LIFE AFTER RAF COLTISHALL


Mick Jennings MBE


Australia had always been the destination of choice to settle down after I finished my RAF career. Having married my Aussie wife Ellen on Kangaroo Island South Australia in 1984 and travelled to Oz on a regular basis to visit relations since that time, it was obvious that the sun and lifestyle on offer was the way to go.  This was our long term plan, with another 13 years to serve in the RAF we thought we’d have plenty of time to sort out our last posting………that was all to change in 2004.

The phone call that I received at RAF Marham on Wednesday 21 July 2004 made me suddenly realise that the end of an era was about to happen. The closure of RAF Coltishall had been formally announced and my presence was required back at Coltishall to assist with a major Press Conference that was being held that afternoon.

The journey back to Coltishall that morning suddenly focussed the mind. All of the stories and distant memories of those who had served at the famous Battle of Britain Station that I had diligently collected and recorded over the 9+ years I served at Coltishall now needed to be told. Yes, the reporters would be interested in the history of the station, but I could only tell a few stories and no doubt Douglas Bader would be at the top of their priorities. But what about the others, the unsung heroes who went about their daily business without being in the spotlight? The book that I had thought about over many a year suddenly became a reality to ensure that their stories and memories were recorded for all to read.  The Press Conference went to plan and yes, Douglas Bader was high on the agenda!  

Over the next few week’s, life started to return to normal. There was a four month tour in the Falkland Islands beckoning and having served there on numerous occasions before, I was really looking forward to the peace and tranquillity that that posting would bring – an ideal situation to plan and write the book on Coltishall.  However, it was a phone call from the UK only a month into my four month tour that would change my life and our plans for Australia dramatically - ‘Would I be interested in applying for the Community Relations Officers (CRO) position at Coltishall?’

Whilst my immediate reaction was ‘yes’, I asked for a day or so to speak to my wife etc before making the decision as it would mean resigning from the RAF and joining the Civil Service, as well as the prospect of being without a job after the closure in 2006. To cut a long story short, the answer was still yes! Whilst it made me sad to think that I would be instrumental in the closure of RAF Coltishall, the prospect of doing something positive to ensure that the history and legacy of the station would never forgotten outweighed all of the negative prospects of my long-term employment.

I made the most of my remaining three months in the South Atlantic. Apart from continuing with the Coltishall story, I also knew that this was my last time in the Falklands so I made it my duty to visit all the 1982 battlefields and memorials to pay my silent respects to those who had fallen. In many respects this pilgrimage also gave me the chance to reflect on the role that I would be taking on at Coltishall. The Falklands War only lasted a few months, RAF Coltishalls history would be covering 66 years; both were as important as each other.

I formally joined the Civil Service on 4 March 2005, however had already taken up my post as the CRO at Coltishall 6 months prior as part of my resettlement from the RAF. That role and the subsequent experiences through to the formal closure of the station is a story in itself.

What about the book? Well, as the history of RAF Coltishall was still unfolding, the writing was still ongoing and it was obvious that its conclusion would be well after the formal closure ceremony on the 30 November 2006. In the mean time I had to find a publisher who might be interested in the project. Thankfully I was recommended to a publisher who took on the project with open arms – Old Forge Publishing. The owner, Martyn Cholrton, had previously served in the RAF as an Air Photographer and knew Coltishall through his connections with No 41(F) Squadron very well.  His company was formed on 1 January 2003 purely for the publication of the books written by him. Since then it has grown at a steady rate encompassing other author’s works, maintaining a general theme of aviation and local history subject. The Coltishall story was made for Old Forge!   

One of the main aims of book was to not only tell the story of the station itself, but to also include how its development and subsequent involvement in war and peace affected the local population. Many individuals helped me to bring this and the RAF Coltishall story to fruition, but without the eventual involvement of Martyn Chorlton and Old Forge Publishing, this story may well still be untold.  The first edition was published in 2007 with the first print run being sold out in a matter of months. Two subsequent print runs have made the book Old Forge Publishing best seller and was one of 12 publications entered in the final of the East Anglian Book Awards 2008 – a very proud achievement.     

Copies of the book have been donated for a future competition and I hope the eventual winner enjoys the prize. For the unlucky ones, give Martyn a call on 01406 381313 or visit his website www.oldforgepublishing.org to order a copy.

The rest they say is history. With the book, the establishment of the RAF Coltishall Rooms at the Radar Museum Neatishead and at the City of Norwich Aviation Museum, together with the hard work of a good friend and ex-Coltishall colleague John Welton MBE with the foundation of the Spirit of Coltishall Association, the history of RAF Coltishall was secure. My job had been done and it was time to think about Australia.

Planning the move was not a problem; after all, it was just another posting – wasn’t it? Yes and no - this time we were on our own. We had to sell the house, I had to apply for a visa, Ellen and my daughter Kimberley were both Australian citizens (we registered Kimberley as an Aussie shortly after her birth in 1986), so no problems with them. In fact it was all going to plan. I received my permanent residency visa, the house was sold, the 20ft container with all our worldly goods had been despatched, we said our goodbyes to family and friends and before we knew it we had boarded the Singapore Airlines B747 at Heathrow for our journey to start our new life.

Again with a bit of planning and the goodwill of friends close to Melbourne, we were able to settle into our own flat for what we hoped would be a short stay before finding a property of our own. As the ‘import’ I let Ellen decide where she wanted to settle – after all she was Australian and knew Victoria well. Ah – well she did 28 years ago!

