The secret prisoner of war camp in west Cumbria
Published at 11:29, Thursday, 30 July 2009
There were almost half a million Prisoners of War held in this country during the years of the Second World War. Some of them found themselves in West Cumbria far, far away from the front.
It is not widely known that there was a small PoW camp at Distington.
It was all kept hush-hush at the time and not many people are aware of the fact it once existed, but some of the remains can still be seen, just off the old A595, near to where the railway station once stood.
The prisoners held there initially were Germans, then later on Italians, men who would be sent out to help with agricultural work on nearby farms.
In fact one farmer, grateful for the extra pair of hands, is said to have gifted his PoW worker a bike so he could more easily and quickly get to and from the farm.
And the two men apparently kept in touch, corresponding for several years after the war ended.
There is another story that a Nazi prisoner from the camp went missing in 1945, and was duly tracked down to St Joseph’s RC Church at Workington, where he was found with his wrists cut.
He was subsequently moved to another camp.
There were prisoners at the Distington camp as late as 1948 – were they displaced persons or had the powers-that-be forgotten about these men tucked away up in West Cumberland? We’ll never know as apparently a lot of records were burnt and destroyed, so no documentary evidence remains.
Because of this, the only evidence that such a facility ever existed at Distington would seem to be the concrete remains on which the huts once stood and the memories of a handful of villagers, now in their 70s and 80s.
They were only children during these wartime years, but their collective oral archive demonstrates the importance to the historian of local knowledge and recall.
The huts were set on a concrete base and, according to George Briggs, formerly of Beckside Farm on the Gilgarran Road, the complex behind Distington Railway Station was originally built as army barracks in 1938/39, for use as a training facility.
“There were similar battalions based at Lillyhall Farm and at Distington Hall,” he says. “These three units were local bases and operated as training units. Towards the end of the war, around 1944/45 only the one at Distington Station remained and it was turned into a PoW camp.’’
George, who is 80, remembers that originally there had been about 120 men billeted at the camp but that number declined. The first lot were Germans, followed by the Italians.
The men used to be put out to work on the farms, digging trenches, helping out with threshing and harvesting.
Before there was a prison workforce to call on, farm workers would travel from one farm to the next in the local area until all harvests had been gathered in. The prisoners helped to get the job done much quicker. The thresher, driven by a steam powered road roller, was supplied by either Ike Stevens of Beckermet or Thompsons of Gilcrux.
Later in the war, farm tractors were used being much easier to control. These came from Frank Coates of Barngill, assisted by his brothers Joe and Robin, with drivers Joe Relph and John Hope.
George Briggs remembers working with German prisoners at James Clark’s farm at Distington Hall. “I recall threshing oats with three of them at Distington Hall. That would be in around 1946, and I would be about 16.
“I also remember a party of them digging trenches and laying drains in the fields beside the high road to Workington and I can picture the guard, standing on high ground, in the rain, watching.
“They were all good workers, grand fellas. There was never any complaints about their work.’’
Other farmers who benefited from prison labour were Joe Ward of Glebe Farm, Jesse McSherry at Midtown Farm, Billy Barnes at Kelmore Hill, Billy Dixon at Hinnings Farm, Jim Brayton at Hayescastle, Billy Crone at Whin Bank, George Gate at Stubbsgill, Gilf Greggain at Spring Hill, W Messenger at High House, M Dickenson at West Croft, J Palmer at Boonwood, Jack Messenger at Home Farm, Jesse Harrison at Main Street, Henry Stalker at Commonside, Joe Tinnion at Lodge Castle and Fred Benson at Prospect Farm.
There were others in the area where grain was grown then carted to the threshers.
A number of prisoners did not want to go home after the war and the local farmers were happy to have them and as a source of cheap labour.
The farm at Midtown, Distington, was run by James and Jessie McSherry and, while the sons of the family were away at war, their young daughters Kathleen (now Mrs Sharpe) and Sheila (now Mrs Lamb) remember as children being intrigued by the new farmhand, a Prussian, named Ernst.
“He was a very nice man and did anything he was asked to do on the farm, from cleaning out the pigs to helping with the milking and working in the field,’’ said Sheila.
And he taught Kathleen to count in German, a skill she still retains.
“I remember them bringing the prisoners in army trucks along the loop road and they all used to wave at us children.
“Ernst used to have his meals with us and apparently one of the other prisoners had complained about this. My mother was a good Christian lady and said that she treated Ernst well in the hope that someone somewhere would do the same for her sons, who were fighting in the war,’’ said Kathleen.
