In 1935 a giant Zeppelin, the Hindenburg, flew so low over Barrow that locals were able to wave at the Germans on board. Even though it was “a courtesy visit” the batteries of cameras on board and the way it hovered over the Vickers dockyards suggested that its purpose was far from peaceful.
The large numbers of German visitors who took their holidays in Barrow and on the Cumberland coast in the mid-thirties were even more courteous. They were always pleased to stand drinks for the locals in the pubs, especially if they happened to work in the dockyards.
It might be assumed by people in the south and east of the country, that the Lake District being well removed from the War would be little affected. However, Barrow, in particular, was a central and essential part of the war effort. It was responsible for all the gunnery placed on naval ships. Without Barrow, the British Navy would have been toothless. Equally importantly, Barrow made key parts for the country’s fighting aircraft.
Barrow was a target for bombs. The Central Station was demolished as were numerous houses in the docklands area.
But everyone throughout the area was touched in some way. Gas masks were standard issue to the civilian population. In Appleby, the school children practiced wearing their masks on Sports Day. In Carlisle, one wealthy woman was reputed to have bought gas masks for her two cats and her dog.
The home population needed to be prepared. Cumberland faced a possible invasion from southern Ireland. Bombers flew over the area to attack Glasgow. People built Anderson Shelters in their back gardens for some protection. Some joined the ARP so that they would be able to help in the event of a bombing. Young boys enthusiastically enlisted as plane-spotters learning to recognize the silhouettes of German aeroplanes and even to calculate their height.
All aspects of life were affected. Jonah Walker, who drove Ribble buses, described how windows were fitted with blinds and criss-crossed with tape to prevent glass from flying about. The bumpers and fenders were painted white and the headlights dimmed so that we could hardly see at night.”
In addition to the dangers and privations of war, the need to live on short rations and make-do-and-mend, with everyone doing their bit to dig for victory, Cumbria was also the scene of some clandestine preparations. Alan Bowker, who worked in Shap, tells how his father, a shot-firer, was “sent to Workington and joined up with other quarrymen and miners. They were told how to blow up railways, roads, docks and buildings. Our quarry manager told us to keep quiet about what the man in the suit had told us to do, and to get on with our normal jobs until he told us that trouble were brewing.”
The people of Cumbria, as it is now, were as deeply involved in the war as the people in the south and east. They may not have suffered the horrors of the Blitz, but their lives were deeply affected by those terrible days. The industrial areas on the coast provided coal and iron that were essential for the war effort. Ships were built at Barrow and flying boats were constructed on the shores of Windermere. The whole country played its part.
Ron Freethy has drawn together many anecdotes from people who remember the war years. Today, it all seems so long ago.