Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Remnants of World War II, the Military Defences of Barrow and Walney

September 1st 1939, the World is at war for the second time. Great struggle and upset lies ahead for everyone including those on the home front in Barrow. With one of the biggest shipyards in the country, producing military vessels to aid in the war, Barrow soon became a target for enemy fire. Due to this, military defences popped up across the town and coastline!












From Sowerby to Walney and the docks of Barrow there can be found several dozen defence structures know as Pillboxes. So named because of their shape being reminiscent of the boxes pills used to come in, Pillboxes were a common feature across the country during the War. Erected as part of the British anti invasion preparations of 1940 they became essential for local defence. Designed in a hexagonal shape with small holes, known as loop holes, in 5 of the 6 sides with a door and two loop holes in the rear most side. These loop holes provided views in every direction perfect for keeping watch for enemy action. The structures were built with re-enforced concrete to protect the men inside from small arms fire and even grenade explosions! Pillboxes were constructed along the entire of the western coast of Barrow from Sowerby all the way down to the tip of Walney. These were to keep watch and protect the town from possible invasion from the Irish channel. Quite how well they would have worked as defensive structures is debatable but they certainly will have been vital look out posts that could quickly raise the alarm if enemy forces were spotted. As well as the many dotted along the coast of Barrow and Walney there were also several standing watch over the docks and shipyard to the south of Barrow and on Barrow Island. These were there to keep watch and possibly defend the shipyard, a prime target for enemy bombings. The town and shipyard were hit several times by incendiary bombs in a period between 1939 and 1941 known as the 'Barrow Blitz'.

During the war a different type of watch post was created to look out for incendiary fire and these were called Fire-Watchers' Posts. These posts were made by and for Vickers-Armstrong, the owners of the shipyard at the time, and were about six feet high and made of metal. There are two examples of such Fire-Watchers posts on Walney golf course. These structures are conical in shape with thin slits cut into the metal at intervals around its circumference. These were for the watcher inside to look out of and be able to see all around without leaving the structure. You may wonder why the slits were made so thin? Wouldn't it be easier to have bigger viewing holes like the Pillboxes? Well, no. As these were for looking out for fire the slits needed to be small so if a fire broke out around the post the fire couldn't get in through the viewing holes. When in use there would have been a door attached for entry and closing once inside but these have long since gone. The man stationed inside one of these posts would keep an eye out for fire and if one was to occur he would then go about extinguishing it using implements stored inside the structure with him. If you look inside one of these quirky little structures you will find some nice little features, after you get past the bottles and cans at your feet of course. Inside the one pictured here is a rusted hook attached to the wall, to the right of the entranceway, once used for hanging up the jackets of the watchman on duty. There is also a thin rusted rod that is hanging down from the wall, what this was for exactly is unclear but it's certainly interesting to see and ponder.

Not far from the Fire-Watchers post pictured is several more defensive structures that were once associated with a much larger complex known as Fort Walney.









Sitting on the edge of the golf course, looking out to the sea ahead stands one of three Costal Artillery Searchlight Emplacements that Walney still has standing. Although used and modified during the Second World War the Searchlight Emplacements on Walney actually date back to World War 1. They were constructed sometime around 1914 but were modified for use during World War 2. The large curved opening at the front of the emplacement is where a searchlight would have been situated to shine out to the sea and sky ahead; looking out for
enemy action. Not far away from the Searchlight pictured is another, somewhat identical one, sat on a rise above one of the golf course greens. Again it looks out to the sea ahead of it. Both these concrete creations were once associated with a larger Battery Encampment known as Fort Walney. This once impressive encampment stood behind the two searchlights; alongside the current Coast Guards watch tower. The tower was originally part of the encampment but without its brick facing. The encampment spanned about 300 metres by around 130 metres and held with in many concrete structures and weaponry for use in defending the island and, of course, Barrow. There is evidence left today of parts of this battlement including the metal and concrete base of a Spigot Mortar, a type of weapon that could fire explosives over short distances. Unfortunately, or fortunately depending on your outlook, the rest of Walney Fort has been demolished and lost to the golf course.

To the South of Walney, where the nature reserve is today, was another Battery Encampment known as Hilpsford Fort. This fort includes another searchlight like the ones already mentioned as well as several anti invasion weapons. On visiting the site you can find evidence of such weaponry with the concrete and rusted metal remains of their bases. The fort was constructed in 1914 for the First World War and had been mostly demolished not long after that war ended. By 1940 the site was needed again and construction work took place to bring it back to life, adding the gun placements and new concrete buildings. It was often used for training purposes with local Home Guard volunteers undertaking various courses here. As Fort Walney almost all of Hipsfort Fort has been demolished only leaving the odd concrete remain, which can be found amongst the nesting seagulls on the nature reserve.

There is so much history relating to World War 2 throughout Barrow and across Walney that it would take several posts to take a look at every feature and every story there is! I hope that this has been an interesting insight into some of the military defences that still stand proud, and some not so proud, across the town today. These various concrete and metal structures might not seem like much but they were the front line of defence for the town, the shipyard and even the country!


Some of the many pillboxes dotted around Barrow and Walney
Top 4: Sowerby     Bottom Left: Walney      Bottom Right: Barrow Island

Left: The View from a searchlight on Walney         Right: A second searchlight on Walney

Left: A fallen pillbox with Walney in the background         Right: A gun mount on Barrow Island


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