First Windermere-built Sunderland flying boat copyright Peter Greetham via Allan King

Landscape of war

Impact of World War II on the Lake District landscape

Digging for victory

Many older people were recruited in to the Home Guard, while women joined the Women’s Land Army, working on local farms and in forestry. These ladies became known as ‘Lumber Jills’. Many people turned spare plots of land into allotments and grew vegetables and fruit. The ‘Dig for Victory’ campaign emphasised how important it was for people to grow their own food.

Top secret tanks

The Lakeland fells were also often used for troop training exercises. The fells around Walla Crag and Bleaberry Fell were used as a training area for tank crews.

In 1941 Lowther Castle was requisitioned by the War Office to develop top secret anti-tank weapons. Military experts adapting the turrets of standard tanks to shine intense, flickering lights with the intention of blinding the enemy during night fighting. These light emitting weapons were called the Canal Light Defence (CDL). In great secrecy, a total of 6,000 men from the 35th Royal Tank Brigade, which in 1942 became part of the 79th Armoured Division, trained to use the tanks in the surrounding countryside.

In the region of £20 million was spent on the project and 2,000 tanks were converted. King George VI, Earl Mountbatten, Eisenhower and Winston Churchill all visited Lowther to see the CDL tank in action. However, in one of the biggest blunders of the war, the tanks were kept so secret that the commanders on the front line were oblivious of their potential and Field-Marshall Montgomery failed to put the plans into action.

The Home Guard

In the Lake District a network of defensive sites were built, with Home Guard battalions patrolling the lakes. The home guard maintained a network of pillboxes, observation posts and machine gun emplacements which guarded the coastline and main routes through the mountains in case of invasion. Many of the main routes and cross roads were fitted with barriers and some bridges on the main river crossings and railways were fitted with mines that could be detonated if there was in invasion.

The D company 9th Lakes Battalion who patrolled Lake Windermere had approximately 30 men, four speed boats and two houseboats, all equipped with machine guns. Remains of gun emplacements can still be found on the side of lakes Windermere, Buttermere and Bassenthwaite. There were motor boat defence strategies for Derwentwater and Thirlmere, to prevent the enemy proceeding to Keswick. Pillboxes can also still be seen in the landscape. They were squat buildings with thick, loop-holed walls and a flat roof, designed to accommodate a variety of weapons, usually strategically positioned to cover a vulnerable point in a defensive system.   

The Barrow Blitz

The coastline of Whicham, Drigg and Carlton were dotted with decoys to try to draw the Luftwaffe away from their bombing campaign on the Barrow shipyards. Incendiary devices were dropped on Barrow in Sept 1940 and then in the main Barrow Blitz of April and May 1941. In total 91 people were killed and 531 injured. There is more information at The Dock Museum at Barrow-in-Furness (opens in new window).

Prisoners of war

Throughout Britain, there were over four hundred thousand prisoners of war (POWs) from Italy and Germany, located in fifteen hundred Government built camps.  Because it was so remote the Lake District was a perfect location to house prisoners.

Grizedale Hall in Satterthwaite parish (grid ref. SD3364 9427) was commandeered by the War Office and known as Camp Number 1 to hold German prisoners of War. The story ‘The One That Got Away’ was inspired by an escape attempt from here by Franz Von Werra in 1940. The camp was finally emptied in 1946, the last members being Austrian Officers on their way to being repatriated. Afterwards the Hall was never used and fell in to disrepair. It was demolished in 1957, and is now the site of the car park next to Grizedale Forest Centre's education building.

A camp was built at Moota in Blindcrake parish (NY1609 3692) where there are still some remains of the huts and another at Shap Wells (NY5790 0958), just outside the National Park. View the chapel's wall paintings at Moota POW camp (opens in new window).

Canadian Crosscut

Some occupations were protected from enlistment. In Cumbria those working in the mines and quarries were protected, particularly on the west coast and near Barrow in Furness. The raw materials were essential to the war effort and for the rebuilding of bombed cities.

One mine in the Lake District re-opened during the war was Carrock Fell Mine. A tungsten shortage led the Ministry of Supply to re-open the mine for just over a year in 1942. Demand for tungsten increased rapidly with the development of alloy steels required for armaments manufacture. A detachment of sappers of the Royal Canadian Engineers Tunneling Company arrived at Carrock to undertake the work, under the management of employees from the Ministry of Supply. They drove a new crosscut into the vein and this has subsequently become known as the ‘Canadian Crosscut’. In early 1943 most of the Canadians left the mine to be assigned new duties in preparation for the D Day landings. The workforce was supplemented with Spanish Pioneers and Italian prisoners of war.

Sunderland flying boats

A hastily built village at Calgarth, near Troutbeck Bridge (grid ref. SD 39 99), housed 1,500 workers for the production of 32 Sunderland flying boats. The village included a primary school, shops, laundry, sick bay and its own football team and policeman. The work was carried out in huge hangars at White Cross Bay (NY 3930 0038), and the planes played a significant role in protecting convoys of ships from U-boats and for tracking German battleships. Find out more at: Flying boats and fellow travellers (opens in new window).

Spy pencils

The pencil factory in Keswick produced a special spy pencil sent in care packages to British POWs held in foreign prisons. They each had a small compass concealed inside the fittings for the rubber on the end of the pencil and a map rolled up in the partially hollow centre of the pencil. The graphite used in pencils was originally mined in Seathwaite Wad Mines, Borrowdale. You can find out more about the history of pencils at Cumberland Pencil Museum (opens in ne w window).

World War II activities and resources for teachers

We've created several World War II-related activities:

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Created with support from the Heritage Lottery Fund