Text © Copyright Evelyn Simak, September 2014
Construction work for the airfield, which is situated in the vicinity of the village of Scottow (in the Broadland district of Norfolk) and conveniently close to the former Great Eastern Railway line with stations at Buxton, Lamas and Coltishall, began in February 1939. In the early days the station was known as Scottow Aerodrome, and although the United States Army Air Forces never took it over, as happened at several other aerodromes, the base had been given a USAAF station number '355'. The building of the airfield, which covers about 600 acres, resulted in the loss of agricultural land and caused a number of disruptions. The main avenue leading to Scottow Hall had to be cleared and a number of minor roads, such as Frogge Lane, were severed. Part of the old Frogge Lane can however still be found on the former officers’ housing estate where it was renamed Filby Road. The western continuation of The Fairstead, which was the main approach to Scottow Hall from the north, was also cut. To provide a link from the main B1150 road to the airfield and the villages of Lamas and Buxton the Scottow Road, situated to the north of the airfield, was re-laid in the 1960s.
RAF Coltishall was built to 1930s permanent airfield standards and originally designed as a bomber station with five C-type hangars, adjoined by a grass flying field. In May 1940, however, it was redesignated a fighter station and became operational as part of Fighter Command’s No. 12 Group.
During its time as a day fighter and later a night fighter station, Coltishall was associated with some of the RAF’s best-known wartime fighter aircraft such as the Spitfire, Hurricane, Beaufighter, Mosquito and Typhoon, and amongst the many men serving at the station there were some of the RAF’s most famous fighter pilots such as Max Aitken, Douglas Bader, Group Captain Jake Cunningham, Johnnie Johnson, Wing Commander John Braham, Adolph Mallan and Bob Stanford-Tuck.
Operations included attacks against enemy shipping, and the Fleet Air Arm flew Swordfish and Albacore aircraft from here. Lysander and Walrus aircraft were used for Search and Rescue operations, a role which lasted until 1994, when the search and rescue activity was moved to RAF Wattisham in Suffolk. Between 1940 and 1945 the station had been home to more than 80 fighter squadrons, including Polish and Czech units, destroying 207 enemy aircraft. Because of the heavy usage of the field during the war the grass landing strip had to be strengthened with a woven wire chain-link mesh with metal rods threaded through it (known as Sommerfeld matting).
Following the outbreak of WW2 new buildings had to be constructed, and all buildings received a coat of camouflage paint. Pillboxes were placed strategically around the airfield. Three rare Pickett-Hamilton forts - Link - dating from this time have survived on the flying field. In order to provide more protection for the aircraft parked at the dispersal points, blast walls were constructed from sandbags filled with cement which were subsequently doused with water to harden them. One of these WW2 fighter pens has survived beside the north-west taxiway, to the south of Manor Farm. The central brick shelter for the protection of the crew and servicing personnel is also still in place. The W-shaped sandbag wall was recently cleared from vegetation and this rare structure is now a scheduled monument.
The main entrance onto the airfield was from the north and the Guardroom at the main gate is one of the original buildings dating from the late 1930s although its open veranda has since been partly enclosed. A Yarnold shelter stands near the main gate and others are dotted about all over the airfield. There are also a great number of underground air raid shelters still in place but their entrances have long since been sealed to make them inaccessible.
When during the early 1970s RAF bases became potential terrorist targets a new type of defence post, called Yarnold shelter (or sangar), was designed. The shelters were made by the Amey Roadstone Corporation (ARC) and consist of four or five main components forming the roof/floor section, the loophole section, the entry section and a blank section. They were mainly used by the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force but can occasionally also be seen on Army sites. Their design would seem to derive from the WW2 Norcon pillbox.
Over the decades, a Spitfire, a replica Hawker Hurricane, a Lightning, and most recently a Jaguar GR1 XW563 aircraft could be seen on display beside the main gate and later on the roundabout immediately to the south. After the Spitfire had been sold to a private American buyer it was replaced by the Hurricane, which was later transferred to RAF High Wycombe where it can still be seen today. The Jaguar however was moved into the grounds of County Hall in Norwich and formally named the "Spirit of Coltishall". It serves as a permanent memorial to all members of the Jaguar Force who lost their lives in the course of their duties. The memorial can be found beside the entrance to the Archive Centre, at the back of County Hall.
