What the RAF did for me
As the 100th anniversary celebrations continue, Norfolk flier David Hastings shares his memories
This year our Royal Air Force celebrates the 100th Anniversary of its formation in 1918. Here in Norfolk we have always been proud of our close links with the service, indeed at one point we were known as ‘The Royal Air Force County’ due to the large number of bases in our midst, including our famous Battle of Britain airfield at Coltishall as well as those at Horsham St Faiths, Neatishead, Marham, Watton, West Raynham, Ludham, Swanton Morley, Foulsham and several more.
My own links with the Royal Air Force began in 1937 when my parents started to take me to the Norfolk & Norwich Aero Club Annual Air Display at Mousehold aerodrome in Norwich. I marvelled at the aerobatics as well as the Fairey Battles, Whitleys and Blenheims and I knew then I just had to fly.
Then came the war and we used to cycle out to RAF Coltishall to watch our heroes fighting the Battle of Britain which was to save our country and indeed the free world, a debt that we can never repay. Peace arrived and in 1950 a chance came for me to actually join the RAF as a National Serviceman.
Sadly there were no vacancies for aircrew training but a kind Wing Commander, seeing my disappointment, suggested I put my name down for a job in air movements which involved working with aircraft.
He was as good as his word and, after eight weeks of ‘square bashing’ at RAF Padgate, I was posted to the British Air Force of Occupation in Germany at Buckeburg at the height of the Cold War. I was overjoyed to find we had the last squadron still flying Spitfires as well as the communication squadron, with their Avro Ansons, which allowed me to get airborne.
With a move to RAF Wunstorf
I saw another side of the RAF which was the enthusiasm for sport and I soon became the scrum-half for the station and command rugby teams. Only a few miles away was Lake Steinhudemeer with a great combined services yacht club and, as a Norfolk Broads sailor, I was soon back to sailing and racing with the RAF. The air force also taught me to drive! Certainly I can never thank the RAF enough for giving me such a wonderful experience as a National Serviceman.
After demobilisation in June 1952 it was back to civilian life and in those days anyone who had served in the RAF had their name given to the local Royal Observer Corps.
A very nice officer in the ROC called to see if I was willing to join the corps as a volunteer and in 1954 I joined the Norwich operations room. It was great to be back in the air force blue uniform and I enjoyed 33 years of service, including being stationed at RAF Neatishead for a year.
On the flying side, Norfolk has also enjoyed very close links with the RAF when private flying re-started after the war and the Norfolk & Norwich Aero Club began operating from RAF Swanton Morley. Later came the founding of the Norfolk Vintage Pilots, who were allowed to hold their annual dinner at Coltishall, Neatishead or West Raynham.
The membership rose to over 100 in the end and was a unique mix of service and civilian pilots who enjoyed 43 annual dinners before the group closed.
Group Captain Mike Hobson, the station commander at RAF Coltishall in the late 60s, spoilt me with a flight in a Lightning T4 so I could join the 1,000mph club. In later years the station also arranged for me to fly in the Jaguar which was exciting.
I was also asked to make a film on the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight which got me airborne in the Chipmunk and the Avro Lancaster. As a demonstration pilot for the Rallye aircraft I was lucky enough to fly at several of the Battle of Britain air shows at RAF Coltishall which was another unique experience.
I became an honorary member of the mess at Coltishall and Neatishead which meant that my wife and I enjoyed many wonderful occasions with the RAF. To try and return some of their kindness we used to take new station commanders for a trip in the diesel locomotive 2nd
Air Division USAAF on the Bure Valley Railway.
More support from the RAF came in 1992 when Norfolk decided that a B-24 Liberator bomber should return to the UK as part of the 50th anniversary celebration of the arrival in Norfolk of the 2nd Air Division USAAF in 1942. Without the RAF, especially from Air Marshal Sir John Kemball, that dream would never have been achieved.
They helped with our engine change in Iceland, arranged for Nimrods from No.120 Squadron to escort us over the Atlantic and finally how can we ever forget the three Jaguars from No.41 Squadron at RAF Coltishall who escorted us in ‘Diamond Lil’ into Norwich Airport on that memorable June evening when 15,000 Norfolk people came to welcome us home.
Finally as the date for the closure of RAF Coltishall approached I was asked to film all the main events in the last six months before the station closed in 2006. We must never forget that Coltishall was the only Battle of Britain station to be involved in the defence of our country for all its years of service and it closure was a very sad day for Norfolk.
The words of Winston Churchill that: “Never was so much owed by so many to so few” summed up the debt that we owed to the Royal Air Force when ‘The Few’ won the Battle of Britain but perhaps those words still apply today when you look at what Norfolk has received from the Royal Air Force; long may it continue.
ABOVE: Lightning aircraft at Coltishall
LEFT: The author on board RAF 100 square metre yacht at Kiel
ABOVE: Royal Observer Corps and Danish LMK (air reporting corps) at Coltishall