spitfires and Blenheims. The first recorded enemy aircraft shot down during the Battle of Britain is widely regarded to have been by a Sgt Frederick Neal Robertson of 66 Squadron, his Spitfire leaving Coltishall at 04.00 on July 10, 1940, downing a Dornier over Winterton, near Great Yarmouth, the stricken German bomber crashing into the North Sea.

While there were many heroes during that time, Coltishall’s most famous resident over that period was one of the most famous pilots in British history, Douglas Bader taking command of 242 Squadron which was stationed in Norfolk for a time during 1940.

Bader, commanding officer of No. 242 Squadron, sitting on his Hurricane at Duxford during the Battle of Britain in September 1940

(Douglas Bader sat on his Hurricane during the Battle of Britain)

As most know, Bader had both legs amputated following a flying accident in 1931, and by sheer force of will returned to the RAF as a pilot, despite the many barriers he faced from both military officialdom and his own physical limitations. Whilst Bader was seen as not the easiest man to get along with, he effectively turned 242 Squadron – mainly made up of Canadian personnel who had suffered badly during the Battle of France earlier in 1940 – into an elite fighting unit through the strength of his personality.

Whilst there, Bader was heavily involved in dogfights around the Norfolk coast, claiming many successes, before he was eventually captured in 1941 by the Germans in France after parachuting from his stricken Spitfire; after several escape attempts, he ended up in Colditz for the duration of the war.

Along with stations up and down the UK, Coltishall was crucial in the ongoing campaign to counter the strength of the Luftwaffe, 80 fighter squadrons operating from the Norfolk site during World War Two, including Polish and Czech units. It was home to night fighters as well as its role in allowing the Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm to operate aircraft over the North Sea.

After the war, Coltishall was the base for a number of aircraft and squadrons, including Lightnings, Mosquitos, Meteors and Javelins, and it was a designated V-bomber dispersal base in the 1950s – Vulcans, Victors and Valiants, effectively Britain’s nuclear deterrent, earmarked to use the station in the event of their home base being hit by enemy action.

Coltishall Central Aircraft Hanger

(The Central Aircraft Hanger with Squadron Heraldic Badges)

The Lightnings arrived in 1959 with the last leaving Coltishall in 1974, and in the summer of that year, No 54 Squadron, the first Jaguar squadron, arrived at the base; Coltishall becoming exclusively a Jaguar station in terms of fixed-wing aircraft. The Jaguars from Coltishall saw action in both Gulf Wars, and formed part of Operation Deny Flight in the Balkans starting in 1993 – the NATO campaign to maintain a no-fly zone over Bosnia and Herzegovina. It was also home to the Search and Rescue, SAR, helicopters of 202 Squadron (Sea King) and 22 Squadron (Wessex) before the SAR operations were moved to RAF Wattisham in Suffolk.

With military action comes danger, and while Coltishall lost many personnel on active duty, the greatest loss in more recent history was the six airmen killed in Germany in May, 1983, when the coach they were travelling in overturned near Stuttgart. The men serving with 41 (F) Squadron were on an exercise with the Canadian air force and they are remembered in an annual memorial service at the military cemetery at Scottow, the event organised by the Spirit of Coltishall Association (SoCA).   

Whilst updating and improving the aircraft that defend Britain are seen as necessary to a modern forward-thinking air force, the arrival of the Typhoons to RAF service was the beginning of the end for Coltishall, the Jaguar force being gradually phased out with the Norfolk site not chosen to host the new fighters.

The MoD’s 2003 review, Delivering Security in a Changing World, delivered the news that many associated with Coltishall had feared, the station would close by the end of 2006. Jaguar Squadrons, No 16 Squadron and No 54 Squadron, were disbanded in March 2005 with the final Jaguar Squadrons, No.6 Squadron and No 41 Squadron, transferring to RAF Coningsby; while No 6 Squadron was disbanded in May 2007, No 41 Squadron is still active today with a primary focus on Typhoon capability and tactics development.

Coltishall Closure Flypast

(4 Jaguars fly the missing man formation to mark the closure of RAF Coltishall 
 📸 Andy Leonard)

The final closure came on November 30, 2006, with a flypast by four Jaguars from No.6 Squadron making the short trip from Coningsby, along with a Hurricane from the Imperial War Museum at Duxford, marking the station’s importance to the country’s defences during the Second World War.

Coltishall Gate Guardian 

The station’s two gate guardians also found new homes: the Hurricane to the headquarters of RAF Strike Command in High Wycombe, with the Jaguar making a far shorter trip south to Norwich, taking up a location at Norfolk County Council base.

Today, amongst other uses, the site is home to a housing development, a business park, a solar farm and a prison, HMP Bure.

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1 comment

  • Stationed at Colt 1981 – 1985, great base, beautiful county, many a fond ( & a few not so fond ) memory

    Chris Heys

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