A County at War: Anecdotes from real people.

Page 2

A Gunner Writes.... Post-War Activities at Fort Walney.

Roger Horsfield was attached to the Fort Walney coast-battery in the Summer of 1956, having joined the 1st (West Lancs) Home Guard Battalion in Barrow, in 1954.

'I was attached to the fort in the summer of 1956, following time in the Officers' Training Corps (TA) in 1955, when I was at Manchester University. I had been shooting several years previously with the Home-Guard Rifle Club, which - for an eighteen-year-old was great; I was given a rifle and free ammunition! When the wartime HG stood down in 1944, many units formed rifle clubs, some of which still exist, keeping 'Home-Guard' in their title The rifle clubs were given P14 rifles and supplied with subsidised ammunition. The rifles were kept in the TA Drill-Hall armoury in Holker Street, Barrow, and were only returned in 1955 when the HG Rifle Club gave up full-bore shooting. We fired off the last of the ammunition on Walney range, and I remember that the head-stamp and packaging of the ammunition was quite unusual. I found out years later that it had been made for the Latvian Government in 1938!

In 1954 I had joined the 1st (West Lancs) Home-Guard Battalion in Barrow, along with many of the rifle-club menbers. (In 1952, the Home-Guard was re-incarnated, to finally disband in 1956). Some of the surviving WWII fortifications were refurbished, and HG units in the north were to become Cadre Battalions. Units in the south-east were allowed to recruit to their full strength. There was no pay, but bus-fares were re-paid. We were quite well armed with .303 SMLE's, .303 No:4 rifles, Bren-guns, Sten-guns, PIAT and Vickers guns. There was plenty of ammunition, but no radios, mortars, and transport. (I have a vision, here, of some poor chaps going off to war, fully armed, but waiting to catch a bus!)

There was a revived Home-Guard unit in Barrow, with a detachment at Grange-Over-Sands. We shot at Troutbeck range in a competition against other units, and I can remember some had Border Regiment cap-badges, but had no idea where they were based. We wore King's Own cap-badges.

Fort Walney at that time was home to 2C Vehicle workshops REME (TA) - we got on very well with them. Because I was interested, I got the job of showing people around the place. The guns were two 6" weapons, manufactured by Vickers in 1917, and were still maintained in perfect condition. The shell-rooms were full, but the cordite charges had all been laid out on the beach below the fort and burned the week before I arrived. Quite a few of the silk bags had been removed before the charges were ignited! There was a spare barrel which had formed the edge of a flower bed, and everyone thought was 'shot-out'. Upon inspection by the Master-gunner from Fort Perch Rock (Liverpool), who came to check the inventory, it transpired that it was brand new and had never been fired!'

On Guard....

'The northern-most pill-box was used at that time to store SAA. I remember drawing a rifle and ammunition to guard a 'plane - a De-Havilland Rapide - on Walney aerodrome (in reality, to shoot some rabbits!). In the event, the pilot had to go to Blackpool to refuel. He took me along for the ride, which gave me a chance to see Hilpsford Fort from the air, which - at that time - was still several yards away from the coast and well surrounded by barbed wire. I couldn't see any guns, though the Master-Gunner did go to look at it so there must have been some stores there.

Between the two gun positions to the left of the tower (Battery Observation Post) there was a dug-in command post. I assume they thought that in the event of an attack, the tower wouldn't last very long! The searchlight position was built into the cliffs below Fort Walney, a little north of the fort. (This post is not on my web-site, but is still extant, having the front part bricked up. I believe the golf-club uses the back part for storage). It had massive sliding curved-steel doors, the golf-course being above and behind it. There were usually two searchlights so that they could be used for ranging, but I only remember one. Perhaps it worked with the one at Hilpsford Fort; the longer the base-line between the lights the better.

In the early 1950's I explored the area on my push-bike, although I never managed to get to Hilpsford. There were always some rather rough men who intercepted us and turned us back. There were rumours of smuggling going on and they didn't want anyone poking around.

At the northern tip of Walney Island there was a flag-pole which was surrounded by a large, circular earthwork made from sand-bags. Someone had gone to a lot of trouble to make it for no apparent purpose! I remember concrete bunkers at the end of Biggar Bank - left over from WWII - which were re-furbished in the 1950's and surrounded with barbed wire.