“My brother John was in the army, a commando, and later with the military police and Alan was in the air force.’’
Clive Lowther, now in his 70s, was just a young boy at the time, growing up in Distington, the son of the local bobby PC James Lowther.
The police house then was at the Common End part of the village, opposite the Castle pub and next to the dentist’s.
When not attending the village school, young Clive would while away his childhood hours at the nearby Hayescastle Farm, roaming the fields and generally hanging around and making a nuisance of himself.
The farm was run by James Brayton who provided work for the Italian prisoners, taking on a couple at a time.
Clive was about nine or 10 and had struck up a friendship with one of the prisoners, called Bruno, who worked in the fields. He has a very distinct memory of Bruno and how he gave him a medal, a metal cross.
Bruno, who was in his 20s, managed to communicate with the boy through broken English. “I got the impression the prisoners were extremely happy to be in our village, well away from the war,’’ says Clive.
“I remember there was trouble at one time when my father, as the village policeman, was called upon to intervene.
“There had been people shouting as they walked past the camp on their way to work at High Duty Alloys and my father was sent to the factory to lecture the workforce about it.’’
Clive, a retired Sellafield employee who now lives at High Harrington, recalls there was a 10ft-high barbed wire fence around the perimeter of the camp, which wasn’t a very big place. He thinks the Distington camp may have been a satellite of the Moota POW camp and has a memory of his dad referring to it as ‘an experiment.’
Clive recalls the only other wartime excitement for a young boy living so many miles from the action was the time a plane crashed in a nearby field and the four surviving airmen were brought to his home, the police house.
“I think it was the first time any of us kids had ever seen a plane, though there wasn’t much left of it to see,’’ he said.
Distington resident Margaret Steele, 82, has an excellent memory and recalls there being German prisoners in the village.
Miss Steele’s sister, Kitty, worked as a dairymaid at Hayescastle Farm and was told by a prisoner that he and his fellow Italians had good skin “because they drank olive oil.’’
“In the 1940s my sister had a hen-run where the Lillyhall college is and used to take tea up there, where the soldiers were on guard-duty in a gun-pit (guarding High Duty Alloys)
Margaret remembers that the local coal merchant Freddie Graham used to go to the station to collect coal from the train and one of the prisoners did a painting of the village church and gave it to Mr Graham. And she also recalls seeing the prisoners on marches, wearing brown uniforms and peaked caps.
Some people remembered the Italian prisoners walking around the village fairly freely, which may have been because the Italian government had surrendered in 1943.
The whole operation however was fairly hush-hush and local people, especially children, were told to keep away from the prison complex.
It was a different story at Egremont where local kids were allowed to wander in and out of the camp there, apparently unchallenged.
Jack Trembath, 73, of Holmrook was a child living at Brisco Mount during the war years and used to visit the German and Italian prisoners to read to them in English.
“They were keen to improve their English and wanted us to read to them; they would have the reading matter,’’ says Jack.
“I would be under 10 at the time and it was probably in the early 1940s. The camp site was behind the old chocolate factory at Windrigg Close. And there was another at the Nethertown camp site, they were Italians.
“I think there were about 100 prisoners there and about 10 wooden huts. These men were obviously considered to be low risk and they were guarded by the Home Guard.
“We used to get into the camp through a hole in the fence. They had German to English translation books; it was the pronunciation of words they were interested in, and they had reading matter.
“And they used to make things from whittling pieces of wood.’’
German PoWs from the Moota camp near Cockermouth were sometimes despatched to Scilly Banks and Moresby to work. A truck brought them to the village each morning to work on the farms and came back in the evening to collect them.
Some of the village farm lads had been called up into the forces and the PoWs worked as farm labourers filling in for the shortage of local manual labour.
Initially, a camp guard accompanied the PoWs, or occasionally the local Home Guard was asked to stand in for guard duty.
However, after a while the PoWs just used to be dropped off on their own without any guards and they were picked up later by the prison camp truck at a given time.
The prisoners were just young men in their late teens and early twenties and enjoyed being out and about in the fresh air doing farm work and getting a little extra food to supplement their rations.
None of them ever attempted to escape.
Sometimes, if the village lads were playing football at lunchtime or early evening the PoWs and the Moota guards would join in the game.
The guards used to take off their tunics and take the ammunition out of their rifles so they could be used as makeshift goalposts.
Published by http://www.newsandstar.co.uk
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