SON of Greenfield Ivan Hirst is better known in Germany than his native Saddleworth – but now a campaign to raise the profile of a local hero has come to fruition.
From September, Major Hirst’s part in rescuing one of the world’s biggest car manufacturers from the brink of collapse is now officially recognised.
Three specially commissioned and funded signs by the Greenfield and Grasscroft Residents’ Association have been erected at key boundary sites: Manchester Road/Well-i-Hole, Chapel Road and Oldham Road.
Passing VW car owners should certainly be grateful to Major Hirst, born in 1916, because without him the iconic brand would probably disappeared.
Major Hirst arrived in Germany when the British Army took over control of the bomb wrecked Volkswagen factory at Wolfsburg, shunned by the Russians and Americans, in the summer of 1945.
As a major in the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (Reme), his brief was to run a workshop for British Army vehicles in the partly-ruined plant.
The original intention was to dismantle the entire production line and the Volkswagen equipment was offered to Britain’s motor manufacturers, but they turned it down famously suggesting: “It is quite unattractive to the average buyer … to build the car commercially would be a completely uneconomic enterprise.”
The British Army thought differently and by the end of 1945, the factory had somehow manufactured nearly 2,500 vehicles.
Major Hirst was the man who organised bomb damage clearance, got production going and improved the quality of the car. By 1947, the first cars, originally known as Adolf Hitler’s ‘Peoples Car’ were exported.
Having handed over the Volkswagen factory to a new trust run by the new West German federal government, Major Hirst left Wolfsburg in 1949 and was demobbed two years later.
For the last quarter of a century of his life Major Hirst lived in Marsden though he is buried at St Thomas’s Church at the Heights, Friarmere.
Every two to three years, a new VW was brought over to Marsden, on a trailer and presented to him. He approved of some more than others but always appreciated the gift of his new car.
VIPs from Volkswagen were regular visitors. Major Hirst would treat them to lunch on the canal barge at Slaithwaite or up at the Snoopy’s snack van on the Isle of Skye, at the top of Wessenden Head.
In 2016, to mark the 100th anniversary of his birth German car enthusiasts travelled to Saddleworth to visit Major Hirst’s modest grave.
Local artist Jane Braithwaite, a cousin once removed, was at the unveiling of the new signs. “It’s good to know he’s not forgotten,” she said.
Jane’s husband Paul, who gave a eulogy at the Major’s funeral at Marsden Church, attended by the President of VW and the Mayor of Wolfsburg, described Ivan as “one of the most interesting, considerate and thoughtful men” he’d ever met.
Cllr Jamie Curley was the brainchild behind getting the new boundary signs in place to create a lasting legacy to Major Hirst.
He explained “I have also been fascinated by Ivan’s story; how he had the foresight to save the factory in 1945 and lay the foundations for such a successful manufacturing company and even post war Germany’s recovery.
“He was always very modest about his achievements but I have always thought we should celebrate him. These signs seem fitting and will inform Saddleworth people and visitors of our pride in our famous son.”
He added: “I’m really grateful to the Greenfield and Grasscroft Resident’s Association for funding these signs and helping us to recognise a Greenfield man’s contribution to the worldwide automotive industry.”