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Thursday, 02 July 2015

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Memories of Barrow at war

BARROW-born Ron Freethy gives a fascinating insight of how people in his hometown and the surrounding area coped with the Second World War in his latest book Cumbria at War
He talks to LEO CLARKE

RON Freethy has many reasons to remember the Second World War.

His home in Ancaster Street was bombed when he was five and after moving to Askam with his family he was woken up on VE Day to celebrations victory over Germany.

But his latest book, Cumbria at War, is not just about Ron – it is about the memories of others who give vivid accounts of what they saw during the conflict.

In 1939 the area was already gearing up for war, Vickers was building warships as quickly as they could and a Sunderland Flying Boat factory was set up on the banks on Windermere at Whitecross Bay. Patterson gliders were made locally and were used to deliver secret agents into German-occupied Europe.

The geography of the area also made it suitable for munitions factories and the training of men and women for all three services.

Yet it is the opening chapter of his book which is sure to grab the attention of readers.

Ron, now 73 and living at Roughlee, between Burnley and Clitheroe, charts how the German Zeppelin Hindenburg flew over Barrow in the mid-1930s on what was described as a ‘courtesy visit’.

The book also tells how the town received a sudden influx of German ‘tourists’ during the 1930s.

When Hindenburg arrived, aerial tourists armed with a battery of cameras, says the book, were said to be fascinated by the Barrow shipyard and docks.

One person also recollects: “The tourists were always ready to talk to the ship workers and buy them drinks in the local pubs.”

Although not a lot could be done in peacetime, the authorities did ask locals to beware of giving away sensitive material relating to their workplace and told people how to spot a spy.

Ron was brought up in Furnace Place, Askam, and went into National Service before studying to become a biologist at university in London. He taught in Bolton and Burnley and has appeared on both the BBC, where he was involved in documentaries on natural history, and Granada, where he made programmes about rivers. His first book was published in 1979 and since then Ron has written around 80 it total.

Talking about Cumbria at War, Ron said: “It’s been developing over years. I was born in Barrow, bombed out in 1941, moved to Askam and lived their until I was 22 or 23. I experienced Cumbria at war from being a child and I picked up little bits of snippets.”

He added: “My father worked in the post office and my godmother was postmistress in Michaelson Road and they picked up extra mail, where to begin with German ‘tourists’ started off by sending postcards.

“Then they started sending letters that weren’t being opened so there was all sorts of secret stuff going on trying to figure out what was going on at Vickers.”

Ron said: “To do books like this you have got to talk to people and they are becoming fewer and fewer. So if you don’t get it written down now, you don’t get it.”

Ron believes there are some sections in the book which might illuminate people, citing the Barrow-built midget submarines.

“Not so many people know that the engine came out of a London red bus,” he said.

He also pointed out: “A lot of people don’t realise Barnes Wallis was an apprentice at Vickers in Barrow and he made airships.”

Ron said Barnes Wallis, brought to Barrow in 1913-14 and famous for developing the bouncing bomb used to destroy German dams, went on to produce aircraft and designed the Wellington.

As a young football fan, Ron also remembers how he watched the late Willie Horne play and he recalls a conversation he had with him.

Willie, says Ron in his book, trained as an engine fitter working on submarines from 1937.

Ron said: “He told me in the 1980s that he could remember the names of all the Barrow ships which served in the war.”

Cumbria at War charts memories of the Barrow blitz, Barrow’s war industry, evacuees, the Home Guard, sport, rationing, digging for victory, a prison of war camp at Grizedale and victory over Germany.

Cumbria at War came about after three popular volumes of Lancashire at War.

Ron’s wife, Marlene, does all the typing and corrections, and they have a son, Paul, and a grandson, Thomas.

He started Cumbria at War about three years ago and said: “Anybody can write an academic history book providing they work hard at it but I couldn’t write that sort of book. I had to write memories. That’s really what the book’s about. It’s about people’s memories of Cumbria at war.”

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