Facing the main gate stands building 35, the Station Headquarters. It was built from yellow brick to a restrained neo-Georgian design and dates from the late 1930s. The headquarters building is only a short distance away from the wartime brick-built Operations block which is protected by an earthen, grassed-over mound surrounding it. An alternative Ops room was located at Catton, on the outskirts of Norwich, where it is currently used by the Air Training Corps. A new purpose-built Ops room was also located at Stratton Strawless Hall.
The Station hospital and the gas decontamination block adjoining it, both dating from WW2, can be seen a short distance further along the road.
The Officers' Mess was located at the southern edge of the flying field. The official site plan marks it as Building No. 50. It was built in a neo-Georgian style, typical of the care taken over the design of many permanent RAF airfields built in the late 1930s. Traces of wartime camouflage paint can still be seen adhering to its walls. The building, which is located on the north side of a new road named Jaguar Drive, the access road to HMP Bure, has stood empty since the airfield was closed in 2006 and until its fate has been decided it remains surrounded by a high security fence.
The late 1930s airfield buildings were grouped around a series of arcs and axes roughly centred on the Watch office, a standard Air Ministry design (to drawing No. 2328/39 and referred to as Villa-style), built of reinforced concrete with 35.5 cm thick walls. It included a meteorological briefing room, a pyrotechnics store, a telecommunications and teleprinter room and a pilots’ rest room, as well as a control room, a balloon room, airfield lighting controls and a number of offices. The building also contained a meteorological officer’s bedroom, the control officer’s rest room and the signals office, and it was equipped with hydrogen bottles for filling weather balloons. The Watch office was extended during the Cold War period. The extension included a meteorological section and a briefing room as well as a Visual Control Room on its roof. The airfield's Fire station adjoins in the east.
The four aircraft hangars, three of which are arranged in a wide semicircle around the Watch office, are of the standard Air Ministry type C with concrete lower walls and a glazed panel above. They were originally clad in asbestos sheeting. More than 150 such hangars were built on about 80 airfields between 1935 and 1939, and several versions exist. The type found at Coltishall is officially known as the later version Type-C Protected, with a hipped end to each duo-pitch roof bay and eleven hangar bays, plus two half bays at each end. They had reinforced concrete lower walls, the height of the windows was reduced to three metres and the doors were sometimes filled with gravel. These hangars are 90 metres (300 feet) long, 50 metres (150 feet) wide and 10 metres (35 feet) high and they could accommodate heavy bomber aircraft with wing spans of up to 30 metres (100 feet). Five hangars were planned to be constructed at Coltishall but only four were ever finished. The fifth was abandoned after it was damaged during a German air attack.
Two murals covering the east and west doors of hangar 1 are still in place. The murals were painted in 1991, shortly after No. 41 Squadron had returned from Operation Granby (Gulf War). At the centre of the painting on the east doors is a worn out Jaguar aircraft perched above a destroyed Scud missile; to its left an Iraqi MIG-25 (Foxbat) fighter can be seen and three enemy missiles are attacking from the right. The west doors are painted with two Jaguar fighter aircraft. Some of the upstairs offices contain murals, one depicting a Jaguar from No. 54 Squadron.
Squadron badges can be seen painted above the entrance into hanger 2. These refer to No. 6 Squadron (motto: Oculi Exercius); No 16 Squadron (motto: Operta Aperta); No. 41 Squadron (motto: Seek and Destroy); Group Headquarters 1 (motto: Swift to Attack); LIV (No. 54) Squadron (motto: Audux omnio perpeti) and RAF Coltishall (Aggressive in Defence). Hangar 3 has the No. 6 Squadron badge and motto painted above its entrance.
The three hangars are aligned along the taxiway which separates them from the Watch office and the Fire station. Behind the hangars there are many technical buildings including the Parachute store, the Armoury and the Stores and Motor transport section. The Spitfire gun testing and calibrating building and the adjoining firing butts can also be found in the vicinity.
Further along, the Art Deco water tower can be seen but not visited, as it is located in the grounds of HMP Bure, a category C prison for adult male sex offenders. The water tower is unusual in that it was not encased in brick, as was common practice, but was instead covered in an Art-Deco-style concrete sheath due to the shortage of bricks at the time of its construction. Despite now being inaccessible the water tower remains a notable visual landmark. The prison was built in 2009 and consists of a combination of new buildings and those converted from their previous uses as airmen’s accommodation and service buildings. HMP Bure covers most of the former domestic site, incorporating the former airmen's H-blocks, the junior ranks' mess and the NAAFI social club. The Bader and Miller barrack blocks were demolished and the construction of the prison including the security fences surrounding it has dramatically changed the character of this area.