Between Walney aerodrome and the sea was a full-bore rifle-range, which we used a lot for .303 rifles, Stens, Brens, and Vickers machine-guns. It probably closed in the late 1950's and disappeared when sand was extracted to be replaced by Barrow Corporation tip. There were also rifle-ranges at Roanhead, and another on the east side of the Rampside railway line just south of Cavendish Dock.

During the war, the public park in Barrow was home to a large camp, lots of AA guns, and a barrage-balloon unit. They sometimes didn't get the balloons down quickly enough during thunderstorms, and they burned quite spectacularly! At the bottom of Mill Brow (NGR 221727) there was a check-point, with anyone travelling into or out of Barrow liable to have their ID card inspected.'

A Wartime Boyhood at Barrow.

Frank O'Brien's father served on the coastal artillery at Forts Walney and Hilpsford. Frank recalls visiting him as a youngster:

'My father - Francis Sydney O'Brien - served on the Walney artillery as either a gunner or Lance Bombardier between 1940 and 1943, at which point he was invalided out of the service with what was later identified as tubercolosis. I lived in Barrow at 4 Broadway, Roose as a child and went to see him in hospital in Ulverston.

In August 1940 My mother brought us to visit Walney so that we could see our father. We lived in a small white beach hut with a number of other families; I seem to remember the name 'Naylor'. It was strange, because even though there was a war on there was a large shed or hangar with an amusement arcade inside still open for business! The visit dragged on for months, and we finished up living in those primitive conditions until somehow we were re-housed in Roose in the spring of 1941.

One day early in 1941 there were several enormous explosions which - as it turned out - were from one of the coastal defence guns being fired at a Swedish ship which failed to answer signals to identify itself. I don't know if it was sunk, but my father later told me the guns being fired were 9.2 inch Coastal defence guns which had a range of over 10 miles.

Barrow was very heavily bombed, and I was evacuated with my brother in the spring of 1943. The gas works - which was several hundred yards from our house - received a direct hit and the resultant explosion blew in our front windows and took all the slates of the roof. The following night we were ushered to some large bomb shelters in the school playing fields nearby while another intense raid took place. In the morning we were led out, and as we crossed the main road on the way to home there was a very large explosion; we turned to see a large pillar of dust and smoke. I was suubsequently told that a delayed action bomb had gone off under the next shelter to ours and a lot of people had been killed.'

If anyone reading this page knows anything about the service history of Frank's father - and which regiment he served in - please Email me and I shall pass these details on.

Military Activity at Drigg.

Roy Chadwick was a National Serviceman in the Royal Artillery between 1954-55. Part of this time was spent at Drigg:

'I did part of my National Service 1954-55 in the Royal Artillery attached to what was then a MoD establishment at Eskmeals, and was billeted at Wellbank Hall, Bootle. My duties were driving a Hillman Utliity light pick up (not very exciting!), getting up supplies and things from Whitehaven and a general runaround. So I was not part of the crews who went out onto the range or up the coast spotting.

I did, though, one time visit what I think must have been the wooden structure you write about. The guys there would look out for any vessels that might have strayed into the firing zone ( plus a fishing vessel sampling fish around the atomic powerstation rumour had it!) and - I think - to record the falling shells in the sea. The post had a huge pair of binoculars which I used on my one visit to pick out the isle of Man. The guys were split into different teams, uniform being "none bullshit" a mixture of naval white duck, sea boots, with short naval pea-jackets and the remainder army issue. The ones on the observation posts would push off in the morning in Landrovers for the day whilst the ones working the range would bus it from Wellbank down to the range in an old Bedford bus, leaving me with plenty of hours skiving around.

After earlier being with a regiment time spent on the Eskmeals posting was indeed a pleasant way to fill out my two years. Whilst I was there we did seem to have a lot of free time, there being no duties as in a regiment, and some of us used this time to explore Black Combe. A find up there was an aircraft wreck on the West side facing the sea; bits were still lying around: a radial engne, fragments of fuselage with a white star on a blue background. We also had use of the Bedford bus on Saturdays for a trip to Whitehaven - the pubs and dancehall mainly.'

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