Her ideal plot in the sun was to be the Mornington Peninsula; as she remembered it, long sandy beaches, and lots of trees with the odd house snuggled amongst the sand dunes. I was sold on that!   So, once we took delivery of our vehicle that was ordered prior to leaving the UK, we started our ventures to find a home and the Mornington Peninsula was the first stop.

Having passed through Melbourne we headed off along the Peninsula. Houses, more houses, are we actually out of Melbourne yet? Sadly it soon dawned on her that instead of trees and the odd house it was houses with the odd tree! I looked at her, she looked at me and we both looked at Kimberley – there’s no way we are living here! The drive home was painful. What were we going to tell our friends? How much longer could we stay in their flat? What do we do next?

Back home in Werribee we started to look at things from a different perspective. Firstly we could stay in the flat for as long as we wished, secondly the Mornington Peninsula housing estate was out of the question and thirdly should we build? Building your own house is second nature to Aussies. Buy a plot of land; find a builder, select a design and 6 moths later Bob’s your uncle. It all sounded a bit too easy for my liking so we continued to look for established houses, this time well away from the attraction of Melbourne’s suburbs and onto the Bellarine Peninsula, still looking for Ellen’s plot next to the beach.

Squillions of houses later we began to ‘overload’ on house hunting so we decided to get away for a few weeks to re-group. We headed off to Kangaroo Island to spend some time with Ellen’s mum Annie and subsequently we both decided, despite the house situation, things weren’t all bad. It was sunny and hot and our daughter Kimberley had started a job at the Werribee Mansion Hotel as a Beauty Spa Therapist soon after arriving in Australia so she was settled. Our friends were happy with our indecisions as their flat was let.

Whilst enjoying the delights of the Island we began to warm to the idea of building. After all, at least you get what you want from the start instead of modifying or updating someone else’s dream. And so, our plan of attack after our return was to visit as many builders as possible to make a short-list. In Australia, all the major builders have show homes at nearly all of the new estates being built around Victoria and so we began the quest to find our dream home. We almost fell into the fatigue trap once again with house hunting day after day, but soon we narrowed our preferred builders down to two.


Next we had to find a plot of land to build on and by this time we had both decided to build in the country. After all we were both country kids at heart, Ellen being raised in the Dandenong Ranges to the East of Melbourne and me in rural Devon. We eventually found and purchased a three-acre block at Teesdale, a small village approximately 25 miles from Victoria’s second largest city Geelong. The block was previously farmland that had been sub-divided for housing development, so there was plenty of work to keep us all occupied whilst the building took place.

The block prior to building

The house above as of October 2009
With the land now ours it was down to the house design. With a large block we both decided on a fairly large house with a wide frontage, after all, a normal suburban house with a 24 ft frontage would look a bit out of place in the middle of a field! So we decided on the Ranch Style Denver 33 by Metricon Homes as they were prepared to modify the basic design to suit our requirements. The building process is covered in a number of stages here in Australia. Firstly you chose the basic design of the house. Modifications are made to the structure if allowed, for example we changed a walk-in wardrobe to the master bedroom into a Butlers Pantry off the kitchen in addition to 600mm eaves around the house. You chose your own lights, electrical appliances, carpets, tiles, bricks, roof tiles, window designs, doors, internal ceiling heights and once all this has been agreed, the builder will provide a detailed plan together with a draft contract. Once this has been agreed and signed the build begins.
10 months after contract signing we moved into our new house and decided on the name ‘Yallembee’, an Aboriginal word meaning ‘To Stay’; quite apt after years of moving around the world!. Of course, being in the middle of a field we had to think about a driveway, garden beds and planting lots of trees and shrubs – the last count 700 with lots more to come. I built a large deck to the rear of the house with the help of family and friends and in true Aussie style all they wanted in return was beer and a BBQ! Over the next few months/years we have much more to do; swimming pool, sheds, fruit orchard, veggie patch and more water tanks. With 12 years of water restrictions thus far, water catchments and storage from the roof is a part of life here. We already have a 5000 gallon tank off the house but plan for at least 10000 gallons more storage in the
near future.

Work on the driveway and other projects on going

Work wise I am pleased to say that I am still involved with aviation. I work for the Aviation, Maritime and Defence Foundation of Australia as an Operations Manager, responsible for the day-to-day workings of the bi-annual Australian International Airshow held at Avalon Airport.  I start back at work full time in January 2010 preparing for the 2011 show that will be held between 1-6 March. This show will celebrate the 90th Anniversary of the Royal Australian Air Force so for a week I will be able to reminisce and enjoy the noise of jet aircraft again!

I hope this little insight into life after Coltishall has been of interest and I thank Gil (John) Harding for inviting me to contribute to your web site and magazine. As you can see, the transition from Coltishall, Norfolk to Teesdale, Victoria has been an interesting one and life continues to change for us with Ellen and I becoming proud grandparents. Kimberley gave birth to our first grandchild, Justin Izac, on 13 September and I am pleased to say that Kimberley, her partner Luke and baby Justin are all fine.

What about my memories of Coltishall and the direction it has taken since we left the UK? I do keep up with the news through friends and via the internet, especially the EDP website and now via your own parish website. I am also fully aware of the direction that has taken place regarding the prison etc. It would be wrong to criticise from here, suffice to say that I would much rather Coltishall have continued as an RAF station. However, my true feelings can be summed up by a good friend who once served at Coltishall in WWII. She said that it was a good thing I was not here to witness what was going on as it made her cry. To think about all those that had served and died at RAF Coltishall and now to see their memories being replaced by the less desirable inhabitants that now call Coltishall home is disgusting – here, here!


Regards to all

Mick & Ellen