For a short time after the end of WW2, RAF Coltishall was home to the RAF’s Polish squadrons until early 1946, when it became a night fighter station equipped with a wing of Mosquito aircraft. In the 1950s, the station was designated a V-Bomber dispersal airfield, to be used by V-class aircraft (the British nuclear deterrent) such as the Avro Vulcan, Handley Page Victor and Vickers Valiant in the event of their home station being damaged by enemy action.
During the Cold War period, when attacks by nuclear-armed Soviet bombers were expected, the airfield was substantially modified so as to accommodate the deployment of new aircraft and weapons systems. One of the key requirements was an asphalt runway for the new jet fighters such as Vampire and Meteor night fighters. In the autumn of 1956, in anticipation of the introduction of Javelin aircraft, the company of John Laing & Co Ltd was given the contract to upgrade the runways and taxiways. The main runway (04/22), oriented south-west/north-east, is now 2,286 metres (7,500 feet) long and was protected by Rotary Hydraulic Arrester Gear which prevented aircraft from overshooting the runway and crashing into the adjoining crop field. Landing aids (now removed) stood in this field when the airfield was still active. A taxiway (perimeter track) leading around the perimeter of the flying field connected the runway with the aircraft dispersal points and with the various buildings located alongside it.
It was during this time that two groups of eight pairs of Y-shaped hardstandings with concrete blast walls large enough to accommodate a squadron’s aircraft were constructed in order to protect the aircraft parked here against low-level air attacks. Prefabricated concrete huts for the aircrew and servicing personnel stood to either side. The hardstandings between each blast wall were used for parking of a fuel bowser, connected to refuelling hoses through a circular hole in the centre of the blast walls. The hoses were supported on steel hoops set into the wall. One such group of blast walls can be seen near the bomb and missile stores on the eastern side of the flying field in the vicinity of the fire training area, which is currently used for training civilian fire fighters. The other group is situated to the south-west of the main runway.
When in 1959 the Air Fighting Development Squadron of the Central Flying Establishment moved to RAF Coltishall it was equipped with Hunters but a supersonic single-seater aircraft, the Lightning, soon replaced these. The runway was strengthened once again and also extended further to the north-west. The Lightning Operational Conversion Unit was based at Coltishall from April 1964 until September 1974. Between 1963 and 1976 the station was also home to the RAF Historic Aircraft Flight (later renamed the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight). Two air sea rescue squadrons, No. 22 and No. 202, were also based here.
During the early 1960s the station accommodation was further expanded, in part to cope with the extra personnel from the radar station of RAF Neatishead, who lived largely at Coltishall. A new estate of airmen’s accommodation was added to the north of the wartime houses, on Ormesby Road, Cromer Place and Hoveton Place, and the community was provided with its own school and two chapels, one Catholic and the other Anglican, a short distance further along the road. The Catholic chapel today caters for the Anglican community whereas the Anglican chapel, now known as the Battle of Britain Hall, serves as the village hall. The former school building currently houses the Norfolk Area Pupil Referral Unit. Building 45, which once housed the NAAFI and incorporated part of the telephone exchange dating from the late 1930s, was converted into the community’s supermarket.
By 2005 about 1,600 service personnel and 1,400 dependents lived at the station which also employed up to 200 civilians on the airfield. The officers’ housing dating from the 1930s can still be found in Barnby Road.
In character with the dwellings found in the neighbourhood, most of the buildings situated in the domestic area were faced in yellow brick and had tiled or flat roofs. The more important buildings such as the Station’s headquarters and the officers’ and sergeants’ messes as well as the guardroom were built with restrained neo-Georgian proportions. Many of the buildings originally had flat roofs with deep parapets intended to be filled with sand for more protection from incendiary bombs. All these buildings were sold off to a developer after the closure of the airfield, and after renovation work they were sold on to private buyers. The former married quarters, comprising 382 houses, became a new community and is now officially known as Badersfield, named after the WW2 flying ace Douglas Bader who was stationed at RAF Coltishall.
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