The First World War had little direct and immediate effect on the Lake Counties as they then were. They were far too remote, too removed from the scene of the action.
In the Second World War, that very remoteness became an asset. The counties were beyond the range of enemy aircraft. They offered a safe haven where aircraft could be maintained and stored securely, well away from the depredations of enemy bombers and the bitter conflict in the violent theatres of war.
As early as 1938, during the period known as the phoney war, two vast airfields, within seven miles of each other, were established at Kirkbride and Silloth.
They were to play a significant role during the war, and, now, sixty years later, despite various attempts to re-invent themselves, they seem to be vast acreages inhabited by memories of that distant conflict.
Work began on Kirkbride airfield in June, 1938, and the intention was that the airfield with its runways and array of vast hangars should be up and running by 1st May, 1939.
On the day war broke out the airstrip was still far from ready to receive aircraft. In fact the first aircraft, four Avro tutors, eventually arrived, ignominiously, on the 5th September by rail and road from Ternhill in Shropshire.
The first aircraft to actually ‘land’ at Kirkbride was Miles Magister N3927. That was two weeks later and the airfield was still a long way from being fully functional..
As the weeks passed though, new aircraft, Fairey Battles, Avro Ansons, Hawker Audaxes and others began to descend from the skies like swarms of flies, all preparing to wait at this vast dormitory until called into urgent action.
The airfield was not quite the tranquil haven that had been expected. On 2nd November a signal was received warning of possible attacks by enemy parachute troops and Lewis guns were rapidly ushered out of the stores and prepared for action.
A far more insidious enemy was the weather. In the early hours of the 21st November, 1939, a 100 mph gale, wrecked five aircraft, including three Bothas.
As more aircraft required temporary residence, it became increasingly necessary to find dispersed storage. Satellite landing grounds were established at Wath Head and Brayton.
In July 1941 the airfield was able to receive the massive, cumbrous Halifax bombers..
In November, 1941, after Pearl Harbour and the American entry into the war, the first American planes started to arrive. They were Bell Airocobras, aircraft unsuited to the requirements of the European theatre of war and ones which the experienced English pilots found difficult to handle. One Airocobra, piloted by Capt. W.L. Hanley, crashed at Fingland, only two miles away from the airfield.
An airfield at Silloth was developed on a similarly massive scale. Together both airfields and their satellite landing grounds which stretched from Great Orton to Hutton in the Forest – the trees were used as camouflage for the expectant planes - served as home to thousands of the aircraft which were vital to the eventual victory.
Martyn Chorlton’s account of the airfields is a meticulous, detailed account of the incredible, but essential, mushrooming of these vast airfields and of the movement of aircraft and personnel. It is a book full of detail drawn from the minutiae of the official records. It is the perfect book for the enthusiast, but it fails to enlarge on the effects such rapid change had on the life of the area.
However, it is consoling to know, that because of its very remoteness, Cumbria was able to play a crucial role in the war effort.
Cumbria Airfields in the Second World War is available from Bookends, 56 Castle Street, Carlisle, and 66Main Street, Keswick, and from www.bookscumbria.com.